The Symbolist Movement in Literature

Arthur Symons

London: Constable, 1908 (Second edition)


The Later Huysmans

In the preface to his first novel, Marthe: histoire d’une fille, thirty 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." Ten or twelve 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 a preface written not long since for a limited edition of A Rebours, Huysmans confessed that he had never been conscious of the direction in which he was travelling. "My life and my literature," he affirmed, "have undoubtedly a certain amount of passivity, of the incalculable, of a direction not mine. I have simply obeyed: I have been led by what are called ’mysterious ways’." He is speaking of the conversion which took him to La Trappe in 1892, but the words apply to the whole course of his career as a man of letters. 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 La Cathádrale the method has still further developed, and Huysmans becomes, in his own way, a Symbolist.

To the student of psychology few more interesting cases could be presented than the development of Huysmans. From the first he has been a man "for whom the visible world existed," indeed, but as the scene of a slow martyrdom. The world has always appeared to him to be a profoundly uncomfortable, unpleasant, and ridiculous place; and it has been a necessity of his temperament to examine it minutely, with all the patience of disgust, and a necessity of his method to record it with an almost ecstatic hatred. In his first book, Le Drageoir à Epices, published at the age of twenty-six, we find him seeking his colour by preference in a drunkard’s cheek or a carcase outside a butcher’s shop. Marthe, published at Brussels in 1876, anticipates La Fille ELisa and Nana, but it has a crude brutality of observation in which there is hardly a touch of pity. Les Soeurs Vatard is a frame without a picture, but in En Ménage the dreary tedium of existence is chronicled in all its insignificance with a kind of weary and aching hate. "We too," is its conclusion, "by leave of the everlasting stupidity of things, may, like our fellow-citizens, live stupid and respected." The fantastic unreality, the exquisite artificiality of A Rebours, the breviary of the decadence, is the first sign of that possible escape which Huysmans has always foreseen in the direction of art, but which he is still unable to make into more than an artificial paradise, in which beauty turns to a cruel hallucination and imprisons the soul still more fatally. The end is a cry of hopeless hope, in which Huysmans did not understand the meaning till later: "Lord, have pity on the Christian who doubts, on the sceptic who would fain believe, on the convict of life who sets sail alone by night, under a firmament lighted only by the consoling watch-lights of the old hope."

In Là-Bas we are in yet another stage of this strange pilgrim’s progress. The disgust which once manifested itself in the merely external revolt against the ugliness of streets, the imbecility of faces, has become more and more internalised, and the attraction of what is perverse in the unusual beauty of art has led, by some obscure route, to the perilous halfway house of a corrupt mysticism. The book, with its monstrous pictures of the Black Mass and of the spiritual abominations of Satanism, is one step further in the direction of the supernatural; and this, too, has its desperate, unlooked-for conclusion: "Christian glory is a laughing-stock to our age; it contaminates the supernatural and casts out the world to come." In Là-Bas we go down into the deepest gulf; En Route sets us one stage along a new way, and at this turning-point begins the later Huysmans.

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 rare, revealing, yet 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, has 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.

This story of a conversion is a new thing in modern French; it is a confession, a self-ascultation of the soul; a kind of thinking aloud. It fixes, in precise words, all the uncertainties, the contradictions, the absurd unreasonableness and not less absurd logic, which distract man’s brain in the passing over him of sensation and circumstance. And all this thinking is concentrated on one end, is concerned with the working out, in his own singular way, of one man’s salvation. There is a certain dry hard casuistry, a subtlety and closeness almost ecclesiastical, in the investigation of an obscure and yet definite region, whose intellectual passions are as varied and as tumultuous as those of the heart. Every step is taken deliberately, is weighed, approved, condemned, viewed from this side and from that, and at the same time one feels behind all this reasoning an impulsion urging a soul onward against its will. In this astonishing passage, through Satanism to faith, in which the cry, "I am so weary of myself, so sick of my miserable existence," echoes through page after page, until despair dies into conviction, the conviction of "the uselessness of concerning oneself about anything but mysticism and the liturgy, of thinking about anything but about God," it is impossible not to see the sincerity of an actual, unique experience. The force of mere curiosity can go far, can penetrate to a certain depth; yet there is a point at which mere curiosity, even that of genius, comes to an end; and we are left to the individual soul’s apprehension of what seems to it the reality of spiritual things. Such a personal apprehension as in the days when he forced language to express, in a more coloured and pictorial way than it had ever expressed before, the last escaping details of material things, so, in this analysis of the aberrations and warfares, the confessions and trials of the soul in penitence, Huysmans has found words for even the most subtle and illusive aspects of that inner life which he has come, at the last, to apprehend.

In La Cathédrale we are still occupied with this sensitive, lethargic, perservering soul, but with that soul 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.

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.

For 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 lent and the milliners’ shops which they passed; and what they did not see was described, marvellously, in twenty pages.

Huysmans is a brain all eye, a brain which sees even ideas as if they had a superficies. His style is always the same, whether he writes of a butcher’s shop or of a stained-glass window; it is the immediate expression of a way of seeing, so minute and so intense that it becomes too emphatic for elegance and too coloured for atmosphere or composition, always ready to sacrifice euphony to either fact or colour. He cares only to give you the thing seen, exactly as he sees it, with all his love or hate, and with all the exaggeration which that feeling brings into it. And he loves beauty as a bulldog loves its mistress: by growling at all her enemies. He honours wisdom by annihilating stupidity. His art of painting in words resembles Monet’s art of painting with his brush: there is the same power of rendering a vivid effect, almost deceptively, with a crude and yet sensitive realism. "C’est pour la gourmandise de l’oeil un gala de teintes," he says of the provision cellars at Hamburg; and this greed of the eye has eaten up in him almost every other sense. Even of music he writes as a deaf man with an eye for colour might write, to whom a musician had explained certain technical means of expression in music. No one has ever invented such barbarous and exact metaphors for the rendering of visual sensations. Properly, there is no metaphor; the words saty exactly what they mean; they become figurative, as we call it, in their insistence on being themselves fact.

Huysmans knows that the motive force of the sentence lies in its verbs, and his verbs are the most singular, precise, and expressive in any language. But in subordinating, as he does, every quality to that of sharp, telling truth, the truth of extremes, his style loses charm; yet it can be dazzling; it has the solidity of those walls encrusted with gems which are to be seen in a certain chapel in Prague; it blazes with colour, and arabesques into a thousand fantastic patterns.

And now all that laboriously acquired mastery finds at last its use, lending itself to the new spirit with a wonderful docility. At last the idea which is beyond reality has been found, not where des Esseintes sought it, and a new meaning comes into what had once been scarcely more than patient and wrathful observation. The idea is there, visible, in his cathedral, like the sun which flashes into unity, into meaning, into intelligible beauty, the bewildering lozenges of colour, the inextricable trails of lead, which go to make up the picture in one of its painted windows. 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 (how 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 which 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.

From this time forward, until his death, Huysmans is seen purging himself of his realism, coming closer and closer to that spiritual Naturalism which he had invented, an art made out of an apprehension of the inner meaning of those things which he still saw with the old tenacity of vision. Nothing is changed in him and yet all is changed. The disgust of the world deepens through L’Oblat, which is the last stage but one in the pilgrimage which begins with En Route. It seeks an escape in poring, with a dreadful diligence, over a saint’s recorded miracles, in the life of Sainte Lydwine de Schiedam, which is medieval in its precise acceptance of every horrible detail of the story. Les Foules de Lourdes has the same minute attentiveness to horror, but with a new pity in it, and a way of giving thanks to the Virgin, which is in Huysmans yet another esc ape from his disgust of the world. But it is in the great chapter on Satan as the creator of ugliness that his work seems to end where it had begun, in the service of art, now come from a great way off to join itself with the service of God. And the whole soul of Huysmans characterises itself in the turn of a single phrase there: that "art is the only clean thing on earth, except holiness."