Joris-Karl Huysmans’ Against Nature

One of life’s great temptations, paradoxically, is to leave it behind. Some accomplish this with liquor or drugs, others with a glut of entertainment. Writers and philosophers alike have dreamt of quiet libraries, secluded forest retreats – any quiet place removed from the bustle of everyday life, with its interminable petty demands on our time and attention. The protagonist of Joris-Karl Huysmans’ À Rebours (Against Nature, in my translation, though the original title has a wider connotation; other translators have used “Against The Grain”), Jean Des Esseintes, has the financial means to put this much desired isolation into practice. After a lifetime of Parisian decadence, and out of a corresponding disgust with human affairs, he retreats to a countryside manor of his design, isolating himself in every way from human contact. What follows is a novel with only one character and no plot; the reader must endure the claustrophobia of being trapped inside Des Esseintes’ mind.

A brief Prologue sketches Des Esseintes’ life prior to his seclusion: he was born to a wealthy family and enjoyed the life of a Parisian aristocrat, seducing women, attending lavish parties and frequenting brothels. These are described as “the days when he had thought it necessary to advertise his individuality,” but they come to a rather abrupt end. He throws a large dinner party, “described as a funeral banquet in memory of the host’s virility,” and shortly thereafter retires into the countryside, telling no one of his plans. Alone, world weary and impotent, he contemplates art, reads classical literature and reflects on the growing decadence of the world. His principal complaint in the early chapters is the degradation of art and art criticism – what he calls “promiscuous admiration” – and in this he is revealed as something of a snob:

[…] unaccountable vogues had utterly spoilt certain books and pictures for him that he had once held dear; confronted with the approbation of the mob, he always ended up discovering some hitherto imperceptible blemish, and promptly rejected them, at the same time wondering whether his flair was not deserting him, his taste getting blunted.

This, the reader will note, is a common theme: the inability of Des Esseintes to distinguish between the real world and his perception of it. In a later moment, he will reflect with scorn on the gradual disappearance of licensed brothels and the rise of taverns and bars. “This diminution of official prostitution in favour of unofficial promiscuity was obviously to be accounted for by the incomprehensible illusions to which men are subject in affairs of the flesh.” It takes quite a moral sensibility to be offended by the disappearance of brothels – institutions, I remind you, that Des Esseintes frequented so often that he was rendered prematurely impotent – and the rise of promiscuity, but hypocrisy forms an almost essential part of the moralist character.

Reading Against Nature reminded me of an American novel that, until recently, I had viewed as sui generis: John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy Of Dunces. The protagonist of that work, Ignatius J. Reilly, shares with Des Esseintes a remarkable disdain for the time and culture into which he is born (“I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century,” he tells us), and a corresponding wish to have been born in an earlier time. Here is Huysmans’ description of Des Esseintes’ longing:

Unable to attune himself, except at rare intervals, to his environment, and no longer finding in the examination of that environment and the creatures who endure it sufficient pleasures of observation and analysis to divert him, he is aware of the birth and development in himself of unusual phenomena. Vague migratory longings spring up which find fulfillment in reflection and study. Instincts, sensations, inclinations bequeathed to him by heredity awake, take shape and assert themselves with imperious authority. He recalls memories of people and things has has never known personally, and there comes a time when he bursts out of the prison of his century and roams about at liberty in another period, with which, as a crowning illusion, he imagines he would have been more in accord.

This is indeed an illusion – Des Esseintes pays a terrible price, psychologically and physically, for turning his back on his time, for living “against nature.” The novel, such as it is, is a portrait of such a soul, living on borrowed time, so isolated within his own head that the outside world and its people hold no interest for him whatsoever.