Monday, July 14, 2008
by JK Huysmans
In his essay, “The Outsider’s Outsider,” horror novelist and scholar Thomas Ligotti defines a clear distinction between two fundamentally different classes of writer. He admits, with no hesitation, that “the literary world may be divided into two strikingly unequal groups: the insiders and the outsiders.” Ligotti expresses a profound pessimism and he proudly identifies himself as an outsider, who “…will not sign on to the programs of progress or lift a finger to sustain the status quo.” That is, the current way of things is pretty bad, and the future doesn’t look too good either. Ligotti is severe while assessing who qualifies as “in” and who is “out.” My friend Mike was saying that perhaps Ligotti goes too far, and that definitely may be the case. Even Samuel Beckett is taken to task, since his “…Malone may die, but the slogan for which the Irish genius is best known is ‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on.’ Going on is the theme of Beckett’s novels and plays, and his characters manage to do it rather well.” Beckett’s outlook is far too optimistic for Ligotti. Going on in such a manner is out of step with Ligotti, just as he is himself out of step with the world at large. Much of Ligotti’s aesthetic of pessimism Ligotti finds its forebear in the French novelist, JK Huysmans.
Who is Huysmans? A writer acknowledged in his own time, Huysmans almost consciously placed himself apart from the mainstream of literary attention, choosing instead a much more esoteric path. This has given Huysmans a secure place in literary history, he is not in danger of falling into obscurity, but it has also kept him just off to the side of a general audience. His early novels, such as “Marthe” and “Les Souers Vatard,” display a bleak naturalism that, despite their severity, found favor with writers like Emile Zola and Gustav Flaubert. Starting with “A rebours” and continuing on to “La-Bas,” Huysmans took either a curious side-step, or a logical progression. He developed his already idiosyncratic and rich style to an even greater degree. His novels became by and large unfettered from their narrative, spending inordinate time in internal meditation and phantasmagoria. These novels both epitomized fin de siecle decadence, as well as standing sharply apart from it. They serve as the antithesis of sorts to Flaubert’s brand of narrative propulsion, in which even description and detail adds to the greater dynamic of the narrative. In “A rebours” and continuing through to “La-Bas,” if to a lesser degree, the majority of the content occurs in just such stasis. A good deal of “La-Bas” either takes place in the dining chamber of the bell-ringer Carhaix, or is taken up in excerpts from the protagonist, Durtal’s, notes concerning the Satanist and sodomist, the Gilles de Rais.
Who is Durtal? He is a cynical and misanthropic avatar for Huysmans, but he isn’t the first. As early as Cyprien Tibaille in “Les Soeurs Vatard,” Huysmans had been inserting caustic and pessimistic aesthetes in his novels to serve as a mouthpiece for his personal opinions. Des Esseintes of ‘A Rebours’ is himself a complicated Huysmans avatar, as the writer uses him to both voice and then lampoon his own opinions. Durtal is in many ways the typical Huysmans avatar. Looking over the manuscript notes on the Gilles de Rais piling up in his apartment, he thinks “…it’s good to be here, out of the world and above the limits of time. To live in another age, never read a newspaper, not even know that the theatres exist…and forget the grocer on the corner…” Durtal is not only against his own times in general, but he is against the modern world, against modernity, in the particular. It is important that Durtal mentions his antipathy towards the newspaper, just as he later ridicules the vulgarity of poster advertisements. These are the clear signs of an encroaching modern world.
The novel even ends in a manner similar to ‘A Rebours.’ The earlier book closes with a mad premonition of the rise of the bourgeois and the death of the idiosyncratic and entitled aristocrat. Des Esseintes cries out and moans that “....to think that all this is not a dream! to think that I am about to go back into the degraded and slavish mob of the century.” If only he did not have to awake from his reverie of history and the distant past, he would be happy.
The harbinger of modernity in “La-Bas” is not the middle class, but democracy. The recitation of a religious chant from the Middle Age (in high Latin none the less) is interrupted at the close of the novel by a cheer of “Hurrah for Boulanger,” the victorious candidate in France’s democratic elections. This cry pierces the sanctuary of Carhaix’s dining chamber, which has served up to this point as a refuge from modernity for Durtal and his associates, such as the misanthrope Des Hermies (himself another Huysmans avatar!) and the astrologer Gevingey. Des Esseintes is not able to hide from modernity in his chateau at Fontenay, just as the characters in “La-Bas” are not even able to escape to a dilapidated bell-tower in the old style. Progress lumbers forward.
Yes, Durtal shares traits with previous Huysmans avatars such as Des Esseintes. But, he differs in his personal struggle with Catholicism, which Huysmans himself would convert to in a few years. Durtal’s attraction to Catholicism is at first piqued by “…his disgust for everyday life…” because while “…religion was without foundation it was also without limit and promised a complete escape from earth into dizzy, unexplored altitudes.” The modern world offers solutions, explanations to all of life’s mysteries, and Durtal is drawn, more than anything, to ambiguity and the inconclusive. At the start of the novel, Durtal ponders “how often before now had he halted on the threshold of Catholicism, sounding himself thoroughly and finding always that he had no faith.” The three main novels of his late period, “En route,” “La cathedrale,” and “L’Oblat” would continue to follow Durtal from conversion into Catholicism to his entry as an oblate in a monastery.
This story of a conversion from “sin” to “sainthood” sounds like it makes enough sense, even if it is a bit trite. But wait, it isn’t so clear-cut, and that is where Huysmans continues to intrigue, where he could potentially have lapsed into blandness, because it is the Gilles de Rais, murderer, rapist and Satanist, who stands at the very gate of Durtal’s conversion. The entirety of Durtal’s spiritual experience is laid upon a foundation of pedantry and sadism. Gilles de Rais, otherwise known as Bluebeard, is in many ways the exemplary Christian for Huysmans. He fully represents the dualistic Manichaeism that, as much as Catholicism, provides a philosophical base for Huysmans. The gibbeting and rape of the Gilles de Rais illustrates one side of a totality, the hermetical “As above, so below.” Des Hermies reminds Durtal that “…Satanism is also a phase of religion…” It is only through the demonology of Bluebeard, and the witnessing of a true black mass, that Durtal is finally able to enter into a greater spirituality.
Durtal’s awakening spiritualism is different from the Spiritism of séances and ectoplasm so in vogue amongst trendy turn-of–the-century European social circles. Spiritism has “brought about in the extranatural a revolution similar to that which was effected in the terrestrial order in France in 1789. It has democratized evocation and opened a whole new vista.” Durtal’s spirituality on the other had, his awakening Catholicism, is that of another age, that of irrationalists and saints who bath only in their tears and suck the filthy wounds of the bereaved as evidence of their humility. It is important to notice that in Huysmans’ next novel, “En route,” Durtal is sent away to a Trappist monastery to continue his conversion – not into the stream of modern life, but away from it.
As contradictory and absurd an idea as a fraternity of the alienated may be, it is undeniable that a definite literature of pessimism and disenfranchisement does indeed exist, and that it contains as much of a larger context as any other literature. Huysmans, particularly the Huysmans of “A rebours” and “La-Bas” remains an important signpost for those who refuse to belong to this, or belong to that, but instead remain apart. I don’t know just how interesting or worthwhile Huysmans post-conversion novels are; I haven’t read them. Yes, Huysmans sets up a pessimistic Catholicism very well in “La-Bas,” but I would need to read further to see exactly how it plays out.
* The version I read was the Dover edition of the 1928 translation by Keene Wallace and NOT the sharp-looking Dedalus translation by Brendan King that is above shown.