Science as a Form of Artifice in Against Nature

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Given its status as an exemplary decadent text, it isn’t surprising that Huysmans’ Against Nature privileges artifice over reality. However, I was intrigued that the novel often equates artifice with science. When the narrator explains how Des Esseintes considers travel unnecessary when one can simply imagine being in a faraway place, he backs up Des Esseintes’ reasoning by pointing to the engineering that causes certain wines to taste better than they would naturally:

Thus, nowadays it is widely known that, in restaurants celebrated for the excellence of their cellars, gourmets enjoy drinking fine vintages made out of inferior wines which have been treated by the method of M. Pasteur. Now, whether genuine or fake, these wines have the same aroma, the same colour, the same bouquet, so therefore the enjoyment experienced in tasting these adulterated imitations is absolutely identical with the pleasure one would take in savouring the pure, natural wine which is unobtainable today, even at an astronomical price. (19)

According to this account, wines manipulated by a scientific method render the same experience as those produced by nature. Rather than treating the artistic imagination as the sole source of artifice, the narrator considers “the method of M. Pasteur” and other forms of science to be just as effective in terms of constructing an equivalent to nature.

Huysmans provides a scientific explanation for various phenomena in chapters 1-10, including the synaesthetic correspondence between someone’s personality and his/her color perception (13) and between taste and sound, as shown through Des Esseintes’ “mouth organ” (39); the horticultural manipulation of plants (“‘…the only artists, the real artists, are horticulturalists’” [78]); and the “structure of a composite aroma” that constitutes a perfume (95). Husymans’ foregrounding of science as the underlying explanation for all of these experiences and creations suggests that science is at least on the same level as, if not above, art in terms of artificially reproducing nature.

In “The Experimental Novel” (1880), Emile Zola posits fiction as a type of experiment in which the author places his characters in a realistic setting and follows the story to its determined conclusion, as dictated by natural laws:

…the novelist is equally an observer and an experimentalist. The observer in him gives the facts as he has observed them, suggests the point of departure, displays the solid earth on which his characters are to tread and the phenomena to develop. Then the experimentalist appears and introduces an experiment, that is to say, sets his characters going in a certain story so as to show that the succession of facts will be such as the requirements of the determinism of the phenomena under examination call for. (8)

 Zola’s naturalism and Huysmans’ decadence are ostensibly at odds with one another, with the former aiming at a precise representation of life and the latter a construction of artifice; yet, both take recourse to science as an organizing structure of reality and artifice, respectively. Interestingly, Des Esseintes sounds like an author following Zola’s code when he calculatingly explains his “reasoning” as to how he aims to turn Auguste Langlois into a murderer (59).

Considering this common ground, we can perhaps view decadence as an outgrowth of naturalism/realism rather than its antithesis. Huysmans describes the process of replacing a real experience with one of the imagination or of scientific production as the ability to “substitute the vision of reality for reality itself” (20). To me, this sounds remarkably similar to the aim of realism: to create a representation that is indistinguishable from reality itself.

Émile Zola. “The Experimental Novel.” The Experimental Novel and Other Essays. Trans. Belle M. Sherman. New York: Haskell House, 1964. 1-54. Print.

-Eusebius

Word Count: 588

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