Decay, privation, indulgence and imagination in “Against Nature” and “The Temptation of Saint Anthony”
Both Anthony and Des Esseintes exchange the comforts and pleasures of normal existences for the privation of a solitary life. In place of the decay that surrounds them–what they perceive as an overindulgence of the senses–they choose salutary asceticism. But although they deny themselves pleasures of the body, the imagination is unfettered. In Des Esseintes’ case, this is by design: he thinks the pleasures of the city, his prior bibulousness and lecherousness, to be tawdry and decadent. In the isolation of his hermitage more refined and valuable pleasure, that brought about by dint of the imagination, can be achieved. Anthony’s isolation, though, is undertaken with the purpose of denying himself all pleasure. He cannot establish a hierarchy of pleasures in the manner of Des Esseintes because he is of the mind that pleasure itself is decadent. Des Esseintes eschewed the indulgences of Paris for a purer pleasure, but Anthony sequesters himself so that he might escape all comforts–those both of the body and the imagination. But in both instances, an argument can be made that the only exchange present is not that of decay for enrichment, probity, or whatever can be understood as the antithesis of decay, but that of one form of decay, wanton indulgence of the senses, for another, what Hilarion calls the “banquets, perfumes, naked women, and […] applause of multitudes” generated by the imagination.
Travel, Des Esseintes, believes, is “pointless” (Huysmans 18). Why leave the house when a richer, more fulfilling experience of travel could be achieved via the imagination? Instead of the “vulgar reality of actual experience,” Des Esseintes chooses “imaginary pleasures in every respect similar to the real ones” (Huysmans 18, 19). The implication here, of course, is that what Des Esseintes calls the “reality of actual experience” is a decadent indulgence: the pleasure of this sort of experience is that from which Des Esseintes flees. The alternative he espouses, the employment of the imagination, he holds up as the purer, correct method of achieving pleasure. His plight, however, suggests that the indulging of the imagination is no less decadent than the indulging of the body and its senses. Des Esseintes is, after all, concerned only with himself in much the same way he was before rejecting a life of debauchery. In his hermitage he indulges his intellect and imagination; in Paris he indulged his lust. In both cases decay is the result.
At least in the eyes of Hilarion, Anthony too fails to escape the decay of overindulgence. He has removed himself to the top of a mountain where he lives with the most extreme abstemiousness–all but the necessities for existence have been given to the poor and others in need–and so has accomplished a state of privation far more complete than Des Esseintes, who lives in comparative luxury. And yet according to Hilarion, Anthony’s imagination offers him splendor; he is a “hypocrite” whose “chastity is but a more subtle form of corruption” (Flaubert 48). Anthony holds that “man must retreat from material thing” and that “all action is degrading,” but Hilarion sees it differently. Anthony is dissatisfied with the world but his only response to is retreat to a lonely hut. Instead of confronting the world’s decay, Anthony removes himself to the solitude of his imagination. This, Hilarion seems to think, is another form of decay: the decay of being human. How can Anthony “repel the caress of a dog” or “frown upon the smile of a child?” (Flaubert 48). The world beckons, but Anthony arranges himself so that the only world he encounters is his own. As is the case in “Against Nature,” the trajectory of events suggests that to reject one form of decay is to invite the arrival of another. Decay is natural and necessary.