Everything I know about decadence I learnt from Prof George Schoolfield.
This may be an odd way to start a note of remembrance of a great scholar who has recently passed away but it is true. I was one of those Yale students who took his famous course “Introduction to Decadence” in the 1980s and was duly impressed. I entered a new world. I read captivating books by Joris-Karl Huysmans, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, Oscar Wilde, Max Beerbohm and, perhaps most importantly, I learnt about Finland’s Swedish-language literature.
Yes, I had to go all the way to New Haven to realise how fantastic Finland’s Swedish language literature is. Of course, I knew the great national poets – Runeberg and Topelius – who had transcended the Swedish-Finnish language barrier but it was Schoolfield who taught me to appreciate other great authors from Finland’s Swedish speaking minority.
Edith Södergran was a particular favourite of his. But he also had a great admiration for Elmer Diktonius, Sigrid Backman and Runar Schildt.
George Schoolfield’s interest in Finland’s Swedish language literature was based on his fascination with the aesthetics of decadence. A rose, he explained, is at its most beautiful just before it perishes. Since Finland’s Swedish minority had been shrinking for a hundred years, it was constantly living under the threat of extinction. This made its representatives aesthetically aware. This was the explanation for their artistic sensibilities. I do not know whether his explanation is right but I do know that Schoolfield himself was aesthetically and intellectually extremely aware. A man with great sensibilities. A great teacher.