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

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Read Part I here.

Huysmans had become infamous with À rebours but was still working as a bureaucrat whilst writing his next novel on the office’s headed paper. On the evidence we have, his temperament was worsening.

The first of the four Durtal novels, Là-bas (1891) took Huysmans’s apocalyptic aestheticism to its absolute limit; if À rebours dramatised an individual’s degradation in tandem with that of modern French society, then Là-bas was reportage straight from the Hellmouth, a morbid yet exultant speculation on the filth of humanity as Durtal dabbles in Satanist circles whilst writing a biography of notorious child-murderer and all-round madman Gilles de Rais.

He’s joined by a small cast of characters, essentially assenting voices, who debate over dinner – or, rather, over many dinners in long conversational set-pieces – the fallen nature of modern man and the simpler bygone age of late-medieval France. Towards the novel’s end Durtal, who has now enjoyed some steamy intrigue with a mysterious woman and his first ever Black Mass, is inflamed with moral objection, extraordinarily (and with little precedent) voicing his concern for ‘the poor and humble forever fleeced and abused by the bourgeoisie’ whilst he sees everywhere ‘the apotheosis of crooked politicians and financiers’.

Durtal’s friend Carhaix, who believes ‘everything on earth is dead’, looks forward to the Second Coming with relish. His enthusiasm in all likelihood reflects Huysmans’s own belief that only Biblical end-times can offer the promise of justice by an undeniable authority. The greedy and tasteless will get what’s coming to them, and the doom-mongers will have a front row seat. Huysmans was on the cusp of his own conversion to Catholicism but he needed something more tangible than the prospect of Revelation.

With Là-bas, a novel replete with the gory and scatological details of Gilles De Rais’ crimes, Huysmans seemed to flush the metaphorical toilet of his obsessions with vice and evil. Its closing lines, spoken by Durtal at a soirée, confidently predict that the offspring of the current bourgeoisie ‘will turn out […] just the same as their parents. They will stuff their guts with food and evacuate their souls through their bowels.’ What could possibly come next for Huysmans?

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Salvation, it seems. He had struck up a correspondence with a sinister de-frocked priest named Joseph-Antoine Boullan who had inspired the character of the exorcist Dr Johannes in Là-bas. Boullan is now understood to have been a highly sinister occult practitioner, advocating everything from devil worship to incest and bestiality. Despite the warnings of his friend Oswald Wirth, Huysmans trusted Boullan and his associate Julie Thibault (whom Huysmans later employed as his housekeeper) and the two swiftly fleeced the novelist by promoting their practices and performing magic rituals.

Boullan died in 1893 and Huysmans was distraught, but by this time he had developed another friendship with the Abbé Arthur Mugnier, a more benign spiritual director who had been a valuable aid during a reputed crisis in June 1892. The Abbé’s recommendation to attend the monastery at Notre-Dame d’Igny predicted the importance that the Church would now have to Huysmans as a sanctuary from the diversions and disappointments of society.

The Durtal novels that followed, beginning with En Route (1895), contain some of his most beautiful passages on art, architecture, and choral music. The protagonist’s appreciation of the old church of Saint-Séverin allowed Huysmans to assert himself in a new culture of connoisseurship whilst taking aim at familiar targets in contemporary Paris. Early in En Route the very appeal of Saint-Séverin is grounded in its situation as a beacon in an insalubrious quarter of the city, the symbolic relationship to Huysmans’s own exceptionalism proving irresistible. Through his fictional surrogate, Durtal, he imagines here the sweet, smoky atmosphere of worship in the Middle Ages and is so transported that he declares this church to be his true home.

Huysmans’s engagement with the ecclesiastical was providing a new environment for sensory stimulation. In En Route the pilgrim Durtal declares his ‘unclean desires have become more frequent and more persistent’ since his first steps to conversion, and confesses to ‘a dyspepsia of the soul, which cannot digest ordinary meats, and tries to feed on spiced dreams, highly seasoned thoughts’. Now playing the role (in both life and writing) of penitent sinner appealing to the highest imaginable authority, Huysmans could have it both ways and write about aesthetic experiences in terms of both ecstasy and abstinence – all supported by centuries of spiritual struggle.

The opportunity to commune with a lineage of philosophers and saints by wrestling with the sensual life was precisely the project to deepen his knowledge of art. The spectacle of suffering – whether regarding Christ on the cross, as painted by Grunewald, or witnessing clerics living an ascetic life – became an important context for aesthetic appreciation.

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Matthias Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece

But the true appeal of the Church as a sanctuary seemed to be the opportunity it presented to join those who value (and own) art and who engage with it in pursuit of transcendence. The character of the Abbé in En Route proffers that ‘art has been the principal means’ by which the Saviour has reached Durtal, bringing him to faith ‘less by the way of reason than the way of the senses’; throughout En Route, and into La cathédrale (1898) and L’Oblat (1903), Huysmans presents the history of Christian worship as overwhelmingly led by the senses.

It is apparent that the means, and not the end, truly captivated Huysmans. He wasn’t so much transforming himself through conversion as finding in it confirmation of his tastes and the means by which to distinguish himself from the heathen masses. Huysmans’s could well be the most cynical of conversions, the only available action of an intelligent but embittered man. Ω

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