“Against Nature” by Joris-Karl Huysmans

I doubt I’m the first to find it difficult to articulate my responses to Huysmans’ À Rebours. I found it engrossing, but I had first to overcome two major problems I have concerning fin-de-siècle decadence: aesthetically, I do not see its appeal; and morally, it has long struck me as an affectation that can only be indulged in by the sufficiently wealthy. Unless I was prepared to put away these prejudices, or, at least, suspend them while reading the book, I’d end up merely judging its protagonist des Esseintes unfavourably, and seeing in the book little more than a criticism of his character and of his thoughts. And mere unfavourable judgement cannot, I think, sustain a reader through an entire novel. But once I’d cleared my mind of my prejudices as best I could, I think I started to make more sense of it.

It’s hard to believe that this very strange novel was the product of a literary culture that, at the time (it was published in 1884), was dominated by Zola. The French title is untranslatable, and is usually rendered as Against Nature; however, this does not strike me as particularly felicitous, as it has about it a Shakespearean echo that’s a bit out of place here (“’Gainst nature still!” from Macbeth); and further, it isn’t just nature that des Esseintes is against: he is against modernity, society, everything – even humanity itself and human relationships. He is not just the leading character of the novel: he is the only character. A few others appear on the sidelines from time to time – servants, the doctor, and the like – but des Esseintes’ relationship with them is not touched upon. This refusal to engage with relationship between humans eliminates what is central to most novels, both in the nineteenth century, and also now: it eliminates the possibility also of conflict, and, hence, of drama.

But despite its strangeness, this novel has certain forebears. The classic novel of the solitary man creating his own world is, of course, Robinson Crusoe. Des Esseintes is, we are told, the last enervated remnant of a decayed aristocratic family, and we have met this character before in Poe’s Roderick Usher, and also in Stevenson’s marvellous Gothic tale “Olalla”. Des Esseintes’ disdain for bourgeois values and for popular taste (a disdain clearly shared by the author) is present in Flaubert; and we find in Flaubert also that studied ironic detachment of Huysmans’ narrative style – although, in Flaubert’s case, I can’t help but sense that this ironic detachment was a front for deeper feelings, whereas with Huysmans, I do not get that sense at all.

The immense erudition apparent in all the various learned references and allusions that the novel is packed with is also Flaubertian (it is very apparent in Bouvard et Pécuchet), and the idea of a man who detaches himself from a society he despises may even remind us of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man (although, admittedly, Dostoyevsky’s fictional world is a very far cry from that of Huysmans).

The structure of Huysmans’ novel is not so much symphonic, but more, as it were, a sort of “theme and variations”: the theme is stated first, and each chapter that follows is a variation on it. This structure, too, derives from Flaubert – again from Bouchard et Pécuchet.

But despite all of this, this novel is entirely original and unique, and its ability to engage the reader (for it certainly engaged me) is something I can’t quite account for.

While des Esseintes is not Huysmans (neither at the start nor at the end is he capable of writing the book we are reading), there is, I think, a considerable degree of overlap between author and protagonist: the desire to escape from this world and create one’s own is one Huysmans seems to sympathise with. He must: he would hardly have written an entire book on this theme were it otherwise. But it would be wrong, I think, to see this book merely as a vindication, or even as a commendation, of its protagonist: we should, I think, be prepared to regard des Esseintes in a critical manner. Unlike Robinson Crusoe, he cannot make his own clothes, or grow his own food. Nor, for that matter, can he decorate his dwelling to his tastes (a detailed description of des Esseintes’ interior decoration takes up an entire chapter of the novel). And he has personal servants as well. So, really, his detachment from life, from society, really is an affectation: given his inability actually to do anything, he is entirely dependent upon that same society that he so despises.

While this is not, I think, a negligible point, to see the entire novel from this perspective is to miss its richness. For des Esseintes is no mere hypocrite, and no mere poseur: his desire to detach himself from a world that is hateful to him is real. And the alienation that urges him to do this is also real. It is precisely in order to appreciate this element of the novel that I had to suspend my usual distaste for decadent aestheticism.

And it is not merely from the world of his fellow humans that he is alienated: he is alienated from nature itself. Not for him to turn to Nature to replenish the soul, in Wordsworthian fashion. He turns instead to artifice: the further from nature, the better, for the entirety of Nature is hateful to him. This is about as violent a reaction from nature-worshipping Romanticism as I think I have encountered.

But while des Esseintes assiduously cultivates the artificial, it isn’t clear – not to me, at least – what exactly he gets out of it. Possibly he doesn’t know himself. If all this is a different means of replenishing his soul, there seems no indication of that in the narrative: indeed, the very idea of a human soul that needs to be replenished seems very far from the spirit of this novel. Are his aesthetics, perhaps, no more than a gesture to demonstrate his hatred of the world outside? Or does his particular brand of aestheticism really does have some sort of positive effect on him? Or, perhaps, does it not matter either way? I couldn’t really get to the bottom of this: des Esseintes’ mindset is so very different from my own, I’m not sure I always understand it – fascinating though it was to enter it.

But his aestheticism, whatever he gets out of it, is utterly divorced from moral considerations: indeed, it seems at times to be in opposition to moral concerns. Des Esseintes is, ethically, completely disengaged. In one chapter, he pays for a young urchin to visit brothels, and, once the lad develops a taste for this sort of thing, abruptly withdraws the funding, just as an experiment to see what happens, and hoping that it all ends in criminality, and even murder. One must be extremely disengaged from all ethical concerns even to consider such an experiment with a living human, purely, as far as I could work out, to satisfy one’s aesthetic sense. But where, in any other novel, something so striking would have been developed, here, the strand just vanishes: des Esseintes loses touch with the boy, and neither he nor we know (nor care) what happens next. This wouldn’t have been possible in a symphonically constructed novel, but in a Theme and Variations format, each variation is allowed to stand independently of the others.

There is a hilarious passage where he thinks of going to England, but, after an evening in an English-style bar in Paris, decides not to go after all, as he has in that bar experienced England far better than he possibly could in England itself. This reminded me of the film critic Leslie Halliwell’s observation that the MGM backlots of Paris were far more romantic than the real Paris could ever be. What, after all, is so great about reality?

I’m still not sure why I found this strange novel so engrossing. I’m still far from being in sympathy with the aesthetics of decadence; and since this novel does not deal with human relationships, the conflict that is necessary for drama is missing. But a conflict of sorts does perhaps emerge – between, on the one hand, a desire to detach oneself from the world, and, on the other, the impossibility of doing so. And this impossibility neither negates nor makes ridiculous the desire. But in the end, the desire is defeated: reality, loathsome as it may be, has to be accepted. The theme has been stated; the variations played out; and then, it’s an inevitable return to the life that had been rejected.

These are my somewhat confused impressions of a very strange novel. I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it all. Maybe I need to give it more time to sink in.

11 responses to this post.

  1. I can’t believe you don’t find great human drama in the arrangement of books. And typefaces. From what I have gathered on Twitter recently, the main interest of most book-lovers is the shelving and photographing of them. How are they so different than des Esseintes?

    The “London” chapter – inspired by reading Dickens! – is a scream. Probably my favorite, not that I did not enjoy pawing through that lunatic’s books.

    My two posts on this novel are not so bad.

    Reply

    • Posted by Di on May 10, 2020 at 2:45 pm

      HAHAHAHAHHAA.

      Reply

    • Just wait till I get my copy of Anna Karenina encrusted with jewels and plaster pictures of it all over Twitter!

      I had read your posts when you first wrote them, but thanks for reminding me of them. I wondered also whether the whole book was simply a parody, and should be taken as such, but I decided, rightly or wrongly, that if I were merely to take it as a parody, it wouldn’t be a particularly rewarding read, as there’s little of interest in something obviously absurd being presented as such. But how else are we to take it? I know that, as someone blogging on books, I should have a pat answer ready, but I must confess I don’t.

      Reply

    • The jewel-encrusted books were one of the highlights of visiting the Frankfurt Book Fair. The new edition of Copernicus with a chip from an actual meteorite on the cover, that was something else.

      As for parody, yes but also no, right? Genuinely held ideas can be pushed into an extreme position. Do they bend, or break? How crazy do I look if I say that?

      It is like Swift at the end of Gulliver. He doesn’t mean it, and he also does.

      “there’s little of interest in something obviously absurd being presented as such” – I am not so sure about that. The pleasure, as always, is in fondling the details. See every Augsburg-built automaton in the collections of every museum in central Europe. See every gilded, jeweled goblet made from an ostrich egg.

      Reply

      • Since starting blogging, and reading other blogs- especially yours – I’ve come to realise how bad I am at details – at picking them up, observing their significance, or really, just noting them and delighting in them for their own sake. It is the overall shape, the trajectory of the narrative, that I tend to look for, and that’s not really the best approach to this book, where much of the substance lies precisely in fondling, as you put it, the profusion of details.

        And yes, he both says it and doesn’t say it. But what is it that he does and doesn’t say? That all considerations, even the most basic ethical considerations, are subservient to one’s individual aesthetic values? That strikes me as so absurd that it’s not merely the case that it isn’t worth saying: it isn’t even worth testing, to see if it bends or breaks. But that is to take too morally prescriptive a view, and I did try (possibly not very successfully) to put it aside while I was reading. And, while I – even I – found myself engrossed in the details, what I’d describe as the essence of the work I found elusive. It’s a work of a sensibility very different from my own. That’s not intended as a criticism, but simply to explain why I feel I couldn’t quite get to grips with this.

  2. Hi – it’s been a long time since I have visited your posts. Since I’ve retired, I have largely given up my blog. (I think I wrote it to keep myself sane at work. I did most of it at my office!) And then, a lot of my time is taken up reading my favorite French works: Le Tartuffe is next on my list, although Le misanthrope is a BIG favorite of mine too.

    I have read this book many times since I discovered the Decadents in high school, and it is a problematic favorite. (The title is sometimes translated, more appropriately, as Against the Grain.) Your are admirable in your refusal to judge the novel harshly on the basis of your complete disagreement with its moral and aesthetic direction: it is a manifesto of sorts. Wilde referred to it as a “breviary of decadence,” I believe. Strange indeed to think that the book came out at a time when French lit was dominated by Zola, and that Huysmans was originally a Naturalist tout court! But he changed…

    One way to approach it is to see Des Esseintes as part of the army of the avant garde. Like many artists of the late 19th century, like the Dadaists, like the Surrealists, he sought to erase the line between art and life: his life was art. And artificial… Why should one want to take that view of art and life? That’s a big question, and a good one, but not one that concerned avant gardists e.g. Alfred Jarry, Satie, Andre Bredton, etc. Roger Shattuck has a nice discussion of it in The Banquet Years.

    It may seem odd to you to associate these figures from the “mainstream” of modern, (or modernist) art with the Decadents, but the link is very strong. The Guggenheim in NYC, a bastion of modern art orthodoxy if there ever was one, recently had an exhibit on the Decadent/Symbolist crowd, and the links to modernists, including Mondrian of all people.

    Des Esseintes seeks to have total control of his world/life. He creates a house to be the theatre in which his sensibility will determine all aspects of the environment. Think of the Gesamtkunstwerk, the total work of art, that was the grail of modern, that is to say, art nouveau architects. You know that art nouveau would be the perfect style for Des Esseintes house!

    Yes, he’s completely amoral, and as you say, this is partly because JKH shared Flaubert’s, (and practically every other writers’) detestation of the bourgeoisie and the society they had created. (Love the bit about the street urchin he takes in, makes accustomed to luxury and sex, and then unceremoniously dumps on the streets again, hoping to read reports of his awful doings in the crime blotter.) It’s all deliberately contrary and provocative. If the aesthetics of complete artificiality, narcissism, esotericism, and art severed from normal human values doesn’t appeal to you, well, it is decadent… 🙂

    Saying that he is alienated from nature, well, that embeds all sorts of notions and judgments which this book explicitly rejects, so it’s rather a bit of a tautology. Des Esseintes values civilization and culture, which he associates with the artificial. Thus his lengthy chapter on the disintegration and decay of the Roman Empire by way of Latin literature. You can argue with that point in many ways, but to claim he is alienated from nature forecloses the discussion.

    As for art divorced from moral considerations, recall Oscar Wilde’s remarks in the Preface to Dorian Grey, which is closely related to this novel.

    …There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.

    …We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.

    So within the framework of this aesthetic, whether Des Esseintes is moral or not is not very important. Only whether or not he is interesting, and as you found out, he is!

    Here’s a link to the Guggenheim exhibit:

    https://www.guggenheim.org/exhibition/mystical-symbolism-the-salon-de-la-rosecroix-in-paris-1892-1897

    As a kid, I discovered this stuff by reading Dreamers of Decadence by Phillipe Julien, which is available on ebay and maybe even Amazon. A bit too breathless in tone, but not a bad survey.

    Reply

  3. Hello Lichanos, it’s great to hear from you again!

    I, too, have taken retirement. I was quite severely ill a few years ago, and since I recently turned 60, it seemed a good time to call it a day. But somewhat unexpectedly, my blogging has slowed down a lot: perhaps because I, too, blogged to keep sane! But, more likely, out of sheer damn laziness.

    One thing I like about Huysmans is his honesty. His aesthetics are not merely divorced from morality, they compel him to seek out that which is immoral, as it is the immoral that excites his aesthetic sense. He plays that terrible game with the urchin, for instance, purely to excite his aesthetic sense. And Huysmans is hones about it. And it is on this point, I think, that Wilde’s nerve fails him, for, having declared that that there s no such thing as a moral or an immoral book, he proceeds to write a novel that s very moral: Dorian Gray, too, indulges in all sorts of immoral acts, but his immorality makes his picture (i.e. an image of his soul) ugly; and when he tries to destroy the record of this ugliness, he is punished for it. But Huysmans is having none of that: he faces quite unashamedly the immorality of his beliefs, of his refusing to separate his life from his aesthetics.

    It was a fascinating picture of a worldview very alien to my senses. I did not even have much sympathy with his aesthetic sense: his interior decoration, for instance. which obviously reflects his aesthetic sense, seems to me ghastly; his preferring Salammbô to L’Education Sentimentale seems to me eccentric, at best; and the paintings of Gustave Moreau that he admires so much seemed to me (when I looked them up on Google) the epitome of kitsch. But my personal reaction to des Essientes’ tastes isn’t the point: what this book does is to give an insight into a sensibility very different from my own, but which was, nonetheless, compelling. One doesn’t go to literature, after all, merely to confirm one’s own perspective on things! (At least, I don’t.)

    I hope life is treating you well in your retirement. And if you do start blogging seriously again, I’d be delighted to follow!

    Best wishes,
    Himadri

    Reply

    • Thanks for your note. I was born for retirement! Work was an unfortunate interlude.

      Sorry to hear you had to struggle with your health, but happy it turned out well. From your recent posts, you don’t seem lazy to me. I’m amazed at the energy and analytical precision you bring to your posts.

      You are right about Wilde’s inconsistency, but the issue is not honesty. He never quite says what he means, or he says the opposite. Paradox was his bread and butter, and provocation. He is by far the greater author: his fairy tales show that he was very attuned and profoundly sensitive to the social and moral questions of the day. I think he was appalled at the brutality and injustice of society, but he was just so damn witty, he couldn’t help himself!

      You know, this entire issue – life as art, aesthetics over morality – is encapsulated in the little prose poem of Baudelaire’s, The Bad Glazier. (Easily found in English or French online.) An “artist-type” does something very nasty to someone just for the hell/thrill/sensation of it. Baudelaire’s attitude towards the goings on are ambiguous, and the arguments the piece makes are heard again and again for the next fifty, hundred? years. You could look at the thrill murderers Leopold & Loeb as their 20th century progeny, in full decadence and debasement. Hitchcock’s “Rope” is like a weird vulgarized rendition of an Oscar Wilde fantasy about murder. And some have gone further, linking this aesthetic and its political/kitsch incarnations to fascism, via D’Annunzio, Marinetti, and the Nazis.

      As for Gustave Moreau and kitsch, first I must tell you the first principle of Kitsch Studies, on which I have spent a great deal of time and which was the subject of my undergraduate thesis years ago…, “One man’s kitsch is another man’s living room.” And Gustave Moreau was one of my introductions to art history – I’m quite fond of him. (You really should check out that Guggenheim show for the links between kitsch and the high priests of anti-kitsch modernism.) On a more serious level, I think he’s way too good a painter and artist to be kitsch, although I understand why you might not like him.

      Similarly, regarding the other Gustave, one of my favorite writers by the way, (I am currently reading Madam Bovary, slowly, in French) I love Salammbo! I have always thought that Jabba the Hutt (I have not seen the Star Wars series, but know him from clips elsewhere) is inspired by Hanno, the decaying lump of flesh carried about by slaves. I do not share your enthusiasm for Sentimental Education, which seems to me a less successful retread of Madame Bovary. That is, Frederic strikes me as the sort of person Madame Bovary would have been if she had been a man, with a man’s freedom and resources. He’s a total dud. Although, the novel has its moments.

      Flaubert was very inconsistent, emotional, and self-centered on political issues, all of which is on display in his wonderful letters with George Sand. After viewing the ruins of Paris after the Commune was suppressed, he exploded with, “If only they had read my Sentimental Education!” A ridiculous and self-important statement all too typical of artists, even great ones. The shallowness of his view is part of the novel, although it is usually interpreted as ironic detachment. Ultimately, it was not Madame Bovary that was he, but Frederic.

      [I wrote a lot about kitsch in my blogging days: here’s a link if you have time to kill.
      https://iamyouasheisme.wordpress.com/tag/kitsch/%5D

      I doubt I’ll start blogging again; I just don’t care if anyone knows what I think. Or, I’m far lazier than you! But I am following you!

      Stay well!

      Reply

      • Hmm…something happened to that URL. Here it is again.
        https://iamyouasheisme.wordpress.com/tag/kitsch/

      • Hello Lichanos,
        I’m afraid the illness of three years ago I referred to was a rather severe heart attack. It came quite out of the blue: I wasn’t overweight, my diet was reasonably healthy – I was just unlucky. And immediately after the attack, I had to undergo a triple bypass operation: it was, apparently, an emergency. I am very fortunate still to be here, but really, it knocked the stuffing out of me: as my wife will testify, I was a very troublesome patient. So, having turned 60 earlier this year, it seemed to be a good time to take retirement, as I have been finding it extremely difficult to focus my mind for any length of time, At any rate, I’m still here, though I do have to regulate my lifestyle very carefully, and hope I’m not unlucky again! But enough of that. I have a horror of appearing self-pitying, so let’s move on,

        I was wrong to have used the word “honesty” in the context of comparing Wilde and Huysmans. Wilde did, as you say, have very strong moral bearings, and these do seem to me to be at odds with the amorality that is at the very heart of Huysmans’ outlook.

        The thrill of being beyond any moral framework, as is evidenced in the notorious Leopold & Loeb case, was very much foreshadowed in Dotoyevsky too, I think. Raskolnikov tells himself (sometimes, at least) that he is murdering for the money, but that’s not really true: at least, that’s snot completely true, because he hides the money away and ever touches it. A more important motivation is the thrill of knowing that he is outside any moral framework. It is a very strange frame of mind, and not one easily understood. (My mother, for instance. who loves thrillers, can’t take at all to Hitchcock’s Rope, as she refuses to believe that anyone could commit murder for such motives, and remained sceptical even when I told her of the Leopold & Loeb case.)

        “Kitsch” is a strange thing: as with so many other terms we use (“sentimentality”, “melodrama”, etc) it is something more easily identified than defined. And since no definition exists that can definitely and without ambiguity define that which is “kitsch” (or, for that matter, define that which is “sentimental”, or “melodramatic”) , there is bound to be difference of opinion, and of perception.

        The Piazza Italia in New Orleans that you highlight in your blog post rather reminded me of the Laxminarayan Temple in New Delhi (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laxminarayan_Temple): they are both very self-conscious attempts to imitate a particular style, or, rather, imitate certain hackneyed perceptions of that style. I am not really sure what to make of them. Their deliberate and studied inauthenticity itself amounts to an authenticity of sorts. It is very strange, and I don’t think I could, personally, take a delight in them.

        It has sometimes been said (or, if it hasn’t, it should be) that admirers of Flaubert belong to one of two camps – those who prefer Madame Bovary, and those who prefer L’Education Sentimentale. Much though I admire Madame Bovary, it is the latter group I belong to. Although I do sometimes wonder whether I should form a breakaway third group by preferring Bouvard et Pecuchet to either!

        All the best for now,
        Himadri

  4. Yikes! Sounds terrifying, although I guess you weren’t aware of what was going on! I suggest that you be a good boy and follow doctor’s orders: you owe it to your family, and after all, “you’re worth it.” 🤗. And wear a mask!

    I’m deep into Middlemarch and a few other books, but planning to write a long post about The Tunnel, by B. Kellermann, which has long had a hold on me.

    I like your mother’s attitude! Sounds like a great lady.😀

    Cheers!

    Reply

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