JORIS KARL HUYSMANS
Born in Paris in 1848, of Dutch descent, Joris Karl Huysmans, who died on Monday evening, May 13, was one of the last of the little band of “Naturalists” who, with Zola, Daudet, and the Goncourts, attempted to enlarge — to render general and typical — the art of the novel, as it had been conceived by the great Romantics. But if their aim was one, their temperaments were different exceedingly, and the flag of the School of Médan hung from the mast of craft which had little enought in common. On August 18, 1887, five young novelists — Bonnetain, Rosny, Lucien Descaves, Paul Margueritte, Gustave Guiches — signed a sort of proclamation to all and sundry signifying their secession from the ranks of Naturalism. Huysmans did not sign the manifesto, but he joined in the secession.
He had thought himself a follower of Zola. But his real, his only, master was Baudelaire. He was an amateur of rare and violent sensations — set, so to speak, in a dull circle of ennui,more beautiful for that monotony, brooded over and savoured in a sequel of loneliness and silence. Perfumes, colours, sounds, and forms haunted and electified him; but — just as Baudelaire was the special poet of odours and lived chiefly in his sense of smell — Huysmans (who was a sort of honester, more candid Baudelaire translated into Flemish) was sensitive above all things to the pleasures of taste. Since the sixteenth century no French writer (unless he were a specialist like Brillat-Savarin) has dilated so complacently on the mysteries of the kitchen. From the preparation of a gigot à l’anglaise to the extraordinary cuisine of the decadent des Esseintes, the materials of our meals encumber all his pages; not the ripe fruit of Keats, nor the cream and curds of pastoral poets, but food much manipulated, macerated, and transformed. For Huysmans is no lover of Nature — a painted cheek seen at dusk in the flare of a gas-jet, the swiftness, the steely and complicated brilliance of machinery are things that linger in his memory. In all his works he enregisters his contempt for the country — “peasants, harvests, green fields — pouah!” He owns himself “à l’affût des sites disloqués et dartreux...où des traînées de plâtre semblent la farine détachée d’une peau malade,” and disvocers a grotesque and dolorous beauty in the sordid industrial suburbs of the capital. For, to the amateur of rare sensations, a sharp spice of novel hideousness may awake a sense which remained torpid to the solicitations of every-day natural sun-lit loveliness. And a disgust for the commonplace and the mediocre may easily pass into a taste for the monstrous and the abnormal.
Such was the condition of Huysmans at the end of the nineteenth century. “Sac au dos” had set forth the seamy side of patriotism, the disgusting and useless barbarity of the life of common soldiers, bandied from pillar to post, with never an opportunity for heroism or distinction; “En Ménage” showed us the disenchantments of married life, its mediocrity, narrow means, and inferior cooking; “En Rade” the grotesque realities of rural Nature; and “A Rebours” the impossibility of finding satisfaction even in a way of life calculated to hit the antipodes of a normal ideal. For the rarest delights can jade, and satiety is the something bitter lurking in the Castalian spring. There is no remedy in this world against the taedium vitae. And, except Baudelaire, no man ever felt so cruelly as Huysmans the boredom of mere existence, unspiced by any delicate sensation. Like Baudelaire, again, he had (while wallowing with the swine) the secret instinct of eternity; and his ennui was a sort of nostalgia. But (perhaps because he lived a few years longer than Baudelaire) Huysmans went a step further. The prodigal son arose and went unto his father, and said:— “Father, I have sinned against Heaven and before Thee...”
Twenty years after the publication of “A Rebours” Huysmans reissued the volume, in a small edition privately printed, with a preface, in which he considers the state of mind, or rather the state of soul, in which he had composed the book, as well as his subsequent conversion, which he ascribes, directly, to a supernatural influx of grace. He denies any influence of his surroundings, material or moral:-
“Je n’ai pas été élevé dans les écoles congréganistes, mais bien dans un lycée, je n’ai jamais été pieux dans ma jeunesse, et Ie côté de souvenir d’enfance, de première communion, d’éducation qui tient si souvent une grande place dans la conversion, n’en a tenu aucune dans la mienne. Et ce qui complique encore la difficulté et déroute toute analyse, c’est que, lorsque j’écrivis “A Rebours,” je ne mettais pas les pieds dans une église, je ne connaissais aucun catholique pratiquant, aucun prêtre; je n’éprouvais aucune touche divine m’incitant à me diriger vers l’Église, je vivais dans mon auge, tranquille; il me semblait tout naturel de satisfaire les foucades de mes sens, et la pensée ne me venait même pas que ce genre de tournoi fût défendu.
“A Rebours” a paru en 1884 et je suis parti pour me convertir dans une Trappe en 1892; près de huit années se sont écoulées avant que les semailles de ce livre n’aient levé; mettons deux années, trois même, d’un travail de la Grâce, sourd, têtu, parfois sensible; il n’en resterait pas moins cinq ans pendant lesquels je ne me souviens d’avoir éprouvé aucune velléité catholique, aucun regret de la vie que je menais, aucun désir de la renverser. Pourquoi, comment ai-je été aiguillé sur une voie perdue alors pour moi dans la nuit? Je suis absolument incapable de le dire; rien, sinon des ascendances de béguinages et de cloîtres, des prières de famille hollandaise très fer vente et que j’ai d’ailleurs à peine connue, n’expliquera la parfaite inconscience du dernier cri, l’appel religieux de la dernière page d’“A Rebours.”
Oui, je sais bien, il y a des gens très forts qui tracent des plans, organisent d’avance des itinéraires d’existence et les suivent; il est même entendu, si je ne me trompe, qu’avec de la volonté on arrive à tout; je veux bien le croire, mais, moi, je le confesse, je n’ai jamais été ni un homme tenace, ni un auteur madré. Ma vie et ma littérature ont une part de passivité, d’insu, de direction hors de moi très certaine.
La Providence me fut miséricordieuse et la Vierge me fut bonne. Je me suis borné à ne pas les contre-carrer lorsqu’elles attestaient leurs intentions; j’ai simplement obéi; j’ai été mené par ce qu’on appelle “les voies extraordinaires”; si quelqu’un peut avoir la certitude du néant qu’il serait, sans l’aide de Dieu, c’est moi.
The Roman Catholic Church has reaped of late a plentiful harvest in the fields of Literature. She has Brunetière and Coppée, and Bourget and Huysmans (all of them recently studied by M. Jules Sageret in a brilliant volume of literary psychology, “Les Grands Convertis”). None of them are more sincere than Huysmans; and yet his conversion, if it changed the heart, left almost untouched the temperament (at once fastidious and gorss à la Flamande) and the peculiar qualities of the artist. In the little house under the shadow of the monastery at Ligugé, where Huysmans lived two years and where he began to write “L’Oblat,” the novelist, although affiliated to an order of rerligious, continued to exhale, in picturesque and scatalogical language, his wrath against all that opposed his ideal in art, in cooking, or in piety. Nothing could be more different from the “distinguished” and colourless taste of ordinary Catholic literature than the violent realism and sensual delicacy which combined as strangely in the author of “Sainte Lydvine (sic) de Schiedam” as in the author of “A Rebours.” Huysmans detested the fashionable Catholicism of the hour:-
Ce quelque chose d’émasculé, d’hybride, de mol; cette espèce de courtage et de mercuriale d’oraisons; cette sorte de sainte tombola où l’on brocante des grâces, en insérant des papiers et des sous dans des troncs scellés sous des statues de saint.
He expressed his opinions with so much liberty and violence that, during his lifetime, this strayed sheep must, on his return to the fold, have embarrassed his pastors. But in his death Huysmans showed himself to possess the soul of a martyr. His agony confessed his faith as magnificently as his most eloquent language could define it. “Polla onomata, morfh mia.”
The death of Huysmans recalls the marvellous example of that great stoic and freethinker Ernest Bersot, whose philosophy already is forgotten, but who lives in men’s memories by the manner of his dying.
Huysmans also succumbed to a cancer of the palate. During the last ten days a perforation rendered the introduction of food impossible. That delicate feeder starved to death. An extension or a reflex of the disease had already attacked the eyes, which he could no longer fill with the delicate visions he loved to contemplate. When he dared to use them he fixed them on a Prayer-book. A few days ago, feeling the mercy of death at hand, he tore up his unpublished manuscripts and committed them to the flames as a last act of humility, and certainly the most difficult to an artist of his temper. After that he remained sitting quietly in his chair. The man whose literary work is one violent objurgation did not permit a complaint to pass his lips. “Ne demandez plus ma guérison,” he said to his friends, “mais une mort prompte et résignée.” The promise of an Oblate’s habit, to be sent from a Benedictine monastery, gave him one last characteristic satisfaction. And after a martyrdom of nearly six months (he was operated upon in December last), the end came on Monday evening as he was sitting in his chair reading the Prayers for the Dying.