Joris-Karl Huysmans, a Frenchman of Dutch ancestry, wrote the defining work of the Decadent movement, a movement which began around the time of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal (1857), filtered into and flourished in late 19th Century England and finally petered out after the trial of Oscar Wilde (1895). Huysman’s novel, A Rebours, is a breviary of all things Decadent.
The publication of A Rebours in 1884, marked the beginning of the modern novel. It contains a series of tableaux-like chapters where a member of the French aristocracy, Des Esseintes, the last of his line, exsanguinated, pale and feeble, attempts to re-kindle an enthusiasm for life and living by working through the senses, satisfying his jaded palette with ever-more indulgent pleasures until, finally, broken and ill, he realises, as the translator, Robert Baldick writes, ‘his pleasures are finite, his needs infinite’.
The book was quoted at the trial of Oscar Wilde as a prime source for A Picture of Dorian Gray. At the trial it was revealed that it is the anonymous work Lord Henry Wotton, the arch-decadent, gives as a present to Dorian.
Decadence – a word redolent of the faded flower, the fruit-bowl, its contents past their prime, musty and over-ripe. The French writers of the mid-to-late 19th Century took this physical sensation and melded it to the world of the soul. There it became a world-weariness, a mal de siècle, that prevented an unalloyed joy in living, a pessimism, a melancholia, an apathy.
You can see why a controversialist like Pete Doherty would write a song titled A Rebours. Although, having read the lyrics, (I listen to little modern music, as my taste for it is as jaded as Des Esseintes’ was for Latin literature) it would seem to bear scant relation to the novel itself. Doherty perhaps sees himself as being a kindred spirit with the Decadents: world-weary souls with a fondness for absinthe, hashish and opium with which they would temporarily escape the humdrum of existence.
The hero of A Rebours is Duc Jean Floressas Des Esseintes, a man of independent means, the scion of a family whose blood-line has become so enfeebled through inbreeding, that he will be its last-borne. Based on the real-life Comte Robert de Montesquiou, who was also the model for Proust’s Baron de Charlus, he is a dandy and aesthete. Educated by monks, after his parents sent him off to boarding school, he is now a lapsed Catholic. He has inherited a chateau where he lives with a pair of faithful retainers.
Each chapter of A Rebours shows Des Esseintes attempting to quench one or more of his exhausted senses. The rooms of his mansion (a note of caution those who would emulate him, but decadence of the order of Des Esseintes requires wealth, and may be beyond the purse of many) are to be themed in different hues and shades. An exposition on which of the many tints to employ ensues.
The furniture and arrangements were then bought which complemented these hues. Imagine Lawrence Llewelyn-Bowen with several million at his disposal and no constraints on his time.
A ‘black party’ was hosted. Maybe some of us have been to such a party, where appropriately-coloured jellies and fairy-cakes were the order of the day. Were these sweetmeats served up by naked, black servant girls? Probably not. Were the warp and weft of the carpets black, the furnishings of ebony, the curtains of the finest sable velvet, and not merely covered in crêpe paper?
He fancied a room with a seascape theme, so portholes were constructed and a series of pipes and aquaria built to render the chamber suitably nautical.
He buys a pet tortoise, its languorous movements and sexual dimorphism well-suited to the fainéant and ambivalent Duc. Shockingly, he encrusts the pet’s carapace with jewels. The tortoise dies. As the loving owner of a testuda graeca I nearly put the novel down in disgust at this point.
He develops new perfumes to excite his olfactory senses, reads deeply in late Latin literature and forms theories on the Classics which critics took to be controversial and interesting. (The genius of Huysmans had filched them from the Latin scholar, Ebert, he later revealed).
Purchases are made of exotic tapestries and paintings. The disturbingly erotic images of the French Symbolist, Gustave Moreau are championed. Odilon Redon’s strange, Surrealist precursors are lauded.
He reads widely but little excites him save the poems of Stéphane Mallarmé, at the time a barely heard of Symbolist.
Floral arrays are brought into his chateau, each bloom rarer and more delicate than the last. He seeks out the blackest of black flowers. His senses at a peak of refinement, a nightmare of syphilis overwhelms him.
He concocts a symphone of liqueurs the better to inebriate himself with.
He satiates his lust on a strapping, female acrobat; he, an etiolated, pale androgyne; she, a muscular and hot-blooded man-woman.
As a critic once wrote of Beckett’s En Attendant Godot – ‘nothing happens – twice!’ so it is with A Rebours: ‘nothing happens in 16-chapters.’. For all the attempts to find solace for his debauched senses, very little happens in the way of plot or characterisation. Mostly Des Esseintes stays within the four walls of his home, experimenting with himself, always doomed to fail. He is the angst-ridden modern hero, testing his emotions, searching, not finding.
A lapsed Catholic, there is no spiritual relief in the Church. (Huysmans eventually converted to Rome, which, with hindsight, can be seen in the longings of Des Esseintes’ youthful Catholic experiences and his explorations into Latin canonical works).
In one wonderful episode, encouraged by a reading of Dickens to explore London, he sets off for England, hears some English voices in a tavern at Dieppe and decides he has had his taste of Albion satisfied and returns home.
Realising there is no solace, the book ends in typically ambiguous fashion, poised in some non-believing belief; sceptical Christianity or doubtful atheism.
In the final chapter, Huysmans quotes Pascal: ‘The soul sees nothing that does not distress it on reflection’. One final crumb, a modicum of comfort: ‘…only the impossible belief in a future life could bring [Des Esseintes] peace of mind’. The spirit of the age captured in the oxymoron.
Des Esseintes is the quintessential modern man: questing, longing for ‘something’ which isn’t what one wanted after all. The quest goes on, anxiously seeking new experiences, only to tell oneself, ‘No! That’s not what I meant. That really is not it’!
Did Decadence ever really go away? In literary senses, it had its time. Is today the era of the New Decadence? Our senses, constantly overwhelmed to the point of satiety, we are never so unsatisfied. The moral certitudes we, as a society, clung to, have been eroded. We have access to more information, more TV & radio, yet we cannot hear ourselves in amongst the noise. We blot out the world, like Des Esseintes, with beautiful things and hope we can pacify the longing, the angst, with some new drug, some glittering opiate that will still the voice that keeps asking, ‘What’s it all about, then’?
Huysmans offers no answers, maybe there aren’t any. But he does a beautiful job illuminating the path.
Brian Williams – tMx 29 – 04/07