The "Bible" of the Decadents: Joris-Karl Huysmans' Against Nature
During the second half of the 19th century, the Decadent movement became a short-lived but important social phenomenon. Even though decadence, with a focus on wealth and luxury, originated from ancient Rome this ambiguous notion flourished in France during the late 1800s. This period, called fin de siècle (1880-1890), was characterised by change, particularly industrialization and social progress, and it was also marked by political scandals, fear, doubts, and decline. “Progress, this great heresy of decay,” condemned Charles Baudelaire in his essay for the Exposition (1885), opposing the 19th-century progressive ideology. Thus, intellectuals and artists declined the meteoric rise of development, noticing that materialism and privileges could degenerate morality and spirit. Likewise, moral decay described “decadence” during fin de siècle literature and art. Partly inspired by the Romantic movement which aimed to evoke emotions, the decadent movement was also a reaction to Romanticism's veneration of nature.
The Decadents favoured art and artifice over nature, and they opposed traditional morality in favour of corrupt pleasures. One of the most important figures of the Decadent movement in literature is the French writer Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848-1907). His work À Rebours (1884), translated in English as Against Nature or Against the Grain, was considered by many as the "Bible" of the Decadent spirit. Huysmans' restless writing, as the novel's title suggests, paved the way for the glorifying "decadentism" during this period of arrogance, existential crisis, and artificial paradises. A founding decadent work that goes through naturalism, but also symbolism, Against Nature marked a transition to something else.
Huysmans’ unconventional novel lacks intrigue, as it follows a neurotic aristocrat whose life is organised against anything ordinary people do in reality. For that reason, he retires by confining himself to an old but eccentric house on the outskirts of Paris. Against Nature’s "thematic concerns are all centred on the hero’s particular tastes in all manner of things, from women to food" (Burgwinkle, Hammond, & Wilson, 2011, p. 544). Protagonist Duc Jean Floressas des Esseintes is a representation of people's first impressions of the decadent movement: low morals, degeneration, corruption, extravagance, perversion, and so on. Praising the work of artists like Gustave Moreau, Odilon Redon, Auguste Villiers de L'Isle-Adam, El Greco, Gustave Flaubert, and Charles Baudelaire, Huysmans composes “a critique of urban modernity” (Desmarais & Weir, 2019, p. 98), inventing the ultimate decadent anti-hero, with a perverse and narcissistic behaviour.
Jean des Esseintes is an aesthete, a snob dandy who has been severely ill and fragile since childhood. His parents were absent in his upbringing, and loneliness and boredom became familiar feelings. This placed him in a negative mindset where he believes that he must live alone. A disturbed and complex individual with a feminine side, he suffers from an innate neurosis and a problematic hero’s mentality. His unhappy childhood also contributes to his complicated, solipsistic, and almost dangerous personality. The last of his aristocratic family, the Duke of des Esseintes cannot be satisfied; he declines everything and everyone, including his own existence. He instead seeks satisfaction in art and literature; in women found in paintings like Salomé by G. Moreau, or in animals like a tortoise covered in gold and precious gems. Rare flowers like orchids, among his favourites, are associated with sexuality and represent his gender ambiguity. Thus, artificial pleasure functions as a narcotic or a spiritual antidote because the real world, the outside, does not exist for him. He rejects therefore what is natural, seeking the artificial of the artistic ideal, opting for fantasies that haunt his nervous hypersensitivity.
The most famous French dandy of the fin de siècle, writer Robert de Montesquiou (now known for appearing in the works of others), was considered an inspiration to the decadent and perverse aesthete portrayed by Des Esseintes. The decor of the house orients towards Montesquiou, and more specifically the golden tortoise (a real animal used as an object) which Montesquiou had indeed covered in gold. Dandies are significant figures of the decadent movement as they embody lavishness in the sense of corruption. The character of Des Esseintes is an emblematic dandy who decides to live against society and morality, hating on the contemporary world. His aesthetic is completely separated from moral considerations; In fact, at times, it appears to be at odds with moral concerns. Animal cruelty, fetishes, constant suffering, art, and religion are the main themes in this non-theme work. Des Esseintes attempts to overcome his disease through art, inventing what is known as "art therapy" today. This "compartmentalized and interiorized novel (like many decadent works) is structured around a series of well-formed, self-contained scenes that occur to Des Esseintes in the form of memory and recollection" (Desmarais & Weir, 2019, p. 109). Huysmans dedicates each chapter of Against Nature to this persona’s misadventures, indicating that isolation aggravates ultimately his condition.
The question then is, what brings happiness to Des Esseintes? It is the substitute for reality: a neo-reality that is upside down, backwards. He desires to escape the real world by creating himself a new, sadistic paradise of artifice that is aesthetic, and assuages his deviant taste but also raises questions on morality, society, and illness. Concerning the latter, apart from Des Esseintes’ detectable physical disorders, his mental condition stays cryptic. However, what he appears to suffer from is a form of hysteria, a disease mostly diagnosed in women especially during the fin de siècle, thus accentuating his feminine side. As follows, the Duc’s mental and physical degeneration align with the saturated, or as the intellectuals label “decadent”, society.
Finally, Des Esseintes, the creator of a paradoxical, even dangerous world, builds his dreamlike universe based on artifice in order to go beyond nature and elevate his spirit. For him, nature only becomes interesting when unnatural, because artifice is a product that leaves nothing to chance. His entire existence is therefore determined by a quest for the artificial, and he intends to create a new world in his house by making it a museum of cruelty and evil. He is then, not only an admirer but also a creator of cruelty, a sadistic man deriving pleasure from suffering and pain. "Seeking the copy or the mechanically produced" (McGuinness, 2003, p. 31), he yet chooses to live close to nature, keeping in touch with the artifice found in the city mostly due to his memories. Fake flowers, perfumes, literature, art, and gems assuage but also trigger his troubled mind.
This controversial and strange novel by Huysmans could be considered a manifesto that influenced the end of the 19th century, criticizing the time's creative and literary movements by promoting "a beauty imbued with pain, corruption, and death" (Praz, 1977). In principle, this neurotic and dark literature undermines positive reality and the social, moral, and natural standards. Not only did Against Nature establish a philosophy in literature, but it also shaped popular perceptions of visual art.
Burgwinkle, W., Hammond, N., & Wilson, E. (2011). The Cambridge History of French Literature. Cambridge University Press.
Desmarais, J., & Weir, D. (2019). Decadence and Literature. Cambridge University Press.
Husymans, J.-K. (2003). Against Nature (P. McGuinness, Introducer; R. Baldick, Trans.). Penguin Books.
McGuinness, P. (2003). Introduction to Against Nature. In Husymans, J.-K., Against Nature. Penguin Books.
Praz, M. (1977). La chair, la mort et le diable dans la littérature du XIXe siècle: Le romantisme noir. Gallimard.
Figure 1: Redon, O. (1888). Des Esseintes, Frontispiece for A Rebours by J.K. Huysmans [Lithograph]. Art Institvte Chicago.
Figure 2: Zaidenberg, A. (1931). Against the Grain [Illustration]. Internet Archive.
Figure 3: Redon, O. (1885). Homage to Goya: The Marsh Flower and a Human and Sad Head [Lithograph]. The Cleveland Museum of Art. https://www.clevelandart.org/art/1927.344.2
Figure 4: Boldini, G. (1897). Le Comte Robert de Montesquiou [Oil on canvas]. Musée d'Orsay.
Figure 5: Redon, O. (1890). Les Yeux clos [Oil on canvas]. Musée d'Orsay.