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

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