Renée Vivien (1877-1909): The Muse of the Violets
The perverse lesbian was a central figure within decadent literature. An object of endless fascination for writers such as Baudelaire and Swinburne, she might almost be thought of as nothing other than a figure of the male porno-poetic imagination; i.e., a creature of artifice and obscenity shaped by and within desire on the one hand and fear and loathing on the other.
But perhaps she appears most beautifully - and most controversially - in the work of expatriate English poet and female dandy-bohemian Renée Vivien.
In Vivien's text, if the lesbian remains a species of fleur du mal very much marked by the misogyny and homophobia that runs through the work of the above male authors, she is, at the same time, radically and paradoxically reconfigured through "a utopian politics of Sapphic revival" and in this way provides a more affirmative and naturalistic (though no less fictional) conception of liberated female sexuality. In other words, "Vivien's decadent Sapphist is a shimmering, negative embodiment of the utopian possibility contained within a modern world in decline".
- See Elisa Glick, Materializing Queer Desire, (SUNY Press, 2009), p. 12.
This negative dialectics which finds value - even hope - in decadence will remind some readers of Adorno and others of Nietzsche. The point is that sickness, corruption, and perversity often serve to advance us as a species and a culture; that we need our decadent individuals (including alcoholic, anorexic, suicidal, sadomasochistic, lesbian poets like Renée Vivien) and not merely those healthy-living normal types who eat breakfast, go to the gym, work hard and preserve the status quo.