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