In Huysmans’ Against Nature, the protagonist, Des Esseintes suffers from an undiagnosed malady causing anxiety, among other things. At the end of the novel, his doctor, portrayed as amateurish at best, suggests he abandon his life at his country home of Fonteray and return to the bustling city of Paris. Although Des Esseintes malady is unclear, he appears to suffer from an inverted hysteria, the (often) woman’s illness popularly diagnosed in the late nineteenth century. Des Esseintes displays several of the hallmarks of hysteria: overstimulation of the mind, nervousness, paranoia. These symptoms emasculate him. The word “hysteria” itself derives from the same root as “uterus,” linking it clearly to women.
In many ways, Huysmans portrays Des Esseintes illness as an inverted hysteria. Des Esseintes leaves his busy life in Paris behind for a life of solitude at Fonteray, his family country home. It is at Fonteray that he encounters symptoms of hysteria. Most suffering from hysteria lives in cities and were prescribed extended visits to the country in order to calm their nerves. In the case of Des Esseintes, his prescription involves leaving behind his isolation in favor of the city. Des Esseintes mind is overstimulated simply by his own thoughts at Fonteray; perhaps his reimmersion in city life and interactions with others will calm his thoughts.
Hysteria, though diagnosed frequently during the period, has no basis on its own; it is an invented, catch-all illness for those suffering from anxiety disorders, generalized mental illness, and even stress. Des Esseintes does not ressemble the typical hysteria patient, though his behavior seems to point to underlying mental problems beyond sheer eccentricity. His distaste for social interactions, corruption of Auguste Langlois, and obsessive listing of knowledge and objects all point to greater issues. Nevertheless, the inversion of hysteria in the novel reinforces a femininity in Des Esseintes while underlining his peculiar, unique case. -KJO