Against Nature – Huysmans
Initially Symbolism and Decadence, both developed in the late 1800s, seem to be similar if not synonymous movements. Both symbolism and decadence reject the realist depiction of life in its unsatisfying ordinariness. Both prize heightened spiritual experience, both condemn simplicity and dreariness in everyday life. Decadence and Symbolism both advocate lives spent seeking beauty and sensitivity. But Decadence and Symbolism are in fact two very distinct and in some ways disparate movements.
One manner in which decadence and symbolism differ is in their approach to nature. Decadence belittles nature in the name of man-made artistry and artifice. As Des Esseintes says in Huysmans’ Against Nature, “There is not one single invention of (Nature’s), however subtle or impressive it may be thought to be, that the human spirit cannot create; There is no doubt whatever that this eternally self-replicating old fool has now exhausted the good-natured admiration of all true artists, and the moment has come to replace her, as far as that can be achieved, with artifice.” Symbolism on the other hand views nature as a means of elevation from the banal realities of life. Symbolists use natural imagery to describe transcendent ideas. Mallarme uses extensive natural imagery such as the sky, flowers, and sunsets. In Symbolism, reality becomes art whereas in decadence art becomes reality.
Decadence views books and poetry as a highly powerful art form with intense influential capacity. A book poisons Dorian Gray and Huysmans describes Des Esseintes’ library extensively. In Decadence, language can create images, and ideas, can create worlds, that don’t exist in reality. Mallarme, on the other hand, thinks that language is extremely lacking. He thinks that words cannot possibly express complex emotions and ideas. They can never properly convey what the mind can think. Yet since we have no other way of communicating these ideas and emotions we have to try our best to use poetry and symbolism to describe them. He says, “languages are imperfect in that although there are many, the supreme one is lacking.”
Decadence scorns the idea of ideals. Greater purpose is not found in Decadent writings. The protagonists of Decadent novels are focused on the accumulation of exotic luxuries and pleasure. This idea of never having enough applies to material excess and indulgent behavior in Decadent literature. On the other hand, in Symbolism, the focus is dreams and ideals. The word dreaming is repeated in Mallarme’s “Apparition” multiple times. In “The Windows,” Mallarme talks about this disgust of contentment with comfort and this unquenchable desire for transcendence. He says, “So filled with disgust for the man whose soul is callous, sprawled in comforts where his hungering is fed.” The idea of the Azure in Mallarme’s poems represents the ever-present and incredibly frustrating ideal that the poet is always aware of but can never obtain. So in Symbolism the lack of satisfaction stems from a spiritual discontent.
Decadence glorifies the gory and the shocking. In the Temptation of Saint Anthony, Flaubert describes Saint Anthony attaining pleasure from watching violent and disturbing scenes. The immensity of feeling that horror evokes deems it beautiful in Decadence. Mallarme on the other hand finds beauty in purity. The imagery he utilizes is that of conventionally beautiful things such as stars, snow and fairies.
Decadence’s main focus is the description. Huysmans’ Against Nature is essentially an extremely detailed catalogue of Des Esseintes’ riches. Symbolism is more concerned with the emotions evoked from the work than the actual content of what it describes. The words are just “symbols” for greater ideas that use words as a vehicle for communication.
So while on the surface Decadent and Symbolist writings seem analogous, they actual have very different motivations, objectives, and methods used to obtain them.
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.
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.
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’” ); 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
The protagonist of Joris-Karl Huysmans’ Against Nature (1884), des Esseintes, is a dandy who demonstrates a strong dislike towards the bourgeoisie, who, in his view, is “exclusively preoccupied with swindling and money-making” (Huysmans 57). In order to distance himself from middle class conventionality, he refashions his tastes and interests after moving out of Paris. Des Esseintes describes in great detail a number of objects and activities he has developed from which he derives pleasure. Different combinations of colors, books by ancient Latin writers and nineteenth century French writers, precious jewels from Ceylon, liqueurs (the tastes of which correspond to musical notes), paintings that create an alternative reality and exotic flowers that seem to imitate artifice rather than nature are some of des Esseintes’ preoccupations at his isolated home in Fontenay. His pleasures are mainly derived from objects and activities which are associated with the exotic; articles, which, in decadent literature, are generally markers of the upper class, refinement, superior aesthetic tastes, self-fashioning and a life of luxury.
Yet, unlike with the references to luxurious objects from the Orient in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey or in Rachilde’s Monsieur Venus, the exotic articles referred to in Against Nature do not always correspond to an aristocratic decadent lifestyle or its adherents. The exotic objects referred to by des Esseintes falls mainly into two categories: objects that have become commercially accessible to the nouveaux riches and have therefore lost their former value and artistic significance, and objects that still are not popular with the masses and hence are still of value to a dandy such as des Esseintes and to the decadent movement as symbolic expressions of its aesthetic tenets. Classism thus becomes the key deciding factor in assigning values to rare objects of art from the Orient, thereby allocating an inferior role to the pure aesthetic and artistic value of exotic objects. For instance, the protagonist is determined to not use “fabrics and carpets from the Orient, which, now that nouveau riche tradesmen bought them at a discount from large department stores, had become so tiresome and common” (Huysmans 48). Regardless of the artistic merit of these luxury items, which were once considered very desirable objects to own by the upper classes, their easy availability among the masses has demoted these exotic articles from being any longer objects worthy of possession by an aristocrat such as des Esseintes. Originally an exclusive marker of the aristocratic wealthy classes and their superior aesthetic tastes, articles from the Orient are not necessarily an indicator of superior aesthetics but of superior class in Huysmans’ text. For instance, des Esseintes is very discriminating when choosing the gems to use for his tortoise’s shell because “diamonds had become singularly vulgar now that every tradesman wore one on his little finger”, topazes have become “precious to lower middle-class women”, amethysts were “also compromised by the blood-red earlobes and stubby fingers of butchers’ wives” and the “Oriental turquoise… along with the banal pearl and the odious coral delight the lower classes” (Huysmans 72-73).
In Against Nature, therefore, there is an explicit association of only specific objects from the Orient with the aristocratic and wealthy classes, and, by association, with decadent thought; a distinction that was not presented so obviously in Baudelaire’s poetry, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey or in Rachilde’s Monsieur Venus.
Word count – 586 words
Blogged by Lana
Huysmans, J. K. Against Nature (A rebours). Gardena, California: Dedalus, 2008.
“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.
“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
“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?
‘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?
“ ‘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?
‘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?
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 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.
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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
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