Despite having only one character and practically no plot, the French novel À rebours has earned infamy enough to be deemed the “poisonous yellow book,” as Oscar Wilde puts it. It would be a stretch to call its only character — the duke Jean Floressa des Esseintes — heroic. His primary occupations are decorating his dining room to mimic a ship’s cabin and creating the finest perfumes, known to his nose alone. À rebours is not a typical novel, by either 19th century or today’s standards.
Dr. Allan Curnew, assistant professor of French at Redeemer, wrote his tenure paper and gave a lecture this fall on the eccentric and seldom discussed novel, whose title translates as “Against Nature” or “Against the Grain.” Published in 1884, J.-K. Huysmans’ À rebours marked the beginning of the Decadent movement, an open revolt against the capitalist bourgeois society of 19th century France.
Bourgeois and modern scientific rules and values had rigidly imposed themselves throughout French society. The Decadents feared, scholar Louis Marquèze-Pouey writes, “the debasement of the spirit, degraded by a civilisation of materialism and profit, as well as the primacy of science.” In particular, the Decadents despised the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie. This new wealthy middle class had distinguished itself from the preceding aristocracy by spending for itself, within itself, using a mask of productivity, efficiency and decorum to hide its riches from the attention of the other clases.
Huysmans cast off the artistic expectations of his genre, lampooning, Curnew explained, naturalism and bourgeois literary tastes. Such an act could show that Huysmans holds in common with his novel’s only character an overwhelming desire “to no longer have anything in common with the profane,” as the author writes in À rebours, “who were, for him, utilitarians and imbeciles.”
“Is everything society labels as good and proper actually good and proper in God’s eyes?”
Disillusioned with a society full of conformity, mediocrity and greed, the duke sells his inherited home and holdings in Paris. He takes refuge in Fontenay-aux-Roses, a suburb on the outskirts of Paris which is neither sophisticated nor provincial. Here chapter one begins. Each subsequent chapter details the eccentric decoration of a particular room of des Esseintes’s home or depicts isolated, disconnected memories from his debauched past.
While des Esseintes’s frivolity makes for good satire, to summarize Curnew, the character’s tragedy is that he is creating what he considers to be ultimate expressions of beauty, but doing so alone, in a refined but secluded house, burdened with a profound sense of disconnection. By the book’s end, even seclusion cannot satisfy the failed idealist. His indulgent habits lead to ever-worsening illness and des Esseintes, on the advice of his doctor, returns to the society he once decried for the improvement of his health.
Like des Esseintes, the Decadent movement failed to ignite any change from its incendiary pages. As the Decadents saw the 1800s wane and looked towards a new millennium, they believed their culture to be on the precipice of a fall like that of the Roman empire. They met the ugliness of their society with ugliness and perversion of their own creation. But the movement was intractably paradoxical, Curnew explained. Its style, and its creators, relied on the bourgeois society that the literature mocked. The Decadent movement would last about 20 years. By the early 1900s, artistic talk about Decadent literature had subsided.
There seemed only two options available after writing such a novel, French author Barbey d’Aurevilly famously commented, “the mouth of a pistol or the foot of the cross.” While unbearable without hope, there remains something prophetic in recognizing and decrying the ugliness present in entrenched norms.
By wasting resources in pursuit of a supposed ultimate beauty, des Esseintes critiques the bourgeois fascination with productivity and functionality. To contextualize this reproof, Curnew quotes Reformed thinker Calvin Seerveld, who addressed the bourgeois (and often Christian bourgeois) notion that art and leisure are a waste of time in his book Rainbows for the Fallen World. “Certainly,” he writes, “there is nothing worse than baptizing our technocratized hecticness and poverty of aesthetic life into a Christianized utilitarianism. It is no help to understand ‘redeeming the time’ to mean ‘Are you making money at it?’ or ‘Is it useful?’ Then one might be wrongly constrained from playing a leisurely game of boccia on the lawn with the family on Sunday afternoons, as John Calvin did, or from digging up dirt around the flowers, in favour of organized visits of mercy on the day of rest.”
So, Curnew asked his audience, is everything society labels as good and proper actually good and proper in God’s eyes? Do we too sometimes get stuck in overworked categories that divvy up the beautiful and normal, the ugly and abnormal? Do we celebrate diversity — but also snub those who do not look, act or think as we do? Did Jesus — who was not much to look at, according to Isaiah 35:2 — do the same? “Voilà,” Curnew quipped, “some questions for the Christian student and scholar alike, raised by a Decadent masterpiece.”