Initially the relationship between Catholicism and Decadence does not seem obvious. Yet, De Esseintes is driven by a life of Decadence and finds serious fascination in Catholicism. We talked in class about how the correlation between these themes could come from the aesthetic dimension of religious experience and this idea of the prominence of the senses, imagination and emotion. This association suggests that the Decadent writers viewed Catholicism as a source of beauty and not really a moral doctrine. But I think Huysman suggests another, possibly deeper reason for his protagonist’s attraction to Catholicism.
Des Esseintes is disenchanted with society and therefore chooses to live the life of a recluse. In chapter 16 of A Rebours he rants about the ignorance and insincerity of the masses and how the new bourgeoisie has ruined art and beauty, taking the arrogance of the nobility and misappropriating it due to their lack of good breeding. De Esseintes responds to his inability to accept the course society is taking by completely removing himself from it. He separates himself in order to transcend the banality and hypocrisy of the world.
I think it is for these reasons that he is so taken with the idea of Catholicism. Catholicism shares the same ideal of discrediting the earthly world and devoting one’s life to a greater purpose that is more beautiful and more honest. Both lives of Decadence and Catholicism are somewhat of a disgusted reaction to nonsensical, purposeless society. Des Esseintes describes the church as “truly eloquent, maternal to the unfortunate, compassionate to the oppressed, threatening to oppressors and to despots.”
But Des Esseintes has two problems with Catholicism that prevent him from completely embracing it. One is that although he might see much value in the Catholic ideal, he sees the fraud and ludicrousness of the clergy who are meant to represent the church. He cannot find any meaning or validity in their irrational attention to detail. In chapter 16, Des Esseintes talks about the church going so far as to render impure the two substances which were the basis for religious offerings, namely wine and wheat. He says absurdly that potato starch was used to replace wheat for the offerings, “however, God refused to manifest himself in potato starch (pg. 178),” so that too was banned. He then says “but the fact remains that this idea of always being cheated, even at the Lord’s Table, is hardly such as to reinforce a faith that is already wavering; and then, how can one believe in an omnipotence that is hindered by a pinch of potato starch or a drop of alcohol?” So although Des Esseintes might have a lot of respect for Catholic values he does not see them reflected at all in the Clergy.
Another problem he has with Catholicism is a more fundamental one, namely he has a hard time accepting an all-benevolent god when looking at the current state of the world and a hard time seeing purpose in existence. Des Esseintes struggles to find faith. He sees truth in the teachings of Schopenhauer who says, “life here on earth is truly a bed of sorrow! (page 69)” Schopenhauer preaches the nothingness of existence, the benefits of solitude and the eternal unhappiness of mankind. This also has to do with the discrepancy between Catholicism’s ideals and the actual state of things.
Des Esseintes’ initial response to his disappointment with society is a destructive one. By isolating himself he does not find any further purpose, rather he ends up making himself mentally and physically sick. In the end he is forced to return to society but he still must find some way to deal with his disgust of humankind and therefore he has no choice but to strive towards a faithful conversion to Catholicism, which would represent a constructive answer to his disillusionment. He says at the end of chapter 16, “He finally realized that the arguments of pessimism were incapable of giving him comfort, that only the impossible belief in a future life would give him peace (page 180).” Although he has a hard time reconciling himself both to belief in god and in those that claim to represent God, Des Esseintes realizes that it is the only way to find some sort of peace. I think that for Huysmans, Catholicism was not just a manifestation of beauty, but it was an answer to the depressing state of humanity.