Romantic writers had found in Christianity a poetic cult of the imagination, an assertion of the spiritual quality of beauty in an age of vulgar materialism. The decadents, a diverse movement of writers, were the climax and exhaustion of this romantic tradition. In their art, they enacted the romance of faith as a protest against the dreariness of modern life. Ellis Hanson teases out two strands—eroticism and aestheticism—that rendered the decadent interest in Catholicism extraordinary. More than any other literary movement, the decadents explored the powerful historical relationship between homoeroticism and Roman Catholicism. Why, throughout history, have so many homosexuals been attracted to Catholic institutions that vociferously condemn homosexuality? This perplexing question is pursued in this elegant and innovative book.
Late-nineteenth-century aesthetes found in the Church a peculiar language that gave them a means of artistic and sexual expression. The brilliant cast of characters that parades through this book includes Oscar Wilde, Charles Baudelaire, J.-K. Huysmans, Walter Pater, and Paul Verlaine. Art for these writers was a mystical and erotic experience. In decadent Catholicism we can glimpse the beginnings of a postmodern valorization of perversity and performativity. Catholicism offered both the hysterical symptom and the last hope for paganism amid the dullness of Victorian puritanism and bourgeois materialism.