The End of Good Taste: Huysmans and the Sanctuary of Art (Part I)

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Joris-Karl Huysmans was an angry, angry man. As the late 19th century drew on, seemingly towards total cultural and moral oblivion, the French novelist (and former art critic) lashed out at anything that could be held up as a symptom of modern society’s decline. He deplored industrialisation, urban overcrowding, upward social mobility, mass-production. He believed that the world he knew was ending – and with it all that he valued. Through his highly autobiographical fiction, in a cycle of novels about a spiritually restless soul named Durtal, he found sanctuary and salvation, but precisely in what is still up for debate…

Before he found something approaching peace, Huysmans harnessed his hatred to produce writing as poisonous as the Paris he perceived around him. His scandalous experimental novel À rebours (1884), a fantasy of one man’s escape into a secluded and luxurious world of art, culture, and material excess, was hailed by Arthur Symons as quintessentially decadent. Its fawning, and often lengthy, appreciations of classic literature, ancient and medieval Christian philosophy, and then-undervalued visionaries such as Edgar Allan Poe and Baudelaire, contrasts sharply with a total apathy, bordering on disgust, towards human contact. Its protagonist creates his own new world, filled with the salvaged relics of the old, in which only good taste has value.

Amusingly, the debauched aristocrat at the centre of À rebours blames the decline of civilisation on the influence of that economic and cultural upstart, America. Barely concealing his own disdain as the interior monologue of his protagonist, Huysmans declares the result of the recent rise to power of the bourgeoisie to be ‘the suppression of all intelligence, the negation of all honesty, the destruction of all art’. This corruption of culture, which he alleges had already claimed the novel as a victim, is ‘the vast bagnio of America transported to the continent of Europe’, nothing less than ‘the limitless, unfathomable, immeasurable scurviness of the financier and the self-made man, beaming down like a shameful sun on the idolatrous city, which grovelled on its belly, chanting vile songs of praise before the impious tabernacle of the Bank’. (It’s remarkable to think that, over 130 years later, similar tirades against the commercial control of cultural production are still being made!)

Huysmans didn’t care who he offended. His caustic authorial voice was, to the best of our knowledge, no act. Recalling, years later, meeting Huysmans at the office of his day-job, Paul Valéry wrote: ‘He was extremely high-strung, quick to develop violent antipathies, prompt to deliver appalling judgments, prolific in disgust, predisposed to the worst, with an appetite for extremes, unbelievably credulous, swallowing with no trouble every horror that can be imagined about human nature, with a relish for peculiar behaviour and the sort of tales you might hear from Hell’s concierge’.

Steeping himself in profound contempt for the great heaving mass of humanity, Huysmans depicted subjects whose only response to society’s collapse was to wilt and waste. Joseph Halpern has called À rebours a depiction of ‘life as a constant dying […] for fourteen chapters we have a sense of entropic degeneration’. Given that he once wrote a prose poem dedicated to the pleasures or armpit odour, it would be an oversight to neglect the knowingly (and grotesquely) comic element in Huysmans’s writing – and especially in À rebours, where we find the notorious spectacle of a jewel-encrusted tortoise collapsed beneath its own bulk. But rather than providing light relief, such instances amount to the bitter smirks of a pessimist seeing just how far he can push decadent artistry in a doomed world. It’s an end-of-the-world party, and there’s not much of a guest list. Ω

Part II of this article is forthcoming…

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