Studies in Prose and Verse

Arthur Symons

London: Dent, 1904.




WITH the publication of "Pages Catholiques," a volume of selections from "En Route" and "La Cathédrale," edited with a preface by the Abbé Mugnier, Huysmans may be said to have received the imprimatur of the Church. Among many responsible Catholic testimonies, the Abbé Mugnier quotes an emphatic phrase of Dom Augustin, the Abbé of La Trappe d’lgny, the monastery described in "En Route," who rejoices that "the book will do good to those who do not usually read good books." And he himself affirms, as he presents to the world the book into which he has put so much of what is finest in Huysmans’ two novels, that to receive these pages with faith is to be faithful to the spirit of Christ.

Such affirmations are of almost equal interest to those who are preoccupied with questions of religion and to those who are preoccupied with questions of art. For, after all does not the larger part of the value of conduct, and the larger part of the value of art come from the amount of sincerity which has been put into living and working? The question itself of sincerity is certainly the most complicated question in the world for one is not sincere, in life or in art, by intending to be. Our intentions should indeed count for very little, for an intention is not so much as the paralytic’s dream of movement; it is a whisper of the reason, which may not even be heard by that deeper self, soul or instinct, which is at once what gives us our identity, and is prepared to scatter that identity into the general consciousness of the universe. I may say to myself: I will believe in such a dogma of religion, I will believe in such a theory of art. But all my saying and meaning and trying will avail me nothing if the dogma or the theory has not struck sudden fire into light, as it came startlingly upon itself, there in the darkness. Then, and then only, I shall be sincere, as I seem to discover for the first time something which I had known always. And it is this kind of sincerity, this illumination, which means so much to the man who wishes to live well and to the artist who wishes to work well.

"There are states of soul which are not to be invented," said Monseigneur d’Hulst, in reply to some doubts about the literal truth to conviction of "En Route"; and it is on this question of sincerity that the whole artistic merit of Huysmans’ later work seems to me to depend. The faculty of invention, which can do so much that it seems to us sometimes as if, with Shakespeare or with Michelangelo, it could do everything, is after all never quite an absolute thing, never without its lineage, never the first word of creation. Invention is a happy way of arranging the bonfire, so that a single spark sets it all alight. That single spark is no doubt the incalculable element, which lurks everywhere in the world, but, all the same, the spark is nothing, would flicker out in an instant, if its fiery way is not prepared for it. And, when we set invention to work upon the soul, upon what is deepest in us, we must feed it with all our substance, keeping nothing back, if it is to do its work there. A man who has never been in love will never write a good love-poem; nor, if he has only loved ignobly, will he write nobly of love. And so a man who has never had the great awakening, which may bring him, in Barbey d’Aurévilly’s phrase, used of Huysmans himself as long ago as 1884, "to the mouth of the pistol or to the foot of the Cross," will never be able to do what Huysmans has done trace the itinerary of the soul, milestone by milestone, along the road of its penitence.

The conversion of Huysmans, unlike the conversion of François Coppée for instance, is a matter of some significance, apart even from the question of the influence of that change upon his work as an artist. Coppée, an amiable and charming man of letters, became ill, it appears, and fell back upon the consolations of religion, as dying men, and men who suppose themselves to be dying, often do, as after all the only consolations left. He has recovered, and he retains his piety, as we keep souvenirs, doubtless from a real sense of fidelity to an experience which has really moved us. But the experience is not everything: much depends on the man. Coppée is a sentimentalist who has written innumerable verses about the sorrows of the poor, and he has never moved us with a great emotion, or convinced us of any passionate sympathy in himself for what he is writing about. His religion leaves us equally unmoved, for it comes to us as a voice, no more; the voice of one whose opinions have no meaning for us, because they have had no deep meaning for him. But, with Huysmans, the matter is different. "His sincerity is the very form of his talent," says the Abbé Mugnier, in his excellent preface: ’’he owes to it his qualities and his defects, his admirers and his enemies . . . . Rarely have the man and the writer been more closely identified." And Huysmans, as we have always seen him in his books, has been an idealist à rebours, one so discontented with the world as it is, with what is ugly and evil in it, that he has exalted his discontent into a kind of martyrdom; and all his earlier books have been one long narrative of his martyrdom. He has avenged himself upon ugliness and evil by painting them with the exasperation of a monk of the Middle Ages, or with the angry satire of the stone-carvers who set obscene devils crawling over the devout and aspiring walls of the great cathedrals. While he has seemed to be grovelling deeper than others in the trough of Realism, he has been like a man who does penance in a devouring rage, against himself and against sin. He has seen the external world with such extraordinary vividness because he has seen it with hatred; and if love may at times blind with the shadow of too great a light, hatred is always open-eyed, with a kind of intoxication of vision. Not Swift hated the world as Huysmans has hated it. Well, he has found peace, he has become reconciled with the world, he has found his own way of living apart in it, not, as yet, in an acceptance of monastic life, but in a little hermitage of his own, "between a monastery and a wood."

That a man like Huysmans should have accepted the Church, should have found the most closely formulated theory of religion still possible, and more than a mere refuge, is certainly significant. It is significant, among other things, as a confession on the part of a great artist, that art alone, as he has conceived it, is not finally satisfying without some further defence against the world. In "A Rebours " he showed us the sterilising influence of a narrow and selfish conception of art, as he represented a particular paradise of art for art’s sake turning inevitably into its corresponding hell. Des Esseintes is the symbol of all those who have tried to shut themselves in from the natural world, upon an artificial beauty which has no root there. Worshipping colour, sound, perfume, for their own sakes, and not for their ministrations to a more divine beauty, he stupefies himself on the threshold of ecstasy. And Huysmans, we can scarcely doubt, has passed through the particular kind of haschish dream which this experience really is. He has realised that the great choice, the choice between the world and something which is not visible in the world, but out of which the visible world has been made, does not lie in the mere contrast of the subtler and grosser senses. He has come to realise what the choice really is, and he has chosen. Yet perhaps the choice is not quite so narrow as Barbey d’Aurévilly thought; perhaps it is a choice between actualising this dream or actualising that dream. In his escape from the world, one man chooses religion, and seems to find himself; another, choosing love, may seem also to find himself; and may not another, coming to art as to a religion and as to a woman, seem to find himself not less effectually? The one certainty is, that society is the enemy of man, and that formal art is the enemy of the artist. We shall not find ourselves in drawing-rooms or in museums. A man who goes through a day without some fine emotion has wasted his day, whatever he has gained in it. And it is so easy to go through day after day, busily and agreeably, without ever really living for a single instant. Art begins when a man wishes to immortalise the most vivid moment he has ever lived. Life has already, to one not an artist, become art in that moment. And the making of one’s life into art is after all the first duty and privilege of every man. It is to escape from material reality into whatever form of ecstasy is our own form of spiritual existence. There is the choice; and our happiness, our "success in life," will depend on our choosing rightly, each for himself, among the forms in which that choice will come to us.