Monthly Archives: October 2012

Wainewright the myth, Wainewright the man

“Pen, Pencil, and Poison” was a startling and satisfying read–or perhaps I should reverse the order of my description and specify my sensations in the order that I experienced them. When I first finished reading the essay, I found it to be most enjoyable, and sat silently, gently re-tracing the fascinating portrait of the man that it had unraveled under my nose; then, with a jolt, I came to the sudden realization that this essay was not in fact a short story or any sort of fictitious piece–it was, in fact, a piece of bona fide historical biography, a memoir written about someone who had genuinely lived and laughed and hated, who had painted real pictures of real women and published real articles in real journals, and dripped real strychnine crystals over the real living tongues of his flesh-and-blood kin! After this shocking revelation, of course I had the urge to go back and read it through again; but somehow, as soon as I flipped back to the first page and began afresh, I had to stop myself. I felt too much like a voyeur, panting at a keyhole, sneering at each and every movement that my prey made–innocent of the knowledge that his every twitch and tic was being lapped up by a hidden peeping-tom, becoming drunk with the power of seeing but not being seen, of making judgments without having to be judged himself.

I am not entirely sure how to account for my deluded belief that Thomas Griffiths Wainewright was a fictional character invented by Wilde. Perhaps it was simply that he bears such a strong resemblance to other characters that occur in Wilde’s written fiction, or to characters that appear in novels that have been known to exert influence upon Wilde: it seemed to me that Wainewright owed a great deal of his debonair charm to Lord Henry, his sensitivity to beauty to from Basil, his eclectic taste to des Esseintes, and his personal elegance (“the beautiful rings, his antique cameo breast-pin, and his pale lemon-coloured kid gloves”) seemed lifted directly from the personage of Dorian Gray. And there is the fascinating amorality of this devout aesthete, the fact that he poisoned (not metaphorically, but in physical actuality) his family and friends, that hearkens back to themes that can be found in Picture of Dorian Gray and Against Nature, for both Dorian and des Esseintes poison (metaphorically) their friends with dangerous opinions and habits which land them in squalor.

Maybe it was also that by now, I realize that Wilde has a tendency to consciously distance his own views from those expressed by his fictional characters. By making Lord Henry spew nonsensical paradoxes and by putting extravagant statements into Vivian’s mouth, the reader comes to assume that Wilde cannot possibly be committed to these crazy views, and many of his characters are merely mouthpieces for a specific, subjective worldview that does not necessarily seek universalizability. In “Pen, Pencil, and Poison”, there are excerpts from the criticism of Wainewright, which Wilde commentaries and evaluates. In fact, much of Wainewright’s written work has the same whimsical register as Wilde’s writing: it is only somewhat more prone to grandiloquence. So, forgive me for my error, but I thought that Wilde himself had penned these so-called “excerpts” and delivered his a kind of meta-criticism upon them in order to portray and experiment with a variety of viewpoints. Not entirely implausible, no?

In any case, there is no use in retroactively justifying my original mistake. The question, however remains: why could I not bring myself to read the essay once again? Where did that hesitation come from?

I can only offer a tentative answer, but after some navel-gazing it seems to me that I just wanted to like him too much. I simply didn’t want to marvelous personality, this fascinating multi-faceted being, to vanish from my fingertips, snatched away into calumny by the label “multiple murderer”. If I read the memoir over again, knowing that what he did had real impact upon the world and the people around him, I would be forced to pass judgment on Wainewright and come to some moral or intellectual conclusion about what his life amounted to. It would not be enough to merely marvel at the fantastic narrative arc of his life, I would have to formulate some concrete ideas about the man, his deeds, and his legacy. And I simply could not bring myself to do so because I was already so taken with the way in which Wilde had captured him: as a fictional creation, I could still unabashedly appreciate him. But, real person as he was, I am compelled to judge him for his heinous crimes, or to balance his positive versus negative influence upon to world, to ponder the question of whether artistic output redeems a man of his misdoings.

And these questions suddenly overwhelmed me, when all I wanted to do was the admire the whole person (crimes, art, and all). But I could only do so when he wasn’t real. As art, he was forgiveable–for art is a sort of great redeemer, that allows us to bypass moral considerations and pass on straight to aesthetic evaluation. And indeed, Wainewright is beautiful as a work of art; but as a man, few would bestow such high praise on him.

But this raises another question. If art indeed operates as a separate criterion for making value judgments about something, then should it be allowed to gain the upper hand all the time? When should it be subservient to other (moral and intellectual) concerns? Is it not exceedingly dangerous to allow the aesthetic impulse to run away unchecked if it is at the cost of the lives around you? As we ponder these questions, remember that they apply to both Wainewright himself (who was such an artist but also undoubtedly a murderer) and to ourselves, as we engage with works of art and allow them to move us, to influence us.


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A Wilde Family

Reading “The Decay of Lying” through the point of view of Oscar Wilde’s children made me start to think about the role of family in some of the Decadent works we have read so far. The connection is hard to make in “The Decay of Lying” because it is unclear why Wilde chose his sons as the main characters or what the actual significance is. Looking back at The Picture of Dorian Gray and Against Nature the family theme is a little clearer.

In Against Nature, Des Esseintes’ family is described in the prologue before the book even really begins. Huysmans traces the Des Esseintes lineage through the family portraits. Huysmans writes, “It was obvious that the decline of this ancient house had followed an inevitable course; the males had grown progressively more effeminate; as if  to perfect the work of the time, for two centuries the Des Esseintes intermarried their children, thus exhausting, through inbreeding, what little strength they possessed,” (3). The Des Esseintes family has become weaker and sicker and the current Des Esseintes is no exception. Throughout the novel his weakness, illness, and neurosis are described. It seems that Des Esseintes is merely following a family trend.

Similarly, Dorian also traces through his ancestry in The Picture of Dorian Gray. As Dorian examines the portraits of his predecessors, he sees pieces of himself in the various members of his family. He ponders whether he was, “bequeathed… some inheritance of sin and shame,” or influenced by past infamies (107-108). Dorian notes that he “had got from [his mother] his beauty, and his passion for the beauty of others,” (108). Like Des Esseintes, it seems that Dorian is just another link in a chain of similar family members. Wilde even writes, “There were times when it appeared to Dorian Gray that the whole of history was merely the record of his own life… It seemed to him that in some mysterious way their lives had been his own,” (108).

How unique are Dorian and Des Esseintes? Are they truly revolutionary or are they just members of eccentric families? Are their stories predetermined and inevitable? Both characters never have children, so is the line is severed. But Oscar Wilde had his two sons. Where does he see himself in this line of thought? Perhaps casting his sons in one of his witty and more pointed works is his way of expressing the hope that his legacy will continue.


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Poisoning as an Artistic Tool in Pen, Pencil and Poison

I was immediately struck by Oscar Wilde’s introduction in Pen, Pencil and Poison. He asserts that “it has constantly been made a subject of reproach against artists and men of letters that they are lacking in wholeness and completeness of nature.” (1093) He also says that it must necessarily be so; “to those who are pre-occupied with the beauty of form nothing else seems of much importance.” (ibid) Thomas Griffiths Wainewright therefore suffers from this lack thereof.

Aside from being a poet of art, and a maker of art, Wainewright was also skilled with the art of poison. Wilde reveres Wainewright’s ability to end the life of others as a form of art, as opposed to prescribing him with insanity within his work, caused by his extracurricular murderous activities. It is true that Wainewright has real passion for art and literature, as he strove to “to see and write brave things” (1094), but his agenda was more precisely geared towards gain of social status.  Wilde describes his dandy-like ways to us, and also his Dorian-esque features—he had an “influence [and a] strange fascination that he exercised on every one who knew him” (ibid). He emphasizes the fact that “a mask tells more than a face […] these disguises intensified his personality.” What I found most striking however was the fact that Wainewright wanted more so to influence people by being “somebody rather than [doing] something.” (1095)

Through this compelling homage to a murderer, Wilde outlines and glorifies a man who actually did not seem to have as much of an effect on British literary society as Wilde thought he did. A description I read online even states that “Wainwright has often been summarily dismissed as a mawkishly sentimental painter of women” (wikipedia).

Wilde’s obsession then truly rests on Wainewright’s aritistic capabilities as a murderer. Poisoning itself can therefore be considered an art within these terms. A man who knows how to poison without being caught or seen, has a certain morbid talent—killing. Wilde even explains that after having been sentenced he “[did not] give up his habit of poisoning […] but his hand seemed to have lost its cunning.” (1105) just like the poet’s hand can lose it’s creative skills.

Wilde finishes with a totally scandalous claim (much like his thoughts on life and nature coming out of art and not the other way around)—Wainewright “had a sincere love of art and nature […] there is no essential incongruity between crime and culture.” (1106). Essentially, Wainewright is the artist of death, his pen, pencil, and poison are all equal talents that can be “honored” (as Wilde would have it) as one. It seems that for Wilde, the artist’s hand creates beauty no matter the tool that creates it, or the violent reality of the finished product. Wilde is glorifying literature, art, and poison, all in the same breath.


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Huysmans and the Decadent Aesthetic of Madness: Boredom, Loneliness, and Psychoneurosis (Presentation handout)


Since 1884, the readers of À Rebours have been challenged not only because of its extremely long and quite painful catalogues and descriptions, but also and above all, the mysterious literary topoi and the symbolism of À Rebours call into question the decadent aesthetic of the end of the century. À Rebours is considered the bible of French Decadence. But more importantly, des Esseintes’ anxieties and deliria are, to some extent, fascinating and denote a sort of alienation and disenchantment vis-à-vis a world in mutation. Des Esseintes’s behaviours underline the psycho-pathological symptoms of an important historical moment in the unfolding of history itself, namely la Fin de Siècle (the end of the nineteenth century). This period is also characterized by what has been called in French le Mal du siècle, which could be roughly translated as “the malady of the century.” This term is used to refer to the ennui (boredom), disenchantment, and melancholy experienced by young adults of Europe’s early 19th century. It is also associated with the rising of the Romantic Movement in French poetry. Approximately at the same time, Sigmund Freud deals with various cases of hysterical women that are increasing in modern and industrializing Europe. It is actually in an attempt to find a palliative to some barbaric practices used at that time to treat psychoneuroses and hysteria that Freud made his ground-breaking discoveries regarding the structure of the unconscious. One could say that des Esseintes embodies quite well the masculine flip side of the coin, namely madness and neurosis (névrose) associated with delusions and hallucinations, as it is very clear in the second part of the book. In this short presentation —followed up by an open discussion— we’ll try to tackle the problematic of an isolated life cut off from the world (in Fontenay) as opposed to a materialistic and hedonistic way of life (in Paris), and the existential crisis these two antithetic inclinations yield in des Esseintes’s mind.


À Rebours is actually the second part of a trilogy whose first work is À vau-l’eau (1882) and the third is En Rade (1887). On February 1884, Robert Caze announced the upcoming publication of “a detailed study on pessimism” (une étude appronfondie sur le pessimisme) in a French literary publication entitled “Opinion.” The first title Huysmans wanted to use for his novel was indeed: “Seul” (Alone), but apparently he changed his mind for some reason. Before the publication of À Rebours, one could say that Huysmans belongs to the Naturalist Movement in literature. Zola himself, the head of the Naturalist school of French fiction, soon became a friend and mentor to the young Huysmans after the publication of his first novel in 1876 (Marthe, histoire d’une fille. English: Marthe, the Story of a Girl). However, Huysmans’ association with the Naturalist group lasted until the publication of À Rebours, which constitutes genuinely a statement of a rupture vis-à-vis a certain type of literature, and, on the other hand, this novel is a critique of the over-idealised conception of Bohemian life in Paris (decadence and debauchery). In À Rebours, des Esseintes seems to have decided to leave such a way of life and consequently he decided to exile in a quiet and austere retreat in the countryside, and that is probably what appealed the modern reader in the first place (Ch. I: des Esseintes quotes Baudelaire: Any where out of the world). Now, let’s take a look at some comments about that piece of decadent literature by contemporary literary critiques:

  1. Guy de Maupassant (popular 19th-century French writer): “Le romancier J.K. Huysmans, dans son livre stupéfiant, qui a pour titre À Rebours, vient d’analyser et de raconter, de la façon la plus ingénieuse et la plus imprévue, la maladie d’un de ces dégoûtés […] Je ne pourrais tenter l’analyse complète du livre de Huysmans, de ce livre extravagant et désopilant, plein d’art, de fantaisie bizarre, de style pénétrant et subtil, de ce livre qu’on pourrait appeler ‘l’histoire d’une névrose.’” (Guy de Maupassant in “Par delà,” Gil Blas, 10-VI-1884).
  1. Jules Destrée (Walloon lawyer, cultural critic, and socialist politician): “Tout ce qui avait été pensé, écrit, peint dans ce genre, il l’a résumé, condensé, fondu, discuté, dans une œuvre hantante, puissamment suggestive et profondément orginale. Elle correspond presque, en prose, aux Fleurs du mal de Baudelaire.” (Jules Destrée, Le Journal de Charleroi, 4-VI-1884).


  • X : L’Orgue à parfums (the perfume organ)

“[L]e doute ne pouvait exister ; la névrose revenait, une fois de plus, sous l’apparence d’une nouvelle illusion des sens.” (197) / “[T]here could no longer be any doubt, his neurosis had returned once again, under the guise of this new delusion of the senses.” (135)

Des Esseintes étudiait, analysait l’âme de ces fluids, faisait l’exégèse de ces textes ; il se complaisait à jouer pour sa satisfaction personnelle, le rôle d’un psychologue, à démonter et à remonter les rouages d’une œuvre, à dévisser les pieces formant la structure d’une exhalaison composée […].” (201) / Des Esseintes studied an analysed the essence of these fluids, carried out an exegesis, so to speak, of their texts; he delighted in playing, for his own personal satisfaction, the role of a psychologist, taking apart and re-assembling the mechanism of a work, unscrewing the pieces that formed the structure of a compound flagrance […].” (138).

Comment: L’Orgue à parfums (the perfume organ): the composition of perfumes construed as an Art (comparison between the composition of perfumes and poetry, as if the words themselves and their composition could yield some sort of flavour). The smell/odour of the perfumes allows des Esseintes to travel, as it is the case in Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu through the theme of involuntary explicit memory (somehow related to the Platonic anamnesis), the flagrances des Esseintes create allows him to travel and escape out of the trivial and mundane existence he very much despises (see any where out of the world in chapter I). He also sees himself alternatively as a poet, a psychologist, or even as an architect (trying to order the chaos of his mind). External stimuli (coming from his sensations, in particular olfactory perceptions) trigger hallucinations and waking dreams. Ultimately, too overwhelmed by those ‘transports,’ Des Esseintes collapses and passes out, as if dying, on the window sill (end of the chapter X). On a more general level, it seems to me that des Esseintes wants to turn his back on the material and tangible world (Nature), and sort of dedicate all his time to spiritual contemplation, stimulating his senses by various means.

  • XI : First visit of the Doctor of Fontenay and des Esseintes’ daydream in Dickens’ England

En somme, j’ai éprouvé et j’ai vu ce que je voulais éprouver et voir.” (226) / “In short, I’ve experienced and seen all I wanted to experience and see.” (160)

Comment: First visit of the Doctor of Fontenay (he prescribes Des Esseintes sedatives and rest), and interestingly enough, he reports all over the village how eccentric and strange the house’s interior design is. One recalls how des Esseintes choose the furniture and the colours for his house of Fontenay in a very elaborate manner (it takes almost two chapters for Huysman to describe that).

In chapter XI, Des Esseintes starts reading Dickens, and once again, through Art, he is transported in some sort of daydream wherein our anti-hero finds himself projected into the England of Charles Dickens, and meet some of the characters of this literary world created from scratch. In a sort of introspective delirium, Des Esseintes thinks of other travels, in Holland/Netherlands. When he comes back to the everyday reality, Des Esseintes pretty much feels like he just took a long journey.

  • XII : Catalogue of books and des Esseintes’ beloved Baudelaire

Baudelaire était allé plus loin ; il était descendu jusqu’au fond de l’inépluisable mine, s’était engagé à travers des galleries abandonnées ou inconnues, avait abouti à des districts de l’âme où se ramifiait les végétations monstueuses de la pensée.” (230) / “Baudelaire had gone further; he had descended to the very bottom of the inexhaustible mine, had penetrated abandoned or unexplored passage, had ended up in those regions of the soul that branch out into the monstrous growths of thoughts.” (163).

Et plus des Esseintes relisait Baudelaire, plus il reconnaissait un indicible charme à cet écrivain qui, dans un temps où le vers ne servait plus qu’à peindre l’aspect extérieur des êtres et des choses, était parvenu à exprimer l’inexprimable, grâce à une langue musculeuse et charnue, qui, plus que tout autres, possédait cette merveilleuse puissance de fixer avec une étrange santé, les plus tremblés, des esprits épuisés et des âmes tristes.” (231-232) / “And the more des Esseintes re-read Baudelaire, the more he recognized the indescribable charm of this writer who, in an age when poetry served only to paint the external aspect of beings and things, had succeeded in expressing the inexpressible thanks to a muscular and fleshy language which, more than any other, possessed that marvellous power to capture, un curiously vigorous terms, the most fleeting, the most elusive states of morbidity in exhausted minds and despondent soul.” (165)

  • XIII : La Nausée

“[…] à ce moment là, la vue de la viande déposée sur la table, lui souleva le cœur ; il prescrivit qu’on la fît disparaître, commanda des œufs à la coque, tenta d’avaler les mouillettes, mais elle lui barrèrent la gorge ; des nausées lui venaient aux lèvres ; il bu quelques gouttes de vin qui lui piquèrent, comme des pointes de feu, l’estomac. Il s’étancha la figure ; la sueur, tout à l’heure tiède, fluait, maintenant froide, le long des tempes ; il se prit à sucer quelques morceux de glace, pour tromper le mal de cœur ; ce fut en vain.” (254) / […] at that moment the sight of meat placed on the table made his stomach heave; he told them to remove it, ordered boiled eggs and tried to swallow some sippets, but they stuck in his throat ; waves of nausea rose to his lips; he drank a few drops of wine that picked his stomach like hot needles. He dried his face; the sweat that a moment earlier had been warm, now ran cold down his temples; he began to suck pieces of ice to relieve his sick stomach, but it was in vain.” (183-184).

Comment: Des Esseintes keeps brooding despondently, looses his appetite, and gets bad stomach cramps. This is a psycho-pathological symptom of his spleen, that fact that he sort of lost his joie de vivre. Nightmares, illusion of the senses, delusions, hallucinations, in short all the symptoms of des Esseintes’ neurosis. He even tried to install hydrotherapeutic equipment in his house (see chapter 9. How can one deal with hysteria and psychoneurosis in the nineteenth century without proper treatments or drugs?). New problem: anemia. Des Esseintes can’t eat anymore. Who or what will redeem this tormented soul?

  • XIV : Secular books (livres profanes, œuvres laïques, la littérature française, moderne, et profane: Balzac, Flaubert, Zola, de Goncourt, Stendhal, then Verlaine, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, and finally Aloysius Bertrand, Poe, and Baudelaire).
  • XV : The malady resumes its course with new and unexpected symptoms (nightmares, olfactory and auditory hallucinations, burning fevers, involuntary memories coming from des Esseintes’ childhood). Des Esseintes has recourse to a famous physician of Paris who prescribes him to get back to Paris. The doctor also mentions the hydropathic treatments (hydrotherapy), which were used in the 18th and 19th centuries to treat neurosis.
  • XVI : End: Conversion? Pessimism? Disenchantment? Irony? Deus ex machina?


  • Concretely, what is wrong with des Esseintes? What are the cause(s) and the meaning of his ‘medical’ condition? In that regard, what do we learn from the doctor of Paris at the end of the book (chapter XV and XVI)? To which measure could one say that this information shed new light on des Esseintes’ existential crisis (cf. Bohemian life vs. Ascetic seclusion out of the world)?
  • From our previous discussion, how can we understand des Esseintes’s antipathy or esteem for those authors who are now considered classics of French literature (Balzac, Baudelaire, and Zola)? What does he like in Balzac as opposed to Zola (which are both supposed to belong to the Naturalist literary movement)? How could we envision the naturalism in the novels of Zola as opposed to what Huysmans seems to put forward in Against Nature? Is it a sort of anti-naturalism? What about Baudelaire?


Husymans, Joris-Karl. À Rebours. Paris: Gallimard, 1977. Print

Guyaux, André, et al. Huysmans: Une esthétique de la décadence. Paris: Éditions Slatkine, 1987. Print

Lair, Samuel et al. J.-K. Huysmans: Littérature et religion. Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2009. Print

Livi, François., J.-K. Huysmans: À rebours et l’esprit decadent. Paris: A.G. Nizet, 1991. Print.

– R.C.

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Des Esseintes’ Malady and the Tortoise

For this blog entry, I would like to come back on the chapter IV of À Rebours and, more particularly, on the anecdote of the tortoise. In this chapter, the reader learns that des Esseintes bought a tortoise near the Palais-Royal in Paris a couple of days before his departure for Fontenay. Indeed, while contemplating an Oriental carpet, des Esseintes thought that a magnificent moving object would embellish the carpet’s colours.

“[…] il serait bon de placer sur ce tapis quelque chose qui remuât et dont le ton foncé aiguisât la vivacité de ces teintes.” (118)

Unfortunately, when des Esseintes placed the tortoise on his Oriental carpet, the aesthetic effect he was aiming for was not achieved. The colours were still too dull, uniform, and brownish. Des Esseintes decided then to cover the tortoise’s carapace with gold. Still not perfectly satisfied, he decided then to encrust the carapace with various gems and precious stones. Turning the poor creature into a genuine work of art, des Esseintes adds more and more weight on the tortoise’s carapace. Des Esseintes gets his tortoise delivered to Fontenay and for once, he feels happy and good about himself: he eats with appetite and even decides to allow himself the luxury of drinking spirits, mixing them as they were various basic materials to compose complex perfumes (he uses what he calls his “orgue à bouche” that could clearly be compared with his “orgue à parfum.”) The taste of a whisky triggers an involuntary and quite unpleasant memory: that one time he got a tooth pulled out. By the time his daydream ends, des Esseintes notices that the tortoise is not moving anymore; the tortoise is dead because the extra-weight of the gems and precious stones crushed it.

It seems to me that the anecdote of the tortoise is quite similar to des Esseintes’ sad fate. In the case of des Esseintes, the gems and precious stones are the works of art (construed in a very broad sense) he loves so much: his authors (such as Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Balzac for instance) and his painters (such as Gustave Moreau and Odilon Redon). In Fontenay, des Esseintes is too absorbed by contemplation and meditation and gets into a neurotic state of inertia and apathy. He cannot distinguish between the real and the fictional, and becomes mad. As the tortoise, des Esseintes is being crushed by those precious stones that constitute the ‘high-culture.’ Eventually des Esseintes needs to leave Fontenay and come back to Paris because his ascetic seclusion out of the world is literally killing him. – R.C.

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Storify of Our Literary Twitter Role Play: The Picture of Dorian Gray

Please click on this link to get to the Storify of our public literary Twitter role play about Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.

It took place on Friday, October 26, 2012, under the hashtag #digwilde.

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Des Esseintes as a Catholic

Against Nature is an undeniably strange work of literature. It disregards a significant number of literary conventions of characterization. For example, Des Esseintes has no foils. There is little by way of plot development, so we don’t see his character develop over time of change in moments of crisis. Instead, we learn about Des Esseintes almost solely through his material possessions–we learn what kind of books he likes, what art he finds beautiful, what places he thinks are worth visiting, how he thinks turtles should be decorated, and so on and so forth. He rarely reflects on himself except in the context of material objects. Even some of his most internal characteristics–such as his various strains of crazy–are externalized and illuminated through his possessions and the attitude he has towards them. We spend all our time in his carefully constructed universe at Fontenay, but very little time actually in his head–except when he is discussing Catholicism. At the beginning of chapter 7, we are told he is living “on himself, feeding on his own substance” and that “The chaotic mass of readings and meditations on art that he had stored up during his solitude, like a dam to stem the flow of former memories, had been suddenly swept away , and the flood-tide was on the move, buffeting the present, the future, drowning everything beneath the waters of the past filling  his mind” (62). With all of his art drowning in the past, I expected him to reflect on his parents–not their portraits in the gallery, but his actual parents–and his childhood adventures. And he does–for about two paragraphs. The vast majority of this chapter, the self-substance on which he feeds, is about religion.

Although he insists that  his character is resistant to shaping, we learn that Catholicism has shaped the way he thinks and argues (65). He accepts Schopenhauer’s doctrine of pessimism, but not because Church doctrine is absolutely wrong. His view and the Church’s have a “common starting point,” but instead of justifying the evils of the world and holding the “vague hope” of an afterlife, he preaches the “nothingness of existence” and becomes a decadent hermit (69). He never questions the doctrine that human beings do have a soul and he acknowledges from his soul the Church’s “hereditary influence on humanity of centuries of time” (69). Is there a phenomenon in Catholicism of being “culturally Catholic” like there is in Judaism? Des Esseintes rejects original sin and considers God’s mercy extremely questionable, but he defines the substance of his soul as Catholic. He collects Catholic art and literature (which almost seems doubly significant, since he defines himself in such large part by the art on his walls and the books he reads), and he turns his bedroom into a luxurious monk’s cell. It’s not just fetishization of ritual. He fetishizes flowers, and when they die he throws them away. He doesn’t use Catholicism until it ceases to please his senses; he identifies in the most fundamental way as Catholic.

Which brings me to the ending. I don’t believe the conclusion is a standard conversion. He bristles at Catholicism in chapter 7 because he fears no longer being “absolute master” in his own house,  but at the end the doctor has already taken that agency from him (69). He is forced to leave his tiny, secluded, absolutely pure kingdom, surrender his absolute mastery, and return to the polluted world. He has to give up his strange proclivities and be normal, just like everybody else, which means he can no longer have an isolated half-Catholic, half-art cult religion of one. I don’t think he has suddenly begun believing in original sin and all the other dogma he disparages. He hasn’t suddenly begun trusting the Church as present in the world, which is corrupted and impure. I think the ending is his frustrated acceptance of the doctor’s command to stop being crazy, but he is still enough himself to want one of the few things left to him to be beautiful which–although this does not seem to be the case with flowers–seems to entail purity. Or at least purity of ritual. (No more potato starch!) And what more richly excessive and poetic way to purify a religion than to have a vengeful God rain fire from the sky (180)? And, if the pestilence must continue and he must be subject to it, at least he can pray for himself. He has such a low opinion of God’s mercy, I don’t think he believes God will give him faith or hope or guidance, but I think he’ll engage in the ritual anyway, because praying is what Catholic people do, and Des Esseintes has a Catholic soul. –LN

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