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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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The phantasmagoria of Against Nature, however, extends beyond purely material objects and spectacles. Indeed, the novel is arguably at its most phantasmagorical when it portrays the various imaginative conceits in which its protagonist indulges. Throughout Against Nature, Des Esseintes self-consciously attempts to cultivate illusions and fantasies in his own mind. Some examples of this process are relatively uncomplicated. Early on, when considering what colour the walls of his study should be, Des Esseintes dismisses the various shades of purple because ‘it struck him as utterly futile to resort to this range of tints, in so far as it is possible to see purple by ingesting a specified amount of santonin, and thus it becomes a simple matter for anyone to change the colour of his walls without laying a finger on them’.42 Des Esseintes is always keenly aware of the mercurial nature of his own perceptions and their inherent vulnerability to subtle illusions and deceptions, as well as to overt chemical alterations. Indeed, he delights in this very vulnerability and many of his decorative choices are specifically engineered to exploit it, to deceive and confuse his own impressions and to surround himself with illusions. The extent to which he attempts to manipulate his own senses can be seen in the design of his bedroom and of his dining room. Of the former, Ruth Antosh observes that ‘since Des


Huysmans, Against Nature, 123.

Huysmans, Against Nature, 15.

172    Esseintes has no intention of introducing anyone else into this world of illusion, one can only assume that the room represents an exercise in self-deception’.43 Both of these rooms, by their creator’s design, disguise themselves as a different type of room in a different place altogether. The bedroom appears to be the cell of a monk, although it uses costly materials to simulate the monastic simplicity: the walls are decorated with saffron-coloured silk to imitate yellow stucco and a rich carpet patterned in red squares stands in for cold tiles on the floor. Similarly, the dining room resembles a ship’s cabin. There, while inhaling artificially introduced aromas of pitch-pine, ‘he could imagine himself between decks in a brig, and gazed inquisitively at some ingenious mechanical fishes driven by clockwork, which moved backwards and forwards behind the pot-hole window and got entangled in artificial sea weed’.44 Antosh suggests that, while the bedroom may express Des Esseintes’s sublimated need for religious solace, both rooms convey his desire for total exclusion from the outside world. (This is especially obvious given frequent descriptions of Fontenay as an ‘Ark’ to escape a ‘deluge of human stupidity’ taking place beyond his walls.) The ‘selfdeception’ is, therefore, both concealment from himself of his own religious impulses and the illusion of a more profound isolation than the house alone offers him.

However, these rooms also suggest that Des Esseintes’ illusory initiatives are informed by a sense of the fundamentally phantasmagorical nature of his own mind and perceptions.

Like the characters in Poe’s ‘Fall of the House of Usher’, Des Esseintes is subject to subtle fancies and influences produced by his environment. His mind and the processes of his thoughts are, in Castle’s use of the term, phantasmagorical, because of their malleability, the ease with which they can be reshaped and reformed by their surroundings. The critical difference between Des Esseintes and Usher is that Des Esseintes is aware of this malleability and deliberately propagates it within himself; he tries to control it and wield it for his own amusement while Usher can only submit to it. Just as Huysmans’s book is unfailingly phantasmagorical, Des Esseintes treats his own mind like a literal phantasmagoria, a magic lantern that plays its images constantly behind his eyes, an endless sequence of hallucinations, deceptions and fantastic shapes that beguile and astound him. In his efforts to escape the boring


Ruth B. Antosh, Reality and Illusion in the Novels of J. K. Huysmans (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1986), 37.

Huysmans, Against Nature, 20.

–  –  –

Engerth and Crampton are weird hybrid figures, their forms imaginatively united with their opposites. When they are initially introduced, their huge mechanical bodies are


Huysmans, Against Nature, 23-24.

174    equated not only with femininity but also with feminine sexuality and sexual pleasure.

While apparently transcending them, they also by virtue of their almost supernatural ‘womanliness’ suggest those very same ‘joys of fornication and those of motherhood’.

The machines are here given a frighteningly animalistic sexual allure that connects them to those women who, at ‘unconventional supper parties’, maddened with wine, ‘loosen their dresses at dessert and beat the table with their heads’;46 as well as to Vanda, the Jewish prostitute with her ‘slow preliminaries and savage climaxes’.47 Mechanical components such as brass tubing, wheels and paint possess the same erotic appeal as hair, skin and elegant limbs; materials adopt qualities not native to themselves. Huysmans’s description of them merges colossal, steam-powered, cast iron dynamism with coquettishness and the promise of sexual ecstasy. It is not hard to see the parallels between these two and another of Des Esseintes’s imaginative transformations: the American acrobat and gymnast, Miss Urania. Des Esseintes becomes briefly enamoured of this woman when he sees her perform at the circus. Her incredible strength and athleticism inspire him with ‘curious fancies’: ‘The more he admired her suppleness and strength, the more he thought he saw an artificial change of sex operating in her; her mincing movements and feminine affectations became ever less obtrusive, and in their place there developed the agile, vigorous charms of the male’.48 Huysmans emphasises that the masculinity Des Esseintes detects in Miss Urania is entirely the product of his own fantasies by ironically observing that ‘he sought confirmation of these dreams in the facial expressions that she unconsciously assumed, reading his own desires into the fixed, unchanging smile she wore on her lips as she swung on the trapeze’.49 Like the locomotives, Des Esseintes fantasises Miss Urania into a shape other than her own, his imagination remoulding his perceptions of her. Unlike Crampton and Engerth though, here his dreams literally control his view of her, confusing his senses with illusory impressions that he attempts to confirm through observation. Miss Urania is another of the fantasised spectacles that populate the novel thanks to the artifice of Des Esseintes’s imagination. Despite his assertion of


Huysmans, Against Nature, 8.

Huysmans, Against Nature, 69.

Huysmans, Against Nature, 97.

Huysmans, Against Nature, 97-98.

175    rationality and the allegedly empirical basis of his beliefs,50 Des Esseintes perceptions are consistently at the mercy of his neurotic and erethismic imagination. The hallucinatory aroma that he fears may have possessed him like an evil spirit of the middle ages51 is an early indication of this process slipping out of his control. The most elaborate of his synesthetic pleasures, the most complex of his confusions of imagination and sensation, though, are to be found in his collections of perfumes and alcoholic drinks.

Even more overtly than the collections of plants, books and paintings, these two collections are imaginatively transfigured by their owner. Huysmans dramatises how Des Esseintes experiences them, turning them into different sensations entirely; the whiskeys, brandies and liqueurs become notes in a musical symphony, while the floral essences, spices and musks become the elements of a dream-like landscape.

In his dining room, Des Esseintes keeps a device which he calls his ‘mouth organ’, a collection of casks connected to silver spigots and minute cups. By means of a button concealed in the wainscoting, it is possible for him to fill all of the cups simultaneously: ‘The organ was then open. The stops labelled “flute”, “horn” and “vox angelica” were pulled out, ready for use. Des Esseintes would drink a drop here, another there, playing internal symphonies to himself, and providing his palate with sensations analogous to those which music dispenses to the ear’.52 Huysmans continues to elaborate on this conceit, delineating Des Esseintes’ belief in the correspondences between particular drinks and the different qualities of music. His

drinks cabinet becomes an orchestra:

–  –  –


See, for example, the ‘mathematical’ validity that he attributes to his belief in the correspondence between the preference for certain colours and different personality types: Huysmans, Against Nature, 15.

See Huysmans, Against Nature, 115.

Huysmans, Against Nature, 45.

–  –  –

Here Huysmans offers us the chance to, as he puts it, ‘listen to the taste of music’,54 morphing one set of sensations into another, lovingly dwelling on the collection of liqueurs and imbuing them with the ethereal attributes of music. From the initial premise, he continues to build this structure of imaginative excess and perversity, accumulating more and more peculiar spectacles: alcoholic duets, solos, symphonies and marches. Similarly, when Des Esseintes begins to play with his collection of perfumes, Huysmans renders it as a visual spectacle, an illusory landscape summoned

into being by the aromas that Des Esseintes releases:

–  –  –

The scene continues to evolve as Des Esseintes calls up a party of picnicking women using stephotis, ayapana, opopanax, chypre and syringa, and then dismisses them, replacing their ‘laughing rollicking pleasures’ with a ‘horizon filled with factories’ belching fire, chemical products and coal tar. This industrial intrusion is then in turn dispensed with – the resin of styrax that produced it locked away in a hermetic box – and the spring meadow turns to summer filled with new-mown hay. Finally, he unleashes all of his most exotic perfumes in an orgy of scents, filling the room with


Huysmans, Against Nature, 45-46.

Huysmans, Against Nature, 46.

Huysmans, Against Nature, 110.

177    ‘an unnatural yet charming vegetation, paradoxically uniting tropical spices such as the pungent odours of Chinese sandalwood and Jamaican hediosmia with French scents such as jasmine, hawthorn and vervain’.56 This constantly evolving landscape of aromas is another instance of Des Esseintes process of ‘re-experiencing’. Against Nature celebrates the scale and power of the creative capacity. It simultaneously shows us a character whose imagination is phantasmagorical – both because it cannot be restrained and because it constantly overwhelms his senses – and in doing so plunges its reader into their own phantasmagoria. Huysmans’s book is a parade, not only of curious objects, like the tropical plants, books and painting, but also of wonderful and curious imaginings. It becomes a carnival of grotesque and whimsical figures; like a masquerade, its pages are stuffed with steam engines that become women, women who become men, illusory ships that can never travel anywhere, symphonies of alcohol and panoramas of scent. As in Irving and Hawthorne’s descriptions, the phantasmagorical aesthetic of Against Nature is an embodiment of the imagination allowed to run riot; its collections of spectacles become a way for the novel to encapsulate the raw, intoxicating and ungovernable processes of the imagination itself. Just as Des Esseintes tries to escape out of reality and into his own dream world, so the novel, despite the naturalist origins of Huysmans’s writing style, offers us a means to access the realm of the imagination. The phantasmagorical aesthetic fulfils, in fiction, Sebastienne Mercier’s longing to ‘excavate the dream’.

Des Esseintes’s own nature is, as we have seen, formed in a resolutely phantasmagorical fashion. However, we may also say that there was, in the society of the late nineteenth century, something of a fashion for the phantasmagorical. Des Esseintes’s obsession with the malleability of his own sensations, the fecundity of his imagination and, his most intense longing, to disperse the divisions between reality and fantasy and pass into his own perfect dream world, all embody widespread preoccupations of the decadent movement. Many of these preoccupations have their origins in the phantasmagorical effects documented by Terry Castle and dramatised by Edgar Allen Poe. The rationalising project of the enlightenment having displaced the supernatural into the realm of the hallucinatory, this came to be increasingly widely reflected in literature. For decadent authors, there was a ‘progressive interiorisation of the supernatural, which came to be depicted as occurring, not only on the level of


Huysmans, Against Nature, 110-111.

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