symbolist cover

The Symbolist Movement in Literature

Arthur Symons

London: William Heinemann, 1899.


Huysmans as a Symbolist

In the preface to his first novel, Marthe: histoire d’une fille, more than twenty years ago, Huysmans defined his theory of art in this defiant phrase: "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." Only five or six years ago, he could still say, in answer to an interviewer who aked him his opinion of Naturalism: "At bottom, there are writers who have talent and others who have not; let them be Naturalists, Romantics, Decadents, what you will, it is all the same to me: I only want to know if they have talent." Such theoretical liberality, in a writer of original talent, is a little disconerting: it means that he is without a theory of his own, that he is not yet conscious of having chosen his own way. And, indeed, it is only with En Route that Huysmans can be said to have discovered the direction in which he had really been travelling from the beginning. In Là-Bas, which is a sort of false start, he had, indeed, realised, though for himself, at that time, ineffectually, 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 necessary also to trace a parallel pathway in the air, and to grapple with the within and the after, to create, in a word, a spiritual naturalism." This is almost a definition of the art of En Route, where this spiritual realism is applied to the history of a soul, a conscience; in a later novel, La Cathádrale, the method has still further developed, and Huysmans becomes, for the first time, a Symbolist. La Cathédrale is still concerned with the same sensitive, lethargic, perservering soul, but it is concerned with it in one of its longest halts by the way, as it undergoes the slow, permeating influence of "la cathédrale mystique par excellence," the cathedral of Chartres. And the greater part of the book is taken up with a study of this cathedral, of that elaborate and profound symbolism by which "the soul of sanctuaries" slowly reveals itself (quel laconisme hermétique!) with a sort of parallel interpretation of the symbolism which the Church of the Middle Ages concealed or revealed in colours, precious stones, plants, animals, numbers, odours, and in the Bible itself, in the setting together of the Old and New Testaments. Then there is a study of religious art, of fra Angelico’s Coronation of the Virgin in the Louvre, which is a patient disentangling of the actual signification of its colours, of Roger van de Weyden and the early Flemish painters, with a superb page on Rembrandt and his hallucinatory realism. Some of the finest pages in the book are those on David and the Hebrew Prophets, on King Solomon, on the prefiguration of Christ, the Virgin, and the Church, in the narratives and poems of the Old Testament. No doubt, to some extent this book is less interesting than En Route, in the exact proportion in which everything in the world is less interesting than the human soul. There are times when Durtal is almost forgotten, and, unjustly enough, it may seem as if we are given this archeology, these bestiaries, for their own sake. To fall into this error is to mistake the whole purpose of the book, the whole extent of the discovery in art which Huysmans has been one of the first to make.

The old conception of the novel as an amusing tale of adventures, though it has still its apologists in England, has long since ceased in France to mean anything more actual than powdered wigs and lace ruffles. Like children who cry to their elders for "a story, a story," the English public still wants its plot, its heroine, its villain. That the novel should be psychological was a discovery as early as Benjamin Constant, whose Adolphe anticipates Le Rouge et le Noir, that somewhat arid masterpiece of Stendahl. But that psychology could be carried so far into the darkness of the soul, that the flaming walls of the world themselves faded to a glimmer, was a discovery which had been made by no novelist before Huysmans wrote En Route. At once the novel showed itself capable of competing, on their own ground, with poetry, with the great "confessions," with philosophy. En Route is perhaps the first novel which does not set out with the aim of amusing its readers. It offers you no more entertainment than Paradise Lost or the Confessions of St. Augustine, and it is possible to consider it on the same level. The novel, which, after having chronicled the adventures of the Vanity Fairs of this world, had set itself with admirable success to analyse the amorous and ambitious and money-making intelligence of the consious and practical self, sets itself at last to the final achievement: the revelation of the sub-conscious self, no longer the intelligence, but the soul. Here, then, purged of the distraction of incident, liberated from the bondage of a too realistic conversation, in which the aim had been to convey the very gesture of breathing life, internalised to a complete liberty, in which, just because it is so absolutely free, art is able to accept, without limiting itself, the expressive medium of a convention, we have in the novel a new form, which may be at once a confession and a decoration, the soul and a pattern.

And so, in La Cathédrale Huysmans does but carry further the principle which he had perceived in En Route, showing, as he does, how inert matter, the art of stones, the growth of plants, the unconscious life of beasts, may be brought under the same law of the soul, may obtain, through symbol, a spiritual existence. He is thus but extending the domain of the soul while he may seem to be limiting or ignoring it; and Durtal may well stand aside for a moment, in at least the energy of contemplation, while he sees, with a new understanding, the very sight of his eyes, the very stuff of his thoughts, taking life before him, a life of the same substance as his own. What is Symbolism if not an establishing of the links which hold the world together, the affirmation of an eternal, minute, intricate, almost invisiable life, which runs through the whole universe? Every age has its own symbols; but a symbol once perfectly expressed, that symbol remains, as Gothic architecture remains, the very soul of the Middle Ages. To get at that truth which is all but the deepest meaning of beauty, to find that symbol which is its most adequate expression, is in itself a kind of creation; and that is what Huysmans does for us in La Cathédrale. More and more he has put aside all the profane and accessible and outward pomp of writing for an inner and more severe beauty of perfect truth. He has come to realise that truth can be reached and revealed only by symbol. Hence, all that description, that heaping up of detail, that passionately patient elaboration: all means to an end, not, as you may hastily incline to think, ends in themselves.

It is curious to observe how often an artist perfects a particular means of expression long before he has any notion of what to do with it. Huysmans began by acquiring so astonishing a mastery of description that he could describe the inside of a cow hanging in a butcher’s shop as beautifully as if it were a casket of jewels. The little work-girls of his early novels were taken for long walks, in which they would have seen nothing but the arm on which they leant and the milliners’ shops which they passed; and what they did not see was described, marvellously, in twenty pages. Now all that acquired power suddenly finds its use; for the idea has been found, and the idea, which alone can give value and coherence to all these observations, is like the sun which flashes into unity, into meaning, into evident beauty, the unintelligible lozenges of colour, the inextricable trails of lead, which go to make up the picture in one of the painted windows of his own cathedral. Perhaps no one has ever described with such minuteness of line and colour as Huysmans, and his very defect, a certain lack of restraint, a certain heaviness of rhythm, which prevents his sentences from ever pleasing the ear like the sentences of Gautier, of Baudelaire, of Flaubert, gives him an advantage in conveying to the eye what he has seen with the eye. What, for instance, could be more precise in its translation of the different aspects under which the cathedral of Chartres can be seen, merely as colour, than this one sentence: "Seen as a whole, under a clear sky, its grey silvers, and, if the sun shines upon it, turns pale yellow and then golden; seen close, its skin is like that of a nibbled biscuit, with it silicious limestone eaten into holes; sometimes, when the sun is setting, it turns crimson, and rises up like a monstrous and delicate shrine, rose and green; and, at twilight, turns blue, then seems to evaporate as it fades into violet." Or, again, in a passage which comes nearer to the conventional idea of eloquence, how absolute an avoidance of a conventional phrase, a word used for its merely oratorical value: "High up, in space, like salamanders, human beings, with burning faces and flaming robes, lived in a firmament of fire; but these conflagrations were circumscribed, limited by an incombustible flame of darker glass, which beat back the clear young joy of the flames; by that kind of melancholy, that more serious and more aged aspect, which is taken by the duller colours. The hue and cry of reds, the limpid security of whites, the reiterated halleluias of yellows, the virginal glory of blues, all the quivering hearth-glow of painted glass, dies away as it came near this border coloured with the rust of iron, with the russet of sauce, with the harsh violet of sandstone, with bottle-green, with the brown of touchwood, with sooty black, with ashen grey."

This, in its excess of exactitude (a truly medieval a quality) becomes, on one page, a comparison of the tower without a spire to an unsharpened pencil which cannot write the prayers of earth upon the sky. But for the most part it is a consistent humanising of too objectively visible things, a disengaging of the sentiment which exists in them, which is one of the secrets of their appeal to us, but which for the most part we overlook as we set ourselves to add up the shapes and colours that have enchanted us. To Huysmans this artistic discovery has come, perhaps in the most effectual way, but certainly in the way least probable in these days, through faith, a definite religious faith; so that, beginning tentatively, he has come, at last, to belive in the Catholic Church as a monk of the Middle Ages believed in it. And there is no doubt that to Huysmans this abandonment to religion has brought, among other gifts, a certain human charity in which he was noticeably lacking, removing at once one of his artistic limitations. It has softened his contempt of humanity; it has broadened his outlook on the world. And the sense, diffused through the whole of this book, of the living and beneficent reality of the Virgin, of her real presence in the cathedral built in her honour and after her own image, brings a strange and touching kind of poetry into these closely and soberly woven pages. We know that the finest imaginative work can be built only out of the prinary emotions. Here, then, is a novelist who has obtained complete mastery over one of the primary emotions, precisely because it has obtained complete mastery over his own soul: the emotion of faith.