Posted on:Monday 30th March, 2020
It is not possible to spend very long reading about the Decadent Movement in the arts and letters of the late 19th century before coming across Against Nature (À Rebours) the extraordinary novel by Joris-Karl Huysmans. Perhaps more accurately translated as ‘going against the grain’ this story of Des Esseintes, a self-indulgent aesthete, is regarded as an almost definitive lexicon of Decadent taste and sensibilities in 1894. It was a key foundational text for the marvellous series of academic conferences organised by the Decadence and Translation Network during 2019, in which R&V also played an active part.
It is not a novel in the conventional sense, more like a series of descriptions and explorations of the lifestyle and morbidly self-regarding posture of a dandy. Although modelled on various real individuals, the novel is also in some senses autobiographical, reflecting many of the obsessions of the real Huysmans, for instance with gothic art, sybaritic living and sadism. However, it is not a manifesto for life, and it would be a mistake to take it all too seriously. The novel also manages to be very funny in places, mercilessly presenting the pretensions and the ersatz gaudiness of the decadent style. In the book’s most famous episode Des Esseintes goes to great lengths to purchase a live tortoise as a decoration for his new Persian rug. He acquires one and, at great expense, has its shell bedecked with jewels, only for the tortoise to die and start to smell of carrion.
If these were the novel’s only qualities, it might be no more than a minor curiosity, a peculiar gothic delight. Instead it achieves something much more. Beautifully written, it almost forensically picks apart the contradictions of a person who proclaims a love for a lapsed noble and religious aesthetic but whose preoccupations are entirely with surface style. There is no sign of real feudal or catholic religiosity here. Instead there is a surprising amount in the novel about shopping, and about the efforts of the character to acquire expensive items or bespoke services as part of a recognisably bourgeois economy. Des Esseintes defines himself by his refined consumer taste in a way that is very modern. At one point the novel includes a lengthy account of how he chooses the colour scheme for his new apartments, something which feels much closer to the modern TV makeover show than to a pre-modern perspective.
Through a succession of descriptions of the obsessions and excesses of its main character the novel feels like an account of the restless pathology not just of a Decadent aristocrat, but of the whole of modernity. In this world the acquisition of stuff has replaced any sense of meaning, value or authenticity. ‘Nature’ he says… ‘has had its day’. Indeed, Des Esseintes consciously buys flowers which look artificial, and delights in the fake, the imitation and the mechanically produced. For him books are rare objects to be collected in specially bound editions, as reflections of his carefully curated identity, rather than things to be actually read. If the character is sick it is with a narcissistic over-sensitivity divorced from real humanity. His hunt for fetishist pleasures, whether sensual or material, is nihilistic, devoid of any real purpose. Far from being a period piece, the novel reads like an uncomfortable anticipation of our own consumerist, luxury obsessed world.
In this way Against Nature functions almost as a philosophical text, and arguably one with great topical relevance to our current situation in the early 21st century. The term Decadence encompasses much more than just the idea of self-indulgent hedonism. It refers to the idea of a literal ‘falling away’, to degeneration and decay, even to the inevitability of social and political entropy. In this philosophy everything tends towards its own decline, like the third law of thermodynamics. The original Decadence Movement arguably used moral degeneration and self-regarding narcissism as metaphors to indict a whole late Victorian globalised world based on naïve ideas of inevitable human progress: economic, technological, social and moral. And the Decadents were surely proved right by the global conflagrations and genocides which followed on in short order, at the start of the 20th century.
Arguably the philosophical instincts of Decadence are as relevant today as they have ever been. We are still guilty of a misplaced faith in progress, economic success and technological innovation. We are still a society characterised by over-consumption and nihilism. And we continue to pitch ourselves against nature, both against the natural world itself, and arguably also by going against the grain of our own authentic humanity. These ideas and the inevitable falling away that follows on from them might be recognised in our current exposure to climate change and a global pandemic.
Huysmans himself became an unreliable witness in relation to his own book. His 1903 preface seeks to reinterpret the novel in the light of his own conversation to Roman Catholicism. He describes it then as the ‘underground workings’ of his soul in search of salvation. There are some grounds for doubting this retrospective reframing of the work as a pre-devotional text. Instead it continues to stand out as a nuanced and disturbing examination of the crisis of a humanity violently separated from nature, and busily creating artificial barriers to its own self-knowledge.
Huysmans was also a distinguished art critic. Amongst many other works he was drawn to the disturbing late gothic style of the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grunewald (1470?-1528), now in the Unterlinden Museum in Colmar, France (detail of crucifixion panel shown)