“Il existe de par le monde des gens qui, divisant mon œuvre en deux parties: avant ma conversion, après ma conversion, voudraient absolument me persuader que je dois retirer, faire disparaitre, anéantir la première. Ces gens ne comprennent pas qu’il y a dans la vie et dans l’œuvre d’un artiste, une unité, et que, notamment, cette œuvre forme un tout.”
“There exists the world of people who divide my work in two parts: before my conversion and after my conversion, and who would absolutely want to persuade me that I must retire, efface, annihilate the first. These people do not understand that in life and in the work of an artist there is a unity, and that, notably, this work forms a whole that is everything.” Interview with Joris-Karl Huysmans, La Liberte, 29TH of April 1904.
The question of who Joris-Karl Huysmans is often arises with a certain ambiguity; he has been described as a naturalist writer, a decadent, a catholic, a mystic, even a hagiographer (Smeets 9), but do any of these terms describe him or is the plural synthesis of each that does? And if so, how could he have first been a naturalist writer abiding to Emile Zola’s materialist rules of engagement with literature and society, then have made a radical turn towards decadence only to end as a catholic—do these shifts in mentality not contradict each other, or is it precisely because of the contradiction that they make ‘sense’?
J.-K Huysmans was born on February 5th of 1848 and was baptized the next day as Charles-Marie-Georges (name he would repudiate in his literary career).
His father passed away in 1856 and in 1857 his mother remarried to M. Jules Og, the same year Les Fleurs du Mal was published.
In 1870 he is mobilized in the Garde Nationale’s 6th Battalion for the Franco-Prussian war and is confined to a series of hospitals with dysentery.
In 1874 he publishes his first novel Le Drageoir a epices.
In 1877 he writes four articles on Emile Zola and eventually befriends him, as well as Flaubert and Edmond de Goncourt. These encounters initiate his immersion into naturalism, a movement which upholds that only natural and material laws and forces operate in the world, as opposed to supernatural and spiritual ones. During this period he becomes acquainted with naturalist theories of hysteria, mainly those of Jean-Martin Charcot, who begins to describe ecstatic phenomena in materialistic and psychosexual terms (Hanson 109). Psychology gains prominence at the end of the nineteenth century and casts a shadow on Christian mysticism by directly addressing the erotic effusions inherent in its beliefs. Ecstatic accounts of religious figures such as Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint Catherine of Siena, Blessed Christina of Stommeln, and Saint John of the Cross begin to be questioned as cases of hysteria, and thus reduced to nonsense.
In 1884, A rebours is published and Huysmans is widely acclaimed and recognized (much to Emile Zola’s dismay). It becomes evident that he draws much of his decadent aesthetic from the juxtaposition of religious and psychological discourses of hysteria. Interestingly enough, Huysmans’ accentuation of the textuality of faith and desire and the exaltation of language’s role in both, is closer to modern psychoanalysis than to Charcot’s theories since instead of dismissing the language of hysterics as nonsense, Huysmans seeks to symbolically decompose the content of hysterical discourse, especially dreams. Huysmans also develops a notion of the “unconscious”, and an uncanny textual understanding of hysteria that eerily resonates with Freud’s work. A rebours is a demonstration of the divine unconscious which Huysmans unveils through his ecstatic and obsessive language. (Hanson 112)
The same year he establishes a friendship with Leon Bloy and meets Paul Verlaine who is considered by many as a drunkard and a sodomite yet whom Huysmans considers “a great poet, the only Catholic poet”. In fact in 1903 (after his conversion to Catholicism) Huysmans published an edition of Paul Verlaine’s religious poetry that praised him and his work. But how can Huysmans claim that Verlaine is a Catholic poet when he commits sinful acts, when his words may not be in tune with his actions? It is through such apparent contradictions that Huysmans’ mysticism, decadence, Catholicism and anti-naturalism intermingle to reveal the paradox of decadent Catholicism: the harmonious coexistence of depravity and divinity, of dissonance and assonance, of brutality and grace as well as hysteria and mysticism (Hanson 111)
Following his decadent vein Huysman publishes En Rade in 1887 and La-Bas in 1891 before converting to Catholicism in 1892.
He would then publish En Route in 1895, La Cathedrale in 1898 and L’Oblat in 1903. “[the novels] trace the spiritual development of Durtal, one of Huysmans’ alter egos, from his life as a jaded sinner in La-Bas to his later incarnations as a penitent convert, connoisseur of religious art, and Benedictine oblate.” (Hanson 109)
An Illustration of Huysmans’ Spiritual Naturalism
There is a particularly vivid example of Huysmans’ aesthetic use of the unconscious as a source of the divine through his prodigious use of language when he offers the reader a gruesome, perverse and enlightened description of Mattias Grunewald’s crucifixion in the opening chapter of La-Bas. Huysmans thus branches out into a sort of “spiritual naturalism” (Hanson 120)—he uses Zola’s techniques to transmit his mystical hysteria across to the reader. Spirituality arises from the unbearably naturalistic elements of Grunewald’s painting.
“Huysmans finds sadistic inspiration in detailing the suffering of Christ on the cross. He defines the spiritual through images of splitting and fragmentation. He speaks of wounds dripping with blood and pus, arms dislocated and ripped from their sockets, straining muscles, labored tendons, fingers contorted into a gesture of supplication, reproach, and benediction.” (Hanson 121)
“Around this ulcerated head there filtered a glowing light; and a superhuman expression illuminated the effluescence of the skin, the epilepsy of his features” (18-19 Huysmans)
“The difficulty is to be in the desired state of soul- though I have seen, in all this, such curious things, and for that matter I have such a hysterical soul, that I believe I might find a retreat to La Chartreuse exasperating from that perspective- and to cast aside all this carnal filth that tempts me not immoderately J.-K Huysmans
Huysmans Medical Diagnoses
Huysmans suffered from and was diagnosed with dysentery, cancer, impotence, headaches, neuralgia, neurasthenia, melancholia, and recurring dyspepsia.
Huysmans would socialize with people who, as himself, threaded the line between madness and reason- people often deemed to be neurotic. One of which was Berthe Courriere. “Not only was Courriere a Satanist who, according to Rachilde, fed consecrated hosts to stray dogs from her shopping bags, but she was also committed to insane asylums, in 1890 and in 1906” (Hanson 128)
He also had a deep affection for Anne Meunier, whom he would visit every Sunday in the asylum until she died of a general paralysis.
Christianity and Sodomy
“Satanism itself, so far as not merely an affectation, was an attempt to get into Christianity by the back door.” T.S Eliot
In En Route Huysmans utilized a similar metaphor to describe his relationship with the Devil (Hanson 139) “[imagination] will be the badly closed door of your person, and it is through there that the devil will enter and expand himself in you.” (Huysmans 94)
There are many instances in his novels and letters to friends where he condemns sodomy as a sinful and degenerate act that inverses gender roles and is by no means acceptable. However, Huysmans would maintain an aversion to sodomy while paradoxically venturing into homoeroticism himself and maintaining close relationships with known homosexuals such as Paul Verlaine and Jean Lorrain (Hanson 140)
Brief note on Huysmans’ Naturalism, Decadence and Catholicism
If one is to divide Huysmans’ literary career in three stages (mainly naturalism, decadence and Catholicism), and venture into the intricacies of his aesthetic beliefs, the seemingly contradictory stages dissolve and conjoin to form a harmonious and complementary set of aesthetic values which are in tune with each other. In order to grasp his spirituality Huysmans first understood the essence of naturalism and where it was, in his view, at fault. For a large part Huysmans believed that naturalism failed to address the spiritual elements of literature and consciousness. As such he began to write decadently, to tune himself to the negative of that Other divinity which he avidly sought and which he would later find in his conversion to Catholicism. In such a way Huysmans’ aestheticism reveals the paradoxical nature of his perception of reality and spirituality, one filled by the artistic power of the imagination as apparent through religious hysteria and mystical experiences.
Against Nature: Chapters VI-X
“This was simplicity itself; his name was Auguste Langlois, he worked for a cardboard-maker, his mother was dead, and his father beat him mercilessly.” (58)
“Des Esseintes shrugged: ‘You’re not with me; no, far from it,’ he said; ‘the truth is that I’m simply trying to produce a murderer. Now pay close attention to my reasoning. This boy’s a virgin, and he’s reached the age where the blood begins to seethe; he could chase the girls in his neighborhood, he could have some fun but go on behaving decently, he could, in a word, enjoy his little share of the humdrum happiness which is the lot of the poor. On the other hand, by bringing him here, by showing him a luxury which he didn’t even suspect existed and which will necessarily imprint itself on his mind; by giving him such a windfall every couple of weeks, he’ll become accustomed to these pleasures which his means do not permit him to enjoy, let’s suppose that he’ll need three months for them to become absolutely essential- and by spacing them out as I shall do, I do not run the risk of sating him- so, at the end of the three months, I shall put a stop to the little income which I’m going to advance you for this good deed, and then he’ll steal, to be able to come here; he’ll do something quite desperate so that he can tumble about on this couch, under these gas-lights!” (59-60)
‘the fact is that since pain is an effect of education, since it deepens and sharpens in proportion as ideas spring up, the more one will develop in them those fiercely long-lasting seeds of moral suffering and of hatred.’ (61)
How does this chapter address the notion of art as crime, or crime as art? Is there a distinction between the two and how does this play out in the text as well as in this example. What of the textuality of the Des Esseintes desired crime?
‘ever since my childhood, and without my ever being aware of it, I’ve carried this unfermented leaven with me; even the predilection I always felt for religious artefacts may perhaps be proof of it.’ (65)
What is Des Esseintes relationship with religion and how does it compare to religion’s relationship to art? How are they similar or how do they differ? What do these say of the spiritual and art?
“ ‘it’s true that most of the time Nature is incapable of creating, all on her own, such noxious, degenerate species; she provides the raw material, the seed and the soil, the nurturing womb and the elements of the plant which man then grows, fashions, paints sculpts as he chooses…” (77)
How is Nature different than man? What does this chapter suggest of man and nature, is man then not natural? What is the role of Des Esseintes’ dream after the floral scene?
‘just as a strapping young fellow will fall in love with a frail girl…’ (85)
How does the episode with Miss Urania compare to that of Jacques and Raoule?
If his imagination truly masters reality and the nature of all things, what does his inability to control his imagination (as with the frangipani aroma) reveal?
Banks, Brian R. The Image of Huysmans. New York, N.Y.: AMS Press, 1990.
Hanson, Ellis. Decadence and Catholicism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997.
J.-k. Huysmans : Littérature Et Religion : Actes Du Colloque Du Département Des Lettres De L’institut Catholique De Rennes, [décembre 2007]. Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2009.
Smeets, Marc. Huysmans L’inchangé : Histoire D’une Conversion. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2003.
Vircondelet, Alain. Joris-karl Huysmans. Paris: Plon, 1990.