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.


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