a rebours cover

A rebours (1884)


The Nation.

10 January 1923. New York: USA.

Huysmans for the Disenchanted

The Cathedral. By J.-K. Huysmans. E. P. Dutton and Company. $2.50.

Against the Grain. By J.-K. Huysmans. Lieber and Lewis. $3.

It is something of a happy circumstance that these two books by one of the greatest exponents of bitter-end disillusion have been issued in English dress at this moment. A younger generation is knocking at the gates, and the voice of the epigoni is raucous with the accent of frustration and futility. There is, however, a wide gulf betwixt Joris-Karl Huysmans, who produced his most significant work, "A Rebours" ("Against the Grain"), in 1882 [sic] and this post-war decade which has seen the publication of such a poem of fatalistic ennui as "The Waste Land" by T. S. Eliot. Huysmans waxed insolent in proportion to the growth of his sense of life’s mockery, whereas the new throats of our time utter a mere monotonous despair, an icy unconcern that refuses to bridle even while chronicling the barrenness of a life that is busy digging its own grave. Near the end of his life, seeking to justify his conversion to Catholicism, Huysmans wrote: "What remains incomprehensible is the initial horror imposed on each of us by living; that is a mystery which no amount of philosophy can enlighten — and when I think of this horror, of this disgust for life which year after year has mounted in me, I can understand why I have drifted into the only port where I could find shelter — the church." Joris-Karl Huysmans was born in Paris in 1848. His family was of Flemish origin. He began his career as a writer by contributing to the famous soirees arranged by Zola at his home in Medan. His "Sac-au-dos," written under the Medan aegis, is a brief tale permeated with savage irony; it deals with the lingering malaise of a conscript whose harshest sufferings at the front are occasioned not by battle but by colic. The craftsmanship here displayed is Zolaesque; the naked details are dwelt upon with painful and often revolting exactness. Later he underwent a gradual change of heart toward the naturalistic method and yielded to new impulses in such books as "A Vau l’eau" and "La-bas," the latter a novel concerned with the gorgeous ceremonialism of satanism. In "La-bas" Huysmans succinctly defines diabolism as "the execration of impotence and the hatred of mediocrity."

Huysmans, decadent or not, was a dynamo of nervous energy hoarding up a fierce somber hatred; always at the core of his decadence stirs a brooding and fretful impatience with middleclass ideals which he had ample leisure to study in the course of his thirty-seven-year clerkship in the office of the Interior. He proved an excellent official, and, ironically enough, he was decorated late in life not for his distinction as a literary artist, but for painstaking attention to his duties as a clerk. His post did not trammel him; he read deeply and widely; he dabbled impersonally in black magic; and we are not surprised to find in "La-bas" an eloquent description of the Black Mass with all its intricate and incrusted ritual.

Huysmans joined the responsiveness of the sentient organism to the logic of the pure intellect. In "L’Art moderne," a book devoted to his contemporaries, he betrays a fine understanding of the innovators of that day; of Degas, Gustav Moreau, Forain, Odilon Redon, Whistler, and Gauguin. From the materialistic temper of "The Vatard Sisters" and "Marthe," both influenced by Zola and Goncourt, he passed on to what he himself called "spiritual naturalism," signifying a fusion of spiritual aspiration with the patient attention to detail characteristic of the master, Zola. The trilogy dealing with Durtal’s inevitable drift churchward, which is more than semi-autobiographic, includes "La-bas," "En Route," and "La Cathedrale."

In the last Huysmans takes Durtal, who had crept on his belly through the dismal bogs sanctified by Apollyon, who had dallied with Lilith in pale forbidden gardens, to the provincial town of Chartres. The religious atmosphere of the place infects him like a slow fever; it creeps into his blood and floods his mind. Durtal is captivated by the phosphorescent glow of medievalism tinting the air about him. Like Henry Adams he is irresistibly moved to wrest the inner meaning from this church magnificent. Huysmans exhibits a staggering store of ecclesiastical erudition. His method is objective but there are overtones of spiritual nostalgia. The ant-like piling up of infinitesimal detail blinds and bewilders. The rhythm of the book is painfully slow, but each added bit of archaeology serves to synthesize concrete mood, cloistral, organ-toned, wrapped in a faint crepuscular dimness, heavy with incense and the cold sweat of ancient stone. The vital secret locked in crypt, window, arch, music, and altar is simple enough. It is the spirit of belated penitence and inevitably it engulfs Durtal. The result of his sojourn at Chartres is that he decides to become a lay monk. The words with which he is sped on his war are illuminating. "Help him in his poverty, remembering that he can do nothing without thine aid, Holy Temptress of Men, Our Lady of the Pillar, Virgin of the Crypt.’’ Huysmans was won over to the church not by the purity of religious emotion, but by the lift of its great art.

"Against the Grain" does not quite fit into Huysmans’s theory of "spiritual naturalism." It is, rather, spun with spiderlike industry out of the naturalism of the nerves. The nerves of the hero, Des Esseintes, are worn and sick, and the human malady is carried to its logical conclusion. This was indeed Huysmans’s inviolate credo: to carry the expression of Intimate emotion to its highest pitch. "Against the Grain," answering some fevered need of the moment, became the breviary of the nineties in England. It is the crystallization of fin de siecle migraine. Certainly it remains the most consistent symbol of that languor and tired quest for whipped-up sensationalism which pervaded almost the whole of Europe at the close of the nineteenth century. It is a significant book because it voices this invalidism with insight and precision; it exhales a pallid world-weary spirit; it is beautiful and spotted just as Huysman’s soul was beautiful and spotted. Again we encounter painstaking detail, a beauty of -finish that is the outward token of the two edges of Huysmans’s temperament, the sensory and the cerebral. It condenses not only the introverted man, but the neurasthenic age in which he lived.

In addition to his scrupulous precision which he may have derived from his Flemish ancestors who were painters, Huysmans is a superb colorist with a richness that resembles inlay jewelwork. His plan is always accessible, sharp, and concrete. This book, written by a man who was tortured all his life by nerves, reveals nevertheless an artistic soundness that must have dwelt in the writer himself. His hero, Des Esseintes, cannot bear Virgil, Horace, Tacitus, and Ovid, but Huysmans himself in his exquisite sense of form reveals both a coherence and a unity that was theirs. Des Esseintes prefers Lucan and Petronius who entice and delight him fully. He is attracted by the yellowish glitter of the parts rather than by the beauty of the whole. In "Against the Grain" the subordinate organisms at times obtrude; but the mood that emerges at last is self-contained, and the intensity of the evocation fetters and paralyzes us like a distorted dream. The book is a mosaic of mood, memory, and dream, buttressed by a perverse self-will. The sixth chapter describing Salome’s dance before Herod after a painting by Gustav Moreau may well have served as the immediate stimulus for Wilde’s play. Filled with unutterable loathing at the prospect, Des Esseintes in the end fares back to Paris, "where the waves of mediocrity rise to the sky." The puzzling last words of the book become clear in the light of Huysmans’s subsequent conversion. "O Lord," Des Esseintes cries in penumbral despair, "pity the Christian who doubts, the skeptic who would believe, the convict of life embarking alone in the night, under a sky no longer illumined by the consoling beacons of ancient faith."

The sheer ferocity of Huysmans’s genius sets him altogether apart from the younger writers of today who voice another sort of despair and disenchantment. He is surly and aggressive; he execrates the sort of impotence which is the prevailing note sounded by the young men of today; he dares to hate; his sense of futility is sharply whetted by artificial stimuli without which the old ennui and threat of emasculation surge back with renewed force. What precisely is his worth to the young writers of this generation? It is, I think, purely aesthetic. His mood and intent are always intelligible and coherent. In its own genre, "Against the Grain" is perfect, although the author himself, curiously enough, disdained that which is balanced and perfect.

Pierre Loving