Life as an Illusion: Embracing Absurdity in Against Nature

Des Esseintes lives in a world of his own artifice, where he imagines his own adventures, takes his mind on literary odysseys, and enhances his created world with smells and sounds.  Why this withdrawal from reality, this retreat into his own creation of a fake reality, this feeling that his own fabrications are superior and more worth his time than the world beyond?  At first, it seems as though pessimism plays a key role in the answer to this question, but perhaps the reason that Des Esseintes lives in his world of artifice has less to do with his pessimistic attitude toward society, and more to do with his recognition and embrace of absurdity.

After lamenting that “nothing remains that is pure and authentic…and the liberty we proclaim are both adulterated and derisory,” Des Essientes concludes, “I do not…consider it either more ridiculous or more insane to ask of my fellow men a degree of illusion barely as great as that which he expends each day for absurd purposes, to imagine that the town of Pantin is an artificial Nice, an imitation Menton.”  His critique of society is harsh, yet ultimately it is not the impurity and derision of society that drives him to his lifestyle, but rather it is that others are able to live so easily in the messy, corrupted world.  He states clearly that while he may chase illusions, he is no different than other people, who must create illusions in order to accept life in the absurdities of society.

Indeed, in his argument that he lives in no more of an illusion than anyone else, he suggests quite strongly that his illusion is superior.  He can create something better – if we’re to live in an illusion anyway, why not live in one where we have the power to make it the best it can be.  Des Esseintes creates perfumes more powerful and beautiful than the flowers whose scent he imitates.  His life is built upon the idea that his own artifices are superior to reality.

Yet then reality becomes blurred.  He begins imagining his scents, and cannot get them out of his nostrils even when he opens the window.  His artifice is more real to him than the actuality of fresh air.  Des Esseintes decides not to travel to London, because he feels like his imagination can take him there well enough, and then he doesn’t have to deal with the hassle of travel.  What then, is London at all?  What is fresh air?  Simply Des Esseintes’ imagination and creation.  And if indeed his life is no more of an illusion than anyone else’s, then the air people breathe is likewise their invention, their belief, what they expect to find in smells, and what memories and dreams they associate with it.  And London is the creation of each individual; its absurdities are created by the viewers.

Toward the end of the novel Des Esseintes “realized that the arguments of pessimism were incapable of giving him comfort, that only the impossible belief in a future life would give him peace.”  The very belief that would give him peace is “impossible,” and so it is truly in the absurd that he finds a degree of comfort.  His pessimistic views, which he certainly dwells on, are ultimately secondary to his acceptance that life is absurd, and that the only way for him to move through it is by living his own absurdity. -YG

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Filed under Week 5 Reviews: The Picture of Dorian Gray and Against Nature

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