Part 1 of a review of Against Nature by Joris-Karl Huysmans, in which the decadence of the pursuit of phenomena is exposed.
After such a book, the only choice left open to the author is the muzzle of a pistol or the foot of the cross. ~ From Barbey d’Aurevilly’s review of Against Nature by Joris-Karl Huysmans
Seeing that nowadays there is nothing wholesome left in this world of ours; seeing that the wine we drink and the freedom we enjoy are equally adulterate and derisory; and finally, seeing that it takes a considerable degree of goodwill to believe that the governing classes are worthy of respect and that the lower classes are worthy of help or pity, it seems to me no more absurd or insane to ask of my fellow men a sum total of illusion barely equivalent to that which they expend every day on idiotic objects. ~ from Against Nature
Verily it is a pitiable thing to live on earth ~ from the Imitation of Christ
Joris-Karl Huysmans was present at the end of Naturalism in art. By attempting to place so-called “real characters” in “precise settings”, the Naturalists ended up just repeating themselves. In a preface published 20 years after the initial publication of Against Nature (A Rebours) in 1884, Huysmans explained that since Virtue was such an exception on earth, it was excluded from the Naturalist framework. He wrote:
It must be admitted that Virtue is an exception here on earth, and so it was excluded from the Naturalist framework. Not having the Catholic conception of the fall from grace and of temptation, we were unaware of the struggles and sufferings from which Virtue springs; the heroism of the soul, triumphing over life’s pitfalls, escaped us. It would not have occurred to us to describe this struggle, with its highs and lows, its wily attacks and feints, or the able allies standing at the ready deep in their cloisters and often far from those the Devil is assailing. Virtue seemed to us the attribute of individuals without curiosity or bereft of sense, and in any case of too little emotional interest to treat from an artistic point of view.
Without the spiritual combat of virtue against vice, the Naturalists could only write about the latter. Of course, the only interesting vice turns out to be Lust. Eventually, even that topic gets played out, at least for the intelligent artistic mind. Nevertheless, in popular culture it remains a popular theme, since the mass mind cannot even conceive of an alternative.
Addiction to Phenomena
If naturalism is true, then only what can be experienced by the senses exists: sight, sound, touch, taste, scent. Hence, the goal of life is to accumulate the best experiences possible. For most, this is mostly a passive way of life: attending concerts, choosing a tattoo, finding a great restaurant, watching sports, and the like. A more sophisticated person will have refined tastes. For example, a woman recently wrote to me with her goals for the new year:
Freedom, authenticity, creativity, love, connection… laughter, fat books, Eddie Higgins, eating with the locals…. oysters, avocados, ripasso, chocolate with sea salt, rose-scented soap.
A cute list, but still rather passive. The novel Against Nature is a story about nothing, except the pursuit of sensual experiences. The sole character, Des Esseintes, is a recluse with the resources in money and time to indulge his tastes. The difference is that he is the creator of his experiences. In this review, we can only highlight some of these.
First, he is obsessed with the way the changing light in his room reflects the multicolored threads of his rug. Whatever he does involves intricate attention to detail. To better reflect the sunlight in his room, he goldplates a tortoise and covers the shell with carefully selected gemstones. Needless to say, the tortoise died, probably due to a disease of the shell. He built a “mouth organ”, which controlled a variety of various liqueurs of various colors and shapes. That invention was reprised as the pianocktail in the French film comedy Mood Indigo.
He had an extensive library, with many titles privately and extravagantly printed. They were arranged like the Louvre, from the ancients to the medievals, and ending with contemporary French literature. Curiously, it included an extensive collection of religious texts although Des Esseintes was an unbeliever. Some of it was of good quality and some merely sentimental. Apparently, he had been quite experimental with sex in the Parisian whorehouses. This left him impotent, probably because conventional sex could no longer arouse him.
Despite his further experiences with exotic flowers, literature, and fine art, he remained dissatisfied. Eventually, his health began to deteriorate. His physician recommended that Des Esseintes return to live in the city and “try to enjoy the same pleasures as other people.”
The thought of that was repulsive. He prided himself on his ability to appreciate “the delicacy of a phrase, the subtlety of a painting, the quintessence of an idea, or whose soul was sensitive enough to understand Mallarme and love Varlaine.” Where could he find a “twin soul”:
a mind free of commonplace ideas, welcoming silence as a boon, ingratitude as a relief, suspicion as a haven and a harbour.
There it is: the pursuit of experiences for their own sake leads to death, not only of the body, but especially of the soul. The only possible solution is to transcend all experience, yet he couldn’t bring himself to the Faith. Hence, he expects to be engulfed by “waves of human mediocrity”. With no hope of a future life, his earthly life is all there is. Nevertheless, the atheist ends with a prayer:
Lord, take pity on the Christian who doubts, on the unbeliever who would fain believe, on the galley-slave of life who puts out to sea alone, in the night, beneath a firmament no longer lit by the consoling beacon-fires of the ancient hope.
Part 2 will review Huysmans’ preface for the edition of A Rebours published 20 years later. In particular, it will deal with the influence of Arthur Schopenhauer and John of Ruysbroeck which led Huysmans to take the vows of a Cistercian oblate.