[Written by A.A.]
When Keats lamented the weakness of his spirit and dimness of his brain in his poem, “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles,” he lamented the plight of the artist. Indeed, many of the Romantics – Wordsworth, Shelley, Coleridge – grappled with a distinctive artistic problem: the problem of representation.
Confronted with Nature and tasked with the job of interpreting it, Romantic poets often resorted to producing poems about the very inexpressibility of Nature itself. You see it in Shelley’s “Mount Blanc,” Coleridge’s “Hymn Before Sunrise,” and many other Romantic works. Regardless of a poem’s subject matter, though, one thing was clear throughout the Romantic movement: the Poet occupied a role of translation. He was the bridge between the majestic sights of Nature and the resulting poem that would be read by the ordinary masses. When Poet’s role is to provide the interpretive framework for what already exists, however, he is not a creator in the strictest sense. The Poet, for instance, does not craft the mountain, only portrays it. He does not produce the landscape, only infuses it with meaning. The Romantic Poet, in other words, creates art in the service of Nature. He does not create the represented object itself.
Huysmans, in his work Against Nature, turns this idea on its head. He looks Romanticism in the face and declares:
“Nature has had her day; she is finally exhausted, through the nauseating uniformity of her landscapes and her skies, the sedulous patience of men of refined taste.” (p.20)
The rejection of Nature as not only tiresome but nauseatingly unattractive is a shocking and effective way of signaling the arrival of a new artistic agenda. For Huysmans and the Decadents, artifice, not Nature, will reign as the chief artistic concern of the day. Huysmans drives his point home most clearly in his assertion that any object or scene in nature can be reproduced, exactly and to the very last detail, by man. A waterfall can be imitated by hydraulics. A rock can be fashioned out of papier-mâché. A moonlit scene can be reproduced by a floodlit stage set. In short, the artificial matches everything that nature achieves with one crucial difference: artifice is the direct product of the human genius.
Herein lies the revelation of Decadence: human beings are capable of just as much creative agency and ability as the Nature that had been so revered by the Romantics not half a century earlier. The fact that man can construct these artificial waterfalls, landscapes, and objects forces a provocative question: “What good is the special value of Nature in the face of man’s perfect imitation?” It would seem that the two are at the very least equal.
Huysmans, however, goes beyond equality. He pushes the capabilities of the artificial above Nature. Take his descriptions of the locomotives as women more terrifying and beautiful than the women produced by nature:
“The Engerth is an enormous, gloomy brunette with a hoarse, harsh voice and thick-set hips squeezed into armour-plating of cast iron, a monstrous creature with a tousled mane of black smoke. . .” (p. 21)
By describing the locomotive as a woman, Huysmans places the grand and terrifying effect of this “manmade” woman far above what any natural women can achieve. Man, in other words, outdoes nature in his production of art. This move not only renders nature obsolete, it establishes the artificial as capable of things beyond the limits nature previously imposed.
If, then, man’s art turns from nature and wholly into the realm of artifice, and the artificial is by definition completely under man’s control, then man therefore becomes wholly in control of art.
This is the rise of the artist. Rather than serving as an interpretive medium through which an already-existing Nature may be expressed (as the Romantics did), Huysmans’ artist manipulates and creates on his own terms. He ascends to a position of creative agency that enables him to create rather than represent, manipulate rather than transcribe, and play God rather than pay homage to Him.
It is no wonder, then, that Huysmans declares man’s accomplishments as equal to those of the God in whom he believes (p. 21).