A Book Not to Write
“This sort of promiscuous admiration was in fact one of the most painful thorns in his flesh, for unaccountable vogues had utterly spoilt certain books and pictures for him that he had once held dear; confronted with the approbation of the mob, he always ended up discovering some hitherto imperceptible blemish, and promptly rejected them, at the same time wondering whether his flair was not deserting him, his taste getting blunted.”
J.K. Huysmans, A Rebours
* * *
“What’s your favorite book?” asks the pretty, wafer-like girl in trousers of midnight-blue velvet.
Answer carefully, she silently begs.
The scene is old and smoky. The boy wears a band T-shirt as thin as she is and tan corduroys with battered Converse high tops. “Against Nature?” he goes, without taking his eyes from her.
She’s half-elated, half-disappointed.
Marianne Faithfull said in her autobiography that “you would ask your date, ‘Do you know Genet? Have you read A Rebours?’ and if he said yes, you’d fuck.”
And yet the boy’s answer was kind of annoying, predictable in that it was supposed to be unpredictable, a sign of instant and rare familiarity, which was lost when someone like him would know to say it, but could only say it as a question.
* * *
An apocalypse announced itself when, in May of 1884, J.K. Huysmans—neuralgic dandy, middling French belletrist—broke the reign of Naturalism with a consumptively slim work of such profound unfeeling, such craven excess, that critics took up praying for his soul. “Certainly,” wrote Barbey d’Aurevilly, “in order that … a book like [A Rebours] should germinate in a human head it was necessary that we should have become what in fact we are—a race which has reached its final hour.” History being asymptotal, as far as we can tell, we have been stumbling at the finish line since. Nothing happens so often as the end of the world.
Huysmans knew he was writing a Revelations. Like Flaubert, he despised the “American lifestyle,” with its incipient normalcy and mores, and meant to set a moat between himself and the democratized future. “My poor friend,” he wrote to Guy de Maupassant in March of 1882, just as he was beginning the novel, “I am very much afraid that universal stupidity is getting worse by the day.” What he didn’t—or refused to—fear was how faithful his audience would become. To Stéphane Mallarmé, that November, he sighed: “I am up to my neck in my awful story, which is causing me awful trouble … As a consolation, it will be understood by ten people and will be a flop…!” To Zola, he declared: “We write for fourteen people, and it is not quite enough! Others will benefit later, we will play the role of advance guard, we are firing the first shots from the bushes, and we get the full blast from the prudish press…” By spring of 1884, his pages just healing from the printer, Huysmans had allowed himself to believe that “A Rebours was written … for 20 people.” Indeed it may have been, but Huysmans was—is—hardly alone in believing himself to be singular, and over time A Rebours turned out to be altogether handy for anarchists, decadents, and wannabe rebels too.
The story: Duc Jean Des Esseintes, 30 and jaded, flees fin-de-siècle society for an idyllic existence on a self-curated estate in Fontenay. Some have argued he’s modeled directly after 19th-century French aesthete Robert de Montesquiou, but Huysmans denied this. More have argued he’s an elaboration of the author himself. Like des Esseintes, Huysmans, at least in his letters of the early 1880s, seemed tired of both his sexual pursuits and his whiny intellectual contemporaries. He loved but a few Parisian lit-boys—Flaubert, Goncourt, and most of all Zola—and railed equally against the “mediocrity” of the “art world,” championing instead the flagrant impressions of Degas. Baudelaire may have been his hero, or his crush. Women he took and left; “my penis is amazing,” he told de Maupassant, “a bit of old rag in my pants.” Since the age of 18 he’d worked at the Ministry of the Interior (you can imagine him adding, to the letterhead, “Life”) and although or because he’d begun to earn some degree of success, he was insistently dissatisfied and bored.
In a letter to Theodore Hannon, two years before the publication of A Rebours, Huysmans had written: “We need to invent some new vice in order to amuse ourselves, unfortunately the canon of vices is even more limited than that of virtues, so what is left? Sleep—but that is rather monotonous too.”
Enter Esseintes, trailing a cloud of opiates; enter a century of “heroin chic.”
Dorian Gray is about as exhausted a literary reference as exists: if you substituted A Portrait of Dorian Gray for A Rebours in deciding whom to sleep with, you’d end up a slut. Which is perhaps why the always-popular Oscar Wilde, in citing the hedonistic book that in turn incites Dorian’s wildness, never actually listed it—or its author—by name. Like a secret society or a club without a sign on the door, the absence suggested that if you have to ask, you have no right to know. Of course, the book was A Rebours, a rumor more or less confirmed in the first of Wilde’s three trials: Wilde v. Queensberry, 1895. Accused of sodomy, he was charged with indecent behaviour.
And so, from Gray onward, Huysmans and des Esseintes have become interlinking symbols for the anti-humanist, hyper-aesthetic need to live “against the grain”—at any cost and at any given moment.
Such a moment flourished with the threat of a new millennium just as it had at the end of the previous century. In the year 2000, writing in The Guardian, Jonathan Romney had us know that “what’s often forgotten about early punk is how much literary Europhilia fed into the imagery, especially in the US” and cited A Rebours as a particular favorite of punk junkie Richard Hell. Romney lamented the fading-away of “literary fan worship,” arguing that the mid-70s marked the end of “a time when marginal or ‘rebel’ writing had not yet been commodified and consigned to the cult literature shelves in book superstores.” Five years later, BabyShambles fronter Pete Doherty penned a song called “A Rebours,” about a relationship as toxic as the substances he’s infamous for taking. His lover at the time, Kate Moss, was perhaps a more natural heiress to Des Esseintes, having being credited with the invention of 90s “heroin chic” while maintaining an aloof and sphinx-like irreverence toward her own icon status. But if it’s antibourgeois decadents we seek, we’ll find them not in dead rock’n’roll, but at the edges of the contemporary art world.
Consider Adam Lindemann. When the art collector opened his Upper East Side gallery, Venus Over Manhattan, in May of 2012, he found an alter ego as a nuanced defense against naysayers. He’d read Rimbaud during his education at the Lycée Française in New York, and from there, criss-crossing citations, he uncovered A Rebours—and met his pre-incarnated self. Like Des Esseintes, Lindemann was an art collector living in a black mansion (his Manhattan home is a seven-story black townhouse created by David Adjaye). And like Esseintes, Lindemann got his art-buying capital from a long family history of wealth. He decided to name his debut group show A Rebours. “It was meant to be clever,” Lindemann says, “because in a sense des Esseintes was a projection of me, a Halloween costume I was putting on.” He adds, in true Huysmans style, that “nobody got it.”
For the show, Lindemann chose works by artists dead and alive, from Salvador Dalí to Dash Snow. He included Symbolist works from the artists in des Esseintes’ collection. He turned off all the lights. The opening felt like a séance. Under cover of all this darkness, one of Dalí’s was stolen; later, the thief returned the painting, with a simple explanation: “I felt like it.” It was appropriately debauched and adolescent reasoning. Lindemann continues to choose artists for his gallery (Jack Goldstein, Betty Tompkins) and personal collection (Richard Prince, Urs Fischer) based on a delightfully des Esseintialist motto: “Fuck you with your good taste.“
This demonstrates just a little how the novel remains relevant: A Rebours, which prized the outré of this world over naturalism (trendy in Huysmans’s time), is the thing to read when you’re tired of conceptualism (trendy in our time). It still appeals to the willful misfit inside. Which isn’t to say it’s only for punks. Like the smoke from hell, A Rebours always finds its way to the upper echelons—to those in the stars who look longingly down at the gutter.
J.K. Huysmans was born, perhaps not humbly enough, to a lithographer and a schoolmistress. On the former side, however, was a line of Flemish painters, and paint seemed to stick in his blood. In an earlier novel, En Ménage (1881), Huysmans wrote: “Try, then, to render, with pencil or brush, the particular tone of a neighbourhood! Such is not the business of painters, but men of letters!” Perhaps he was contradicting the painter-poet Hannon, who, years earlier, had written to Huysmans that: “[Literature and painting] are both excellent girls, two sisters who get on perfectly well, without the least jealousy … That explains my thirst for colour, and the trouble I take with the palette of my style.”
Huysmans must have learned it anyway, because A Rebours takes infinite trouble. What’s plot is palette: wine reds; puking greens; dead, waxy yellows. The lack of sunlight makes everything perversely yellower. Even purple goes ghostly. But the bright piles of unreal flowers, a la Baudelaire’s “hothouse blooms,” shine against walls painted an even brighter orange. Why orange? Believe Goethe, who called it the color of nobility, knowing full well it’s also the least beloved.
“There exists a close correspondence between the sensual make-up of a person with a truly artistic temperament and whatever color that person reacts to most strongly and sympathetically,” wrote Huysmans in A Rebours, and so for Esseintes he chose orange, reasoning out all the other colors one by one. He loved Schopenhauer, whose Vision and Colors was inspired by Goethe’s Theory of Colors; “in looking steadfastly at a perfectly yellow-red surface,” wrote Goethe, “the colour seems actually to penetrate the organ. It produces an extreme excitement…” Similarly, A Rebours describes “those gaunt, febrile creatures … whose sensual appetite craves dishes that are smoked and seasoned” and who “prefer that most morbid and irritating colour, with its acid glow and unnatural splendor—orange.”
Orange, like Bacchus and clowns. Orange like a hazard. Orange like the embers that gleam behind a tattooed Salome, the Bible’s star seductress, in a painting by Gustave Moreau—a painting that Huysmans hung straight-away in Esseintes’s home, and which English critic James Laver was convinced Huysmans himself could have purchased, had he the means, when it was for sale in the Salon of ’76. Of the archetype, Huysmans writes: “No longer was she merely the dancing-girl who extorts a cry of lust and concupiscence from an old man by the lascivious contortions of her body … she was now revealed in a sense as the symbolic incarnation of world-old Vice, the goddess of immortal Hysteria, the Curse of Beauty.”
In a further paradox that must have pleased this master contrarian, Salome has often been cast as the innocent ingénue, and her name is the Hebrew word for peace.
“The truth of the matter,” wrote Huysmans in a letter to Zola, “is that if [A Rebours] did not involve sacrilege sadism would have no raison d'être; on the other hand, since sacrilege depends on the existence of a religion, it cannot be deliberately and effectively committed except by a believer, for a man would derive no satisfaction whatever from profaning a faith that was unimportant or unknown to him.”
Though many religions have it otherwise, faith and eroticism are never mutually exclusive. Both contain a craving for the unseen and unknowable, for the momentary and ecstatic. The only desire that is everlasting is that which is unfulfilled.
A Rebours marks the beginning of Huysmans’s spiritual and psychological development. Just before its publication, he wrote: “If you are not a pessimist, there is nothing to be but a Christian or an anarchist.” At the time he was leaning anarchist (Jean Grace, a then-prominent French theorist on anarchism, used parts of A Rebours in his own book, La Revolte, to justify his insurrectionary politics) but over the ensuing decade he would become a devout Catholic, and in between he flirted with Satanism. It seems likely enough that had he not died in 1907, a year before his 60th birthday, from cancer of the mouth—what more fitting disease for a sensualist!—he would have found yet another god.
He would have found, for instance, fame.
In another letter to Zola, Huysmans explains the mystifying qualities of A Rebours: “Basically, you see, it was a book not to write, because it was much too difficult with this floating character such as I had conceived him, Christian and homosexual, impotent and incredulous, a disciple of Schopenhauer through reason, a Catholic through atavism, returning nevertheless to a Christ who is not even Catholic but Byzantine, and fearing death as a consequence of his early education, exacerbated by solitude.”
And Huysmans says of des Esseintes, when the pessimism of Pascal and even Schopenhauer show no more charms: “Only the impossible belief in a future life could bring him peace of mind.” Was afterlife as cult signifier even a passing thought?
Sometimes in A Rebours, des Esseintes deviates from his rants and sighs to discuss odd sexual imaginings, including a desire for homoerotic pleasures at the hands of muscular acrobat Miss Urania (ha)—who, interestingly enough, is American. In another scene, des Esseintes is using a female ventriloquist for sex as hieratic performance art. He stages the incident, turning off the lights and placing a miniature black marble sphinx and a terracotta chimera at either end of the bedroom. Then, “with strange intonations that he made her rehearse beforehand for hours, she [gives] life and voice to the monsters, without so much as moving her lips, without even looking in their direction.” She makes the stone creatures recite Flaubert: “I seek new perfumes, larger blossoms, pleasures still untasted.”
The taste in question has little to do with what’s good, well-loved, or readily felt as pleasurable. For des Esseintes, taste provokes nausea. It must be too much. Or else it must be too little known, too widely misunderstood. To escape the mundane and the mediocre, Huysmans wrote a book that could serve as Bible for all kinds of cults—at least, the kinds that that make you feel chosen for your very unlikeness. And the kinds, so notable in American history, that are putatively religious and secretly reliant on the pull of unspeakable sex.
No wonder then that invoking the name of this “cult book”—as you would a cult record, a cult label—is enough to get you laid in some parts. No wonder, but some irony. The erotic is often the unfamiliar, the exotic, but when caught it becomes familiar, and when it becomes familiar we lose faith. For the real devotee, recognition stings. A thorn in the flesh, in the blossoms. Ennui.
The girl in the blue velvet pants knows that A Rebours is a book only for people who don’t have favorite books. She can’t explain why that is, and that’s why it is. Her attitude is bad, snobbish; there is almost no pleasure as guilty as snobbishness.
Would Huysmans ever have gotten over the approbation of—not a mob, but a few too many? Would he suffer his legacy with private gladness, or would he take offense to the fact that his atomic and anti-social book has been defused so neatly as a party trick?
The girl shakes her head as a yes.
Her saving grace is maybe that she fucks him, if only as an excuse to leave the scene.