THE PESSIMIST’S PROGRESS
JORIS-KARL HUYSMANS has been called mystic, naturalist, critic, aristocrat of the intellect; he was all these, a mandarin of letters and a pessimist besides — no matter what other qualities persist throughout his work, pessimism is never absent; his firmament is clotted with black stars. He had a mediaeval monk’s contempt for existence, contempt for the mangy flock of mediocrity; yet his genius drove him to describe its crass ugliness in phrases of incomparable and enamelled prose. It is something of a paradox that this man of picturesque piety should have lived to be the accredited interpreter, the distiller of its quintessence, of that elusive quality, "modernity." The "intensest vision of the modern world," as Havelock Ellis puts it, Huysmans unites to the endowment of a painter the power of a rare psychologist, superimposed upon a lycanthropic nature. A collective title for his books might be borrowed from Zola: My Hatreds. He hated life and its eternal bêlise. His theme, with variations, is a strangling Ennui. With those devoted sons of Mother Church, Charles Baudelaire, Barbey D’Aurevilly, Villiers de l’Isle Adam, and Paul Verlaine, eccentric sons whose actions so often dismayed their fellow worshippers of less genius, Huysmans has been affiliated. He was not a poet or, indeed, a man of overwhelming imagination. But he had the verbal imagination. He did not possess the novelist’s talent. His was not the flamboyant genius of Barbey, nor had he the fantastic invention of Villiers. He seems closer to Baudelaire, rather by reason of his ironic, critical temperament than because of his creative gifts. Baudelaire’s oriflamme, embroidered with preciously devised letters of gold, reads: Spleen and Ideal; upon the emblematic banner of Huysmans this motto is Spleen. His work at times seems like a prolongation in prose of Baudelaire’s. And by reason of his exacerbated temper he became the most personal writer of his generation. He belonged to no school, and avoided, after his beginnings, all literary groups.
He is recording-secretary of the petty miseries and ironies of the life about him. Over ugliness he becomes almost lyric. "The world is a forest of differences." His pen, when he depicts an attack of dyspepsia or neuralgia, or the nervous distaste of a hypochondriac for meeting people, is like the triple sting of a hornet. He is the prose singer of neurasthenia, a Hamlet doubting his digestion, a Schopenhauer of the cook-shops. When he paints the nuance of rage and disgust that assails a middle-aged man at the sight of a burnt mutton-chop, his phrases are unforgettable. The tragedy of the gastric juices he has limned with a fulness of expression that almost lifts pathology to the dignity of art. A descendant of Flemish painters, sculptors, architects (Huysmans of Mechlin, the Antwerp-born painter of the seventeenth century, is said to be a forebear), he inherited their powers of envisaging exterior life; those painters for whom flowers, vegetable markets, butcher-shops, tiny gentle Dutch landscapes, gray skies, skies of rutilant flames, and homely details were surfaces to be passionately and faithfully rendered. This vision he has interpreted with pen instead of brush. He is a virtuoso of the phrase. He is a performer on the single string of self. He knows the sultry enharmonics of passion. He never improvises, he observes. All is willed and conscious, the cold-fire scrutiny of a trained eye, one keen to note the ignoble or any deviation from the normal. His pages are often sterile and smell of the lamp, but he has the candour of his chimera. Well has Remy de Gourmont called him an eye. In his prose, he sacrifices rhythmic variety and tone to colour. His rhythms are massive, his colour at times a furious fanfare of scarlet. Every word, like a note in a musical score, has its value and position. He intoxicates because of his marvellous speech, but he seldom charms. It is a sort of sinister verbal magic that steals upon one as this ancient mariner from the lower moral deeps of Paris fixes you with his glittering eye, and in his strangely modulated language tells tales of blasphemy and fish-wives’ tales of a half-forgotten river below the bed of the Seine, of dull cafés and dreary suburbs, of bored men and stupid women, of sordid, opulent souls, souls spongy and voluptuous, mean lives and meaner alleys — such an epic of ennui, mediocrity, bizzare sins, and neurotic, superstitious creatures was never given the world until Huysmans wrote Les Soeurs Vatard and A Rebours. Entire vanished districts of Paris may be reconstructed from his chapters. Zola declared, when Guy de Maupassant and Huysmans appeared side by side in Les Soirées de Médan, that the latter was the realist.
The unity of form and substance in Huysmans is a distinguishing trait. He had early mastered literary technique, and the handling of his themes varies but little. There are, however, two or three typical varieties of description which may be quoted as illustrations of his etched and jewel-like prose. A cow hangs outside a butchershop:
As in a hothouse, a marvellous vegetation flourished in the carcass. Veins shot out on every side like the trails of bindweed; dishevelled branch-work extended itself along the body, an efflorescence of entrails unfurled their violent-tinted corollas, and big clusters of fat stood out, a sharp white, against the red medley of quivering flesh.
Surely a subject for Snyders or Jan Steen.
Léon Bloy somewhere describes Huysmans’s treatment of the French language as "dragging his images by the heels or the hair up and down the worm-eaten staircase of terrified syntax." Huysmans, in A Rebours, had called M. Bloy "an enraged pamphleteer whose style was at once exasperated and precious." And can magnificence of phrase in evoking a picture go further than the following which shows us Gustave Moreau’s Salome:
In the perverse odour of perfumes, in the overheated atmosphere of this church, Salome, her left arm extended in a gesture of command, her bent right arm holding on the level of the face a great lotus, advances slowly to the sound of a guitar, thrummed by a woman who crouches on the floor. With collected, almost anguished countenance, she begins the lascivious dance that should waken the sleeping senses of the aged Herod; her breasts undulate, become rigid at the contact of the whirling necklets; diamonds sparkle on the dead whiteness of her skin, her bracelets, girdles, rings, shoot sparks; on her triumphal robes sewn with pearls, flowered with silver, sheeted with gold, the jewelled breast-plate, whose every stitch is a precious stone, bursts into flame, scatters in snakes of fire, swarms on the ivory-toned, tea-rose flesh, like splendid insects with dazzling wings, marbled with carmine, dotted with morning gold, diapered with steel blue, streaked with peacock green.
Gautier, — who was for Huysmans only a prodigious reflector — Flaubert, Goncourt, could not have excelled this verbal painting, this bronze and baroque prose, which is both precise and of a splendour. Huysmans can describe a herring as would a great master of sumptuous still-life:
Thy garment is the palette of setting suns, the rust of old copper, the brown gilt of Cordovan leather, the sandal and saffron tints of the autumn foliage. When I contemplate thy coat of mail I think of Rembrandt’s pictures. I see again his superb heads, his sunny flesh, his gleaming jewels on black velvet. I see again his rays of light in the night, his trailing gold in the shade, the dawning of suns through dark arches.
Or this invocation when Huysmans had begun to experience that shifting of moral emotion which we call his "conversion" — he was a Roman Catholic born, therefore was not converted; he but reverted to his early faith:
Take pity, O Lord, on the Christian who doubts, on the sceptic who desires to believe, on the convict of life who embarks alone, in the night, beneath a sky no longer lit by the consoling beacons of ancient faith.
His method is not the recital of events, but the description of a situation; a scene, not a narration, but large tableaux. Action there is little; he is more static than dynamic. His characters, like Goncourt’s, suffer from paralysis of the will, from hyperaesthesia. The soul in its primordial darkness interests him, and he describes it with the same penetrating prose as he does the carcass of an animal. He is a luminous mystic who speaks in terms of extravagant naturalism. A physiologist of the soul, at times his soul dwelt in a boulevard. His violent, vivid style so excellent in setting forth coloured sensations is equally admirable in the construction of metaphors which make concrete the abstract. There is the element of the grotesque, of the old, ribald Fleming, in Huysmans, though without a trace of hearty Flemish humour. He once said that the memory of the inventor of card-playing ought to be blessed, the game kept closed the mouths of imbeciles. Nor is the pepper of sophistry absent. He sculptures his ideas. He is both morose and fulgurating. He squanders his emotions with polychromatic resignation unlike a Saint Augustine or a Newman; yet we are not deeply moved by his soul-experiences. It is not vibrating sincerity that we miss; it would be wrong to question his return to Catholicism. He is more convincing than Tolstoy; for one thing, there was no dissonance between his daily life and his writings, after the publication of En Route. Lucid as is his manner, clairvoyant as the exposition of his soul at the feet of God, there is, nevertheless, an absence of unction, of tenderness, which repels. Sympathy and tenderness are bourgeois virtues for Huysmans. Too complicated to admire, even recognise, the sane or the simple, he remained the morbid carper after he entered La Trappe and Solesmes. As an oblate, his fastidiousness was wounded by the minor annoyances of a severe regimen; his stomach always ailed him. Perhaps to his weak digestion and a neuralgic tendency we owe the bitterness and pessimism of his art. He was not a normal man. He loathed the inevitable discords of life with a startling intensity. The venomous salt of his wit he sprinkles over the raw turpitude of men and women. Woman for him was not of the planetary sex, but either a stupid or a vicious creature; sometimes both. Impassible as he was, he could be shocked into a species of sub-acid eloquence if the theme were the inutility of mankind. No Hebraic prophet ever launched such poignant phrases of disgust and horror at the world and its works. His favourite reading was in the mystics, è Kempis, Saint Theresa, St. John of the Cross, and the Flemish Ruysbroeck.
In a new edition of A Rebours he has told us that he was not pious as a youth, having been educated not at a religious school. A Rebours came out in 1884, and it was in July, 1892, at the age of forty-four, that he went to La Trappe de Notre-Dame d’Igny, situated near Fismes, and the Aisne and Marne. He confessed that he could not discover, during the eight intervening years, why he swerved to the Church of Rome. Diminution of vital energy was not the chief reason for his reversion. The operations of divine grace in Huysmans’s case may be dated back to A Rebours. The modulation by the way of art was not a difficult one. And he had the good taste of giving us his experiences. in the guise of art. It is the history of a conversion, though he is, without doubt, the Durtal of the books. The final explosion of grace after years of unconscious mining, the definite illumination on some unknown Road to Damascus, took place between the appearance of Lè Bas and En Route. We are spared the technique of faith reawakened. It had become part of his cerebral tissue. We are shown a Durtal, believer; also a Durtal profoundly disgusted with the oily, rancid food of La Trappe, and with the faces of some of his companions, and a Durtal who puffs surreptitious cigarettes. At Lourdes, in his last book, he is the same Durtal-Huysmans, grumbling at the odours of unwashed bodies, at the perspiring crowds, at the ignorance and cupidity of the shrine’s guardians. A pessimist to the end. And for that reason he has often outraged the sensibilities of his coreligionists, who questioned his sincerity after such an exclamation as: "How like a rind of lard I must look!" uttered when he carried a dripping candle in a religious procession. But through the dreary mists of doubtings and black fogs of unfaith the lamp of the Church, a shining point, drew to it from his chilly ecstasies this hedonist. Like Taine and Nietzsche, he craved for some haven of refuge to escape the whirring wings of Wotan’s ravens. And in the pale woven air he saw the cross of Christ.
Leslie Stephen wrote of Pascal: "Eminent critics have puzzled themselves as to whether Pascal was a sceptic or a genuine believer, having, I suppose, convinced themselves, by some process not obvious to me, that there is an incompatibility between the two characters." Huysmans may have been both sceptic and believer, but the dry fervour of the later books betrays a man who willingly humiliates and depreciates the intellect for the greater glory of God. Abbé Mugnier says that his sincerity is itself the form of his talent. His portrait of Simon the swineherd in En Route is mortifying to humans with proud stomachs; Huysmans penetrates the husks and filth and sees only a God-intoxicated soul. Here is, indeed, the "treasure of the humble." At first, religion with Durtal was æsthetic, the beauty of Gothic architecture, the pyx that ardently shines, the bells that boom, the odours of frankincense that rolled through the nave of some old vast cathedral with flame-coloured windows. In L’Oblat the feeling has widened and deepened. The walls of life have fallen asunder, the soul glows in the twilight of the subliminal self, glows with a spiritual phosphorescence. Huysmans is nearer, though not face to face with, God. The object of his prayer is the Virgin Mary; to the hem of her robe he clings like a frightened child at its mother’s dress. All this may have been auto-suggestion, or the result of the "will to believe," according to the formula of Professor William James, yet it was satisfying to Huysmans, whose life was singularly lonely.
He was born on February 5, 1848, in Paris, and died in that city on May 12, 1907. Christened Charles-Marie-George, he signed his books JorisKarl. He was educated at the Lyceum SaintLouis. His family originally resided at Breda, Holland. His father was lithographer and painter. His mother was of Burgundian stock and boasted a sculptor in her ancestral line. Huysmans came fairly by his love of art. He contemplated the profession of law; but, at the age of twenty, he entered the Ministry of the Interior, where he remained until 1897, a model, unassuming official, fond of first editions, posters, rare prints, and a few intimates. He went then to live at Ligugé, but returned to Paris after the expulsion of the Benedictines. He was elected first president of the Academy Goncourt, April 7, 1900. He was nominated chevalier of the Legion of Honour, and given the rosette of officer by Briand, though Huysmans begged that he should have no military honours at his funeral. It was for his excellent work as a civil servant that he was decorated, and not as a man of letters. At the time of his death, his reputation had suffered an eclipse; he was distrusted both by Catholics and free-thinkers. But he never wavered. Attacked by a cancerous malady, he suffered the atrocious martyrdom of his favourite Saint Lydwine. Léon Daudet, François Coppée, and Lucien Descaves were his unwearying attendants. At the last, he could still read the prayers for the dying. He was buried in his Benedictine habit. But what an artist perished in the making of an amateur monk!
"His face," said an English friend, "with the sensitive, luminous eyes, reminded one of Baudelaire’s portrait, the face of a resigned and benevolent Mephistopheles who has discovered the absurdity of the divine order, but has no wish to make improper use of his discovery. He gave me the impression of a cat, courteous, perfectly polite, most amiable, but all nerves, ready to shoot out his claws at the least word." (Huysmans, like Baudelaire, was fond of cats). When I saw him five years ago in Paris, I was struck by the essentially Semitic contour of his head — some legacy of remote ancestors from the far-away Meuse.
As a critic of painting Huysmans revealed himself the possessor of a temperament that was positively ferocious in the presence of an unsympathetic canvas. His vocabulary and peculiar gift of invective were then exercised with astounding verbal if not critical results. Singularly narrow in his judgments for a man of his general culture, his intensity of vision concentrated itself upon a few painters and etchers; during the latter part of his life only religious art interested him, as had the exotic and monstrous in earlier years. And even in the former sphere he restricted his admiration, rather say idolatry, to a few men; he sought for character, an ascetic type of character, the lean and meagre Saviours and saints of the Flemish primitives arousing in him a fire almost fanatical. Between a Roger Van der Weyden and a Giorgione there would be little doubt as to Huysmans’s choice; the golden colourmusic of the great Venetian harmonist would have reached deaf ears. His Flemish ancestry told in his æsthetic tastes. He once said that he preferred a Leipsic man to a Marseilles man, "the big, phlegmatic, taciturn Germans to the gesticulating and rhetorical people of the south."
Huysmans never betrayed the slightest interest in doctrines of equality; for him, as for Baudelaire, socialism, the education of the masses, or democratic prophylactics were hateful. The virus of the "exceptional soul" was in his veins. Nothing was more horrible to him than the idea of universal religion, universal speech, universal government, with their concomitant universal monotony. The world is ugly enough without the ugliness of universal sameness. Variety alone makes this globe bearable. He did not believe in art for the multitude, and the tableau of a billion humans bellowing to the moon the hymn of universal brotherhood made him shiver — as well it might. Tolstoy and his semi-idiotic mujik, to whom Beethoven was impossible, aroused in Huysmans righteous indignation. Art is for those who have the brains and patience to understand it. It is not a free port of entry for poet and philistine alike. To it, though many are called, few are chosen. So is it with religion. That marvellous specimen of psychology, En Route, gave more offence to Roman Catholics than it did to sectarians of other faiths. Huysmans was a mystic, and to his temperament, as taut as a finely attuned fiddle, the easy-going methods of the average worshipper were absolutely blasphemous. So he could write in En Route: "And he — Durtal — called to mind orators petted like tenors, Monsabré, Didon, those Coquelins of the Church, and, lower yet than those products of the Catholic training school, that bellicose booby the Abbé d’Hulst." That same abbé lived to see the writer repentant and, himself, not only to forgive, but to write eulogistic words of the man who had abused him.
L’Art Moderne was published between covers in 1883. It deals with the official salons of 1879, 1880-81 and the exposition of the Independents, 1880-81. The appendix, 1882, contains thumbnail sketches of Caillebotte, whose bequest to the Luxembourg of impressionistic paintings, including Manet’s Olympe, stirred all artistic and inartistic Paris; Gauguin, Mlle. Morisot, Guillaumin, Renoir, Pissaro, Sisley, Claude Monet, "the marine painter par excellence"; Manet, Roll, Redon, all men then fighting the stream of popular and academic disfavour. Since Charles Baudelaire’s Salons, no volume on the current Paris exhibitions has appeared of such solid knowledge and literary power as Huysmans’s. Admitting his marked prejudices, his numerous dogmatic utterances, there is nevertheless an attractive artistic quality backed up by the writer’s stubborn convictions that persuade where the more liberal and brilliant Théophile Gautier never does. " Théo," who said that if he pitched his sentences in the air they always fell on their feet, like a cat, leaned heavily on his verbal magic. But even in that particular he is no match for Huysmans, who, boasting the blood of Fleming painters, sculptors, and architects, uses his pen as an artist his brush. Take another bit from his study of Moreau’s Salome:
"A throne, like the high altar of a cathedral, rose beneath innumerable arches springing from columns, thick-set as Roman pillars, enamelled with varicoloured bricks, set with mosaics, encrusted with lapis-lazuli and sardonyx in a palace like the basilica of an architecture at once Mussulman and Byzantine. In the centre of the tabernacle surmounting the altars, fronted with rows of circular steps, sat the Tetrarch Herod, the tiara on his head, his legs pressed together, his hands on his knees. His face was yellow, parchmentlike, annulated with wrinkles, withered by age; his long beard floated like a cloud on the jewelled stars that constellated the robe of netted gold across his breast. Around this statue, motionless, frozen in the sacred pose of a Hindu god, perfumes burned, throwing out clouds of vapour, pierced, as by the phosphorescent eyes of animals, by the fire of precious stones set in the sides of the throne; then the vapour mounted, unrolling itself beneath arches where the blue smoke mingled with the powdered gold of great sun-rays fallen from the dome."... And of Salome he writes: "In the work of Gustave Moreau, conceived on no Scriptural data, Des Esseintes saw at last the realisation of the strange, superhuman Salome that he had dreamed. She was no more the mere dancing girl... she had become the symbolic deity of indestructible Lust, the goddess of immortal Hysteria; the monstrous, indifferent, irresponsible, insensible Beast, poisoning like Helen of old all that go near her, all that look upon her, all that she touches."
Not only is there an evocation of material splendour in the above passages taken from A Rebours, but a note of cenobitic contempt for woman’s beauty, which sounds throughout the books of Huysmans. It may be heard at its deepest in his study of Félicien Rops, the Belgian etcher and painter, who interpreted Baudelaire femmes damnées. Rops, too, regarded woman in the light of a destroyer, a being banned by the early fathers of the Church, the matrix of sin. Huysmans’s incomparable study of Rops — whose great powers have never been fully recognized because of his erotic and diabolic subjects — may be found in his Certains (1889).
In his description of the Independent exposition (1880) to which Degas, Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot, Forain, and others sent canvases, Huysmans drifts into literary criticism; he saw analogies between the paintings of the realists, impressionists, and the modern men of fiction, Flaubert, Goncourt, Zola. "Have not," he asks, "the Goncourts fixed in a style deliberate and personal, the most ephemeral of sensations, the most fugacious of nuances?" So, too, have Manet, Monet, Pissaro, Raffaelli. Nor does he hesitate to make the avowal, still incomprehensible for those who are deceived by the prodigious blaring of critical trumpets, that Baudelaire is a true poet of genius; and that the chef d’oeuvre of fiction is Flaubert’s L’Education Sentimentale. Naturally Edgar Degas is the only psychological interpreter of latter-day life. There is also a careful analysis of Manet’s masterpiece, the Bar at the Folies-Bergères. Huysmans recognised Manet’s indebtedness to Goya.
Certains is a valuable volume. Therein are Puvis de Chavannes, Gustave Moreau, Degas, Bartholomé, Raffaelli, Stevens, Tissot, Wagner — the painter, not the composer; Huysmans admits but one form in music, the Plain Chant — Cézanne, Chéret, Whistler — which true to the tradition of Parisian carelessness is spelled "Wisthler," as Liszt years before was called "Litz" — Rops, Jan Luyken, Millet, Goya, Turner, Bianchi, and other men. He gives to Millet his just meed of praise, no more — he views him as a designer rather than as a great painter. We get Huysmans in his quintessence. Scattered through his novels — if one may dare to ascribe this title to such an amorphous form — there are eloquent and burning pages devoted to various painters, but not with the amplitude and cool science displayed in his studies of Degas, Moreau, Rops, The Monster in Art — a monstrous subject masterfully handled — and Whistler. He literally discovered Degas, and in future books on rhetoric surely Huysmans’s descriptions of Degas’s old workwomen sponging their creased backs cannot be excluded without doing violence to the expressive powers of the French language. His eye mirrored the most minute details — in that he was Dutch-Flemish; the same merciless scrutiny is pursued in the life of the soul — he was Flemish and Spanish: Ruysbroeck and St. John of the Cross, mystics both, with an amazing sense of the realistic.
Without a spacious imagination, Huysmans was a man of the subtlest sensibilities. There is a wealth of critical divination in his studies of Moreau and Whistler. Twenty or thirty years ago it was not so easy to range these two enigmas. Huysmans did so, and, in company with Degas and Rops, placed them so definitely that critics have paraphrased his ideas ever since. Baudelaire had recognised the glacial genius of Rops; Huysmans definitely consecrated it in Certains. For Huysmans the theme of love aroused his mordant wit — Flaubert, Goncourt, Baudelaire were all summoned at one time or another in their respective careers to answer the charge of poisoning public morals! And what malicious commentaries were drawn and etched by the versatile Rops.
Extraordinary as are Rops’s delineations of Satan, the prose of Huysmans is not less graphic in interpreting the etched plate. In De Tout (1901) there is, literally, a little about everything. Not only are several unknown quarters of Paris sketched with a surprising freshness, but Huysmans goes far afield for his themes. He studies sleeping-cars and the sleepy city Bruges, the aquarium at Berlin — "most fastidious and most ugly" — the Gobelins, Quentin Matsys at Antwerp; but whether in illustrating with his pen the mobs at Lourdes or the intimate habits of a Parisian café, he never fails to achieve the exact phrase that illuminates. Nor is it all crass realism. His eye, the eye of a visionary as well as of a painter, penetrates to the marrow of the soul.
A Rebours is the history of a decadent soul in search of an earthly paradise. His palace of art is near Paris, and in it the Duc des Esseintes assembles all that is rare, perverse, beautiful, morbid, and crazy in modern art and literature. A Rebours is in reality a very precious work of criticism by a distinguished critical temperament, written in a prose jewelled and shining, sharp as a Damascene dagger. This French writer’s admiration for Moreau has been mentioned. Luyken comes in for his share; the bizarre Luyken of Amsterdam (1649-1712). Odilon Redon, the lithographer and illustrator of Poe, is lauded by Des Esseintes. Redon’s work is not lacking in subtlety, and it is sometimes disagreeable; possibly the latter quality is aimed at by the painter. Redon certainly had in Poe a congenial subject; in Baudelaire also, for he has accomplished some shivering plates commemorating Fleurs du Mal.
Not such intractable reading as L’Oblat, withal difficult enough, is The Cathedral, which abounds in glorious chapters devoted to ecclesiastical painting, sculpture, and architecture. "It" — the Cathedral — "was as slender and colourless as Roger Van der Weyden’s Virgins, who are so fragile, so ethereal, that they might blow away were they not held down to earth by the weight of their brocades and trains," is a passage in this storehouse of curious liturgical learning. Matsys, Memling, Dierck Bouts, Van der Weyden, painted great religious pictures because they possessed a naïve faith. Nowadays your painter has no faith; better, then, stick like Degas to ballet-girls and not soil canvas with profane burlesques. Always extreme, Huysmans jumped from the worldly audacities of Manet to the rebellious Christ of Grünewald. Van Eyck touched him where Van Dyck did not. He disliked the "supersensual and sublimated Virgins of Cologne," and pronounced Botticelli’s Virgins masquerading Venuses. The Van der Weyden triptych of the Nativity in the old museum, Berlin, filled him with raptures, pious and æsthetic. The "theatrical crucifixions, the fleshly coarseness of Rubens" are naught when compared to the early Flemings. His pages on Rembrandt are admirable reading, "Rembrandt, who had the soul of a Judaising Protestant... with his serious but fervid wit, his genius for concentration, for getting a spot of the essence of sunlight into the heart of darkness... has accomplished great results; and in his Biblical scenes has spoken a language which no one before him had attempted to lisp." As Huysmans loathed the rancid and voluptuous "sacred" music of Gounod and other comic-opera writers of masses and hymns in the Church, so he abominated the modern "sacred" painters. James Tissot and Munkacsy come in for a critical flagellation. What could be more dazzling than his account of a certain stained-glass window in his beloved Cathedral at Chartres:
’Up there high in the air, as they might be Salamanders, human beings, with faces ablaze and robes on fire, dwelt in a firmament of glory; but these conflagrations were enclosed and limited by an incombustible frame of darker glass which set off the youthful and radiant joy of the flames by the contrast of melancholy, the suggestion of the more serious and aged aspect presented by gloomy colouring. The bugle-cry of red, the limpid confidence of white, the repeated hallelujahs of yellow, the virginal glory of blue, all the quivering crucible of glass was dimmed as it neared this border dyed with rusty red, the tawny hues of sauces, the harsh purples of sandstone, bottle green, tinder brown, fuliginous blacks, and ashy grays." Not even Arthur Rimbaud, in his half-jesting sonnet on the "Vowels," indulged in such daring colour symbolism as Huysmans. For a specimen of his most fulgurating style read his Camaïeu in Red, in a little volume edited by Mr. Howells entitled Pastels in Prose, and translated by Stuart Merrill.
"To be rich, very rich, and found in Paris in face of the triumphal ambulance, the Luxembourg, a public museum of contemporary painting!" he cries in one of his essays. He was the critic of Modernity, as Degas is its painter, Goncourt its exponent in fiction, Paul Bourget its psychologist. He lashes himself into a fine rage over the enormous prices paid some years ago by New York millionaires for the work of such artists as Bouguereau, Dubufe, Gérôme, Constant, Rosa Bonheur, Knaus, Meissonier. The Christ before Pilate, sold for 600,000 francs, sets him fulminating against its painter. "Cet indigent décor brossé par le Brésilien de la piété, par le rastaquouère de la peinture, par Munkacsy."
Joris-Karl Huysmans should have been a painter; his indubitable gift for form and colour were by some trick of nature or circumstance transposed to literature. So he brought to the criticism of pictures an eye abnormal in its keenness, and to this was superadded an abnormal power of expression.
After reading his Three Primitives you may be tempted to visit Colmar, where hang in the museum several paintings by Mathias Grünewald, who is the chief theme of the French writer’s book. Colmar is not difficult to reach if you are in Paris, or pass through Strasburg. It is a town of over 35,000 inhabitants, the capital of Upper Alsace and about forty miles from Strasburg. There are several admirable specimens of the Rhenish school there, Van Eyck and Martin Schongauer (born 1450 in Colmar), the great engraver. His statue by Bartholdi is in the town, and, as Huysmans rather delicately puts it, is an "emetic for the eyes." He always wrote what he thought, and notwithstanding the odour of sanctity in which he departed this life, his name and his books are still anathema to many of his fellow Catholics. But as to the quality of this last study there can be no mistake. It is masterly, revealing the various Huysmanses we admire: the mystic, the realist, the penetrating critic of art, and the magnificent tamer of language. Hallucinated by his phrases, you see cathedrals arise from the mist and swim so close to you that you discern every detail before the vision vanishes; or some cruel and bloody canvas of the semi-demoniacal Grünewald, on which a hideous Christ is crucified, surrounded by scowling faces. The swiftness in executing the verbal portrait allows you no time to wonder over the method; the evocation is complete, and afterward you realise the magic of Huysmans.
In his Lè Bas he described the Grünewald Crucifixion, once in the Cassel Museum, now as Carlsruhe. A tragic realism invests this work of Grünewald, who is otherwise a very unequal painter. Huysmans puzzled over the Bavarian, who was probably born at Aschaffenburg. Sundvart, Waagen, Goutzwiller, and Passavant have written of him. He was born about 1450 and died about 1530. He lived his later years in Mayence, lonely and misanthropic. Every one speaks of Dürer, the Cranachs, Schongauer, Holbein, but even during his lifetime Grünewald was not famous. To-day he is esteemed by those for whom the German and Belgian Primitives mean more than all Italian art. There is a bitterness, a pessimism, a delight in torture for the sake of torture in Griinewald’s treatment of sacred subjects that must have shocked his more easy-going contemporaries. Huysmans, as is his wont, does not spare us in his recital of the horrors of that Colmar Crucifixion. For me the one now at Carlsruhe suffices. It causes a shudder, and some echo of the agony of the Passion permeates that solemn scene. Grünewald must have been a painter of fierce and exalted temperament. His Christs are ugly — the ugliness symbolical of the sins of the world; — this doctrine was upheld by Tertullian and Cyprian, Cyril and St. Justin.
And the cadaverous flesh tones! Such is his fidelity, a fidelity almost pathologic, that two such eminent men as Charcot and Richet testified, after study, to the too painful verity of this early German’s brushwork. He depicted with shocking realism the malady known as St. Anthony’s Fire, and a still more pathological interpretation by Huysmans follows. But he warmly praises the fainting mother, one of the noble figures in German art. We allude now to the Colmar Crucifixion, with its curious introduction of St. John the Baptist in Golgotha, and the dark landscape through which runs a gloomy river. Fainting Mary, the mother of Christ, is upheld by the disciple John. There is a mysterious figure of a girl, an ugly but sorrowful face, and the lamb bearing the cross is at the foot of the cross. Audacious is the entire composition. It wounds the soul, and that is what Grünewald wished. His harsh nature saw in the crucifixion not a pious symbol but the death of a god, an unjust death. So he fulminates upon his canvas his hatred of the outrage. How tender he can be we see in this Virgin.
On the back of this polyptique are a Resurrection and Annunciation. The latter is bad. The former is a dynamic picture representing Christ in a vast aureole arising to the sky, His guards tumbled over at the side of the tomb. There is an explosion of luminosity. Christ’s face is radiant; He displays his palms upward, pierced by the nails. The floating aerial effect and the draperies are wonderfully handled. The museum wherein hang these works was formerly a convent of nuns, founded in 1232, and in 1849 turned into a museum. Huysmans rages, of course, over the change.
He finds among the Grünewalds at Colmar — there are nine in all — a St. Anthony bearded, that reminds him of a Father Hecker born in Holland. What a simile, made by a man who probably never saw the American priest, except pictured!
He visits Frankfort-on-the-Main, and afterward, characteristically pouring his vials of wrath upon this New Jerusalem, he visits the Staedel Museum and goes into ecstasies over that lovely head of a young woman called the Florentine, by an unknown master. Though he admires the Van der Weyden, the Bouts, and the Virgin of Van Eyck, he really has eyes only for this exquisite, vicious androgynous creature and for the Virgin by the Master of Flemalle. After a vivid description of the Florentine Cybele he inquires into her artistic paternity, waving aside the suggestion that one of the Venezianos painted her. But which one? There are over eleven, according to Lanzi. Huysmans will not allow Botticelli’s name to be mentioned, though he discerns certain Botticellian qualities. But he has never forgiven Botticelli for painting the Virgin looking like the Venus, and he hates the paganism of the Renaissance with an early Christian fervour. (Fancy the later Joris-Karl Huysmans and the early Walter Pater in a discussion about the Renaissance.) Huysmans himself was a Primitive. Much that he wrote would have been understood in the Middle Ages. The old Adam in this Fleming, however, comes to the surface as he conjectures the name of the enigmatic heroine. Is it that Giulia Farnese, called "Giulia la bella" — puritas impuritatis — who became the favourite of Pope Alexander VI.? If it is — and then Huysmans writes some pages of perfect prose which suggest joyful depravity, as depraved as the people he paints with such marvellous colour and precision. It is a peep behind the scenes of a pagan Christian Rome.
The Master of Flemalle, whose Virgin he describes at the close of this volume, was the Jacques Daret born in the early years of the fifteenth century, a fellow student of Roger van der Weyden under Campin at Tournay. We confess that, while we enjoy the verbal rhapsodies of the author, we were not carried away by this stately Virgin and Child by Daret, though there are many Darets that once passed as the work of Roger van der Weyden. It has not the sweet melancholy, this picture, of Hans Memlinc’s Madonnas, and the Van Eyck in the same gallery, as well as the Van der Weyden, are both worth a trip across Europe to gaze upon. However, on the note of a rapt devotion Huysmans ends his book. The first edition, illustrated, was published in 1905, by Vanier-Messein. But there is a new (1908) edition, published by Plon, at Paris, and called Trois Eglises et Trois Primitifs. This latter is not illustrated. The three churches discussed are Notre Dame de Paris and its symbolism, Saint Germain-l’Auxerrois, and Saint Merry.
Poor, unhappy, suffering Huysmans! He trod the Road to Damascus on foot and not in a pleasant motor-car like several of his successors. The intimate side of the man, so hidden by him, is now being revealed to us by his friends. Recently, in the Revue de Paris, Mme. Myriam Harry, the writer of The Conquest of Jerusalem, tells us of her friendship with Huysmans, with a rather sentimental anecdote about his weeping over a dead love. When she met him he was already attainted with the malady which tortured him to the end. A lifetime sufferer from neuralgia and dyspepsia, he was half blind for a few months before his death. He touchingly alludes to his illness as both a punishment and a reparation for things he wrote in his Lourdes. In a letter dated January 5, 1907, he avows that nothing is more dangerous than to celebrate sorrow; all his books celebrate the physical miseries of life, the sorrows of the soul. Humbly this great writer admits that he must pay for the pages of that cruel book, the life of Sainte-Lydwine. The disease he so often described came to him at last and slew him.
To traverse the books of Huysmans is a true pessimistic progress; from Le Drageoir aux Epices (1874) to Les Foules de Lourdes (1906), the note, at times shrill, often profound, is never one of dulcification. The first book, a veritable little box of spices, was modelled on Baudelaire’s Poemes en Prose, but revealed to the acute critic a new personal shade. Its plainness is Gallic. That amusing, ironic sketch, L’Extase, gives us a key-note to the writer’s disillusioned soul. Marthe (1876) caused a sensation. It was speedily suppressed. La Fille Elise and Nana the public could endure; but the cold-blooded delineation of vice in this first novel was too much for the Parisian, who likes a display of sentiment or sympathy in the treatment of unsavoury themes. Now, sympathy for sin or suffering is missing in Huysmans. Slow veils of pity never descend upon his sufferers. Like a surgeon who will show you a "beautiful disease," a "classic case," he exposed the life of the wretched Marthe, and, while he called a cat a cat, he forgot that certain truths are unfit for polite ears accustomed to the rotten-ripe Dumas fils, or the thrice-brutal Zola. It was in Marthe that Huysmans proclaimed his adherence to naturalism in these memorable words: "I write what I see, what I feel, and what I have experienced, and I write it as well as I can: that is all." This rubric he adhered to his life long, despite his change of spiritual base. He also said that there are writers who have talent, and others who have not talent. All schools, groups, cliques, whether romantic or naturalistic or decadent, need not count.
It was 1880 before Huysmans was again heard from, this time in collaboration with Zola, Guy de Maupassant, Henry Céard, Léon Hennique, and Paul Alexis. Les Soirées de Medan was the inappropriate title of a book of interesting tales. Huysmans contribution, Sac au Dos, is a story of the Franco-Prussian war that would have pleased Stendhal by its sardonic humour. The hero never reaches the front, but spends his time in hospitals, and the nearest he gets to the glory of war is a chronic stomach-ache. The variations on this ignoble motive showed the malice of Huysmans. War is not hell, he says in effect, but dysentery is; how often a petty ailing has unmade a heroic soul. Yet in the Brussels edition of this story there was published the following verse — the author seldom wrote poetry; he was hardly a poet, but as indicating certain religious preoccupations it is worth repeating:
"O croix qui veux l’austère, ô chair qui veux le doux,
O monde, ô évangile, immortels adversaires,
Les plus grands ennemis sont plus d’accord que vous,
Et les pôles du ciel ne sont pas plus contraires.
On monte dans le ciel par un chemin de pleurs,
Mais, que leur amertume a de douceurs divines!
On descend aux enfers par un chemin de fleurs,
Mais hélas! que ces fleurs nous préparent d’épines!
La fleur qui, dans un jour, sèche et s’épanouit,
Les bulles d’air et d’eau qu’un petit souffle casse,
Une ombre qui paraét et qui s’évanouit
Nous représentent bien comme le monde passe."
Naturally, in the face of Maupassant brilliant Boule de Suif, Huysmans’s sly attack on patriotism was overlooked. Croquis Parisiens (1880) contains specimens of Huysmans’s astounding virtuosity. No one before has ever described sundry aspects of Paris with such verisimilitude — that Paris he said was, because of the Americans, fast becoming a "sinister Chicago." Balls, cafés, bars, omnibus-conductors, washerwomen, chestnut-sellers, hairdressers, remote landscapes and corners of the city, cabarets, la Bièvre, the underground river, with prose paraphrases of music, perfumes, flowers — Huysmans astonishes by his prodigality of epithet and justness of observation. What Manet, Pissaro, Raffaelli, Forain, were doing with oil and pastel and pencil, he accomplished with his pen. A Vau l’Eau followed in 1882. It is considered the typical Huysmans tale, and some see in Jean Folantin its unhappy hero, obsessed by the desire for a juicy beefsteak, the prototype of Durtal. Folantin is a poor employee in the Ministry who must exist on his annual salary of fifteen hundred francs. He haunts cheap restaurants, lives in cheap lodgings, is seedy and sour, with the nerves of a voluptuary. His sense of smell makes his life a nightmare. The sordid recital would be comical but that it is so villainously real. It is an Odyssey of a dyspeptic. Dickens would have set us laughing over the woes of this Folantin, or Dostoiëvsky would have made us weep — as he did in Poor Folk. But Huysmans has no time for tears or laughter; he must register his truth, and at the end an odor of stale cheese exhales from the printed page. Wretched Monsieur Folantin. Of the official life so clearly presented in some of Maupassant’s tales, we get little; Huysmans is too much preoccupied with Folantin’s stomach troubles. In the same volume, though published first in 1887, is Un Dilemme, which is a pitiful tale of a girl abandoned. Huysmans, while he came under the influence of L’Education Sentimentale, seems to have taken as a leit motiv the idiotic antics of Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet. This pair of mediocre maniacs were his models for mankind at large. Les Soeurs Vatard (1879), praised so warmly by Zola in The Experimental Novel, is not a novel, but kaleidoscopic Parisian pictures of intimate low life, executed with consummate finish, and closeness to fact. The two sisters Vatard, Céline and Désirée, with their love affairs, fill a large volume. There are minute descriptions of proletarian interiors, sewing-shops full of perspiring girls, railroad-yards, locomotives, and a gingerbread fair. The men are impudent scamps, bullies, souteneurs, the women either weak or vulgar. Veracity there often is and an air of reality — though these swaggerers and simpletons are silhouettes, not half as vital as Zola’s Lise or Goncourt’s Germinie Lacerteux. But atmosphere, toujours atmosphere — of that Huysmans is the compeller. Not a disagreeable scene, smell, or sound does he spare his readers. And how many genre pictures he paints for us in this book.
We reach bourgeois life with En Ménage (1881). André and Cyprien the novelist and painter are not so individual as, say, old père Vatard in the preceding story. They but serve as stalking horses for Huysmans to show the stupid miseries of the married state; that whether a man is or is not married he will regret it. Love is the supreme poison of life. André is deceived by his wife, Cyprien lives lawlessly. Neither one is contented. The novel is careful in workmanship; it is like Goncourt and Flaubert, both gray and masterful. But it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Like the early Christian fathers, Huysmans had a conception of Woman, "the eternal feminine of the eternal simpleton," which is hardly ennobling. The painter Cyprien is said to be a portrait of the author.
A Rebours appeared at the psychologic moment. Decadence was in the air. Either you were a decadent or violently opposed to the movement. Verlaine had consecrated the word — hardly an expressive one. The depraved young Jean, Duke of Esseintes, greedy of exotic sensations, who figures as the hero of this gorgeous prose mosaic, is said to be the portrait of a Parisian poet, and a fashionable dilettante of art painted by Whistler. But there is more of Huysmans — the exquisite literary critic that is Huysmans — in the work. If, as Henry James remarks: "When you have no taste you have no discretion — which is the conscience of taste," then Huysmans must be acclaimed a man of unexampled tact. His handling of a well-nigh impossible theme, his "technical heroism," above all, his soul-searching tactics in that wonderful Chapter VII, when Des Esseintes, suffering from the malady of the infinite, proceeds to examine his conscience and portrays for us the most fluctuating shades of belief and feeling — his touch here is sure, and casuistically immoral, as "all art is immoral for the inartistic." The chief value of the book for future generations of critics lies in Chapters XII and XIV. Huysmans’s literary and artistic preferences are catalogued with delicacy and erudition. More Byzantine than Byzance, A Rebours is a storehouse of art treasures, and it was once the battle-field of the literary élite. It is a history of the artistic decadent, the man of disdainful inquietudes who searches for an earthly artificial paradise. The mouth orchestra which, by the aid of various liquors, gives to the tongue sensations analogous to music; the flowers and perfume concerts, the mechanical landscape, the mock sea — all these are mystifications. Huysmans the farceur, the Jules Verne of aesthetics, is enjoying himself. His liquor symphony he borrowed from La Chimie du Goût by Polycarpe Poncelet; from Zola, perhaps, his concert of flowers. As for the originality of these diversions, we may turn to Goethe and find in his Triumph der Empfindsamkeit the mechanical landscape of the Prince, who can enjoy sunlight or moonlight at will. He has also a doll to whom he sighs, rhapsodises, and passes in its silent company hours of rapture. Villiers de l’Isle Adam evidently read Goethe: see his Eve of the Future. All of which shows the folly of certain critics who recognise in Huysmans the prime exemplar of the decadent — that much misunderstood word. But how about Goethe? A Rebours, notwithstanding Huysmans’s later pilgrimage to Canossa, he never excelled. It is his most personal achievement. It also contains the most beautiful writing of this Paganini of prose.
En Rade (1887) did not attract much attention. It is not dull; on the contrary, it is very Huysmansish. But it is not a subject that enthralls. Jacques Marles and his wife have lost their money. They go into the country to live cheaply. The author’s detestation of nature was apparently the motive for writing the book. There are fantastic dreams worthy of H. G. Wells, and realistic descriptions of a calf’s birth and a cat’s agony; the last two named prove the one-time disciple of Zola had not lost his vision; the truth is, Zola’s method is melodramatic, romantic, vague, when compared to Huysmans’s implacable manner of etching petty facts.
But in Lè-Bas he takes a leap across the ditch of naturalism and reaches another, if not more delectable, territory. This was in 1891. A new manifesto must be made — the Goncourts had printed a bookful. Symbolism, not naturalism, is now the shibboleth. Huysmans declares that:
It is essential to preserve the veracity of the document, the precision of detail, the fibrous and nervous language of Realism, but it is equally essential to become the well-digger of the soul, and not to attempt to explain what is mysterious by mental maladies... It is essential, in a word, to follow the great road so deeply dug out by Zola, but it is also necessary to trace a parallel pathway in the air, another road by which we may reach the Beyond, to achieve thus a Spiritual naturalism.
And by a curious, a bizarre route Durtal, the everlasting Durtal, sought to achieve spiritually — a spirituality è rebours, for it was by devil-worship and the study of Gilles de Rais of ill-fame, that he reached his goal. We also study church bells, incubi, satanism, demons, witches, sacrileges of a raffiné sort; indeed, an enormous amount of occult lumber is dumped into the book, which is indigestible on that account. Diabolic lore è la Jules Dubois and other modern magi is profuse. That wicked lady, who is far from credible, Madame Chantelouve, flits through various chapters. Her final disappearance, one hopes "below" — like the devils in the pantomime — is received by Durtal and the reader with a sigh of relief. She is quite the vilest character in French fiction, and, as Stendhal would say, her only excuse is that she never existed. The Black Mass is painted by an artist adroit in the manipulation of the sombre and magnificent.
Lè-Bas proved a prophetic weather-vane. En Route in 1895 did not astonish those who had been studying the spiritual fluctuations of Huysmans. Behold the miracle! He is a believing Christian. Wisely the antecedent causes were tacitly avoided. "I believe," said Durtal, simply. Of superior interest is his struggle up the ladder to perfection. This painful feat is slowly accomplished in La Cathédrale (1898), L’Oblat (1903), and Lourdes (1906). And it must be confessed that the more pious grew Huysmans the less artist he — as might have been expected. What is his art to a man who is concerned not with the things of this world? He never lost his acerbity, or his faculty for the phrase magical, though his sense of proportion gradually vanished. Luckily, he is not saccharine like the majority of writers on religious topics. Ferdinand Brunetière complained that Flaubert was unbearably erudite in his three short stories — echoing what Sainte-Beuve had said of Salammbô years before. What must he have thought of that astonishing Cathedral, with its chapters on the symbolism of architecture, sculpture, gems, flowers (Sir Thomas Browne and his quincunxes are fairly beaten from the field), vestments, sacred vessels of the altar, and a multitude of mysterious things, hieroglyphics, and dark liturgical riddles? There are ravishing pages, though none so solemn and moving as the description of the De profundis and Dies irae, in En Route.
It may prove profitable for the student after reading La Cathédrale to take up Walter Pater’s unfinished story, Gaston De Latour, and read the description therein of the Chartres Cathedral. There are pages of exquisitely felt prose, but Huysmans sees more and tells what he sees in less musical though more lapidary phrases.
For anyone except the trailer after strange souls The Oblate is an affliction. Madame Bavoil, with her notre ami, is a chattering nuisance, withal a worthy creature. Durtal is always in the dumps. He speaks much of interior peace, but he gives the impression of a man sitting painfully amidst spiritual brambles. Perhaps he felt that for him after his Golgotha are the sweet-singing flames of Purgatory. We are not sorry when he returns to Paris. As for the book on Lourdes, it is like an open wound. A whiff from the operating-room of a hospital comes to you. We are edified by the childlike faith with which Huysmans accepts the report of cures that would stagger the most perfervid Christian Scientist. His Saint-Lydwine is hard reading, written by a man whose mysticism was a matter of rigid definition, a thing to be weighed and felt and verbally proved. Fleming-like, he is less melodist than harmonist — and such acrid harmonies, polyphonic variations, and fuguelike flights to the other side of good and evil.
George Moore was the first English critic to recognise Huysmans. He wrote that "a page of Huysmans is as a dose of opium, a glass of exquisite and powerful liquor." Frankly, it was his conversion that focussed upon Huysmans so much attention. No one may remain isolated in his century. He has never been a favourite with the larger Parisian public; rather, a curiosity, a spiritual ogre turned saint. And the saintship has been hotly disputed. Abbé Mugnier and Dom A. du Bourg, the prior of Sainte-Marie, since his death, have written eloquently about his conversion, his life as an oblate, and his edifying death. Huysmans refused anaesthetics because he wished to suffer for his life of sin, above all suffer for his early writings. Need it be added that, like Tolstoy, he repudiated absolutely his first books? Huysmans Intime is the title of the recollections of both Dom du Bourg and Henry Céard. His literary executors destroyed many manuscripts. He left his money principally to charities.
Huysmans was not a man possessing what are so vaguely denominated "general ideas." He was never interested in the chess-play of metaphysics, politics, or science. He was a specialist, one who had ransacked libraries for curious details, despoiled perfumers’ catalogues for their odourous vocables, pored over technical dictionaries for odd-coloured words, and studied cookbooks for savoury terms. His gamut of sensations began at the violet ray. He was a perverse aristocrat who descended to the gutter there to analyse the various stratifications of filth; when he returned to his ivory cell, he had discovered, not humanity, but an anodyne, the love of God. Thenceforth, he was interested in one thing — the saving of the soul of Joris-Karl Huysmans, and being a marvellous verbal artist, his recital of the event startled us, fascinated us. Renan once wrote of Amiel: "He speaks of sin, of salvation, of redemption and conversion, as if these things were realities." Let us rather imitate Sainte-Beuve, who said: "You may not cease to be a sceptic after reading Pascal, but you must cease to treat believers with contempt." And this injunction is not difficult to obey in the case of Huysmans, for whom the things derided by Renan were the profoundest realities of his troubled life.