“I seek new fragrances, larger flowers, pleasures as yet unexperienced.”
And so we come to what has often been noted as being the linchpin of Decadence, and the book upon which the Decadent movement of fin de siecle France rests. As the first and most prominent group of authors to subscribe to the tenets, principles and stylistic aesthetic of the genre, it could even be put forth therefore that this book is the rock upon which the abandoned and deconsecrated church of Decadence has been built.
Yes, we’re talking about the great Joris Karl Huysmans, and the infamous A Rebours (Against Nature).
Having started with La-Bas and working my way backwards through En Rade to Parisian Sketches (with a side trip to Sac A Dos and Robert Baldick’s surprisingly entertaining and informative Life of J.K. Huysmans), we finally come to what will likely be our final discussion of the author, barring a perverse inkling to attempt the first of his apologia for the Catholic religion, En Route. Questionable, but never say never, as they say…
I have to make note of one thing at the outset. Having spent so much time in Decadence as a literary genre before circling back around to this book, I have to say that it had little real impact and bore few surprises. While still quite entertaining and filled with the usual Huysmanian admixture of autobiographic confessional and well-versed knowledgability and critical insight relating to various areas of obscuritania, the ‘shock factor’ that so many readers then and now seem to relate upon discovery of the novel was entirely absent. I knew what to expect going in, and was only pleasantly surprised at just how enjoyable an experience it proved to be.
Given its reputation as a novel about nothing, with no real progression or notable events, one of those surprises relates to how utterly mistaken that notion actually is. Des Esseintes does indeed progress as a character, however unwillingly, as he discovers his intended escape to be little more than a self imposed delusion. It can certainly be argued that he never fully admits to same, but the fact remains, as his doctor points out and others he consults confirm, he is dispositionally unsuited to a life of solitude and contemplation, and it becomes a literal “life or death” decision to return to a world he despises (and which, one can infer, despises him equally if not moreso).
In terms of the book being the sine non qua of Decadence as a literary movement, there’s both truth and fallacy to that statement. While it is true that it may have been primarily if not singlehandedly responsible for Wilde’s shift from wry if essentially populist entertainments like The Importance of Being Earnest to more ‘sordid’ aesthetic efforts such as Salome and Dorian Gray (whose lead character refers to an influential “poisonous little book” during the course of the proceedings, which was in fact A Rebours), it is also true that such literary precedents as Barbey D’Aurevilly’s Les Diaboliques (and his adoption and advertisement of Dandyism per se), closely related Romantic writings from the likes of Theophile Gautier (who was one of the first to adopt the derisive term of “decadent” as a badge of honor and stylistic descriptor of his own efforts) and works even Des Esseintes notes as influential such as Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal and translations of Poe, the poetry of Verlaine and Stephane Mallarme, and artists like Gustave Moreau and Felicien Rops were already producing works in this vein.
There is also a close thematic lineage with Huysmans’ other significant works: like Jacques Marles in En Rade, Des Esseintes is running from the everyday hustle and bustle of Parisian life and society, in a search for sanctuary in the countryside. While differing in numerous particulars, both inhabit odd chateaus of a sort (Des Esseintes’ self-designed, Marles forced upon him by the situation), find no real escape and are forced to return to an uncertain fate back in the “real world”.
Like Durtal in La Bas (and later, as I understand it, in his Catholic trilogy), he is seeking an intellectual and aesthetic escape into a mythic or at least mythologized past, where things must have been better, where the problems Huysmans’ ciphers and masks of the projected self struggle with would never have existed. Being an intelligent man prone to metacognitive self reflection, he realizes the unreality of such whitewashing of history and construction of artificial sanctuaries of dream, and thus, as with Gautier, his characters (and the reader, and all who would employ such tactics of intellectual and artistic exercise) are doomed to return to reality in the end, and face a questionable fate in a world that hates its dreamers, visionaries and artists and only respects the cheating and social climbing of utilitarianism and commerce.
Where the critics do get it right is, as always, on the most obvious and basest of levels. This is indeed an unusually structured novel, in terms of the fact that there is little or no dialogue. Des Esseintes keeps his interaction with others to an absolute minimum, limiting exchanges to those enforced by commerce – dealing with employees, moving and delivery men, waiters, carriage drivers and physicians. There is no central romance, no big cliffhanger, no dramatic build to draw the unsophisticated reader into the narrative.
Instead what we get is a pervasive portrait of the psychology of a man, indeed the thinly disguised author of the narrative itself. We get a comprehensive survey of numerous areas and disciplines to which that character dedicates himself, from exotic flora and parfumerie to a critical survey of the annals of ancient Roman history to the religious apologia of the Middle Ages, and again of some fairly modern contemporaneous poets, authors and artists of Huysmans’ era and preference.
The book also shares close ties with several of Huysmans other works in that it appears to have been inspired by the first of his getaways to the ruined chateau de Lourps. Like des Esseintes, the author had apparently “suffered a bout of neuralgia” and chose to convalesce there, “re-reading Baudelaire and planting ‘almost artificial flowers’ in a garden in which ‘nothing has the air of being real”. From this and subsequent visits sprung not only the obvious progeny of En Rade, but both the seed from which A Rebours was born and one of his Parisian Sketches concerning flower types and parfumerie – areas that were also given narrative importance in A Rebours.
He begins by pointing out how one of the signs of the degeneration of a culture, society or (in particular) family line is the increased and pronounced effeminacy of its males as a cultural marker or zeitgeist:
“the decline of this ancient line had…followed the usual course: the effeminisation of the males became more noticeable…the last descendent looked like a dainty version of his ancient ancestor.”
He takes on the church and its hypocrisies (which he was later to defend and become a major apologist for), noting that:
“Some, educated like him in religious institutions, had preserved the special stamp this education confers…and hid from each other the bouts they indulged in with whores, shamefacedly avoiding the others eyes as if it were a crime. They were, for the most part, unintelligent, slavish dandies, successful dunces…who had nevertheless fulfilled the…stated aim of populating society with docile, pious creatures.”
and later, makes note of:
“…a religion which distrusted men of talent..because they seemed neither submissive or tame enough; when it came to it all the Church wanted was soldiers who didn’t think for themselves…mediocrities.”
On the flipside, however, he finds libertinism, at least of the crass and common variety ubiquitous to society, equally distasteful and empty:
“Others, educated in state colleges…were less hypocritical and more liberated, but…neither more interesting nor less narrowminded. They were hedonists… gambling their fortunes on horses, cards and on all those pleasures dear to hollow men. After a year…des Esseintes felt an overpowering weariness in this company whose debaucheries seemed to him promiscuous and vulgar, carried out with no discernment, no show of passion, and no real stimulation of the blood or nerves.”
Having found both religion and workaday hedonism equally vapid, he attempts to find solace among artists and intellectuals, only to come away similarly disgusted by their low and utilitarian level of discourse:
“…he left them and drew closer to men of letters, with whom his mind should have had more affinity and felt better at ease. But this was another delusion; he was revolted by their mean and resentful opinions, their conversations as dull as a church door, and their sickening discussions in which they judged the value of a book according to the number of editions it had gone through and by the profit on its sales…the bourgeoisie’s very own doctrinarians…who claimed every liberty in order to stifle the opinions of others, greedy and shameless puritans whom he considered inferior in breeding to the cobbler down the road…
He finally came to the conclusion that, for the most part, the world was composed of bullies and imbeciles. Certainly he had no hope in finding in those around him the same aspirations and antipathies.”
Later, he paints a direct parallel to modern society, in that:
“He detected a stupidity so inveterate, such a detestation for the ideas so dear to him, such a scorn for literature, for art…so deep-rooted and anchored in the marrow minds of these merchants, exclusively preoccupied with swindling and money-making and accessible only to that base distraction of mediocre minds, politics, that he returned home in a rage and locked himself up with his books.
Lastly…the younger generation, that class of frightful louts who feel the need to speak and laugh at the top of their voices in restaurants and cafes, who knock you off the pavement without saying sorry, and who, without even an excuse me, without even noticing you, ram the wheels of their baby carriages against your legs.”
In the end, “whatever he tried, an immense feeling of ennui oppressed him…then his health grew weaker and his nervous system more strained,” until he finally decides to create a sanctuary of intellectual and artistic stimulation off in the suburbs, near enough to Paris to reassure him, but far enough away to isolate him from “a hateful age of undignified boorishness.”
“Like a hermit, he was ripe for isolation, harassed by life and expecting nothing from it…overcome by a boundless lassitude, a need for contemplation, a desire to have nothing in common with the profane who…all seemed to be either utilitarians or louts.”
And a special sanctum sanctorum it would be, with color scheme selected specifically for artificial light, as:
“it mattered little to him if, by the light of day, they were inspid or crude, for it was at night that he lived…one was more oneself (when) alone then…the mind only grew animated and active with the approach of darkness. He found, too, a peculiar pleasure in being…the only person up and about amid sleeping shadow-enshrouded houses…a singular satisfaction know to late night workers, when drawing aside the curtain of their window, they realize that everything around them is dark, that all is silent, that all is dead.”
The one area I do strongly disagree with des Esseintes on is the apparent centrality to the novel of his distaste for nature (an assertion incidentally disproven by his delight in flora, however unusual or bizarre the specimens he selects) and his polemicizing over artificiality.
First, he points out in terms of the study and utilization of perfumes that:
“In fact, perfumes are almost never produced from the flowers whose names they bear; the artist who dared to borrow only natural elements would produce nothing but a bastard work with neither authenticity or style, seeing as the essence obtained by the distillation of flowers offers only a very distant and imprecise analogy to the actual aroma of the living flower, as it disperses its effusions in the open air.
Consequently…all flowers (are) represented by a combination of alcohols and spirits, stealing the very personality of its model and adding that certain something, that added nuance…which qualifies it as a work of art.”
Then he goes directly off the rails in a bizarre rant against the natural in favor of man’s sorry attempts to imitate if not surpass same:
“Nature has had her day…there’s not a single one of her inventions…that human ingenuity cannot create; no forest…no moonlight that some theatrical scenery flooded with electric light cannot reproduce; no waterfall that hydraulics cannot imitate to perfection; no rock that papier mache cannot be made to look like; no flower that specious taffetas and delicately painted papers cannot equal…the moment has come when it’s a case of replacing her, wherever it’s possible to do so, by artifice.”
Sorry to disagree, but I’ve always found artificial recreations or similes of the real thing to be at best lacking – worse, utterly distasteful. While perfumes and their appeal tends to be a matter of individual taste, I can only speak for myself in bafflement as to their ubiquity of usage – expensive, unappealing, and ultimately failing to mask the natural scents users are so desperate to eradicate, there are few more vain wastes of time and money and offense to the nostrils than these. Artificial flowers fool no one, and rather than freshening the room with oxygen, merely collect and breed dust mites. No lamp light can match or substitute for the light of the moon. In short, he’s severely misguided on this (ostensibly central) point.
But that in itself does not invalidate the remainder of the novel, its assertions, or what the man is striving to create – an attempt to rise above, or at least remove oneself from, a distasteful decline in culture and disagreement with the crassness of economists and the like about the centrality of Mammon as motivator and rationale for human discourse and life aims.
There is, however, one further bone of contention to make note of, which Huysmans himself retroactively disowns in his “Preface Written 20 Years Afterwards”: namely, Chapter 6.
The only chapter that truly seems out of place herein, in this brief section of the narrative, des Esseintes takes an out of character detour into the territory marked by the likes of Octave Mirbeau’s Clara from Torture Garden or more to the point, Jean Lorrain’s oily Claudius Ethal from Monsieur de Phocas, in deliberately seeking to start trouble and drive others to ruination by subtle means.
In this chapter, des Esseintes encourages a young man to marry his materialistic and flighty beau, which eventually winds up in destitution and divorce (just as des Esseintes had forseen). He then finds a poor street urchin and introduces him to the pleasures of the upscale brothel, with the aim that, much like today’s consumer driven society and its fomentation and utilization as a direct means to keep the worker under the heel of his rich and corporate oppressors:
“…but now, by leading him here, in the middle of a luxury the existence of which he hadn’t even suspected and which will engrave itself indelibly on his memory, by offering him…such a prize as this, he’ll get accustomed to the pleasures that are beyond his means to enjoy.
…at the end of those three months, I’ll cut off the little allowance…and so he’ll…go to any lengths in order to (partake once more of these pleasures). The women stared, wide-eyed…”
Hmm…bring to mind zero down, adjustable rate mortgages, the culture of debt and overnight lines to be the first to own a new release videogame or Apple product to mind?
This sentiment is paralleled further in contemporary society’s luring of, if not active conscription of the poor into the military, as:
“Under the pretext of liberty and progress society had even discovered a means of aggravating the poor man’s miserable condition, by dragging him from his home, rigging him out in a ridiculous uniform, giving him his own weapons and brutalizing him under a system of slavery identical to that which it had, out of compassion, (abolished) in days gone by – all this to enable him to slaughter his neighbor without risking the scaffold like ordinary murderers who operate alone, without uniforms and with weapons that are less noisy and efficient. “
But the truisms need not always be so sociopolitical or broad based – as typical for the autobiographically inclined Decadents, there is a tremendous amount of personal psychologically accurate insight to be found herein as well. For example, des Esseintes later notes the unfortunate tendency of beloved discoveries losing their luster once they somehow manage to gain mass appeal:
“…the universal admiration (Goya’s) works had won had…put him off slightly, and he had refrained from framing them for some years, for fear that by putting them on show, the first idiot who caught sight of them would deem it necessary to relieve himself of his banal opinions and to go into raptures in front of them, in a completely conventional fashion.
It was the same with his Rembrandts…and indeed, just as the most beautiful tune in the world becomes vulgar and unbearable as soon as the public begins to hum it and the barrel-organs make it their own, the work of art which causes a stir among phony artists, which the stupid find nothing to protest about…becomes in the same away polluted, commonplace, almost repulsive to the initiated…incomprehensible successes had spoiled forever pictures and books once dear to him…he would (ask) himself whether his instincts were getting blunted, whether he wasn’t being taken in.”
And truly, what artist, thinker, or seeker of something more than the pointlessness of the workaday daily grind can admit to not having held:
“…his feverish desire for the unknown…his need to escape the horrible reality of existence, to leap beyond the confines of thought, to search blindly without ever arriving at certitude, amid the misty regions beyond art itself”?
As with Gautier and the Romantics, the close interrelation between the strivings of the artist, intellectual and seeker of truth and the touch of the immanent divine are rendered all but explicit:
“As well as engendering a supra-human ideal in his soul…religion had also stirred up the illegitimate ideal of sensual pleasure. Licentious and mystical obsessions mingled confusedly, haunting his brain…a stubborn desire to escape the vulgarities of the world and to plunge, far from the venerated customs of the past, into original ecstasies, in raptures that were either celestial or infernal.”
“…in a period devoted to money-making, lived apart…sheltered from the stupidity surrounding him…taking pleasure, far from society, in the revelations of the mind, in the visions of the brain, refining…concepts…in lightly hinted inferences linked by a berely perceptible thread.”
Interestingly, we also get a sort of dual parallel to the ubiquitous experimentation on the general public with “frankenfoods”, GMOs and bizarre and illogical concoctions of artificial ingredients we face with our own food and drink and the seemingly unprecedented propagandinformation and manipulation by our bought and paid for nonobjective media and SuperPAC owned government officials, when Huysmans notes that:
“The way things are these days, nothing wholesome exists anymore, since even the wine one drinks and the liberty one proclaims are laughably adulterated, since it needs a singularly large dose of goodwill to believe that the governing classes are respectable…”
But eventually, des Esseintes discovers the simple fact that no man is a rock or an island, as:
“…this solitude he so ardently desired and finally achieved had culminated in a dreadful anguish, and this silence…now weighed on him like an intolerable burden…consumed with a desire to…look at a human face, to speak with another being, to be part of a community…”
This leads him to take a brief, unplanned sojourn to England, where he soaks in the atmosphere of some local pubs and cafes, only to find that the exotic ideals of his imagination give way to yet another sordid and wanting reality. Comparing his impromptu trip to an earlier one he had apparently taken to the land of the Dutch Masters, des Esseintes notes that:
“In short, nothing but cruel disillusions had resulted from this trip. He had fancied a Holland as reflected in the works of…Rembrandt…he certainly saw nothing like that; Holland was a country just like any other and…in no way genial, because the Protestant religion, with its hypocritical formalities and inflexible solemnities, was rampant there…”
Quickly tiring of his taste of the British Isles, he turns around mid-journey to head back to his home:
“I’ve experienced and seen all I wanted to…I’ve been saturated with English life since my departure…what aberration was I suffering from…to believe, like some complete fool, in the necessity, interest and benefit of a real excursion?”
There is an amusing aside that explains a truism that confounds French speakers from outside Canada, vis a vis the incomprehensibility of les Francais-Canadienne to all but themselves:
“…ecclesiastical writers, confined to their own field, imprisoned within a set of identical, antiquated readings, ignorant of literary progress over the centuries…employed an immutable language, like the 18th century dialect that descendants of the French who settled in Canada still speak and write today, no new turns of phrase or words having come into their idiom, isolated as it is from the ancient capital and surrounded on all sides by the English language.”
The absurdities of a society bound by hypocritical mores is expounded upon in this amusing passage, noting how a proscription on prostitution merely led to the same manner of transactions in the bar (or more to the point, the contemporary oddity that is the “gentleman’s club”, or to be more blunt about it, strip club):
“…these serving girls were as stupid, as self-seeking, as degraded…as any girl supplied by a brothel. Like her, they drank without being thirsty, laughed without being amused, were infatuated by the caresses of a common workman…but in spite of all that…Paris seemed not to be able to recognize that the servers in these (bars) were…quite inferior to the women…of some brothel…
What idiots these men are who flutter around (bars); because over and over and above their ridiculous illusions they…don’t take into account the money spent on numerous drinks priced in advance by the landlady, the time lost in waiting for assignations that are deferred so as to bump up the cost…designed to induce and encourage more tips…these very people who would have gouged out their neighbor’s eyes for ten sous lost all…discrimination in front of these louche cabaret-girls who harassed them without pity and fleeced them without mercy.
Businesses toiled away and families exploited each other in the name of commerce, only to let themselves be robbed of their money…let themselves be swindled by these women…there was an unbroken chain of pocket-pinching, of these organized thefts cannoning off each other from one person to the next…”
But in the end, his very nerves and the impossibility of living in isolation consign him to a diagnosis wherein he must return to the world he so despised. Like far too many of us, he wonders, painedly, where and how to find succor, and whether there truly is a friend or lover who could ever understand, appreciate or share their vision and drive:
“This haven which had sheltered him must be abandoned, he must sail out again into the stormy seas of stupidity that had so battered him in the past…the doctors spoke of amusement, of distraction; with whom and with what…? Had he not voluntarily exiled himself from society?
Did he know a single person trying to lead an existence such as his own, one consigned to contemplation, one given up to daydreams…of appreciating the delicacy of a phrase, the subtlety of a painting, the quintessence of an idea…? Where, when and in what society must he delve to discover a twin spirit…freed from the commonplace?”
Finally, he despairs of finding any connection between his own culture and ideals and a society that sounds disturbingly familiar:
“And what point of contact could there be between him and this bourgeois class that had gradually taken over…it was now the aristocracy of money…the caliphate of the trade counter…the tyranny of commerce with its narrow, venal ideas, its self-serving and deceitful instincts. Viler and more prolifigate than the plundered nobility and the discredited clergy, the bourgeoise borrowed their frivolous ostentation and their outmoded arrogance, which it degraded by its lack of manners…authoritarian and underhand, mean and cowardly, it pitilessly sniped at its eternal and indispensable dupe, the rabble, which it had itself unmuzzled and set at the throats of the old castes…
The bourgeois…lorded it over everyone through the power of his money and the contagiousness of his stupidity The result of his accession to power had been the crushing of everything intelligent, the negation of all honesty, the death of all art, and what was worse, artists and writers demeaned themselves… covering with ardent kisses the stinking feet of the high-placed double dealers and low-born despots whose hand-outs allowed them to live.
In painting, there was a deluge of lifeless inanities, in literature, an excess of stylistic vapidity and intellectual cowardice, because they had to impute honesty to shady businessmen, virtue to the swindler…and chastity to the anti-clerical…the immesurable vulgarity of the financier…chanting its immoral canticles of praise before the ungodly tabernacle of the Bank.”
And if that doesn’t sound suspiciously like the world of 2013, then you’re just not paying attention.
A cup of bracing espresso, A Rebours remains apt and relevant as the day it was published, simultaneously an admission of the impossibility of the attainment of ideals and a wake up call to all who fail to recognize what a sorry state we’ve allowed our society, culture…moreover, the entire human race to sink to. We ignore its warnings at our peril.