Review: À Rebours

Joris-Karl Huysmans—sybarite, mystic, rake, oblate, and (of all things) civil servant—published what has been referred to as ‘the bible of the Decadence,’ À Rebours (often translated under the title of ‘Against Nature’ or ‘Against the Grain’), in 1884, setting in motion a literary movement that would come to include such icons as Mirbeau, Wilde, Rachilde, De Sa-Carneiro, and Beardsley. There had been earlier precursors who wore the mantle of ‘Decadent,’ sometimes with pride: Baudelaire, Poe, Gautier, Hugo; but it was Huysmans, with his callous disregard for convention, who established the motifs we refer to as ‘Decadent’ today. À Rebours has been viewed as more a catalog of tastes than a novel, considering that it is entirely devoid of a plot in any real understanding of the word; but the psychology of its central character, Des Esseintes, is a constant source of illumination, and remains as instrumental to defining the trappings of Decadence as the flamboyant catalog of literature, interior decoration, perfume, painting, and aesthetic experience that comprises the bulk of its pages.

Des Esseintes, a libertine, grown weary with the sordid pleasures of fin de siècle Paris, retreats into solitude; purchasing a house, and filling it with countless objects that reflect an ornate, languid, and near-hallucinatory preoccupation with aesthetic excess, Des Esseintes begins a personal quest to seek out higher and higher avenues of experience, cloistered away in effete seclusion from the insipid trivialities and tedious ennui of modern life. Here, in reclusion, he is free to experiment with lavish predilections and whimsical pursuits not afforded by his previous circumstances: from fatally bejeweling a tortoise to surveying the degenerate concerns of authors and artists as varied as Petronius, Verlaine, Apuleius, Baudelaire, and Gustave Moreau; in a typical episode of À Rebours, Des Esseintes, who had before found more beauty in the patent artificiality of paper flowers than in their natural counterparts, decides that the ultimate in sensation would involve procuring natural flora that possess the curious and almost ridiculous distinction of appearing more false than their artificial analogues.

This preoccupation with the supremacy of artificiality is, perhaps, the chief concern of À Rebours, illustrated with particular élan when Des Esseintes, who desires to travel to London as respite from the regularity of his life in seclusion, chances to dine, before embarking, at an English restaurant located in his abhorred Paris: after his meal, Des Esseintes promptly cancels his trip to England, returning to his country estate, having satisfied his desire to experience England by enjoying the artificial, Parisian notion of ‘England’ presented to him over dinner. On one hand, Des Esseintes is sure that he will be underwhelmed by the ‘real thing,’ as the beauty of a lover devoid of cosmetics cannot approach the painted opulence of an affected image; more subversively, however, our world-weary libertine is aware that the experience he seeks is of a uniquely ersatz variety, and that subjecting his ‘heightened tastes’ to the dismal, pedestrian pleasures of European society would dull, and perhaps corrupt, his delicate sensibilities.

This rationalization is archetypal, in that it examines one of the key paradoxes of the Decadent world-view (a world-view which, it should be noted, revels in the charms of a good paradox): that, while the Decadent soul may seek redemption from his patent artificiality and adulterated perversions, he remains well-aware that the ‘purity’ of these notions of contrition is threatened chiefly by his own surfeit of experience: for how can gauche, prosaic 'reality' ever compare to the sumptuous unreality created by the Decadent imagination? And how can confessing the sins of the Decadent soul be a worthy pursuit when these sins, in and of themselves, illustrate the absurdity of both ‘confession’ and ‘sin?' Far more intriguing to the Decadent would be the affected comforts of a life of religious rigor, entirely devoid of the moral reflections that generally accompany it: the architecture of the church, to the Decadent, is far more paramount than the goings-on inside of it; the ephemeral, sensual allure of the incense and wine and costume and resonance of the organ can never be matched by the rituals for which they have been appropriated.

Barbey d'Aurevilly may have been considering this puzzle when he famously portended a choice for the author of À Rebours between ‘the muzzle of a pistol and the foot of the Cross.’ Huysmans, intriguingly, chose the latter, applying to the rigorous philosophy of Catholic mysticism the same impassioned dedication his creation, Des Esseintes, applied to his own pursuit of aesthetic experience. Which is to say that Huysmans—author of the ‘bible’ of the Decadence, À Rebours—himself epitomizes the ultimate paradox of the Decadent imagination.


Review: Torture Garden

‘Here and there in the indentations of the palisade, appearing like halls of verdure and flower-beds, were wooden benches equipped with chains and bronze necklaces, iron tables shaped like crosses, blocks and racks, gibbets, automatic quartering machines, beds laden with cutting blades, bristling with steel points, fixed chokers, props and wheels, boilers and basins above extinguished hearth, all the implements of sacrifice and torture covered in blood—in some places dried and darkish, in others sticky and red. Puddles of blood filled the hollows in the ground and long tears of congealed blood hung from the dismantled mechanisms. Around these machines the ground had absorbed the blood. But blood still stained the whiteness of the jasmines and flecked the coral-pink of the honeysuckles and the mauve of the passion flowers. And small fragments of human flesh, caught by whips and leather lashes, had flown here and there on to the tops of petals and leaves. Noticing that I was feeling faint and that I flinched at these puddles whose stain had enlarged and reached the middle of the avenue, Clara, in a gentle voice, encouraged me: “That’s nothing yet, darling… Let’s go on!”’

Octave Mirbeau’s Torture Garden is the most hideously brutal, debauched, splenetic, and disturbing piece of fiction I have ever encountered. It reads, on one level, as a catalog of the most odious, shamelessly rococo sadism known to imagination; but Mirbeau's vision is broader than that: ultimately, the novel is an allegory of political and moral corruption: a seething and merciless satire of the hypocrisies that blight the human race from beneath the sheep’s-clothing called ‘civilization.’ Wilde described it as ‘revolting’ and as ‘a sort of grey adder;’ his assessment is fitting: Torture Garden is an appallingly perverse, venomous, and decimating novel.

Written at the height of the Dreyfus Affair, Mirbeau’s scathing attack on the sanctimonious sophism of the governing elite is, at times, overpoweringly mephitic: it smells of pus and rotten meat and old urine; it tastes of bile and gall and shit. But intermingled with this miasma of death and miserable suffering, there is the insistent perfume of the countless flowers that Mirbeau has painted in luxuriant, almost indulgent, detail: and this is no paradox: because amid the corruption of life, amid the charnel-house and the devouring flies, there is a kind of haunted beauty that is fertilized by this horror and this filth: the blossoms of the Torture Garden are fed by the same flesh and blood that is flayed, molested, and slaughtered within it; the inescapable fact is that this beauty could not thrive without the repugnance that both envelops and is enveloped by it.

The plot details the exploits of a French debauchee who, after meandering through the vapid hypocrisies of political life in fin de siècle Paris, chances to meet a beautiful, recondite Englishwoman, Clara, at sea; deeply attracted to the veil of innocence that cloaks what he perceives to be a curiously ‘well-educated’ immorality, our narrator sets up house with her in her adopted homeland of China. It is only upon their visit to the Torture Garden, however, that our narrator comes to comprehend the sheer depths of Clara’s iniquity: of her lust, filth, and ultimate evil.

This is an incredibly challenging book; and while it has become a near-cliché to caution ‘the faint of heart,’ it is important to warn prospective readers of Torture Garden that, while nearly one-hundred-and-fifteen-years-old, Mirbeau’s masterpiece remains one of the more luridly depraved novels ever published. I’ve read Sade, Mandiargues, and others of their proclivity: Torture Garden, much more than rakish pornography, reduces their prurience to curiosity. But Mirbeau's novel exists in three dimensions: in Torture Garden we glimpse the malice that flickers within the heart of real evil, as page after page eviscerates the miserable flowers of bureaucracy, social imperialism, xenophobia, and moral hypocrisy while exposing their contemporary roots in the manners and mores of European ideas of 'civilization,' effectively contrasting them against a highly orientalized, 'barbarous' East that is ultimately more a mirror of the West than a foil. Some of the more disturbing episodes in the novel do not play out in the Torture Garden at all: the conversation between a British officer and a French explorer about the disposability of human beings—of Dum-Dum bullets and ‘civilized’ cannibalism, of the imminent goal of entirely eliminating both the physical and intangible existence of an abstract ‘enemy’—remain as strikingly and singularly appalling as any gruesomely reprobate episode detailed from within the Torture Garden itself: and this despite the obvious satire (or perhaps even because of it) with which the scene is suffused. These pages drip with blood, yes—but also with cyanide.

I have discovered that Torture Garden’s ability to shock, stupefy, and disgust loses little upon rereading, even as its message becomes more apparent. It remains unavoidably relevant; and while it may turn our stomachs and challenge our patience for debauchery, the compelling employment of revulsion is a major component of Torture Garden's success as an allegory, underlining repeatedly its express purpose: to awaken us to the moral dilemmas often left unexamined within a 'governed' existence, lest we should forget or—far worse—choose to ignore the half-buried incongruities used to measure deception and truth, murder and inevitability. It is not with mere irony, after all, that Mirbeau prefaced his novel thusly: ‘To the priests, the soldiers, the judges: to those people who educate, instruct and govern men: I dedicate these pages of Murder and Blood.’

With its airy exoticism and heartless cruelty, its juxtaposition of indescribably violent torture and indescribably beautiful flowers, its excoriating anger and its electrifying sensuality, Torture Garden is not merely a classic of the Decadence, but a classic of the human soul. These grotesque and poisonous pages have etched themselves, for both better and worse, indelibly upon my brain: and for the bravest of readers, they will open onto vistas of incomparable truth: for beyond the Torture Garden lies a beauty that cannot be grasped without first glimpsing the barbarity with which it is inextricably bound.


Review: Bruges-La-Morte

‘The faces of the dead, which are preserved in our memory for a while, gradually deteriorate there, fading like a pastel drawing that has not been kept under glass, allowing the chalk to disperse. Thus, within us, our dead die a second time.’

Bruges-La-Morte is the cardinal work of Symbolist literature: a haunted, profoundly intimate novel that explores the sacred obligations of grief, sorrow, and sin—and the way that a place, here the decaying city of Bruges, can inform the rhythm of life (as well as life-in-death) of the scattered, ruined souls that comprise its inhabitants.

Written by a Belgian, Georges Rodenbach, in 1892, Bruges-La-Morte is a key component of the literature of the Decadence—as well as, perhaps, the most moving and acutely poignant work in its canon. Rodenbach’s prose, orphic and sensuous, could be labeled a sort of exercise in hypnotism, the spell achieving its greatest successes when, after coming up from the depths of an opium-dream, we are startled with the occasional interruption of painfully raw, near-caustic laconicism; these short, beautifully-woven sentences linger in the brain like a fever, inducing a rapture of agonized comprehension. This novel, curiously, is utterly empathic to the concerns of even the most jaded and stoic of readers: because it is a work dedicated to the study of human ‘analogies’—the strange, surreal comparisons drawn in the minds of all and torn to pieces within the obsessions, and eager fervor, of an unfortunate few.

The plot is merely a gauze upon which to hang the ghosts of observation: it details the dream-like, funereal existence of a widower who, after ten years of mourning his dead wife—worshiping her possessions, photographs, and physical memories like the reliquaries of a saint—chances to meet a woman who, in outward appearance, is the very mirror-image of his lost love. They begin an affair: one in which our protagonist sees not the intimations of sin and betrayal against the dead so often experienced by the bereaved, but, instead, the literal continuation of his wife’s actuality: he is trying to recreate her existence, as if a thread had never been cut—as if it had only been interrupted. Obviously we can expect little but disappointment and tragedy from so misguided a notion; but the climax of this novel is triply-tragic, because three lives are shattered by the highest intentions of one.

Bruges-La-Morte, as I said, is a novel of analogies; and the highest analogy is between the insistent sentience of the city and the way it mirrors—as a dead wife is mirrored by a stranger—the psyche of a citizen. Rodenbach, of course, illustrates this phenomenon best: ‘Towns above all have a personality, a spirit of their own, an almost externalized character which corresponds to joy, new love, renunciation, widowhood. Every town is a state of mind, a mood which, after only a short stay, communicates itself, spreads to us in an effluvium which impregnates us, which we absorb with the very air.’ And the ‘effluvium’ of dead, gloom-haunted, and weeping Bruges (which, arguably, remains the most important character in this novel) is rich with a paradoxical aura of contagion, comfort, and doom.

Bruges-La-Morte is one of the dozen or so pieces of literature that have been instrumental in defining, refining, and directing my sensibilities as an intellectual and an artist; but it has also served to reflect my perception of the nature of love, sorrow, and decay, by crystallizing my notions of the ‘sacred sin’ that, ultimately, intimates salvation. The protagonist of Bruges-La-Morte is left to his own sins before we can glimpse his absolution: but if the trajectory of my philosophy, that we must rot before we ripen, is accepted as truth, Bruges-La-Morte, with its jarring tragedy and startling pessimism, casts a light upon one of the more troubling intimations of this school of thought: that salvation is relative: that sometimes decay is, in and of itself, the only salvation at all.


Review: Vathek

(Via 'The Realm of the Unreal')

Surely few stranger works of fiction exist in the annals of Romantic literature than William Beckford’s dreamy, opulent, and hypnotically weird Vathek, where an undeniable and outrageous breed of almost slapstick comedy mingles like wine in water with scenes of utter blasphemy and perversion as the eponymous Caliph Vathek, tempted by the sprawling subterranean riches of Iblis (the Islamic demon par excellence), wanders a one-way path to absolute damnation in one of the more meandering and scandalous journeys of self-destruction ever penned. Supreme destination: a climax of hearts exploding into smokeless fire.

Along the way, a parade of droll, chimerical tableaux pepper the narrative with delightful diversions: pious dwarves bearing baskets of fruit and chirping incessantly, to the great annoyance of our Caliph, Qur’anic verses; saucy women tricking eunuchs into flinging about on swings in a perfumed harem; great feasts, examined in exacting detail, of everything from roasted wolves and boiled thistles to pistachio-stuffed lamb and drugged sherbets; an entire city kicking about a goblin who has curled into a ball and taken to rolling about through the streets of Samarra and eventually over a cliff; a woman burning bits and pieces of mummies, rhinoceros horns, and human beings atop a dizzyingly high tower to placate the forces of evil; divining fish; one-eyed deaf mutes getting lusty with ghouls who have risen drowsily from the grave to feast on fresh corpses. This is certainly not Aladdin.

Vathek is charming and potently hallucinatory stuff meant to be taken in one giant dose, like a short story. Take a couple of hours and give it your undivided attention; Vathek rewards with that glorious sensation of ‘I need to read this out loud to somebody.’ This is certainly not high literature, but it’s not just trash (not even just ‘good trash’) either. Vathek is a sort of world unto its own: equal parts Arabian Nights and Castle of Otranto, and also something unclassifiable and gorgeous and grotesque. The prose, while unashamedly purple, suits its narrative and has an irony about it that never fails to endear. There’s something almost Gogolian in its bizarre sense of humor, and the terror here is both Gothic and admirably understated. A jumble of contradictions, Vathek is as fickle as its author—and just as fascinating: William Beckford, ostracized from high society for his homosexual affair with young ‘Kitty’ Courtenay, was one of the wealthiest and most eccentric men of his generation, and Vathek is, in many ways, the ultimate expression of his own self-indulgent fantasies, here taken to their most far-flung extremes of escapism and ‘oriental’ magnificence. And like so many other curiosities in literature, from A Season in Hell to Melmoth the Wanderer, Vathek is all the more entrancing when this unique and sometimes uncomfortably personal relationship with its author is taken into account.

Vathek's influence on the Gothic movement as a whole is evident from the first paragraph, where we are introduced to our naughty Caliph’s ability to strike men dead with a single ‘terrible’ gaze; and this absurd, and yet ultimately captivating, sense of wonder pervades the entire novel like the cloying, and yet rapturous, odor of heady rosewater. A treat for reflective minds and those interested in literary theatrics both, I count myself an ardent admirer.

Review: The Picture of Dorian Gray

(Via 'The Realm of the Unreal')

The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of the more elegant novels in the Gothic canon; that it is also one of the more sinister is hardly surprising given Oscar Wilde’s curious aptitude for tempering the macabre with the sensuous and the frivolous with the fatalistic.

A considerable scandal upon its publication in the early 1890s, the novel still reads as slightly homoerotic, even if only in the most clandestine and aphotic of ways. Woven through its themes of beauty, decadence, age, and the nature of art is a thread of shimmering doom that becomes more poignant the longer one spends with Dorian Gray and the more one considers its relationship with its author.

It is a peacock’s fan of luminous wit and glimmering color, dripping with venom and smelling of strange perfumes. We are all familiar with the general flavor of things: an innocent and exceptionally beautiful youth has his portrait painted one fateful afternoon; upon viewing the piece, he is paralyzed by the sudden revelation that one day he will be old and hideous while the painting will retain its beauty and life. In a devil’s bargain, he wishes that it would be the other way around. And then, under the influence of a particularly deleterious gentleman, Dorian Gray begins to change: his innocence gives way to corruption and his beauty seems apt to languish under the spell of opium, cruelty, and languor. One day Dorian notices that the painting has begun to transform, while he himself retains all the beauty of an innocent despite the ever-swelling ocean of his sins…

Few works of literature are as effervescent as Dorian Gray and just as few are as utterly pessimistic; that it is capable of fusing remarkably disparate parts into a whole that is absolutely cohesive is a superior example of its author’s gifts. Like Wilde’s Salome, Dorian Gray is as colorful as it is bleak, and even its weaknesses, in context, seem like strengths.

Seldom is an artist’s most famous work also his most erudite and brilliant: this is one of those works. I have approached it perhaps six or seven times in the last five years, and each reading has left me more enraptured than the last—which is high praise for a novel that relies a great deal on suspense and aesthetic splendour. I consider it one of the finest things I have ever read—daring, sultry, venomous, eloquent, and radiant in its own decay.

Au Lecteur

After two years of writing on the subject of the Gothic via 'The Realm of the Unreal', my readers have requested that I devote a separate journal to the literature of the Decadence...

And, of course, only too happy to oblige any mind as thoroughly poisoned as mine, I present 'A Portrait in Flesh.'

The curious, almost mutually parasitic, nature of the relationship between reader and writer is highlighted supremely in Decadent literature; to that end, expect a more personal set of observations from 'A Portrait in Flesh,' to contrast with the more academic concerns dealt with at 'The Realm of the Unreal.' My definition of 'Decadence,' though, similar to my definition of 'Gothic,' should be expected to be fairly wide-ranging: arbitrary, often academic definitions are much less important to me than the recognition of a collective ethos. To emphasize this distinction, I will be initiating this journal with two entries taken from 'The Realm of the Unreal,' one of which (The Picture of Dorian Gray) would appear on many lists of Decadent literature, whereas the other (Vathek) would appear on only a seldom few...

Please join me in my dissolution by bookmarking this page and checking back often.