Month: February 2014

The Multiplicity of Language in Temptation of St. Anthony

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While the Decadent novels we have read so far have celebrated multiplicity in a variety of ways (Rachilde’s gender inversions; Des Esseintes’ synaesthetic experiences; Dorian Gray’s self-conception as a “multiform creature”), Flaubert’s Saint Anthony grapples with it in an effort to distinguish the real from the illusory. Anthony associates artifice with Satan, as when he asserts his imperviousness to temptation: “Besides, do I not know all his [Satan’s] artifices?” (18). Similarly, Anthony attributes his visions at the end of Part I to a “strange play of light,” and Flaubert describes them as “images” and “paintings” (22). By contrast, Anthony considers the divine to be the real, drawing a distinction between the illusions of Satan and the miracles of God. (Interestingly, Anthony at one point seems to equate miracles with the scientific manipulation of nature, when he attributes Solomon’s resistance of the Queen of Sheba to his knowledge of science (17).)

Yet, Anthony’s distinction between miracles and illusions begins to break down as he experiences more visions. When Anthony suddenly sees a feast appear in front of him, he thinks of Jesus’ miraculous production of loaves and fish, directly associating an illusion with a miracle: “‘Instead of one which was there, lo! there are many!…It must be a miracle, then, the same as our Lord wrought!’” (25). Although he then recognizes the feast as an illusion, he is deceived by the seemingly miraculous cup, which continuously generates more and more gold and jewels (26-27). Even Anthony’s speech becomes infected with the multiplicity of the never-ending pile of jewels:

What! how! Staters, cycles, dariacs, aryandics! Alexander, Demetrius, the Ptolemies, Caesar!—yet not one of them all possessed so much! Nothing is now impossible! no more suffering for me! how these gleams dazzle my eyes! Ah! my heart overflows! how delightful it is! yes—yes!—more yet! never could there be enough! Vainly I might continually fling it into the sea, there would always be plenty remaining for me. Why should I lose any of it? I will keep all, and say nothing to any one about it; I will have a chamber hollowed out for me in the rock, and lined with plates of bronze, and I will come here from time to time to feel the gold sinking down under the weight of my heel; I will plunge my arms into it as into sacks of grain. I will rub my face with it, I will lie down upon it! (27)

Just as the cup continuously produces more and more jewels, Anthony spouts out repetitions of the same words and phrases. “Staters, cycles, dariacs, aryandics!” merely lists various names of coins; “Alexander, Demetrius, the Ptolemies, Caesar!” similarly lists various rulers. In both cases, each addition to the list does not add meaning but rather provides an empty effect of crazed multiplication. When Anthony asserts, “Vainly I might continually fling it into the sea, there would always be plenty remaining for me,” he might as well be referring to his reserve of effusive but empty phrases as to his pile of gold. By the end of the outburst, his thoughts extend in one elongated sentence, as if his phrases multiply to the point where it seems like the sentence will never end (“I will keep all…into sacks of grain”). Yet, just as the cup only produces illusory gold, the multiplication of Anthony’s language produces a frenzied rant rather than anything substantive or meaningful.

The multiplicity of language relates to Anthony’s later vision of the queen of Sheba. In contrast to Anthony’s prior visions, which either featured illusory objects or experiences described in narration (i.e. when he becomes Nebuchadnezzar), the queen of Sheba is a named character in the narrative who speaks and takes action. In a sense, she seems more “real” than the other illusions due to her aesthetic presence as a character. Furthermore, she herself provides descriptions that rival those of the narration, as when she describes her domain (40-42). The queen of Sheba wields language to entice Anthony, creating an imaginary world out of her description.

She even claims that she herself can change form: “All the women thou hast ever met…all the imaginations of thy desire thou hast only to ask for them! I am not a woman: I am a world” (42). With this declaration, she seems to announce herself as a product of language, a changeable and multiple entity. Indeed, we know that she is a product of language, in the sense that she is an illusion on par with the narrated illusion about Nebuchadnezzar.  Yet, then we must question how to distinguish her from Anthony himself, or any of the creations inhabiting Flaubert’s novel. Are there levels of ontology within the text, or does this question merely point to the artificiality of the novel itself? However, if we register some discomfort at the idea that the queen of Sheba is just as “real” as Anthony, then we should also begin to think about how we distinguish our own ontology from that of the fictional characters. Just as the distinction between the miraculous and the illusory breaks down, the multiplicity of language potentially blurs the distinction between the real and the aesthetic.


Word Count: 872

Word Count:

The Temptation of Saint Anthony–presentation

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Life of Flaubert

Gustave Flaubert was born on December 12th 1821 to Achille-Cleophas Flaubert, a distinguished doctor, and Anne Justine Caroline. He grew up in Rouen in Northern France. In 1841 he was sent against his will to study law in Paris but it was there he began to make influential friends and move in literary circles, which stimulated his writing. He never married and it is likely that his relationship with the poet Louise Colet, which lasted from 1846 to 1854 was his only serious romantic relationship. Flaubert died on May 8th 1880 probably as a result of his syphilis.

Epilepsy or Religious Vision?

One night in 1844 Flaubert was riding in a cabriolet with his brother and another cabriolet was approaching them from down the road. As the other cabriolet passed an inn on the side of the road their bright lights crossed and Flaubert, upon seeing this was overcome by an extreme attack. He described it “like being swept away in a torrent of flames…sudden lightning…an instantaneous irruption of memory…a letting go of its entire contents…it seems like everything in your head is going off at once like a thousand fireworks (Wall 79).” Flaubert’s family hoped this was a one-time scare but over the course of the next two weeks he experienced four further attacks. Considering what we know today it is likely that Flaubert suffered from epilepsy, but medical knowledge of the day could not identify the cause of Flaubert’s attacks. In any case, Flaubert would not have approved of attaching a medical explanation to his malady. He called these instances his “nervous attacks” and once he realized he could survive them he began to experiment with his condition and it prompted in him an affinity for extreme varieties of religious experience and ecstatic visions.  He claimed to have experienced genuine mystical experiences at various stages of his life. Concerning these hallucinations he said, “On my great days of sunshine I have sometimes glimpsed a state of the soul superior to life itself and for which glory would be irrelevant and happiness itself of no consequence (Unwin 10).” Given the significance Flaubert lends to religious mystical hallucinations, it is no surprise that this is the premise for The Temptation.

Sexual Exploits

For health reasons, Flaubert retired to his family home in Le Croisset, a suburb of Rouen, and he supposedly lived quietly and devoted himself to writing to the point where he was known as the Hermit of Croisset. But Flaubert was also one of the best-travelled men of his generation and he practiced “sexual tourism.” He documented his travels in the Middle East from 1849-1851 and he described his sexual exploits there in his letters to his friend Louis Bouihlet. The coarseness with which he talks about these intimate experiences is shocking and reflects his grotesque, carnal and physical view of life. It is believed that it was during this time that he contracted syphilis.

The Writing of The Temptation of Saint Anthony

 The Temptation of Saint Anthony                                              The Temptation cover (1895).jpg

The inspiration for The Temptation most likely comes from a painting Flaubert saw by Breugel depicting the temptations of Saint Anthony. It is said that nothing else in the museum interested him but that painting completely fascinated him. Another more humble inspiration for The Temptation is that as a child Flaubert used to attend a sort of puppet show depicting the life of Saint Anthony.

Flaubert finished the first manuscript of The Temptation in 1849, which he read to his friends Maxime Du Camp and Louis Bouilhet who subsequently advised him to throw it into the fire and forget about it. He worked on the second version in 1856 after he finished Madame Bovary. In the second version Flaubert made some changes to the first version, shortened it and made it less romantic but it was virtually the same work. He would have published it then but he was afraid of experiencing the same backlash he had received from Madame Bovary. In 1857, after Madame Bovary was published, Flaubert and his publisher were tried for an “outrage to public morals and religion.” Even though the case was finally acquitted the enmity and misunderstanding Flaubert experienced left him disenchanted. So Flaubert put down The Temptation again and began writing Salammbo. The third version of The Temptation, which he published in 1974 while he was writing Bouvard et Pechuhet, was entirely rewritten and had been reduced to a third of the size of the first work. It was a lot less romantic and emotional and much more intellectual and abstract. Some significant changes include a pig which was Anthony’s companion in the first two versions but was cut out of the third version and the description of a Greek landscape in the beginning of the third version which isn’t in the other two versions.

The Temptation essentially represents Flaubert’s unattainable dream of what he wanted his works to be- silky, supple, delicate, spontaneous, harmoniously revealed through rapturous phrases, but also what they must never be if they were to see the light of day. Although The Temptation was eventually published it is likely that Flaubert really viewed it as a personal work for his own benefit. The Temptation existed before any of Flaubert’s other essential works and it was repeated as a kind of ritual purification exercise, a temptation to overcome before each of his major texts. It is suspended over all his works. It possesses all the excess imagery and somber prose and abundance that he had to repress in his other texts for the sake of clarity. Flaubert said about The Temptation, “I plunged furiously into Saint Anthony and began to enjoy the most terrifying exaltation. I have never been more excited (Bloom 46).”

Flaubert and Religion

Flaubert had a somewhat cruel outlook on human folly and failure but he saw it as a way of better perceiving emotions and states of mind without sentimentality to contaminate it. He maintained the uniqueness of every emotion and sensation and he thought it was his duty to apprehend these things attentively and alertly.

Given the contemplative ascetic dimension to his approach it is not surprising that there is a mystic quality to his writing. He was fascinated with religion and even though he didn’t believe in god he transferred the idea of mystical contemplation to his writing as an alternative. The 19th century saw the general disenchantment with religion but Flaubert’s work is filled with saints, monks and mystics, and the history of religion. For Flaubert, modern life used the quest for eternal transcendent truth to replace the quest for god.

This complicated relationship that Flaubert had with religion can be seen by the way he approaches religion in The Temptation. He cites many biblical inconsistencies that are starting points for the widespread undermining of religious authority but he also shows respect for the religious perspective in general for the way it offers entry into a world that enhances every day reality.

There are also clear similarities and differences between Flaubert and Saint Anthony. Flaubert gives Saint Anthony many of his own doubts and beliefs and both Saint Antony and Flaubert have the capacity for heightened imaginary experience, which is both glorious and monstrous. Saint Anthony was a man of deep faith who had much to lose. Flaubert had nothing to lose because he had no faith. Flaubert wanted to make Anthony reach the position, which he found himself in, of utter and complete skepticism where he could come to no conclusion, therefore, the final temptation is the longing for ultimate truth.

Flaubert and his Critics

Critics focus on Flaubert’s misanthropy, and they say that his fascination with stupidity and grotesqueness contaminates his art. Flaubert has a pretty cruel outlook on human folly compared to the optimistic prose of the time. Nineteenth century French literature is a period of great epics, which on a whole describe the ascent of mankind and were inspired by a fundamentally positive attitude towards humanity, but Flaubert wished to denigrate man and reveal his weaknesses. He wanted to show how man has always been ignorant and blinded by his vanity when in actually there was nothing stable and therefore man was doomed to fail. The Temptation of Saint Anthony might have been a response to the quest for totalitarianism that was an obsession in France at the time and through The Temptation Flaubert demonstrated the absurdity of this view and also the degree to which writing was a personal enterprise for him. Not surprisingly, this made people uncomfortable and Flaubert was described by Henry James as “almost insanely excessive (Unwin 16).”

Other critics thought Flaubert’s writing was a boring and monotonous succession of grotesques. Maxime Du Camp said ““We listened to the words of the sphinx, the chimera, the queen of Sheba, of Simon the magician…A bewildered, somewhat simpleminded, and, I would even say, foolish Saint Anthony sees, parading before him, different forms of temptation (Bloom 46).” But Flaubert’s friends were enthralled by the book citing its “richness of his visions” (François Coppee), its forests of shadows and light” (Victor Hugo) and its “hallucinatory mechanism” (Hippolyte Taine) (Bloom 46).

Flaubert’s Ambiguities

Flaubert held art at supreme value, yet he mused that art might be no more than a joke or a harmless obsession without meaning. His writings put into question the novelist’s apparent judgments on the world and he writes in such a way as to challenge the very novelistic authority upon which his narrative depends.

The paradoxical nature of Flaubert’s writings can be found in his uncompromising attempt to raise creativity to a higher plane but also the ambivalence that was the defining characteristic of his stance as a writer.

Flaubert’s cult of impersonality ran counter to contemporary expectation that works of literature should reveal its author’s opinions and personality. His writing was a strategic activity designed to accommodate the ambiguity of his position.

Discussion questions:

1. “It was by my order that this multitude of holy retreats was constructed…I have cured the sick from far off; I have cast out demons; I have passed the river in the midst of crocodiles; the Emperor Constantine wrote me three letters….But what works have I not accomplished! For thirty years and more I have been dwelling and groaning unceasingly in the desert! Assuredly there is no human being in a condition of such unutterable misery! (Flaubert, 18)”

How does Flaubert view Saint Anthony? Does he see Saint Anthony as admirable or pathetic? There are many similarities and differences between Flaubert and Saint Anthony so does Flaubert see himself in Saint Anthony or is he mocking him?

2. “He extends his hand to seize the loaf. Other loaves immediately present themselves to his grasp. For me!…all these! But… Anthony suddenly draws back. Instead of one which was there, lo! There are many!…It must be a miracle, then, the same as our lord wrought!…Yet for what purpose? Ah! All the rest of these things are equally incomprehensible! Demon, begone from me! Depart! Begone! He kicks the table from him. It disappears. (Flaubert, 25)

How is Anthony so sure at this point that these visions are from the devil who is out to get him? Why can’t the appearance of fresh bread be perceived as a miracle for someone who has shown devotion to god? As opposed to some of the temptations Saint Anthony sees later, there is nothing wrong with eating loaves of bread. Anthony is a holy man yet he rejects the idea that a miracle would be bestowed upon him. What does this say about his mindset and his relationship with religion that he is so sure the bread is a trick and not a miracle?

3. “He rushes into his cabin and seizes a bunch of things with metallic hooks attached to their ends, strips himself to the waist, and, lifting his eyes to heaven, exclaims:

Accept my penance, O my God: disdain it not for its feebleness. Render it sharp, prolonged, excessive! It is time, indeed!—to the work!

He gives himself a vigorous lash—and shrieks.

No! no!—without mercy it must be.

He recommences (Flaubert, 35).”

What is the purpose of Flaubert’s writing style, of Saint Anthony’s narration spliced by third person narration? Why does Flaubert use the structure of a play, utilizing divisions into dialogues and scenes, scene descriptions and blocking directions, if there was never any indication that he intended it to be performed? What does he gain from using this style and how does this style effect our perception or understanding of The Temptation?

4. “Anthony, from afar off, reads all these thoughts upon his brow. They penetrate his brain, and he becomes Nebuchadnezzar…He feels a sudden pain in his hand—a pebble has accidentally wounded him—and he finds himself once more in front of his cabin (Flaubert, 34)”

“He flings down the torch in order to embrace the glittering heap, and falls flat upon the ground. He rises to his feet. The place is wholly empty (Flaubert, 27).”

What causes Saint Anthony to snap out of his hallucinations? When he becomes Nebuchadnezzar and subsequently turns into a beast it is a pebble that pierces his hand that causes him to awake from the reverie and he finds himself back in front of his cabin. When the gold and jewels start pouring out of the cup he is brought back to reality when he falls. Is it just by accident that these hallucinations end or is there significance to the points at which he returns back to reality? Is there a common theme to the seemingly incidental occurrences that jolt him out of his hallucinations?

5. “Hypocrite! Burying thyself in solitude only in order the more fully to abandon thyself to the indulgence of thy envious desires…Thy chastity is but a more subtle form of corruption, and thy contempt of this world is but the impotence of thy hatred against it! (Flaubert, 48)”

How does Flaubert’s approach to religion compare to the Huysmans’ or Wilde’s? Huysmans and Wilde seem to consider religion as a path to decadence but Flaubert seems to see religion and decadence in irreconcilable tension, their ideals being completely opposing.


Bloom, Harold. Gustave Flaubert. New York: Chelsea House, 1989. Print.

Flaubert, Gustave, Lafcadio Hearn, Michel Foucault, and Marshall C. Olds. The Temptation of St. Anthony. New York: Modern Library, 2001. Print.

Starkie, Enid. Flaubert: The Master; a Critical and Biographical Study (1856-1880). New York: Atheneum, 1971. Print.

Unwin, Timothy A. The Cambridge Companion to Flaubert. New York: Cambridge UP, 2004. Print.

Wall, Geoffrey. Flaubert. Barcelona: Paidós, 2003. Print.


Presentation: “Pen, Pencil and Poison” and the Multiplicity of the Artist

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A drawing of Thomas Griffiths Wainewright.
A drawing of Thomas Griffiths Wainewright.

I. Publication Contexts: The Fortnightly Review and Intentions

“Pen, Pencil and Poison,” Wilde’s history of Thomas Griffiths Wainwright, appeared in two separate versions in 1889 and 1891. The first was published by Frank Harris in the January 1889 edition of the periodical The Fortnightly Review. (Janet E. Courtney wrote an account of Harris’s tenure as editor several decades later, in 1930; you can find it here.) The second, revised version of the essay appeared as one-fourth of Intentions, Wilde’s book on artistic criticism, published in London by Osgood, McIlvaine and Co. in May 1891. The same publisher released “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime” later that year (Danson 1).

The four texts that compose this book – “The Decay of Lying,” “Pen, Pencil and Poison,” “The Critic as Artist,” and “The Truth of Masks” – date from various points in the late 1880s and early 1890s, though Wilde scholars offer different opinions on the specific dates. Lawrence Danson states that they were written between 1885 and 1890 (8). Richard Ellmann situates them later, in “the three years following [Matthew] Arnold’s death” in 1888 (“The Critic as Artist as Wilde,” xi). Despite these divergent views, Ellmann, Danson, and Josephine M. Guy all connect “Pen, Pencil and Poison” to Wilde’s 1886 lecture on the eighteenth century forger Thomas Chatterton (Ellmann, Oscar Wilde, 299; Danson 90; Guy xxx, 412). As Guy notes, the “lecture…is itself a kind of forgery, for it is composed mainly of cut-and-paste pages from two contemporary biographies” – a writing technique that Wilde would echo in “Pen, Pencil and Poison” (412).

Wilde may have had several motives for publishing Intentions. Perhaps the most obvious is his desire to assert his worth as a critic. According to Danson, Wilde sought “to secure a powerful position at the centre of the culture whose values he was subverting and whose laws he was flouting […] With these essays/dialogues/fictions (destabilizing the genres was part of the plot), Wilde tried to create the conditions for his own social and literary success. They were his boldest attempts to write himself into history by rewriting history” (6). This “rewriting” entailed displacing the critics who were then in vogue, the most important of whom were Matthew Arnold and Walter Pater. Recent scholarship suggests that Intentions served as a coded challenge to Pater in particular. Josephine Guy argues that the “subtext” of “Pen, Pencil and Poison” was a “pointed analogy between Wainewright and…Pater” (xxxii), and observes that “the list of interests attributed to Wainewright can also be identified with Walter Pater” (418). Coupling this with a more direct approach, it “explicitly borrow[s] some of the best-known passages in the preface to [Pater’s book] The Renaissance” (xxxv). Ellmann implies in “The Critic as Artist as Wilde” that Pater was aware of this challenge, and that his positive comparison of Intentions to Matthew Arnold doubled as “a reminder…not to ignore him” (xi).

The title page of W. Carew Hazlitt's edition of Wainewright's works.
The title page of W. Carew Hazlitt’s edition of Wainewright’s works.
Algernon Charles Swinburne.
Algernon Charles Swinburne.

II. Sources for “Pen, Pencil and Poison”

Thomas Griffiths Wainewright (1794-1847) would have been well-known – or at least moderately well-known – in Wilde’s time. Wainewright had been dead for nearly half a century when Intentions was published in 1891; in the interim, numerous scholars and writers had taken it upon themselves to tell his story, often recounting it as an entertaining or scandalous aside in books about his contemporaries like William Blake. Wilde explicitly references many of these texts, including Algernon Charles Swinburne’s William Blake: A Critical Essay (1866), Alexander Gilchrist’s The Life of William Blake (1863), various essays by Thomas De Quincey, and W. Carew Hazlitt’s edition of Essays and Criticisms by Thomas Griffiths Wainewright (1880). Charles Dickens also fictionalized Wainewright in “Hunted Down” (1859). According to Josephine Guy, this wealth of commentary meant that Wainewright “was somewhat ‘old news’ by the end of the [1880s], and it is not immediately obvious why any periodical editor would have wanted to publish an essay on him” (xxxi).

Wilde appears to have taken the biographical details in “Pen, Pencil and Poison” from the sources above, and his essay is for the most part factual, with the exceptions of a few minor fabrications by Wilde and some (likely accidental) confusion of proper names. Wainewright’s uncle “Thomas Griffiths,” for instance, was in fact named George Edward Griffiths (Peach; Guy 440), while Wainewright’s “strange mad fascination” with “a woman whom he loved” (Wilde 1103) has not been traced to any sources, and “appears to be [Wilde’s] invention” (Guy 442).

In many parts of the essay, however, Wilde paraphrases or even copies verbatim from other texts, particularly Hazlitt’s. Even the title – the catchy, alliterative “Pen, Pencil and Poison” – was a direct quote from Swinburne rather than Wilde’s own creation. As Guy notes, the essay also is rife with quotes, both cited and uncited, from Pater (xxxv), Matthew Arnold (425), and Wainewright himself (414).

Rembrandt's "The Three Crosses."
Rembrandt’s “The Three Crosses.”
Giorgio Ghisi's "The Death of Procris," after Giulio Romano.
Giorgio Ghisi’s “The Death of Procris,” after Giulio Romano.

III. Observations and Discussion Questions: Multiplicity of Art/Multiplicity of the Artist

1. Throughout the essay, Wilde links Wainewright to France and compares him to French writers and literary characters. The narrator first ties him to characters created by Balzac and Stendhal, remarking that “[t]here was something in him of Balzac’s Lucien de Rubempre. At times he reminds us of Julien Sorel” (1095), and he later comments that “[l]ike Baudelaire he was extremely fond of cats” (1095). The catalog-like description of Wainewright’s interests – “Greek gems, and Persian carpets, and Elizabethan translations of Cupid and Psyche, and the Hypnerotomachia, and book-bindings, and early editions, and wide-margined proofs” – also reminded me of Huysmans (1095). Moreover, Wainewright travels to Boulogne, Brittany, and Paris when he decides “to go abroad till he could come to some practical arrangement with his creditors” (1103). Should we interpret this French connection as significant? Does France embody both art and the artist, and if so, why might it hold such a strong allure for Wainewright and for the narrator?

2. Wilde’s essay reprints selections from Wainewright’s art criticism, most notably extended descriptions of Rembrandt’s The Crucifixion (possibly The Three Crosses, pictured above) and Giulio Romano’s Cephalus and Procris. Although Wilde devotes a fair amount of time to mocking Wainewright’s writing style, he also praises his attempts “to translate [his] impressions [of the work as an artistic whole] into words” (1098), and goes so far as to state that “[t]he conception of making a prose poem out of paint is excellent” (1100). These examples appear to support his view that “[i]n a very ugly and sensible age, the arts borrow, not from life, but from each other” (1100). Can we relate this idea to other works we’ve read so far – for instance, to the Preface in The Picture of Dorian Gray – in order to link separate pieces of Wilde’s art to one another? Does Wilde’s conflation of life with art complicate or upend the sentiment he espouses here?

3. Wilde frequently creates humor by juxtaposing the morbid and the lighthearted. When Wainewright poisons his sister-in-law Helen Abercrombie, the essay’s tone undergoes a jarring shift from earnest remembrance of the deceased to impersonal analysis of Wainewright’s art: “When they returned, Helen Abercrombie was dead. She was about twenty years of age, a tall graceful girl with fair hair. A very charming red-chalk drawing of her by her brother-in-law is still in existence, and shows how much his style was influenced by Sir Thomas Lawrence, a painter for whose work he had always entertained a great admiration” (1103). Similarly, after his host in Boulogne “died…in his presence, …he left Boulogne at once for a sketching tour through the most picturesque parts of Brittany” (1103). Do these passages contradict or support Wilde’s insistence that “[t]here is no essential incongruity between crime and culture” (1106)? Or do they merely prove that Wainwright “is far too close to our own time for us to be able to form any purely artistic judgment” (1106)?

4. The humorous depiction of murder in “Pen, Pencil and Poison” provokes comparisons to “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime”; additionally, the two works were published by the same company only months apart. Beyond surface resemblances, they also may offer opposing perspectives regarding the question of fate. Danson writes that Intentions deals with “the dilemma that figures as the two faces of Dorian Gray, the aspiration freely to create one’s personality or personalities or masks, versus the fear of fatality” (Danson 19). How does Lord Arthur Savile’s fear of the chiromantist’s prediction contrast with Wainewright’s motives, which range from the purely economic to the arbitrary (Wilde notes that “[h]is aim [in killing his friend in Boulogne] was simply to revenge himself on the first office that had refused to pay him the price of his sin” [1103])? Is there a difference in the end?

5. “Pen, Pencil and Poison” is subtitled “A Study in Green.” Near the end of the essay, Wilde examines this color in the context of a novel by Émile Zola: “M. Zola, in one of his novels, tells us of a young man who, having committed a murder, takes to art, and paints greenish impressionist portraits of perfectly respectable people, all of which bear a curious resemblance to his victim. The development of Mr. Wainewright’s style seems to me far more subtle and suggestive” (1106). The color green has a number of connotations in the texts we’ve read: it can evoke poison, as it seems to do here, as well as drugs like hashish (for instance, in Monsieur Vénus) and even the emotion of envy. Why does Wilde discuss green most explicitly at this moment in the essay, in the context of a book by another author and as part of an effort to insult that author?

IV. Bibliography

Algernon Charles Swinburne. Photograph. “Algernon Charles Swinburne.” The Poetry Foundation. 2014. Web. 10 Feb. 2014 <;.

“Algernon Charles Swinburne.” The Poetry Foundation. 2014. Web. 10 Feb. 2014 <;.

“Chatterton, Thomas.” The Poetry Foundation. 2014. Web. 10 Feb. 2014 <;.

Courtney, Janet E. “The Fortnightly Review under Harris, 1886-1894.” The Making of an Editor. 1930. The Fortnightly Review. 2014. Web. 9 Feb. 2014 <;.

Danson, Lawrence. Wilde’s Intentions: The Artist in His Criticism. Oxford: Clarendon, 1997. Print.

Dickens, Charles. Hunted Down. 1859. University of Adelaide. 6 Feb. 2013. Web. 9 Feb. 2014 <;.

Ellmann, Richard. “Introduction: The Critic as Artist as Wilde.” The Artist as Critic: Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde. By Oscar Wilde, ed. Richard Ellmann. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1969. ix-xxviii. Print.

—. Oscar Wilde. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987. Print.

Ghisi, Giorgio. The Death of Procris. c.1540. Engraving. LACMA. “The Death of Procris.” LACMA. Web. 9 Feb. 2014 .

Guy, Josephine M. Criticism: Historical Criticism, Intentions, The Soul of Man. The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Vol. 4. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007. Print.

Morrison, Robert. Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859). Queen’s University. 6 Feb. 2014. Web. 9 Feb. 2014 <;.

Peach, Annette. “Wainewright, Thomas Griffiths (1794-1847).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. Web. 7 Feb. 2014 <;.

Reeves & Turner. Essays and criticisms by Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, now first collected with some account of the author, by W. Carew Hazlitt. Title page. 1880. Open Library. 2010. Web. 10 Feb. 2014 <;.

Rembrandt. The Three Crosses. 1653. Drypoint. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. “The Three Crosses.” Wikipedia. 30 Jan. 2014. Web. 9 Feb. 2014 <;.

Thomas Griffiths Wainewright. Drawing. “Thomas Griffiths Wainewright.” By Peter Hammond. Brentford & Chiswick Local History Society. Web. 10 Feb. 2014 .

Wilde, Oscar. “Pen, Pencil and Poison.” The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. 5th ed. New York: HarperCollins, 2003. 1093-1107. Print.

Presentation by MS

Decadence and Catholicism–blog post

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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.


Blog Post: Dorian, the Living Statue

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Joyce Carol Oates, whom I always knew primarily as a novelist, wrote a very interesting essay on The Portrait of Dorian Gray: 1980’s Wilde’s Parable of the Fall. In this essay, Oates zeroes in on something that I myself was struck by and upon which I would like to expand further. Before I had even read Oates’s essay, I was fascinated by the last chapter of Dorian Gray for some reason that I couldn’t quite pin down, and read it over and over again.

“Beyond the defiance of the young iconoclast-Wilde himself, of course-and the rather perfunctory curve of Dorian Gray to that gothic final sight (beautiful Dorian dead with a knife in his heart, “withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage”), there is another, possibly less strident, but more central theme,” Oates claims (420), going on: ”The preoccupation with the questionable morality of the artist’s interference with life-Basil’s appropriation of Dorian’s image, for instance, for his uncanny portrait-is never satisfactorily resolved, and even the final appearance of the aging and somewhat attenuated Henry hints at another level of human concern which Wilde has no space to investigate. What the strangely moved reader is likely to carry away from Dorian Gray is precisely this sense of something riddling and incomplete.” (421)

Oates’s words made me reexamine the final chapter of the novel and gain greater insight into what I was picking up on. Dorian himself has become nothing more than a work of art, and this is what he tragically fails to realize, his final sin. This transformation in Dorian is very briefly shown to the reader in a key point which is easily overshadowed by the dramatic finale: the moment when Dorian realizes that his “good deed” was as much a façade as the rest of him. “Had it been merely vanity that had made him do his one good deed? Or the desire for a new sensation, as Lord Henry had hinted, with his mocking laugh? Or that passion to act a part that sometimes makes us do things finer than we are ourselves? Or, perhaps, all these?” he asks as he is dismayed to find the portrait unchanged. “In hypocrisy he had worn the mask of goodness,” he decides eventually. In a previous class on French theatre of the 17th century, we studied the widespread paranoia that actors were dangerous because both they and their spectators could lose themselves in the roles they played and thereby lose any real sense of morality. Dorian has lost himself in a similar manner. Prompted by Basil’s love for an idealized image of him, and by his obsession with the painting of himself, he has devoted himself so completely to playing a role that he no longer has the ability to think as a human, in human moral terms.

What Dorian tragically never understands is that the reason the painting so uncannily resembled him is that he has become such a work of art himself: unchanging and impossibly perfect. The true supernatural twist occurs in Dorian’s character, not in the red herring of the painting. “Was it really true that one could never change?” Dorian asks himself as he reminisces. By “one” here he implies humanity, but the truth is that he can never change, because by allowing himself to “keep the unsullied splendour of eternal youth”, he has effectively petrified himself, turning himself into a sort of living statue. “Basil had painted the portrait that had marred his life”, he acknowledges. But why exactly did the portrait mar his life? Because it gave him a ‘scapegoat’ on which to foist the evidence of his sins, allowing him for a long time to ignore the consequences of his actions, yes; because keeping the portrait a secret caused him to commit several sins, yes; but primarily because of the other side of the bargain: because Dorian allowed himself to abandon his humanity and become a static, unchanging work of art.

This conclusion–that Dorian himself has become a living work of art, is foreshadowed, both throughout the novel and in the final chapter. Dorian remembers the “idolatrous words” once written to him by an admirer: “The world is changed because you are made of ivory and gold”. These words seem certainly more than a poetic metaphor about Dorian’s beauty; they suggest the transformation of him from a man into a luxury object, a gilded statue.

What kills Dorian, in the end, is this tragic inability to recognize what he has become. In the last chapter he frantically attempts to return to a human morality; he first believes that he can do so by ‘cleaning’ up the painting via good deeds. Once he realizes that this is impossible, as he can no longer act morally, he becomes convinced that by destroying the painting–the obvious piece of art–he will be freed: “As it [the knife] had killed the painter, so it would kill the painter’s work, and all that it meant.” What Dorian does not understand is that there is no way to kill the “painter’s work” without killing himself as well, a piece of the art, which is exactly what happens as he stabs the painting.

Oates does not quite come to this same conclusion, though at times she approximates it. She considers Basil’s perspective, referring to the idea that art reveals the artist as much as it does the subject, as Basil himself says: “Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter. The sitter is merely the accident, the occasion.” Oates goes on to claim “Basil is not in love with Dorian but with his own image of Dorian, which is to say, his own “motive” in art.” (423) This is both undeniably true and points at the deeper issue that I believe is at play in the novel. Oates writes: “Basil is fated to single out Dorian for his art and by means of his art to force Dorian into a tragic self- consciousness: by appropriating the boy’s image in answer to an artistic motive he begins the boy’s destruction.” (422) The only manner in which I would differ from Oates is where the emphasis lies: the fact that Basil is in love with his image of Dorian, combined with Dorian’s vanity, leads to Dorian’s transformation into a living work of art.

(1058 words)


 Oates, Joyce Carol. “”The Picture of Dorian Gray”: Wilde’s Parable of the Fall.” Critical Inquiry 7.2 (1980): 419.

Presentation: Influences on The Picture of Dorian Gray

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Part I: Influences on The Picture of Dorian Gray

1926 Translation of Against Nature, with the caption: “the book that Dorian Gray loved and that inspired Oscar Wilde”

As illustrated by our paired reading of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Joris-Karl Huysmans’ Against Nature, Wilde’s work owes a certain debt to “the yellow book” of Huysmans (96). Wilde’s reviewers immediately made this connection, disparagingly noting the influence of “the garbage of the French Décadents” (Beckson, 69) and “the leprous literature of the French Décadents” (Beckson, 72). Dorian’s fascination with “the yellow book” begins at the end of chapter ten (96-97) and occupies all of chapter 11 (97-109). Now that we have read part of Against Nature, Wilde’s description of “the yellow book” does sound remarkably familiar:

It was a novel without a plot, and with only one character, being, indeed, simply a psychological study of a certain young Parisian, who spent his life trying to realise in the nineteenth century all the passions and modes of thought that belonged to every century except his own, and to sum up, as it were, in himself the various moods through which the world-spirit had ever passed, loving for their mere artificiality those renunciations that men have unwisely called virtue, as much as those natural rebellions that wise men still call sin. (96)

As Lucius Cook puts it in his study of the French influences on The Picture of Dorian Gray, “No other book answers so clearly to this description” (31).

Like des Esseintes, Dorian develops a variety of eclectic, passing obsessions, including a superficial interest in Catholicism (100-101), perfumes (101), concerts of exotic music (101-102), jewels (102-103), and embroideries and tapestries (104-105). Not only does the content of chapter 11 mimic the episodes of Against Nature in miniature, but Wilde also mimics Huysmans’ style. Even if the reader were not familiar with Against Nature, chapter 11 has a distinctively different style than the rest of the novel, with dialogue and witty one-liners being replaced by exhaustive descriptions of objects and scenes.

In his introduction to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Joseph Bristow points out that although “the yellow book” inspires Dorian to pursue an aesthetic life, he does so in a rather unoriginal manner: “Instead of taking independent-minded inspiration from this unique French novel, he pursues the bluntest imitation of it” (xvi). Given the fact that Wilde’s imitation of Husymans’ style parallels Dorian’s imitation of des Esseintes’ life, we could charge Wilde with the same criticism that Bristow applies to Dorian. Yet, Dorian explicitly (and Wilde implicitly) expresses the “anxiety of influence,” as when he acknowledges that des Esseintes is “a kind of pre-figuring type of himself” and that the novel is “the story of his own life, written before he had lived it” (97). This awareness starts to sound particularly like the concern of an author when Dorian contemplates his family’s portrait gallery:

Yet one had ancestors in literature, as well as in one’s own race, nearer perhaps in type and temperament, many of them, and certainly with an influence of which one was more absolutely conscious. There were times when it appeared to Dorian Gray that the whole of history was merely the record of his own life, not as he had lived it in act and circumstance, but as his imagination had created it for him, as it had been in his brain and in his passions. He felt that he had known them all, those strange terrible figures that had passed across the stage of the world and made sin so marvellous, and evil so full of subtlety. It seemed to him that in some mysterious way their lives had been his own. (108, emphases mine)

Rather than being swallowed up by his predecessors, Dorian responds to the presence of literary and historical ancestors by appropriating them. In his mind, he upends the sequence of history; rather than his life being a repetition of past lives, he considers past lives to be an imitation of his own. I would venture that Wilde is doing something similar with chapter 11 and perhaps throughout The Picture of Dorian Gray. Although chapter 11 provides the most intense section of allusion to Against Nature, Huysmans’ text looms throughout The Picture of Dorian Gray. By confining a concentrated imitation of Against Nature to a single chapter, however, Wilde seems to contain Huysmans’ influence to a certain extent and wield it for his own purposes (I hope we’ll get a chance to discuss what exactly these purposes might be in class: see discussion questions).

Faust, etching by Rembrandt
Faust, etching by Rembrandt
An illustration (A.D. McCormick, 1898) based on The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym by Poe
An illustration (A.D. McCormick, 1898) based on The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym by Poe
Title page of Walter Pater's Studies in the History of the Renaissance
Title page of Walter Pater’s Studies in the History of the Renaissance

Huysmans is only one of the myriad influences on The Picture of Dorian Gray that critics have identified. Walter Pater’s Studies in the History of the Renaissance was another prominent influence (Bristow, xxvii). Lord Henry Wotton in particular quotes, paraphrases, and even misquotes Pater (Monsman, 1). Scholarly reviews of studies on Wilde’s sources sound like a Huysmans-esque list of Western literary history, with other potential influences including Poe, Balzac, Bulwer-Lytton, Disraeli, Suetonius, Walpole, GibbonGoethe, Radcliffe, Maturin, Tennyson, Arnold, D.G. Rossetti, Symonds, Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, and journalist George Augustus Sala (McCormack, 110). In her essay “The Origins of the Aesthetic Novel: Ouida, Wilde, and the Popular Romance,” Talia Schaffer provides convincing evidence of the striking similarities between the popular romances written by Ouida (the pen name of Maria Louise Ramé) in the 1860s-1880s and Wilde’s novel, from thematic similarities (the cynical, apathetic, and tasteful dandy figure; homoeroticism) to stylistic ones (epigrammatic dialogue). An even more obscure source study suggests that The Picture of Dorian Gray belongs to a Gothic subgenre dubbed “‘magic portrait’ fiction” (Powell, 148).

I personally noted resonances with Faust, specifically Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus (although critics generally seem to refer to Goethe’s Faust). In terms of general plot parallels, Dorian refers to his portrait as his “soul,” suggesting a kind of Faustian bargain in which he has exchanged his soul for eternal beauty (116). More specifically, Basil’s desperate attempt to get Dorian to repent for his sins is quite similar to the end of Dr. Faustus, when Faust’s fellow scholars exhort him to ask God for mercy, but Faustus insists that it is too late (just as Dorian says, “‘It is too late, Basil’” [116]).

Part II: Discussion Questions

1. In the Preface, Wilde writes, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book” (17). Towards the end of the novel, when Dorian blames Lord Henry for having poisoned him with a book, Lord Henry echoes the principles of the Preface: “‘As for being poisoned by a book, there is no such thing as that. Art has no influence upon action. It annihilates the desire to act. It is superbly sterile. The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame. That is all’” (156). When Dorian fears that James Vane is haunting him for his connection with Sybil’s death, he reassures himself that the immoral are only punished in fiction, not in life:

Actual life was chaos, but there was something terribly logical in the imagination. It was the imagination that set remorse to dog the feet of sin. It was the imagination that made each crime bear its misshapen brood. In the common world of fact the wicked were not punished, nor the good rewarded. Success was given to the strong, failure thrust upon the weak. That was all. (144) (note the similar “That is/was all” ending to both Henry’s line and Dorian’s narrated thoughts)

Yet, Dorian is “punished,” in the sense that he dies at the end of the novel in an attempt to destroy what he believes to be the source of his guilt. Furthermore, the language of Dorian and the narrator becomes increasingly religious in the final chapter, as Dorian wavers back and forth between guilt and indifference. How do we reconcile the disjunction between morality and art proclaimed by the Preface, Lord Henry, and Dorian  himself with the ending of the novel? How does Wilde’s (a)morality compare to that of Huysmans or Rachilde?

2. Throughout the novel, Wilde uses free indirect discourse to narrate Dorian’s thoughts. Wilde frequently becomes so immersed in free indirect discourse that Dorian’s thoughts begin to sound like the narrator’s own proclamations. The most pronounced example of this stylistic device comes at the end of chapter 11, when Dorian muses on the importance of aesthetics:

For the canons of good society are, or should be, the same as the canons of art. Form is absolutely essential to it. It should have the dignity of a ceremony, as well as its unreality, and should combine the insincere character of a romantic play with the wit and beauty that make such plays delightful to us. Is insincerity such a terrible thing? I think not. It is merely a method by which we can multiply our personalities.

Such, at any rate, was Dorian Gray’s opinion. (107, emphasis mine)

The “I think not” is particularly jarring—who is the “I”? Although the following paragraph announces that the “I” is Dorian, the passage in which it occurs feels more like something the narrator might say (particularly in light of the statement that insincerity is a method to multiply one’s personality). Similar moments of free indirect discourse that turn into narratorial dictums occur on p. 137 (“One had to pay over and over again, indeed. In her dealings with man Destiny never closed her accounts”) and p. 157 (“Not ‘Forgive us our sins,’ but ‘Smite us for our iniquities,’ should be the prayer of a man to a most just God”).

What is going on in these moments? What do we make of the ambiguity generated by Wilde’s slides between free indirect discourse and overt narration?

3. Why does chapter 11 so closely mimic the style and content of Against Nature? Is it an homage, a parody, an appropriation, mere imitation, or something else? What purpose does it serve in the novel? And what of all the other allusions and potential sources that crop up throughout the novel (Faust, Poe, Pater, etc)? How does Wilde interact with his “ancestors in literature”? Considering the proliferation of allusions in Against Nature and even Monsieur Vénus, can we formulate a Decadent theory/approach to allusion?

4. Alan Campbell is quite a mysterious presence in The Picture of Dorian Gray. His name first appears more than halfway through the novel (at the end of chapter 13, p. 119), and he disappears almost without any notice (Lord Henry mentions “Alan Campbell’s suicide” as a kind of afterthought on p. 151). Furthermore, we never learn what exactly Dorian threatens him with in order to convince him to dispose of Basil’s body (125). Should we consider the secrecy surrounding Alan Campbell to be an example of Eve Sedgwick’s concept of preterition, of absence as an indicator of presence (i.e. the secret history of Gray and Campbell suggests that they were lovers)? Yet, the way the reader learns of Campbell’s suicide is so bizarre that it seems to require further explanation—why is it so buried within the text? On a related note, how does homoeroticism in The Picture of Dorian Gray compare/contrast with representations of sexuality in Monsieur Vénus?

5. “‘You would sacrifice anybody, Harry, for the sake of an epigram,’” Dorian comments, in a particularly epigram-heavy chapter (147). Parts of The Picture of Dorian Gray read more like a play than a novel (particularly chapter 18, when Dorian makes this quip). The narrator, whether in moments of free indirect discourse or in overt narration, is also partial to epigrams. In his introduction to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Joseph Bristow notes that Wilde recycled his favorite epigrams in several of his works, linking one of Lord Henry’s epigrams to a quote from Wilde’s play Vera; or, the Nihilists and Lady Windermere’s Fan: “It became Wilde’s habit to reuse his favourite epigrams, which he frequently compiled in notebooks, sometimes on more than one occasion” (xxix). What effect does Wilde’s epigrammatic style have? How does the proliferation of epigrammatic dialogue change the form of the novel? To connect back to question 3 (on the link with Huysmans), how does Wilde’s epigrammatic style differ from the style he adopts in chapter 11? Does the effect of an epigram differ when voiced by a given character (i.e. Lord Henry) vs. the narrator?

From Kate Beaton's "Hark! A Vagrant"
From Kate Beaton’s “Hark! A Vagrant”

Works Cited

Beckson, Karl. Oscar Wilde: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge, 1970. Print.

Bristow, Joseph. Introduction. The Picture of Dorian Gray. By Oscar Wilde. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. Print.

Cook, H. L. “French Sources of Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray.” Romanic Review 19 (1928): 25. ProQuest. Web. 4 Feb. 2014.

Mccormack, Jerusha. “Wilde’s fiction(s)”, The Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde. 1st ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. 96-117. Cambridge Companions Online. Web. 04 February 2014.

Monsman, Gerald. “Pater’s Portraits: The Aesthetic Hero in 1890 (Part II).” Expositions [Online], 3.1 (2009): 23-40. Web. 4 Feb. 2014.

Powell, Kerry. “Tom, Dick, and Dorian Gray: Magic-Picture Mania in Late Victorian Fiction.” Philological Quarterly 62.2 (1983): 147. ProQuest. Web. 4 Feb. 2014.

Schaffer, Talia. “The Origins of the Aesthetic Novel: Ouida, Wilde, and the Popular Romance.” Wilde Writings: Contextual Conditions. Ed. Joseph Bristow. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003. 212-229. Print.


Against Nature cover:

Rembrandt’s Faust etching:,_Faust.jpg

Arthur Gordon Pym illustration:

Pater cover:

Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant:


Word Count: 2059

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.


Word Count: 588

Classism’s relationship with objects from the Orient in Huysmans’ Against Nature

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oriental carpet 

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

Works Cited

Huysmans, J. K. Against Nature (A rebours). Gardena, California: Dedalus, 2008.

Presentation: Huysmans’ Odyssey from Naturalism to Catholicism: Presentation

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 Joris-Karl Huysmans

“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.

hand detail grunewald crucifixion grunewald's crucifixion feet

“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

Chapter VI

“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?

Chapter VII

‘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?

Chapter VIII

“ ‘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?

Chapter IX

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?

Chapter X

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.


À Rebours (Against Nature) Joris-Karl Huysmans: Presentation

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À Rebours (Against Nature)

Joris-Karl Huysmans

Original cover of the novel
Original cover of the novel


Joris–Karl Huysmans originally thought he would title the book Seul (Alone), but later changed the title when the book was published. The french title under which the book was published is À Rebours which has been translated to “Against Nature” or “Against the Grail”. This title has been interpreted as an allusion to inversion, which is used heavily inside the book.

Introduction and Context

It is debatable that the first Decadent novel was Elémir Bourges’s conscientiously colorful Le Crépuscule des dieux (1883), in which the evil mistress of an aristocrat of the Second Empire encourages his three chidden to taste the fruits of their inherited degeneracy, leading to an orgy of incest, murder, suicide and traumatic insanity. Bourges’s venture to decadence was however fleeting phase, which he did not follow through with; his novel undoubtedly influenced the decadent novelist who came after him though, including Joris-Karl Huysmans.

Huysmans had been writing for some years before producing À rebours, but had given no indication that the book was in him. His early prose poems and sketches collected in Le Drageoir aux épices (1874), showed little trace of the Baudelarian influence, and his first novel, Marthe, histoire d’une fille (1876) had placed him alongside Zola and Edmond Goncourt as a Naturalist. In the literary world of Paris he must have seemed a slight and rather staid figure, although he made friends with several of the Decadent-to-be at the salons of Charles Buet, including Jean Lorrian and Rachilde, and he was also acquainted with Mallarmé, Barbey d’Aurevilly and Villiers de L’Isle-Adam. This evolving pattern of friendships probably encouraged his remarkable change in direction.

Joris-Karl Huysmans’s À Rebours, which loosely translates to” Against Nature” or “Against the Grail” is marked by many as the defining work of the Decadent movement, which began around the time of Baudelaire’s Les Fleur du mal (1857) and sifted into and thrived in the late 19th century England finally petering out after the trial of Oscar Wilde (1895). Many consider Huysmans’ novel a breviary of all things Decadent.

The publication of À Rebours in 1884 marked the beginning of the modern novel. It was, in fact, Huysmans’ first departure from the Naturalist style, which was used at the time. Scholars had varying views on the novel and its departure from Naturalism. Joris-Karl’s mentor, Zola, was critical of the book claiming that it was “a huge blow to the school of naturalism”. Though many critics were scandalized by the novel, it won Huysmans a great following from young aesthete writers like Stéphane Mallarmé, who responded with a tribute “Prose pour Des Esseintes” published in La Revue Indépendante on January first 1885.

It contains a series of tableaux-like chapters where an aristocrat, “Des Esseintes“, the last of his line, weedy and wealthy, decides to retire from the world to build his environment of artifice. He renounces nature and fellowship, the day and he instead immerses himself in reverie, his library, his art collection a principled elevation of artifice over the nature.

The character Des Esseintes is also read by many as the representation of Joris-Karl Huysmans’ own obsession with aestheticism. The two share similar tastes, although Joris-Karl, with his modest civil servant earnings, could not indulge the senses the way the hero in his novel was. Robert de Montesquiou is however thought to be the main model behind the character of Jean De Esseintes. The furnishing of this aristocrat mirrored in such detail the furnishings of his house.

Robert de Montequiou
Robert de Montequiou

Dandies like Charles Baudelaire and Jules Barbey were also great influences for the novel and the character of Jean De Esseintes.

À rebours was also the book that carried the Decadent doctrine beyond the boundaries of France and Belgium. Although it was not translated to English until 1922. when it appeared as Against the Grain, it notoriety in England and America was assured by the famous passage in Oscar Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), which describes the profound effect of the mysterious “yellow book”.

The book was quoted at the trial of Oscar Wilde as a prime source for A Picture of Dorian Gray. At the trial, it was revealed that it is the anonymous work Lord Henry Wotton, the arch-decadent, gives as a present to Dorian.


  1. Aestheticism: This theme is addressed through the main character Jean, who, completely bored with life (a phenomenon defined as ennui in the text) attempts to resuscitate an enthusiasm for life and living by working through the senses, satisfying his world-weary palette with evermore indulgent pleasures until finally he realises that “his pleasures are finite and his needs infinite”.  Joris-Karl Huysmans uses each chapter of À rebours to show Des Esseintes’ attempt to quench each of his senses. The rooms of his mansion are themed in different shades and hues.  He develops new perfumes to the satiate his olfactory sense and he hosts the ‘Black party” where different coloured jellies served by black naked women, with the room ornamented decadently. The symbol of all the above is his ornamentation and covering with precious stones his pet tortoise, who subsequently dies unable to bear the dazzling luxury imposed upon it
  2. Fears of degeneracy and weakness of blood: Huysmans discusses this large theme of fin du siècle through the character Jean Des Esseintes. Jean’s watery aristocrat blood is heavily discussed in the prologue and also features at several instances in the novel. The theme of the degeneracy of blood is also addressed through the conversation on Syphilis much later in the novel.
  3. Inversion: the text provides a  fertile ground for the common place that the master trope of decadence is inversion. The book lines itself up on the culturally devalued side of a series of familiar oppositions—feminine vs. masculine, degenerations vs. evolution, decadence vs. progress, sickness vs. health, artifice vs. nature, false vs. true, perversion vs. normalcy et cetera—to occupy the position “against nature” and to accomplish an inversion that ends up reaffirming the positive side of the opposition on which it depends, negatively for its own definition (in line with including the monstrous in definitions of beauty).  Look into the inversion in masculinity and femininity in the attempt of Des Esseintes to breathe masculine thoughts into the ventriloquist’s female body. There is also the inversion between nature and artifice shown in the choice flowers to decorate his mansion.

Discussions Questions

1. The first thing that the reader is told about Jean Des Esseintes in À rebours, and the key to his entire enterprise is that he is sick: sick in his body, sick in his mind and sick at heart. In accordance with the half-baked protoscience of the day, Huysmans echoes Edgar Allan Poe in attributing the foundations of this sickness to the hereditary degeneracy. How can these degenerations be seen as corollary of the notion of cultural decay, and why does Huysmans make a point of this degeneration in his book?

2. This book is rife with inversion. What is the role of inversion in this novel and in decadence a movement. We witnessed aesthetic inversion in the poetry of Baudelaire, and sexual inversion in Rachilde’s Monsieur Vénus and The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. Is there a symbolism of inversion in decadent literature? If there is what is it?


  • Felski, Rita. The Gender of Modernity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.
  • Huysmans, Joris-Karl. Against Nature, New York: Oxford University 2009. Print
  • Liz, Constable. Perenial Decay: On Aesthetics and Politics of Decadence, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999. Print
  • White, Nicholas. Introduction. Against Nature. By Joris-Karl Huysmans. Trans. Margaret Muldoon. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print