Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

14 October 2010

Decadence & Pleasure

I am still reading my Parisian avant-garde list. I did not read these books in order (not sure if this is good or bad) and so I am sort of jumping back and forth between Symbolism, Surrealism, and Dada. There are only two novels on my list, and I am, quite frankly, not used to reading novels, but as it turns out they read amazingly quickly--reading a novel is nothing like reading, say, Joe Roach's Cities of the Dead.

The novel I just finished is called À Rebours (Against Nature), and it is a very influential novel. Its author, J.-K. Huysmans, was a Naturalist, but À Rebours is an incredibly anti-naturalist text. What is fabulous about this book is that it really is about almost nothing, by which I mean that nothing really happens in this book. If À Rebours is about anything it is about the tastes and pleasures of the novel's main character, who is named des Esseintes, a wealthy man who tires of Parisian urbanity and moves to the suburbs where he lives completely alone. There are entire chapters in À Rebours that simply detail why des Esseintes likes this gem instead of that gem, pages and pages discussing colors, a chapter on the decoration of his bedroom, a chapter on flowers, all of which resemble carcasses or meat of some kind. I found the book, in other words, completely and totally absorbing.

À Rebours is not devoid of politics. It also includes its share of philosophy, and several passages on what des Esseintes (Huysmans himself?) believes the function of art to be. The book flows so naturally, though, that even his strict (and arbitrary) opinions fit beautifully within the book's whole. I want to share a few of these delightful musings.

Here, des Esseintes muses about poverty, prophylaxis, and the lower classes; (des Esseintes is exceedingly wealthy):
The Law deems it completely legitimate to defraud the reproductive process – this is a recognised and acknowledged fact; there's scarcely a home, however rich it be, that doesn't nightly consign its offspring to the laundry or that doesn't use artificial devices, which are freely sold and which it wouldn't occur to anyone to condemn. And yet if these precautions or subterfuges prove insufficient, if the fraud misfires and, in order to remedy matters, one has recourse to more efficacious measures, ah! then there aren't enough prisons, enough police cells or enough penitentiaries to hold those who'd be condemned – and in all good faith moreover – by individuals who, in the conjugal bed the night before, had tried every trick in the book so as not to beget brats of their own. / The fraud itself was not therefore a crime, but trying to make good the failure of it was.
There is a good deal more that is of interest in the book. Des Esseintes discusses Catholic literature, Sadism, a tortoise whose shell he has inlaid in gold (totally hilarious), and how he hates going to concerts:
secular music is a promiscuous art because you don't read it at home, alone, like you do a book; in order to enjoy it he would have had to mix with that swarm of inveterate theatre-goers who besiege the Cirque d'Hiver, where, under the slanting beam of a spotlight sun, in an atmosphere as hot and steamy as a washroom, you can just about make out a man with the build of a carpenter beating the air as if whisking mayonnaise and butchering disjointed excerpts from Wagner, to the immense delight of an ignorant crowd.
It is not all pontificating, though (most of it is, to be honest). The last selection I will share is a description of a heat wave that oppresses des Esseintes late in the book:
The season advanced and the weather became unsettled; everything was mixed up this year; after the squalls and the fogs, white hot skies like sheets of metal appeared over the horizon. In the space of two days, without any transition, the damp cold of the mists and the streaming rain gave way to a torrid heat, an appallingly sultry atmosphere. As though stirred by furious pokers the sun opened like the mouth of a baker's oven, darting out an almost white light that burned the eyes; a fiery dust rose from the charred roads, grilling the dry trees and roasting the yellowed grass; the reflections from whitewashed walls, the light blazing on zinc roofs and on glass windows was blinding; a heat like that of a foundry being fired hung oppressively over des Esseintes' house.
I love this description! Now here is weather with character. This is the pleasure of Huysmans' prose. He describes things completely, almost in the manner of the cubists (they would come later).

At any rate, À Rebours is obviously not for everyone. I can imagine many being very bored by Huysmans' commitment to des Esseintes' inner monologue, by this cataloging of tastes, but I found the entire thing fascinating.