Joris-Karl Huysmans: Against Nature – A Review of the Literature

Joris-Karl Huysmans: Against Nature – A Review of the Literature

Huysmans’, Against Nature, is novel written in Decadent aesthetics and is inspired by many other Decadent authors, like Baudelaire. Huysmans develops a character called Des Esseintes whom has characteristics of a solitary nervous person that reflects on living alone in his house of artifacts. Against Nature is written with a beautifully descriptive setting. The beginning of the book expresses his surroundings from top to bottom; for example Huysmans takes the reader through a sensory pleasing journey through Des Esseintes home. The setting involves all of his decorating schemes and begins to inform the reader about his large library of his most treasured literature; Baudelaire, Edgar Allen Poe, Dickens, Petronius, and many more. Huysmans eventually explains Des Esseintes wide knowledge of literature, art, and trade interests, like perfume manufacturing. His thoughts are always conflicting; for example, he contemplates the importance of Christianity versus Paganism. Throughout the book, he is torn between his knowledge of many conflicting ideas, which mainly leads to his schooling with the Jesuit Priests. Although he is suffering from a nervous disease, he escapes from his illness by reading literature and conversing with his imagination rather than real people.

Des Esseintes is a very melancholy type of man, but little mental desires keep his soul alive during his sickness. One example of a short-lived desire, is his yearning for a tortoise; because of his eccentric imagination, he has the tortoise’s shell covered in his favorable gemstones and he loves the contrast of the animal against his gold flooring. Of course the tortoise dies from a weighed shell and lack of nutrition, but he doesn’t show any emotion towards the death because the tortoise has already grown old to his taste. Like most Decadent writers, the character Des Esseintes is very narcissistic.

His house is covered with expensive literature, fake flowers and art. Des Esseintes especially favors religious paintings by Gustave Moreau and he imagines Salome goddess as being in movement with the other figures in the painting. Salome seems to intimidate him, and he always reflects more towards the art and literature that are threatening. Huysmans also mentions Des Esseintes artwork entitled Religious Persecutions, “These pictures, replete with abominable imaginings, stinking of scorched flesh, oozing with blood, filled with shrieks of horror and curses, made his skin crawl, keeping him riveted to the spot, unable to breathe, when he entered that red room.” (Huysman, J.K., 1884)

As mentioned before Des Esseintes has many short-lived desires that he quickly fulfills; then he begins his boredom conquest for something new. During his boring lifestyle, he conjures up old memories from Paris; one being about a young boy that he tries to mold into a murder. While he was living among society in Paris he meets a young boy, Auguste, which he calls, “the Little Judas.” He introduces Auguste to a night of drinks and sex at a bordello, and he hopes to build the boys sexual frustration to the point of murder. Des Esseintes examines the newspaper for months, waiting to see the boy murder some un-necessary people on the streets, and he is disappointed that his devious plan didn’t work.

Another memory is that of his former mistress; Urania, a ventriloquist that fills his sexual desires of committing adultery, in which she uses her many voices as an illusionary husband ready to knock down the door. As he experiments with aromatics and making perfume, he imagines a mistress that, “…would go into raptures over particular aromatics…a nervous woman who liked to have her nipples soaked in perfume.” (Huysmans, J.K., 1884) during Des Esseintes experiment with aromatics, he faints, which begins the reality and intensity of his nervous illness.

While he is continuing in a dreamlike state, possibly caused from early stages of dying, he takes an imaginary trip to London. The trip is full of eating, conversing, drinking, and observing. Huysmans wrote this imaginary trip with more description than a real vacation might entail. Des Esseintes says, “I would be insane to risk losing, by an ill-advised journey, these unforgettable impressions”, Huysmans explains that his imaginary trip was worth much more than actually taking the trip; He actually felt the exhaustion from the mental vacation as if he would from a real one.

Des Esseintes begins to become bored of his literature, art, and his home. He explains his book collection as if he is supporting his intelligence as he grows weaker. He mentions Baudelaire many times, and he says, “[Baudelaire’s writings]….eventually reaching those regions of the soul in which the nightmare growths of human thought flourish.” Towards the end of the book, he realizes that he can longer take laudanum, opiates, or hashish to enhance his imaginary journeys because his body will reject anything he ingests. At this point of Des Esseintes illness, Huysmans explains Des Esseintes mirror image of himself, which is that of a malnourished man. He calls upon a doctor that prescribes him enemas of certain nutrients, which he is very excited to have, “…eliminated the tiresome, vulgar chore of eating.” (Huysmans, J.K., 1848) The doctor orders him back to Paris, and society, rather than being confined in the walls of his home in Fontenay. Des Esseintes comes to the conclusion that he should reconcile with Catholicism along with his move to Paris, and he explains that he should give up his art of comparing all of the religious skepticism so his mind will be at peace.

In general, he uses his imagination to fulfill his need of pleasure and adventure. It seems that he moved to Fontenay to bring upon self reflection, but during his solitary lifestyle he begins a nervous illness. The reflection on his memories cause him to get caught up in comparison of the knowledge he has acquired in life; from his beginning years with the Jesuit Priests, to his adulthood in a Modern Paris society. Des Esseintes is an artist of critiquing art, literature and societal class. He is a master of religious teachings in comparison of a realistic scientific view. Because of his struggle with collecting his knowledge into truth, he almost dies because of neglecting his basic needs for survival.