Posts Tagged ‘decadence’

“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 perhaps, 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.