Both Cicero and Francis Bacon gave deformity a high place on their list of reasons for laughter.
Arthur Koestler said any behavior that deviates from the norm tends to make people laugh, though he also said such laughter is primarily the property of an “uncouth mind,” and he’s probably right (who laughs at a hunchback, except a child or jerk?).
But there’s a type of deformity most of us laugh at, and partly because the target of the laughter is laughing with us: The deformity of decadence.
Here I offer a humorous recount of nineteen decadents of western civilization. They aren’t necessarily the most decadent in western civilization and, in fact, almost certainly aren’t (though the last few on the list would make the top five on anyone’s list), but they each give decadence a different angle.
Some did decadence the old fashioned way: Excess of every sort until they burst. Others had one particular vice they took to an extreme. Others are notable because of one remarkable excursion into decadence. Some had a unique decadence or a decadence grossly out of proportion to their station in life (maybe his decadence couldn’t match Jim Morrison’s, but for a Catholic Pope . . .).
Listed for historical completeness. First philosopher to give intellectual mooring to hedonism, teaching that wisdom lies in the pursuit of pleasurable sensations. Also a forebear of the free sex culture. After criticized for living with a courtesan, he replied that he had no objection to living in a house or sailing a ship that other men had used before him.
Alexander the Great
Listed for the sole reason that I — and many others — can relate to him: He died of a hangover.
First Roman entry. Makes it for his masturbation. Wrote first-person essay celebrating it, calling it a gentle art and saying sometimes he prefers it even to sodomy. High praise, indeed.
Lead singer from The Doors.
Entered rock-n-roll with a lithe figure that girls loved. Within a few years, excessive drinking had made him a fat man.
Voluminous drinking might have been triggered by the inability to smoke marijuana — smoked so much one night that he envisioned his own death, freaked out, and swore it off. Died of a heroin overdose, a cocaine overdose, or a heart attack; nobody’s sure and all are reasonable possibilities. Member of the Rock-n-Roll Decadent Decedent Triumvirate (with Jimmy Hendrix and Janis Joplin — two other worthy decadent candidates).
Talked the decadent talk and walked the decadent walk: in Victorian England (no small task).
Scarcely-concealed penchant for sexual crimes. Contracted syphilis from a prostitute as a young man and had black teeth the rest of his life from the mercury treatments.
Belief in ferocious individualism led him to speak against Protestant ethic and bourgeois moral rigor in favor of sexual openness, including rampant homosexual activity with men and boys; jailed for same. Makes the list mostly because of the “rebellion” against moral norms he helped spawn.
His deathbed conversion to Catholicism hopefully redeemed him, but he still makes the list.
Thomas De Quincey
Writer of the best-titled book in the English language: Confessions of an English Opium-Eater: an autobiographical account that includes his dreams and visions while stoned. Life-long opium-eater (or drinker, in the form of laudanum — an opium drink that was legal in Victorian England); London prostitutes introduced him to the drug.
Claimed to bang 20,000 women, equaling approximately 1.37 women a day for forty years (assuming he started his sexual prowling at age 14). Got enough action to catalyze a Saturday Night Live skit.
Pope Alexander VI
Fathered at least seven illegitimate children as a Cardinal; carried on an affair with a beautiful, teenage, married girl, one time threatening her with excommunication if she refused to visit him; used Church funds for his feasting entertainment.
Upon his election to the pontificate at age 61, gleefully cried, “I am Pope! I am Pope!” — an indicator of the shallow self-interest he’d bring to the job.
Catholics are quick to point out that this man was too busy with his decadence to pay any attention to theology.
An illustration that decadence is not always the mark of weakness or simple lust. Pursued every sort of sexual deviancy to carry out his will; his touchstone of reality: “Do what thou wilt.”
Liked pornography, featuring a mural of pornography in his monastery of sexual magic in Sicily, including a picture of the Greek god Pan sodomizing a man.
Well-rounded: lots of sex of every kind, heavy doses of cocaine, and experimentation with mescaline (peyote). Contributed to later waves of decadence, exerting an influence on the drug use of Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, and the Beatles (who put his picture on the album cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band).
Legendary hedonistic guitarist for the Rolling Stones (reference Tony Sanchez, Up and Down with the Rolling Stones — a book packed with stories of extreme decadence that Richards, in a later interview, said is factually accurate).
Funeral plans surrounding him say it all: Has so many drugs in his system, they say he wants to be cremated when he dies so his friends can smoke his ashes. Maybe apocryphal, but anyone who gets a rumor like that started deserves to be on this list.
Lead singer from Three Dog Night. Notorious partier, even by the hardcore standards of rock-n-roll.
Excellent story (not verified): The band entered a float in the Rose Bowl parade one year. Because the parade started early, the band decided to stay up all night New Years Eve partying instead of going to bed. By the time the parade started, Negron was so trashed he had to be duct-taped to the float. By all accounts, he cleaned up well and is a real decent guy these days. I would’ve left him off the list, but that Rose Bowl story is too funny.
Pornography-loving, boy-sodomizing, woman-torturing third emperor of Rome. A passage from Robert Graves’ I Claudius sums him up well:
[S]ome of his perversities were so preposterous and horrible that nobody could seriously reconcile them with the dignity of an Emperor of Rome, Augustus’ chosen successor. No women or boys were safe in his presence now, even the wives and children of senators; and if they valued their own lives or those of their husbands and fathers they willingly did what he expected of them. But one woman . . . committed suicide afterwards in the presence of her friends, telling them that she had been forced to save her young daughter from Tiberius’s lust by consenting to prostitute herself to him [and he forced] her to such abominable acts of filthiness with him that she preferred to die rather than to live on with the memory of them.
Aside: he didn’t become totally depraved until later life. Men prepare themselves for the next life differently (Socrates: Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius. Will you be sure to repay the debt? Tiberius: Crito, bring me that boy.)
Least-known decadent on the list, he took lust to a new level: the lycanthropic. Official court documents say he switched into wolf form when hitting the sixteenth-century German streets to get his kicks, which included rape, incest with his sister and daughter, murder, and cannibalism.
Also had a couple of other highlights, like killing his son and eating his brains.
Drank massive quantities of alcohol; used Benzedrine, morphine, marijuana, hashish, LSD, opium; liked to speed around America; stole; slept with a lot of girls and a lot of guys. And tried to make it all look like a religious act. Got the Beatnik movement on the map in a big way.
Hugh Heffner without the discretion; not a lot more needs to be said. Founder of Hustler magazine and a publishing empire dedicated to the propagation of libertine hedonism.
Catherine the Great
Nympho Empress of Russia. Loved sex so much that unlettered peasants knew about it. Within two weeks after her demise, it was widely reported (and believed) throughout the Russian Empire that she died from a horse falling on her during bestiality. The story’s apocryphal, but anyone who gets a story like that started . . . (see Keith Richards entry).
Man of unrestrained sensuality. Liked to disguise himself to visit brothels, roam streets, rob shops, molest boys, and attack people — stripping them, striking them, wounding them, murdering them. All for fun.
Killed his wife and mother in order to obtain the sexual favors of a beautiful woman (whose husband he had sent to Portugal to get him out of the way).
Also vain: Performed on stage and sang in taverns to hear people applaud him (which they obediently did). Didn’t fiddle while Rome burned, but three Roman historians say he started the fire so he could have the honor of re-building.
A name that’s come down over the course of nearly 2,000 years as synonymous with decadence. Even had a pornographic movie named after him.
Partial list of exploits: Multitude of affairs and flings, plus homosexual liaisons; forced sudden divorces on couples so he could sleep with the wife (including a pregnant wife and a bride on her wedding day); habitual incest with sisters; extravagance that exhausted Rome’s abundant treasury, including bathing in perfume and hosting outlandishly-expensive banquets; liked to scatter gold coins into streets to see people trample each other to death in the resulting scramble; mortally tortured people with glee.
Wore himself out with excess and venereal disease and looked like an old man by age 29. Eventually assassinated by the Praetorian Guard (whose proud military background he had insulted by giving them obscenities for passwords), along with his wife and daughter (whose brains were dashed against a wall).
Marquis de Sade
No surprise here. Brought it all to the decadent table: theory, practice, completeness.
Man’s (not woman’s) enjoyment is the test of all things. If the man wants to do it, he should be allowed to do it. A few tenets: A woman must give herself to any man who demands her; murder is one of man’s “sweetest inclinations”; corrupting young children is a delight; there are few things more delicious than beating a pretty girl; killing the voluptuous object allows man to experience the “ecstasy of death” without undergoing it himself.
Practiced what he preached: Wrote pornography, was jailed for sexual activity, kept mistresses, arranged and participated in orgies, seduced young girls (the younger the better), kidnapped young teenagers (boy and girls) for sex, beat and raped women, used early form of date rape drug.
There are other worthy candidates, like Nikki Sixx, the guitarist from the 1980s heavy metal band Motley Crue, who said “We wanted to f___ all the chicks; we wanted to snort all the drugs.”
Or perhaps Tommy Dorsey and John Bonham, musicians who died by choking on their vomit (which is better than choking on someone else’s, I guess).
If you want more athletes, you may want to include Bobby Layne, the great clutch quarterback for the NFL’s Detroit Lions who would occasionally gulp a few shots during halftime; or maybe the lighter decadent Tug McGraw, major league pitcher who signed one of the first six-figure contracts in baseball and said he’d spend his money on Irish whiskey, girls, and fast cars — and the rest he’d probably just waste.
There’s also Petronius, the author of the highly-risqué The Satyricon, a recount of Nero’s hedonistic Rome, and a man Nero admired for his unique ways of combining vice with taste.
With the exception of the truly evil people on the list, these characters are entertaining — as they were in their decadent prime. They made their choices. They had their fun. It’s hard not to laugh at them, especially when some of them would be laughing with us.
Their ultimate lot — broken homes, broken health, early death — is sad, but oh so funny.
And maybe that’s the saddest part of all?