Suffering through Against Nature.
My initial introduction to Joris-Karl Huysmans’ Against Nature (1884) came years ago through Camille Paglia’s Delta-Force-of-literary-theory, Sexual Personae. In Paglia’s survey of Western literature, the section on Against Nature bore her unique and sometimes audacious rapid-fire interpretations: The main character in Against Nature, Jean Des Esseintes, she writes, “withdraws into the self-embowered world” like a “Pharaoh entombed with his possessions.”
It all sounded exotic to me.
Then, I encountered another reference to Against Nature in The Picture of Dorian Gray, where it has a cameo as “the yellow book” and makes a rather beguiling impression on Dorian. This must be some book, I thought. And although both Oscar Wilde and Paglia warn readers that Against Nature is without a plot, I assumed the story of a solitary aristocrat dedicating himself to aesthetic projects would offer profound commentary on beauty versus nature; that is, I expected the adventures of Des Esseintes to generate subtext. Now, years later, reading the book for the first time, I am sorely disappointed.
Early on, we learn Des Esseintes has retreated from society because he “believed that the imagination could provide a more-than-adequate substitute for the vulgar reality of actual experience.” On the face of it, this is an age-old premise that was taken up by both the romantic and decadent movements; Huysmans and his character Des Esseintes are concerned with the latter.
Des Esseintes’ extravagant escape from “vulgar reality” follows Huysmans’ own desire to liberate the novel from the naturalist literary movement, which boasted books like Middlemarch. Huysmans felt that naturalism, which showed characters in their social milieu and explored the forces that shaped their lives, was a stale model in need of reinvention.
What does he offer instead? Several interludes of a cloistered misanthrope with no inner life. The reader gets dragged through multiple episodes: Des Esseintes turning his dining room into the cabin of a ship; his likening the spirits in his liquor cabinet to a symphony; the bejeweling of a live tortoise; several long and boring asides on color technique, art criticism, book criticism, and theological commentary; a half-hearted attempt to turn a street child into a murderer; Des Esseintes’ trying to evoke landscapes, towns, and people using different types of perfumes; and most remarkably, the protagonist’s stint as a botanist specializing in real flowers that look fake and also resemble skin diseases.
I should have known to stay away from a book with the word “against” in the title. Against Nature or Against the Grain, of course, are only the English translations. The literal meaning of À Rebours, the original French title, is “backwards” — which sounds about right to me. It often seems the sad fate of polemic writers to contradict themselves, to end up unconsciously reinforcing the very point they want to vanquish. (To this end, I’d better be careful.) The backwards phenomenon occurs on every page of Huysmans’ literary experiment.
In the story, Des Esseintes worships artifice from a flattened world where debauchery and filigree detail are substitutes for meaning. In the tradition of Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, the reader is asked to consider whether sensation/aesthetics can replace an ethical framework, but without being viscerally centered in Des Esseintes’ perceptions, the reader never gets a powerful sense of Huysmans’ alternative. Perhaps scratch-and-sniff would have been more effective?
Of course, Huysmans may have hoped his book might encourage, off the page, an imitative life of indulgence. If so, he does not make a good case. Everything that happens in the story has unintended consequences: The gilded turtle dies, the urchin (thankfully) never kills anyone, the baroque blossoms give Des Esseintes nightmares, and the fragrances drive him to a nervous breakdown. Nature, it seems, like the naturalist novel, is alive and well. And winning.
It is interesting how a book that exalts imagination could sustain 204 pages of unrelenting torpor. I kept hoping for Des Esseintes to die in a spectacular mishap, maybe on a cold bed of rain like Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, or perhaps tangled in his own harpoon line. Instead, readers must make do with his fainting on the windowsill or sighing in his day chair.
In the end, Against Nature suffers from too much unconscious irony. Stories from the naturalist tradition, with their systems view and multi-character worldbuilding, require and inspire more artifice and therefore greater imagination in both their writing and reading than Huysmans could have dreamed of with his character Des Esseintes. The traditional narrative structure, which takes what is fake and makes it seem realer than life, is rather the opposite of what the unreflective Des Esseintes spawns with his wheezing leprosy flowers.
By the middle of the book, Huysmans’ literary revolution starts to feel more like a coup. Did he do this on purpose? Is this self-destructive book about a self-destructive man meant as a cautionary tale to wave us away from decadence and nihilism? Maybe, but if so, the rationale is not on the page, and what is there fails to stimulate the thinking required to bridge the textual gaps.
What about the historical context and the author’s psychology? Was the book born of Huysmans’ anxiety/curiosity over what would become of a dwindling aristocracy almost a century after France’s first experience with republicanism? We need not care; a book like Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard (1958) does a better job of tackling this subject, albeit from a Sicilian point of view.
In the future, if I’m ever urged to recall Against Nature, perhaps under threat of torture, I’ll remember the scene where Des Esseintes makes love to his ventriloquist girlfriend while she recites passages by Gustave Flaubert in a thrown voice. I will also endeavor to appreciate Huysmans’ one attempt at wisdom, even if it sounds like a Schopenhauer rip-off:
“And the future, when you came to think of it, was the same for all, and nobody with any sense would dream of envying anybody else.”
If you’ve read Against Nature and survived the experience, please share your story in the comments below. You can join Dorothy in next reading The Complete Stories of Edgar Allan Poe, which will be the subject of her column on October 30th, 2023.