À Rebours (Against Nature) Joris-Karl Huysmans: Presentation

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À Rebours (Against Nature)

Joris-Karl Huysmans

Original cover of the novel
Original cover of the novel

Title

Joris–Karl Huysmans originally thought he would title the book Seul (Alone), but later changed the title when the book was published. The french title under which the book was published is À Rebours which has been translated to “Against Nature” or “Against the Grail”. This title has been interpreted as an allusion to inversion, which is used heavily inside the book.

Introduction and Context

It is debatable that the first Decadent novel was Elémir Bourges’s conscientiously colorful Le Crépuscule des dieux (1883), in which the evil mistress of an aristocrat of the Second Empire encourages his three chidden to taste the fruits of their inherited degeneracy, leading to an orgy of incest, murder, suicide and traumatic insanity. Bourges’s venture to decadence was however fleeting phase, which he did not follow through with; his novel undoubtedly influenced the decadent novelist who came after him though, including Joris-Karl Huysmans.

Huysmans had been writing for some years before producing À rebours, but had given no indication that the book was in him. His early prose poems and sketches collected in Le Drageoir aux épices (1874), showed little trace of the Baudelarian influence, and his first novel, Marthe, histoire d’une fille (1876) had placed him alongside Zola and Edmond Goncourt as a Naturalist. In the literary world of Paris he must have seemed a slight and rather staid figure, although he made friends with several of the Decadent-to-be at the salons of Charles Buet, including Jean Lorrian and Rachilde, and he was also acquainted with Mallarmé, Barbey d’Aurevilly and Villiers de L’Isle-Adam. This evolving pattern of friendships probably encouraged his remarkable change in direction.

Joris-Karl Huysmans’s À Rebours, which loosely translates to” Against Nature” or “Against the Grail” is marked by many as the defining work of the Decadent movement, which began around the time of Baudelaire’s Les Fleur du mal (1857) and sifted into and thrived in the late 19th century England finally petering out after the trial of Oscar Wilde (1895). Many consider Huysmans’ novel a breviary of all things Decadent.

The publication of À Rebours in 1884 marked the beginning of the modern novel. It was, in fact, Huysmans’ first departure from the Naturalist style, which was used at the time. Scholars had varying views on the novel and its departure from Naturalism. Joris-Karl’s mentor, Zola, was critical of the book claiming that it was “a huge blow to the school of naturalism”. Though many critics were scandalized by the novel, it won Huysmans a great following from young aesthete writers like Stéphane Mallarmé, who responded with a tribute “Prose pour Des Esseintes” published in La Revue Indépendante on January first 1885.

It contains a series of tableaux-like chapters where an aristocrat, “Des Esseintes“, the last of his line, weedy and wealthy, decides to retire from the world to build his environment of artifice. He renounces nature and fellowship, the day and he instead immerses himself in reverie, his library, his art collection a principled elevation of artifice over the nature.

The character Des Esseintes is also read by many as the representation of Joris-Karl Huysmans’ own obsession with aestheticism. The two share similar tastes, although Joris-Karl, with his modest civil servant earnings, could not indulge the senses the way the hero in his novel was. Robert de Montesquiou is however thought to be the main model behind the character of Jean De Esseintes. The furnishing of this aristocrat mirrored in such detail the furnishings of his house.

Robert de Montequiou
Robert de Montequiou

Dandies like Charles Baudelaire and Jules Barbey were also great influences for the novel and the character of Jean De Esseintes.

À rebours was also the book that carried the Decadent doctrine beyond the boundaries of France and Belgium. Although it was not translated to English until 1922. when it appeared as Against the Grain, it notoriety in England and America was assured by the famous passage in Oscar Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), which describes the profound effect of the mysterious “yellow book”.

The book was quoted at the trial of Oscar Wilde as a prime source for A Picture of Dorian Gray. At the trial, it was revealed that it is the anonymous work Lord Henry Wotton, the arch-decadent, gives as a present to Dorian.

Themes 

  1. Aestheticism: This theme is addressed through the main character Jean, who, completely bored with life (a phenomenon defined as ennui in the text) attempts to resuscitate an enthusiasm for life and living by working through the senses, satisfying his world-weary palette with evermore indulgent pleasures until finally he realises that “his pleasures are finite and his needs infinite”.  Joris-Karl Huysmans uses each chapter of À rebours to show Des Esseintes’ attempt to quench each of his senses. The rooms of his mansion are themed in different shades and hues.  He develops new perfumes to the satiate his olfactory sense and he hosts the ‘Black party” where different coloured jellies served by black naked women, with the room ornamented decadently. The symbol of all the above is his ornamentation and covering with precious stones his pet tortoise, who subsequently dies unable to bear the dazzling luxury imposed upon it
  2. Fears of degeneracy and weakness of blood: Huysmans discusses this large theme of fin du siècle through the character Jean Des Esseintes. Jean’s watery aristocrat blood is heavily discussed in the prologue and also features at several instances in the novel. The theme of the degeneracy of blood is also addressed through the conversation on Syphilis much later in the novel.
  3. Inversion: the text provides a  fertile ground for the common place that the master trope of decadence is inversion. The book lines itself up on the culturally devalued side of a series of familiar oppositions—feminine vs. masculine, degenerations vs. evolution, decadence vs. progress, sickness vs. health, artifice vs. nature, false vs. true, perversion vs. normalcy et cetera—to occupy the position “against nature” and to accomplish an inversion that ends up reaffirming the positive side of the opposition on which it depends, negatively for its own definition (in line with including the monstrous in definitions of beauty).  Look into the inversion in masculinity and femininity in the attempt of Des Esseintes to breathe masculine thoughts into the ventriloquist’s female body. There is also the inversion between nature and artifice shown in the choice flowers to decorate his mansion.

Discussions Questions

1. The first thing that the reader is told about Jean Des Esseintes in À rebours, and the key to his entire enterprise is that he is sick: sick in his body, sick in his mind and sick at heart. In accordance with the half-baked protoscience of the day, Huysmans echoes Edgar Allan Poe in attributing the foundations of this sickness to the hereditary degeneracy. How can these degenerations be seen as corollary of the notion of cultural decay, and why does Huysmans make a point of this degeneration in his book?

2. This book is rife with inversion. What is the role of inversion in this novel and in decadence a movement. We witnessed aesthetic inversion in the poetry of Baudelaire, and sexual inversion in Rachilde’s Monsieur Vénus and The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. Is there a symbolism of inversion in decadent literature? If there is what is it?

 Bibliography:

  • Felski, Rita. The Gender of Modernity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.
  • Huysmans, Joris-Karl. Against Nature, New York: Oxford University 2009. Print
  • Liz, Constable. Perenial Decay: On Aesthetics and Politics of Decadence, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999. Print
  • White, Nicholas. Introduction. Against Nature. By Joris-Karl Huysmans. Trans. Margaret Muldoon. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print
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