À Rebours – Puddingstone Review

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Joris Karl-Huysmans’ museum of mind

À Rebours (“Against Nature”)

Author – Joris Karl-Huysmans (1848 – 1907)
First published – May 1884
Genre – Philosophical fiction; a “novel of ideas”

The challenging: À Rebours is a contemplative book of intricate density, and is largely deprived of any action to propel it.
The worthwhile: A vivid, incisive voyage through art and aesthetic experience, in the company of a rather unique guide.

The eponymous character in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture Of Dorian Gray says, “It was the strangest book he had ever read. It seemed to him that in exquisite raiment and the delicate sound of flutes, the sins of the world were passing in dumb show before him. Things that he had dimly dreamed of were suddenly made real to him. Things of which he had never dreamed were gradually revealed.” It was this passage which won me over despite a quick flick-and-glance at a few pages overburdened by commas and adjectives, and unbroken blocks of text.

Having exhausted all forms of aristocratic recreation available to the Parisian elite of the late 1800s, Jean Des Esseintes, with total spiritual dedication to the finest detail, designs a luxurious refuge, and utterly isolates himself among his favourite books, works of art and other curious, to contemplate them ad infinitum. These meditations form the vast bulk of the reading, punctuated by the occasional anecdote from his more lively past, and the odd foray between rooms or (rarely) beyond the doorway of his asylum.

In my 1984 Penguin Classic edition, the French title À Rebours becomes “Against Nature” in the English. I had interpreted this to mean against the natural world, as in anything not man-made.

A Dutch Francophone

Huysmans was born on February 5, 1848. For most of his life, he was a civil servant in the Ministry of Interior, a role which, despite the turbulent times encompassed by his career, he described as “tedious”. Just goes to show.

This certainly fits with the general attitude of our protagonist; that nothing in the natural world could be as splendid as something constructed with human methods and materials. In other translations, however, it comes across as “Against the Grain”, as in contrary to common practice, which suits Des Esseintes’ attitude and personality more generally, being fiercely averse to the mundane lives and proclivities of those with whom, with some reluctance, he shares a universe.

At the heart of it, it is both notions to which the writing is devoted.

It is well, therefore, that the mind of Des Esseintes is as elaborately furnished as his house. The reader is taken on a meandering journey through such matters as early Latin poetry, the Christian mystics, the art of Odilon Redon, and the character of the English. To see the extent to which Des Esseintes takes seriously his preoccupations, and to share some of his fascination, it’s worth detailing at least one.

The Apparition by French artist Gustave Moreau, painted between 1874 and 1876


A great deal of the interest generated by À Rebours concerns Des Esseintes’ fascination with a painting named L’Apparition by the artist Gustave Moreau, portraying a biblical account of the execution of John the Baptist. Its main subject is Salome, the daughter of King Herod II, in whose court the scene occurs. On a whim she has demanded John’s execution, having been granted a favour by the king, who has been overwhelmed by her seductive dancing. (If this is sounding incestuous, consider also that Salome’s mother is the king’s niece and also his brother’s wife. Indeed, it is for criticising this marriage that John ended up in the king’s jail in the first place).

The gripping power of the tableau emanates from the overpowering sensuality of Salome, mingling with her horror as she is visited by the apparition of John’s severed head. In broader Christianity, Salome is a symbol of the danger supposedly inherent in female sexual power, and this deeply underlies the atmosphere on the canvas.

Take a look at this excerpt to see some of Des Esseintes’ beguiling examination of the painting.

“No longer was she merely the dancing-girl who extorts a cry of lust and concupiscence from an old man by the lascivious contortions of her body; who breaks the will, masters the mind of a King by the spectacle of her quivering bosoms, heaving belly and tossing thighs; she was now revealed in a sense as the symbolic incarnation of world-old Vice, the goddess of immortal Hysteria, the Curse of Beauty supreme above all other beauties by the cataleptic spasm that stirs her flesh and steels her muscles, – a monstrous Beast of the Apocalypse, indifferent, irresponsible, insensible, poisoning.”

Oscar Wilde – to whom Huysmans owes a great deal of early English publicity – was strongly influenced by the novel’s treatment of Salome, resulting in a play of his own devoted to the scene.

Rambling without rambling

À Rebours doesn’t do the sequences of action, dialogue and occurrences traditional in most novels. Huysmans treats narrative as the glue for a conglomerate of literature, objects and sensations. Des Esseintes’ eye passes over these materials with an overwhelming placidity, and largely does so from the interior of his abode. There is a pulse here, but the flesh is cool. This is not a book for the lovers of a story.

The translation of À Rebours would have been no casual feat. This is a writer to whom the comma, the ten-line sentence, and ornately encumbered description, are the medium for expression. As the following sentence shows, prolixity is a constant.

“By this means he managed to do away with the formal statement of a comparison that the reader’s mind made by itself as soon as it had understood the symbol, and he avoided dispersing the reader’s attention over all the several qualities that a row of adjectives would have presented one by one, concentrating it instead on a single word, a single entity, producing, as in the case of a picture, a unique and comprehensive impression, an overall view.”

Soon enough, the reader adapts to the work. A pen and pad is suggested in order to make lists of the objects, works and people Des Esseintes surveys endlessly, either with ardent supplication or withering distaste (nothing is ever “I can see its appeal but it’s just not my cup of tea”). Of course, the purpleness of his prose is somewhat besides the point; the singular identity of the work is impossible without this syntactical texture.

Don’t tell P.E.T.A.

Des Esseintes has a tortoise bejewelled with precious stones and metals and lets it roam free in his house. He finds it dead soon after, it having expired under its luxurious costume. Quelle surprise.

An intrepid collector

That’s the obstacle, but accepting this, À Rebours is a marvel. Huysmans delivers a vivid, acutely distilled voyage through places in cultural and aesthetic experience which might otherwise remain unseen. Des Esseintes’ inner discourse concentrates the reader in a heightened state of sense, in the company of history’s cherished creatives.

There is a strong dash of Dostoevsky’s unnamed narrator from Notes from Underground in Des Esseintes’ isolated, acerbic intellect and neurotic frailty. Like that character, Des Esseintes is not always a pleasing individual to be acquainted with, but is one who elegantly populates a space in the crowded fora of culture that one hadn’t known to exist, or rather, curtly clears a space for himself.

Here’s a list of some of the interesting words which are encountered in – and illustrative of – Des Esseintes’ cerebral landscape.

Antiphon: a responsory by a choir or congregation in Christian music and ritual, usually in the form of a Gregorian chant, to a psalm or other text in a religious service or musical work.

Bagnio: a term for a bath or bath-house. In England, it was originally used to name coffee houses which offered Turkish baths, but by 1740 it signified a boarding house where rooms could be hired with no questions asked, or a house of prostitution.

Cartulary: a medieval manuscript volume or roll (rotulus) containing transcriptions of original documents relating to the foundation, privileges, and legal rights of ecclesiastical establishments, municipal corporations, industrial associations, institutions of learning, or families.

Eremite: a Christian hermit or recluse.

Hieratic: a cursive writing system used in the provenance of the pharaohs in Egypt and Nubia, allowing scribes to write quickly without resorting to the time-consuming hieroglyphs.

Logomachy: a dispute over the meaning of words, or a conflict waged only as a battle of words. Or both, if you are up to it.

Majuscule: the formal word for upper-case, defined not simply as “bigger letters”, rather as letters which are all as high as the top of the line.

Merovingian: The Merovingians ruled across western Europe for nearly 300 years, beginning in the 5th century.

Pabulum: A) Food or fodder, particularly that taken in by plants or animals. B) Material that feeds a fire. C) Food for thought. D) Bland intellectual fare; an undemanding diet of words.

Panegyric: a formal public speech or written verse, delivered in high praise of a person or thing

Pierrot: a stock character of pantomime and Commedia dell’Arte whose origins are in the late seventeenth-century Italian troupe of players performing in Paris and known as the Comédie-Italienne

Solanaceae: an economically important family of flowering plants which includes both the Deadly Nightshade and the common capsicum.

Definitions adapted from Wikipedia

By the time I had finished the book, the pile of notes I’d accumulated had begun to rival the book in length.

A lachrymose denoument

As is prophecy for such characters, Des Esseintes’ experiment with selfhood dissolves into a deterioration of physicality and mind, and is finally punctuated by his physician’s prognosis of “insanity speedily followed by tuberculosis”. After being nursed back to health, he is ordered back to Paris, and forbidden from languishing any longer in his intellectual tide pool. “So I have to choose between death and deportation!” cries Des Esseintes.

Faced with the resolution to rejoin Parisian society, our protagonist leaves us with a tremulous lament concerning the fate of the mystics who had provided deep guidance throughout his mental life. Christianity fell victim not to the Scientific Revolution, he says, but the mediocrity of its later writers, and the spiritless advance of capitalism.

“This was the vast bagnio of America transported to the continent of Europe; the was the limitless, unfathomable, immeasurable scurviness of the financier and the self-made man, beaming down like a shameful sun on the idolatrous city, which grovelled on its belly, chanting vile songs of praise before the impious tabernacle of the Bank.”

For the bibliophile

Got an ear/eye for French? A beautifully typeset 1903 version illustrated by renowned etcher Auguste-Louis Lepère is available for download here.

A digital copy of Against the Grain (in English) is available for download here

(Musty old book smell not included)

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