Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Against Nature

Joris-Karl Huysmans Against Nature (1884)
About three of you may be aware that I myself once wrote a novel, and that it was similarly called Against Nature, and had previously languished for nearly a decade in publishing limbo answering to a variety of different names - Flatline, then The Other Side of the World, then The Hollow Hills, and finally The Empty Days. Eventually Stuart Douglas of Obverse Books took it upon himself to climb my lengthy beard - which at the time was dangling out of the window of the stone tower in which I had been detained - so as to effect my rescue, which was nice of him.

'I'll publish it,' he said, having very recently received a John Bull printing set for Christmas, 'but you'll need to give me a title, just something provisional which I can use when discussing funding with my many, many shareholders.'

I'd never really liked The Empty Days, and Against Nature just seemed to suggest itself out of the blue. The more I thought about it, the more I realised it was a perfect fit for the major themes of the novel. A few days later I realised that someone or other had already written a similarly named book of which I must surely have been aware on some subconscious level; and thusly did I hunt it down, reasoning that if I was going to nab his title, I might at least do Huysmans the courtesy of reading his version, even if only because such a course might prove useful in regard to my own efforts; and it was useful, not least because - aside from anything - Huysmans' Against Nature additionally carried certain themes in common with Sartre's Nausea, to which I was also alluding in certain sections of my own narrative, albeit mainly for the sake of general flavour.

Nausea is the story of a man experiencing revulsion at the conditions of his own existence, which is likewise the principal motivation of Jean Des Esseintes in Huysmans' novel. Huysmans seems to have been reasonably well established as a novelist in the Realist tradition when he published À Rebours, which in my general ignorance I presume to have paralleled related developments in the painting of the time, namely Gustave Courbet rejecting the romanticised portraiture of cherry-lipped toffs surrounded by cherubs in favour of regular working people with a bit of texture and very little in the way of sentiment. I gather that Huysmans may have tired of the possibly somewhat reductionist tendencies of his art, just as Des Esseintes' tastes become ever more rarified and refined, moving ever further from the mainstream.

He felt irritable and ill at ease; exasperated by the triviality of the ideas normally bandied about, he came to resemble those people mentioned by Nicole who are sensitive to anything and everything. He was constantly coming across some new source of offence, wincing at the patriotic or political twaddle served up in the papers every morning, and exaggerating the importance of the triumphs which an omnipotent public reserves at all times and in all circumstances for works written without thought or style.

Already he had begun dreaming of a refined Thebaid, a desert hermitage equipped with all modern conveniences, a snugly heated ark on dry land which he might take refuge from the incessant deluge of human stupidity.

So he shuts himself off from the world, dedicating his time to study of those few arts still apparently worthy of his attention and immersing himself in the artificial, seeking to fashion a new kind of human environment through stimulation of the senses. This is roughly where the title comes in, this being - I suppose - a pilgrimage against the natural, although it might also be taken to imply the spirit of opposition for its own sake, depending on where you are in the book.

After all, to take what among all her works is considered to be the most exquisite, what among all her creations is deemed to possess the most perfect and original beauty - to wit, woman - has not man for his part, by his own efforts, produced an animate yet artificial creature that is every bit as good from the point of view of plastic beauty? Does there exist, anywhere on this earth, a being conceived in the joys of fornication and born in the throes of motherhood who is more dazzling, more outstandingly beautiful than the two locomotives recently put into service on the Northern Railway?

There may be some use of comic effect here, but the passage nevertheless prefigures the Futurists and related Modernists singing their love of machinery; and as Des Esseintes furnishes his environment contrary to accepted standards of the time - particularly the garden - he specifically seems to foreshadow the Futurist Reconstruction of the Universe proposed by Giacomo Balla's 1915 manifesto of the same name. This may be significant given how heavily the Futurist tradition was rooted in that of Symbolism, both the artistic movement and as a general sensibility which Against Nature grasps with both hands, not least during extensive passages discussing the paintings of Moreau and Redon.

For much of his page count, Des Esseintes systematically works his way through nineteenth century culture - and any earlier culture considered of value in the nineteenth century - dividing what little wheat there is to be had from the great bulk of chaff. He goes through art, literature, philosophy, and religion finding each an endless source of disappointment, even ultimately tiring of what little he has left for himself at the end of the process - effectively painting himself into a corner, culturally speaking; and as he becomes further entrenched within his own isolation and increasing alienation, his health fails in concert. By the end of the novel, our boy is ingesting his meals by means of an enema in order to prevent further aggravating his already temperamental digestive system - which he of course regards as a triumph.

Des Esseintes could not help secretly congratulating himself on this experience which was, so to speak, the crowning achievement of the life he had planned for himself; his taste for the artificial had now, without even the slightest effort on his part, attained its supreme fulfilment. No one, he thought, would ever go any further; taking nourishment in this way was undoubtedly the ultimate deviation from the norm.

I suspect the reader may be forgiven a few chuckles at this juncture, and Huysmans does well to lay on the satire fairly thick at certain intervals without turning it all into caricature. Regrettably though, the prescribed course of enemas fails to improve the heath of our man who, at the end of the novel is commended by his doctor to return immediately to Paris and immerse himself in the ordinary and commonplace on peril of wasting away altogether.

I'm doubtless somewhat out of my depth here, but there's a lot going on in this one. Even without prefiguring Sartre's existential nausea and the fairly thorough mauling of nineteenth century arts, the narrative seems to present a warning against aesthetically - or possibly philosophically - cutting off one's own nose to spite one's face. Des Esseintes ends his great experiment driven back to that which initially so repelled him. It's dense but witty, and entirely lacking in anything resembling padding, and it greatly rewards repeated reading. I suspect there's a fair bit more to it than I've picked up on even this second time around; and should one feel so inclined, it probably wouldn't be such a leap of faith to find in Des Esseintes artificial world of scents and senses a precursor to Philip K. Dick's later psychologically artificial worlds - although I'm not sure how useful that would be unless you're Ridley bloody Scott.

Against Nature seems in many ways much, much greater than the sum of its parts, and it's a huge relief to realise that I've borrowed from a work of such distinct quality.

...and there's an interesting looking website dedicated to Huysmans and his writing here.

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