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«Small, Douglas Robert John (2013) Dementia's jester: the Phantasmagoria in metaphor and aesthetics from 1700-1900. PhD thesis. ...»

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One of the works which most famously does this is the novel that is widely felt to have inaugurated, or at least to have popularised, the decadent movement proper: Joris-Karl Huysmans’ Against Nature. Published in 1884, Against Nature is notoriously a novel without a plot. Its central (and almost only) character is the French nobleman Jean Des Esseintes, the last member of the ancient, decayed Des Esseintes family. Unmoved by the pleasures commonly available even to the very rich, possessed of an intense revulsion for what he sees as the boring conformity and stupidity of all strata of modern society, Des Esseintes decides to retreat from human contact completely, living out his days in a secluded and elaborately furnished house in the Paris suburb of Fontenay. The bulk of the novel consists of lengthy descriptions of the decorations of the house, Des Esseintes’ aesthetic preferences and theories on art, literature, perfumes etc. as well as the occasional memories and musings that Des 164    Esseintes descends into, lost in solitary contemplation. The end, both of the novel and of Des Esseintes’ way of life, comes when his health finally begins to collapse under the stress of this ‘unnatural’ mode of living. He becomes increasingly prone to reliving unpleasant memories that he cannot control or free himself from; he experiences subtle hallucinations of scents and sensations; he desperately tries to find food that his stomach will still digest and suffers from terrible head-aches, stomach-cramps, neck pains and other maladies. At last, he summons a doctor and is told he must return to the society and the state of normality he despises, or else he will die.

In the same way that La Faustin retreats into bed with her copy of De Quincey to dream away some ‘unfriendly hours’, Des Esseintes’ plan is to retreat into Fontenay with a vast collection of objects in order, effectively, to dream his way through the rest of his life. Des Esseintes describes his project as an attempt to ‘organise a life [of] dreamy contemplation’24 and his house as ‘a desert hermitage equipped with all modern conveniences, a snugly heated ark on dry land in which he might take refuge from the incessant deluge of human stupidity’.25 Between them, these two statements could be said to encapsulate much of the decadent agenda and much of the appeal that Huysmans’ book possessed for its admirers. In Against Nature we have a protagonist whose desire is always to fall inward, to exalt (as we shall see) the chimerical powers of his own imagination. Likewise, he is almost gnostic in his rejection of conformist, capitalistic nineteenth-century society. It was these two attributes that the decadent movement most enthusiastically embraced and imitated.

Interestingly, for Des Esseintes both his dreamy contemplation and his escape from the banal sensations of normality are primarily effected through his interactions with the objects in his collections.

Against Nature prioritises description over narration; the number of objects in the novel far outstrips the number of events that take place in it. The novel’s plot disappears into the background, overwhelmed by the sheer number of material ‘things’ that make up its body. Rita Felski writes that ‘the style of the text, in spite of its avowed disdain for the commercial, is reminiscent of nothing other than the lavish prose of a consumer catalogue’;26 and to an extent this is quite true. Large sections of


Joris-Karl Huysmans, Against Nature, translated by Robert Baldick and Patrick McGuinness (London: Penguin, 2003), 198.

Huysmans, Against Nature, 8.

Rita Felski, The Gender of Modernity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995) 100.

–  –  –

These passages clearly revel in the finery of the objects they describe; they are clearly meant to articulate the pleasure of the collector and the connoisseur, the joys of acquiring and of contemplating delightful things, the delight of owning and using them. However, Felski’s description of Against Nature as a ‘consumer catalogue’ is an underestimation of the function of these descriptions. It suggests that they, and indeed the novel as a whole, have a purely mercantile appeal, a fictional recapitulation of the


Huysmans, Against Nature, 44.

Huysmans, Against Nature, 17.

166    pleasures of purchase. In reality, the preponderance of these descriptions throughout the novel transforms it into a mammoth collection of finery and grotesquery. The ‘materialism’ of the narrative, its sacrifice of plot in favour of description, imitates the effect of De Quincey’s Confessions on Faustin. Against Nature is a phantasmagoria that plays out before the eyes of the reader, a mass of beautiful and horrible spectacles.

This similarity to the phantasmagoria and the curious collection intensifies when we consider those spectacles in Against Nature that are on the one hand less obviously beautiful, and on the other less traditionally material. One of the longest sustained passages of description in the novel occurs when Des Esseintes has a vast collection of

exotic plants delivered to him at Fontenay:

–  –  –

This parade of exotics continues over several pages, taking up over half of the chapter.

As it continues, the plants become increasingly grotesque and the number of shapes, substances and objects to which they are compared multiplies. Different species seemingly recall oilskin, the organs of animals, metals, porcelain and human skin that has been burnt, ulcerated or smeared with medicinal creams and powders; in shape they resemble children’s toys, Cheshire cheeses, iron spikes, oars, German pipes, the tails of pigs or orang-utans and human tongues. Huysmans explains Des Esseintes’s


Huysmans, Against Nature, 84.

167    choices by saying that ‘tired of artificial flowers aping real ones, he wanted some natural flowers that looked like fakes’.30 His collection of plants is, therefore, an extension of Des Esseintes’s preference for the artificial over the real. Critically, though, as well as looking ‘fake’ like plants made from something other than vegetal matter, they also defy normal definitions of what a plant should look like. They are ‘bizarre and magnificent’, ‘monstrous’ and ‘in defiance of all of the familiar aspects of plant life’.31 In effect, these plants are, in the classic definition of the term, curiosities – they defy normal rules of categorisation and definition as plants. The plants he collects are apparently alienated from their own ‘proper’ natures, both natural and artificial at once, simultaneously plant-like and disturbingly like something else as well. Des Esseintes’s collection of plants is also a curious collection and the aesthetics of curiosity permeate throughout the novel in general.

Des Esseintes’s highly specialised and rarefied tastes in books and paintings are further prominent examples of this. Huysmans tells us that ‘by diligent self-examination, he realised first of all that to attract him, a book had to have that quality of strangeness that Edgar Allen Poe called for; but he was inclined to venture further along this road, and to insist on Byzantine flowers of thought and deliquescent complexities of style’.32 Des Esseintes’s preferences are always for works that are in some way overtly strange or defamiliarising; he requires them to be exotic or nostalgic, containing no point of reference to contemporary life and no similarity to contemporary taste. His collection of books is made up of grotesque oddities and singularities. Even among his favourite authors he seeks out bizarre or a-typical examples of their work, preferring Flaubert’s The Temptation of St Anthony (‘La Tentation de Saint Antoine’) to Sentimental Education (‘L’Education Sentimentale’) and Goncourt’s La Faustin to Germinie Lacerteaux. Indeed, La Faustin is one of Des Esseintes’s favourite works, which he admires for ‘its dream-inducing suggestiveness.’ Just as Goncourt has his heroine sink into a phantasmagorical reverie whilst reading De Quincey, Huysmans has Des Esseintes read La Faustin to achieve the same effect. Again, we can detect an alignment between the curious and the phantasmagorical. Like Usher’s books, Des Esseintes’s collection of strange and curious works is both a phantasmagorical assembly of literary oddities and also


Huysmans, Against Nature, 83.

Huysmans, Against Nature, 83-85.

Huysmans, Against Nature, 165.

Huysmans, Against Nature, 168.

168    prompts phantasmagorical imaginings and dreams in Des Esseintes’s own mind as he reads them. This link between the phantasmagoria and dream will be explored in more detail later on, but for the moment I want to remain with Des Esseintes’s curious collections.

The works that make up Des Esseintes’s library are filled with ‘grandiose pageantries’,34 ‘exalted flights of sensibility, morbid caprices of psychology’35 and cluttered with ‘philosophical lumber’. Their esoteric, frightening and fantastical qualities are also to be found in the paintings hanging on the walls of Fontenay’s ground floor. His favourites are two works by Gustave Moreau, ‘Salome Dancing Before Herod’ and ‘The Apparition’. Mesmerised by these works, Des Esseintes speculates of the artist that: ‘With no ancestors and no possible descendants, he remained a unique figure in contemporary art. Going back to the beginning of racial tradition, to the sources of mythologies … [he produced] architectural mixtures, sumptuous and unexpected combinations of dress, materials and hieratic allegories whose sinister quality was heightened by the morbid perspicuity of an entirely modern sensibility’.36 In Des Esseintes’s analysis, Moreau’s works stand outside any period or artistic movement. Such is their inherent strangeness that they seem to emerge from nothing that preceded them and to be incapable of being imitated by anything that comes after. The images also somehow unify the primordial with the modern. The ‘sensibility’ of the works crosses the millennia, eliminating not only any possible point of artistic reference but any historical one as well. Moreau’s paintings appear to Des Esseintes as an insoluble mystery but also a fascinating one. Lying both outside time and outside of artistic tradition, rendering their viewer confused and enthralled, the works seemingly embody the paradoxical allure of the curious object. Even in painterly technique, according to Des Esseintes’s description, the works combine

contradictory disciplines and styles:

–  –  –


Huysmans, Against Nature, 167.

Huysmans, Against Nature, 170.

Huysmans, Against Nature, 56.

–  –  –

The complexity and obscurity of Moreau’s techniques blur the distinctions between painting and other disciplines. Again, they hark back to the curious object that is curious because it is curiously wrought; the object that amazes because the means by which it was produced are impossible to fathom. Moreau’s paintings cease to be entirely like paintings; they become suggestive like poetry, intricate like jewellery and brilliant like enamel-ware. They contain the mystification of curiosity. However, they share this quality of curiousness with Des Esseintes’s other paintings. In his boudoir, the works of Jan Luyken are studies in ‘lugubrious fantasies and ferocious cruelty’38;

in the adjoining room, Randolphe Bresdin’s ‘Comedy of Death’ and ‘The Good Samaritan’ suggest ‘the work of a primitive or an Albert Dürer of sorts, composed under the influence of opium’;39 and alongside them, in thin gold frames, drawings by Odilon Redon ‘defy classification, most of them exceeding the bounds of pictorial art and creating a new type of fantasy, born of sickness and delirium’.40 These works transcend the boundaries, not only of painting but of rationality. They all break with normal aesthetic standards of subject and style, defy categorisation and resist being easily processed by traditional systems of artistic appreciation and assessment.

The sheer number of curiosities that appear in Against Nature is somewhat overwhelming. Indeed, the novel is actively trying to be overwhelming in order to better cultivate its phantasmagorical effects. Even the most apparently normal and conventional incidents in the novel become occasions to deploy another collection of singularities. During Des Esseintes’s only excursion from Fontenay to Paris, he


Huysmans, Against Nature, 56-57.

Huysmans, Against Nature, 57.

Huysmans, Against Nature, 59.

Huysmans, Against Nature, 60.

–  –  –

In this passage, Huysmans imitates the perspective of the curious traveller. His writing fragments the scene into its separate elements and highlights the strangest and most unusual ones. His vision is defamiliarising, turning the cellar into a collection of separate striking and comical observations. The people become a gallery of caricatures, their appearances suggestive of animals or vegetables, bending themselves into odd and comic poses. Rather than a comprehensive or realist description of the scene, Huysmans presents us with yet another collection of curiosities, the diners in the bodega arrayed at their tables like the objects in the house at Fontenay.

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