“The soul sees nothing that does not afflict it.” – Blaise Pascal
That quote from Pascal is one favored by Jean Des Esseintes, the misanthropic, depressive protagonist of J. K. Huysmans’ “Against Nature.” In the middle of one of the darkest existential funks in literary history, Des Esseintes turns to it, hoping that the sheer grief expressed in the words will console him.
Neither does the wisdom of his beloved Schopenhauer; or the opium phantasms of Edgar Allan Poe; or the mots justes of Flaubert; or the probing verses of Verlaine and Baudelaire. Emile Zola’s Naturalism has turned prosaic. Victor Hugo is at once a sanctimonious grand-father and an optimistic child. Balzac’s novels are too happy and healthy. Dickens’ novels are too British and prudish. The Dickens put-down is particularly withering:
“To divert the current of his thoughts and cool his brain, he sought books that would soothe him and turned to the romances of Dickens, those charming novels which are so satisfying to invalids and convalescents who might grow fatigued by works of a more profound and vigorous nature.”
But even Dickens can’t quite kill the ennui. The literary circles in which Des Esseintes moves are even worse:
“He was revolted by their rancorous and petty judgments, their conversation as obvious as a church door, their dreary discussions in which they judged the value of a book by the number of editions it had passed and by the profits acquired. At the same time, he noticed that the free thinkers, the doctrinaires of the bourgeoisie, people who claimed every liberty that they might stifle the opinions of others, were greedy and shameless puritans whom, in education, he esteemed inferior to the corner shoemaker.
His contempt for humanity deepened. He reached the conclusion that the world, for the most part, was composed of scoundrels and imbeciles.”
When “Against Nature” was released in 1884, that was a shocking expression, surely coming from the mouth of a malevolent, diseased nihilist. It’s Huysmans’ secret legacy that today the only thing everyone seems to agree on is that life sucks and people are scoundrelish, imbecilic, (except, of course, for ourselves and our loved ones, who always escape such harsh judgment).
There isn’t a lot of action in “Against Nature” or “Against the Grain” or “Against the Stream” or what have you (“A Rebours” in the original.) That’s fitting: action for Des Esseintes is replaced by critical contempt. “The idle scion of a waning aristocratic family suffers from ennui” is not the most enticing of pitches, but Huysmans uses the mind-set of his megaphonic protagonist to create a critical compendium. Hebrew history; Latin grammar; Catholic sophistry; secular and religious literature; artificial botany; the symphonic quality of mixed alcoholic beverages; the lieders of Schubert; the paintings of Francisco Goya; Gustave Moreau’s take on Salome’s dance before King Herod; the perks of making love to a ventriloquist; the propriety of dipping tortoises in gold… these are only some of the examined topics.
Des Esseintes ( I should say Huysmans) spouses an intellectual retreat from the world toward the cloister of the mind that has roots in the monastic religiosity he nominally suspects but toward which he was inevitably drawn. His “revolt against God” is really an extension of his literary criticism: in his eyes, God is an Author whose Natural Novel is seriously lacking, full of immoral characters and meandering plots.
The misantrophic (and misogynist) rants are exaggerated, and not to be taken too seriously. Take this passage, in which Des Esseintes renounces the follies of sex:
“Closely observe that work of (Nature) which is considered the most exquisite, that creation of hers whose beauty is everywhere conceded the most perfect and original: woman. Has not man made, for his own use, an animated and artificial being which easily equals woman, from the point of view of plastic beauty? Is there a woman, whose form is more dazzling, more splendid than the two locomotives that pass over the Northern Railroad?”
There is not a reader in a million that could have predicted the image that ends that passage. I certainly didn’t see that slow train coming.
The British band Babyshambles ( led by Pete Doherty from The Libertines) sing “A Rebours.” Key line: “What’s thrilling me is killing me.”
Ivan Brunetti has a one-page biography of Joris-Karl Huysmans that is a wonder of condensation. I would recommend seeking out “Schizo,” where it is found, or else grabbing a magnifying glass and reading it above!
RATING: MASTERPIECE!!! This is the novel that set Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray in a downward spiral of amorality, so you KNOW it’s awesome.