Since 1884, the readers of À Rebours have been challenged not only because of its extremely long and quite painful catalogues and descriptions, but also and above all, the mysterious literary topoi and the symbolism of À Rebours call into question the decadent aesthetic of the end of the century. À Rebours is considered the bible of French Decadence. But more importantly, des Esseintes’ anxieties and deliria are, to some extent, fascinating and denote a sort of alienation and disenchantment vis-à-vis a world in mutation. Des Esseintes’s behaviours underline the psycho-pathological symptoms of an important historical moment in the unfolding of history itself, namely la Fin de Siècle (the end of the nineteenth century). This period is also characterized by what has been called in French le Mal du siècle, which could be roughly translated as “the malady of the century.” This term is used to refer to the ennui (boredom), disenchantment, and melancholy experienced by young adults of Europe’s early 19th century. It is also associated with the rising of the Romantic Movement in French poetry. Approximately at the same time, Sigmund Freud deals with various cases of hysterical women that are increasing in modern and industrializing Europe. It is actually in an attempt to find a palliative to some barbaric practices used at that time to treat psychoneuroses and hysteria that Freud made his ground-breaking discoveries regarding the structure of the unconscious. One could say that des Esseintes embodies quite well the masculine flip side of the coin, namely madness and neurosis (névrose) associated with delusions and hallucinations, as it is very clear in the second part of the book. In this short presentation —followed up by an open discussion— we’ll try to tackle the problematic of an isolated life cut off from the world (in Fontenay) as opposed to a materialistic and hedonistic way of life (in Paris), and the existential crisis these two antithetic inclinations yield in des Esseintes’s mind.
À Rebours is actually the second part of a trilogy whose first work is À vau-l’eau (1882) and the third is En Rade (1887). On February 1884, Robert Caze announced the upcoming publication of “a detailed study on pessimism” (une étude appronfondie sur le pessimisme) in a French literary publication entitled “Opinion.” The first title Huysmans wanted to use for his novel was indeed: “Seul” (Alone), but apparently he changed his mind for some reason. Before the publication of À Rebours, one could say that Huysmans belongs to the Naturalist Movement in literature. Zola himself, the head of the Naturalist school of French fiction, soon became a friend and mentor to the young Huysmans after the publication of his first novel in 1876 (Marthe, histoire d’une fille. English: Marthe, the Story of a Girl). However, Huysmans’ association with the Naturalist group lasted until the publication of À Rebours, which constitutes genuinely a statement of a rupture vis-à-vis a certain type of literature, and, on the other hand, this novel is a critique of the over-idealised conception of Bohemian life in Paris (decadence and debauchery). In À Rebours, des Esseintes seems to have decided to leave such a way of life and consequently he decided to exile in a quiet and austere retreat in the countryside, and that is probably what appealed the modern reader in the first place (Ch. I: des Esseintes quotes Baudelaire: Any where out of the world). Now, let’s take a look at some comments about that piece of decadent literature by contemporary literary critiques:
- Guy de Maupassant (popular 19th-century French writer): “Le romancier J.K. Huysmans, dans son livre stupéfiant, qui a pour titre À Rebours, vient d’analyser et de raconter, de la façon la plus ingénieuse et la plus imprévue, la maladie d’un de ces dégoûtés […] Je ne pourrais tenter l’analyse complète du livre de Huysmans, de ce livre extravagant et désopilant, plein d’art, de fantaisie bizarre, de style pénétrant et subtil, de ce livre qu’on pourrait appeler ‘l’histoire d’une névrose.’” (Guy de Maupassant in “Par delà,” Gil Blas, 10-VI-1884).
- Jules Destrée (Walloon lawyer, cultural critic, and socialist politician): “Tout ce qui avait été pensé, écrit, peint dans ce genre, il l’a résumé, condensé, fondu, discuté, dans une œuvre hantante, puissamment suggestive et profondément orginale. Elle correspond presque, en prose, aux Fleurs du mal de Baudelaire.” (Jules Destrée, Le Journal de Charleroi, 4-VI-1884).
QUOTES BY CHAPTER
- X : L’Orgue à parfums (the perfume organ)
“[L]e doute ne pouvait exister ; la névrose revenait, une fois de plus, sous l’apparence d’une nouvelle illusion des sens.” (197) / “[T]here could no longer be any doubt, his neurosis had returned once again, under the guise of this new delusion of the senses.” (135)
“Des Esseintes étudiait, analysait l’âme de ces fluids, faisait l’exégèse de ces textes ; il se complaisait à jouer pour sa satisfaction personnelle, le rôle d’un psychologue, à démonter et à remonter les rouages d’une œuvre, à dévisser les pieces formant la structure d’une exhalaison composée […].” (201) / Des Esseintes studied an analysed the essence of these fluids, carried out an exegesis, so to speak, of their texts; he delighted in playing, for his own personal satisfaction, the role of a psychologist, taking apart and re-assembling the mechanism of a work, unscrewing the pieces that formed the structure of a compound flagrance […].” (138).
Comment: L’Orgue à parfums (the perfume organ): the composition of perfumes construed as an Art (comparison between the composition of perfumes and poetry, as if the words themselves and their composition could yield some sort of flavour). The smell/odour of the perfumes allows des Esseintes to travel, as it is the case in Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu through the theme of involuntary explicit memory (somehow related to the Platonic anamnesis), the flagrances des Esseintes create allows him to travel and escape out of the trivial and mundane existence he very much despises (see any where out of the world in chapter I). He also sees himself alternatively as a poet, a psychologist, or even as an architect (trying to order the chaos of his mind). External stimuli (coming from his sensations, in particular olfactory perceptions) trigger hallucinations and waking dreams. Ultimately, too overwhelmed by those ‘transports,’ Des Esseintes collapses and passes out, as if dying, on the window sill (end of the chapter X). On a more general level, it seems to me that des Esseintes wants to turn his back on the material and tangible world (Nature), and sort of dedicate all his time to spiritual contemplation, stimulating his senses by various means.
- XI : First visit of the Doctor of Fontenay and des Esseintes’ daydream in Dickens’ England
“En somme, j’ai éprouvé et j’ai vu ce que je voulais éprouver et voir.” (226) / “In short, I’ve experienced and seen all I wanted to experience and see.” (160)
Comment: First visit of the Doctor of Fontenay (he prescribes Des Esseintes sedatives and rest), and interestingly enough, he reports all over the village how eccentric and strange the house’s interior design is. One recalls how des Esseintes choose the furniture and the colours for his house of Fontenay in a very elaborate manner (it takes almost two chapters for Huysman to describe that).
In chapter XI, Des Esseintes starts reading Dickens, and once again, through Art, he is transported in some sort of daydream wherein our anti-hero finds himself projected into the England of Charles Dickens, and meet some of the characters of this literary world created from scratch. In a sort of introspective delirium, Des Esseintes thinks of other travels, in Holland/Netherlands. When he comes back to the everyday reality, Des Esseintes pretty much feels like he just took a long journey.
- XII : Catalogue of books and des Esseintes’ beloved Baudelaire
“Baudelaire était allé plus loin ; il était descendu jusqu’au fond de l’inépluisable mine, s’était engagé à travers des galleries abandonnées ou inconnues, avait abouti à des districts de l’âme où se ramifiait les végétations monstueuses de la pensée.” (230) / “Baudelaire had gone further; he had descended to the very bottom of the inexhaustible mine, had penetrated abandoned or unexplored passage, had ended up in those regions of the soul that branch out into the monstrous growths of thoughts.” (163).
“Et plus des Esseintes relisait Baudelaire, plus il reconnaissait un indicible charme à cet écrivain qui, dans un temps où le vers ne servait plus qu’à peindre l’aspect extérieur des êtres et des choses, était parvenu à exprimer l’inexprimable, grâce à une langue musculeuse et charnue, qui, plus que tout autres, possédait cette merveilleuse puissance de fixer avec une étrange santé, les plus tremblés, des esprits épuisés et des âmes tristes.” (231-232) / “And the more des Esseintes re-read Baudelaire, the more he recognized the indescribable charm of this writer who, in an age when poetry served only to paint the external aspect of beings and things, had succeeded in expressing the inexpressible thanks to a muscular and fleshy language which, more than any other, possessed that marvellous power to capture, un curiously vigorous terms, the most fleeting, the most elusive states of morbidity in exhausted minds and despondent soul.” (165)
- XIII : La Nausée
“[…] à ce moment là, la vue de la viande déposée sur la table, lui souleva le cœur ; il prescrivit qu’on la fît disparaître, commanda des œufs à la coque, tenta d’avaler les mouillettes, mais elle lui barrèrent la gorge ; des nausées lui venaient aux lèvres ; il bu quelques gouttes de vin qui lui piquèrent, comme des pointes de feu, l’estomac. Il s’étancha la figure ; la sueur, tout à l’heure tiède, fluait, maintenant froide, le long des tempes ; il se prit à sucer quelques morceux de glace, pour tromper le mal de cœur ; ce fut en vain.” (254) / […] at that moment the sight of meat placed on the table made his stomach heave; he told them to remove it, ordered boiled eggs and tried to swallow some sippets, but they stuck in his throat ; waves of nausea rose to his lips; he drank a few drops of wine that picked his stomach like hot needles. He dried his face; the sweat that a moment earlier had been warm, now ran cold down his temples; he began to suck pieces of ice to relieve his sick stomach, but it was in vain.” (183-184).
Comment: Des Esseintes keeps brooding despondently, looses his appetite, and gets bad stomach cramps. This is a psycho-pathological symptom of his spleen, that fact that he sort of lost his joie de vivre. Nightmares, illusion of the senses, delusions, hallucinations, in short all the symptoms of des Esseintes’ neurosis. He even tried to install hydrotherapeutic equipment in his house (see chapter 9. How can one deal with hysteria and psychoneurosis in the nineteenth century without proper treatments or drugs?). New problem: anemia. Des Esseintes can’t eat anymore. Who or what will redeem this tormented soul?
- XIV : Secular books (livres profanes, œuvres laïques, la littérature française, moderne, et profane: Balzac, Flaubert, Zola, de Goncourt, Stendhal, then Verlaine, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, and finally Aloysius Bertrand, Poe, and Baudelaire).
- XV : The malady resumes its course with new and unexpected symptoms (nightmares, olfactory and auditory hallucinations, burning fevers, involuntary memories coming from des Esseintes’ childhood). Des Esseintes has recourse to a famous physician of Paris who prescribes him to get back to Paris. The doctor also mentions the hydropathic treatments (hydrotherapy), which were used in the 18th and 19th centuries to treat neurosis.
- XVI : End: Conversion? Pessimism? Disenchantment? Irony? Deus ex machina?
- Concretely, what is wrong with des Esseintes? What are the cause(s) and the meaning of his ‘medical’ condition? In that regard, what do we learn from the doctor of Paris at the end of the book (chapter XV and XVI)? To which measure could one say that this information shed new light on des Esseintes’ existential crisis (cf. Bohemian life vs. Ascetic seclusion out of the world)?
- From our previous discussion, how can we understand des Esseintes’s antipathy or esteem for those authors who are now considered classics of French literature (Balzac, Baudelaire, and Zola)? What does he like in Balzac as opposed to Zola (which are both supposed to belong to the Naturalist literary movement)? How could we envision the naturalism in the novels of Zola as opposed to what Huysmans seems to put forward in Against Nature? Is it a sort of anti-naturalism? What about Baudelaire?
Husymans, Joris-Karl. À Rebours. Paris: Gallimard, 1977. Print
Guyaux, André, et al. Huysmans: Une esthétique de la décadence. Paris: Éditions Slatkine, 1987. Print
Lair, Samuel et al. J.-K. Huysmans: Littérature et religion. Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2009. Print
Livi, François., J.-K. Huysmans: À rebours et l’esprit decadent. Paris: A.G. Nizet, 1991. Print.