The protagonist of Joris-Karl Huysmans’ Against Nature (1884), des Esseintes, is a dandy who demonstrates a strong dislike towards the bourgeoisie, who, in his view, is “exclusively preoccupied with swindling and money-making” (Huysmans 57). In order to distance himself from middle class conventionality, he refashions his tastes and interests after moving out of Paris. Des Esseintes describes in great detail a number of objects and activities he has developed from which he derives pleasure. Different combinations of colors, books by ancient Latin writers and nineteenth century French writers, precious jewels from Ceylon, liqueurs (the tastes of which correspond to musical notes), paintings that create an alternative reality and exotic flowers that seem to imitate artifice rather than nature are some of des Esseintes’ preoccupations at his isolated home in Fontenay. His pleasures are mainly derived from objects and activities which are associated with the exotic; articles, which, in decadent literature, are generally markers of the upper class, refinement, superior aesthetic tastes, self-fashioning and a life of luxury.
Yet, unlike with the references to luxurious objects from the Orient in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey or in Rachilde’s Monsieur Venus, the exotic articles referred to in Against Nature do not always correspond to an aristocratic decadent lifestyle or its adherents. The exotic objects referred to by des Esseintes falls mainly into two categories: objects that have become commercially accessible to the nouveaux riches and have therefore lost their former value and artistic significance, and objects that still are not popular with the masses and hence are still of value to a dandy such as des Esseintes and to the decadent movement as symbolic expressions of its aesthetic tenets. Classism thus becomes the key deciding factor in assigning values to rare objects of art from the Orient, thereby allocating an inferior role to the pure aesthetic and artistic value of exotic objects. For instance, the protagonist is determined to not use “fabrics and carpets from the Orient, which, now that nouveau riche tradesmen bought them at a discount from large department stores, had become so tiresome and common” (Huysmans 48). Regardless of the artistic merit of these luxury items, which were once considered very desirable objects to own by the upper classes, their easy availability among the masses has demoted these exotic articles from being any longer objects worthy of possession by an aristocrat such as des Esseintes. Originally an exclusive marker of the aristocratic wealthy classes and their superior aesthetic tastes, articles from the Orient are not necessarily an indicator of superior aesthetics but of superior class in Huysmans’ text. For instance, des Esseintes is very discriminating when choosing the gems to use for his tortoise’s shell because “diamonds had become singularly vulgar now that every tradesman wore one on his little finger”, topazes have become “precious to lower middle-class women”, amethysts were “also compromised by the blood-red earlobes and stubby fingers of butchers’ wives” and the “Oriental turquoise… along with the banal pearl and the odious coral delight the lower classes” (Huysmans 72-73).
In Against Nature, therefore, there is an explicit association of only specific objects from the Orient with the aristocratic and wealthy classes, and, by association, with decadent thought; a distinction that was not presented so obviously in Baudelaire’s poetry, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey or in Rachilde’s Monsieur Venus.
Word count – 586 words
Blogged by Lana
Huysmans, J. K. Against Nature (A rebours). Gardena, California: Dedalus, 2008.