Against Nature

This is a piece I wrote for the current issue of Five Dials magazine about ‘decadence, dandyism and debauchery’. 

Judged by most standards of polite behaviour, Duc Jean Floressas des Esseintes, protagonist of J.-K Huysmans’ 1884 novel A Rebours or Against Nature, falls somewhat short. Huysmans makes the case early on for his anti-hero being one of the less clubbable of men when des Esseintes is said to ‘realize that the world is made up mostly of fools and scoundrels.’ Although he allows himself the odd moment of fun – ‘unnatural love affairs and perverse pleasures’ – it is not long until he hides himself away in a lavishly decorated villa on the outskirts of Paris, making sure that he was ‘guarding against hankering for human society, any nostalgic regrets.’ And that, which concludes the novel’s prologue, is more or less it for plot. If you’re looking for incident, stick with War and Peace. Plenty of both there.

If analysed from a literary perspective, Huysmans’ novel is simultaneously beguiling and hugely frustrating. Beguiling, because in its otherworldly marriage of naturalistic description and surreal incident, it summons up a world quite different to virtually any that had been seen in literature before. And hugely frustrating, because it tantalises the reader with the thought that, had the likes of Joyce and Eliot been born 20 years earlier, they would have read Huysmans and taken the whole concept of modernism in an entirely different direction. Eliot’s Prufrock might seek to assert his necktie rich and modest with a simple pin, but des Esseintes has beaten him to it by wearing ‘suits of white velvet with gold-laced waistcoats’ and ‘by sticking a bunch of Parma violets in his shirt-front in lieu of a cravat’. Yet, like Prufrock, he is unimpressive of appearance; he is ‘anaemic and highly strung’, with ‘hollow cheeks’ and the lingering remnants of childhood illness.

From such unprepossessing beginnings comes one of the greatest examples of the literary decadent and dandy. The great dandy should feature some, and preferably all, of the following examples of unusual behaviour:

1)      Unusual, flamboyant and eccentric dress sense.

2)      A healthy contempt for the universe, whether religion or his fellow man.

3)      An exceptional intelligence, often not academic but made up of a fierce desire to question society’s norms and values and hold in contempt what others hold sacred.

4)      An affinity for the perverse in all its forms.

5)      A self-destructive side that will ensure a youthful death.

6)      A fierce loyalty to a few people and ideas, ranging from the trivial to the profound.

Des Esseintes scores highly on this scale; the last doesn’t apply at all, given his essential nihilism, and arguably the fourth is less relevant after his youthful debauchery, but the crucial mix of personal vanity and contempt for the universe is here in spades. He doesn’t score as high as Lord Rochester, for whom all the above apply, but it’s hard not to see Huysmans looking at such noted French decadents as Edmond de Goncourt (who had, one imagines in the voice of Withnail and I’s Uncle Monty – we shall return to him – instructed Huysmans to only be interested in ‘cultured beings and exquisite things) and, especially, Baudelaire, from whose work the title and central philosophical conceits of the novel are taken. Like Les Fleurs du Mal, Against Nature is essentially a sensual book where impression and surface are all, where the gaudy pleasures of rich and almost cloying language wash over the reader, for whom resistance against the sybaritic excess can only be futile.

Des Esseintes proudly describes himself as a Pessimist, not in the sense of a miserable bugger shrugging but in something closer to Schopenhauer, with the clear-sighted vision that you can only be saved from utter disillusionment with the world if you never expect anything from it in the first place. Perhaps ironically, he shares this with Larkin, the ultimate miserable bugger poet of the twentieth century. When Larkin writes in ‘Aubade’ of religion, ‘that vast moth-eaten brocade created to pretend we never die’, or sneers in ‘Vers de Societe’ of how ‘the big wish/Is to have people nice to you, which means/Doing it back somehow/Virtue is social’, one sees how clearly the strain of intelligent cynicism that Huysmans is espousing stretched into the literature of the next century. Perhaps tellingly, in 1884 the significant literary developments – Tolstoy’s publication of The Death Of Ivan Ilyich, the first staging of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck and Engels’ The Origin Of The Family, Private Property and the State, as well as the publication of Against Nature – were all taking place outside the English language.

Which is not to say that the literate English-speaking audience weren’t taking note of this extraordinary book.  Whistler went out and bought several copies on the day it was published, telling all and sundry who would listen that it was a work of timeless genius. One of those who didn’t tell him to go and copulate with goats was Wilde, for whom Against Nature was a key text.  He announced that ‘the heavy odour of incense seemed to cling about its pages and to trouble the brain’, and makes veiled but extensive reference to it in The Portrait Of Dorian Gray, referring to it as ‘the strangest book that he had ever read‘, going on to comment that ‘it seemed to him that in exquisite raiment, and to the delicate sound of flutes, the sins of the world were passing in dumb show before him.’ It would have been clear to any of Wilde’s circle which novel he was referring to, something that he discussed avidly with correspondents and, more reluctantly, at his trial. Yet there is a crucial exchange between Dorian and his Wildean mentor Lord Henry Wootton, which sums up the book’s extraordinarily complex appeal:

‘I am so sorry, Harry’, Dorian cried, ‘but really it is entirely your fault. That book you sent me so fascinated me that I forgot how the time was going.’

‘Yes: I thought you would like it’, replied his host, rising from his chair.

‘I didn’t say I liked it Harry. I said it fascinated me. There is a great difference.’

‘Ah, you have discovered that?’ murmured Lord Henry.

Against Nature is not a likeable or particularly enjoyable book. It has no plot to speak of, no sympathetic characters or even many notable events. What it does do is to exert a weirdly woozy hypnotic fascination, somewhat akin to smoking a huge amount of opium in some lavishly upholstered velvet-draped boudoir and half-listening to some rambling yet utterly compelling story, told by an adventurer.

The book’s most influential appearance in the 20th century was possibly in Bruce Robinson’s seminal film Withnail and I. While the book itself only appears once (as Marwood prepares to pack and leave the decadent life he has been embroiled in behind), its influence is clear throughout the film. The two protagonists of the film lead a similarly debauched life to Des Esseintes, although their existence is less one of gilded luxury and sumptuous furnishings as it is drug-fuelled paranoia and hysterical squalor. Yet there is the same sense of Withnail, in particular, being as much a man out of time and place as Des Esseintes, with his arch, Byronic hero-meets-Dickensian grotesque persona reinforcing the sense of a misanthrope who simultaneously loathes and is misunderstood by society. And of course, the character of Uncle Monty represents nobody so much as the decadent outcast with charm, money and lechery in equal measure, simultaneously discoursing on the finer points of Baudelaire and attempting to rape Marwood.

At the end of the film, Withnail is left alone, doomed to recite Hamlet’s ‘I have of late, wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth’ soliloquy to a group of uninterested wolves in Regent’s Park. This is the unifying factor between dandies, decadents and debauchees, the certain knowledge that they are doomed, and that, like Eliot’s Gerontion, they will stiffen in a rented room before their time. Whether it is Rochester dying at 33 of his alcoholism, coupled with syphilis and the all-encompassing ‘the pox’, Sebastian Horsley’s heroin overdose or Julian Maclaren-Ross finally succumbing to poverty and despair, it is a sad but essential aspect of the dandy that their life and career should eventually end in a tragic end.

Des Esseintes does not expire at the end of Against Nature. For Huysmans, one feels, this would be all too straightforward an ending. Instead, he, like Withnail, is condemned to a fate rather worse than death, as his iconoclastic lifestyle leads to a descent into ill health. At first, he appears to have achieved his crowning achievement by taking no other food or nourishment than a peptone enema three times a day, but the cruel irony is yet to come, when his doctor (‘who was imbued with all the prejudices of a man of the world’) informs him that, in order to recover his strength, he must ‘abandon this solitary existence, to go back to Paris, to lead a normal life again, above all to try and enjoy the same pleasures as other people.’

This strict edict – that the dandy and decadent must come to ignore their own inclinations and tastes in favour of embracing organised fun, the safe, everyday excitements and distractions that are considered acceptable for the average person – is society taking its revenge, a more refined and long-lasting revenge than simply allowing the dandy to die. Des Esseintes might retort, as any dandy would, ‘But I just don’t enjoy the pleasures other people enjoy’, but it is no good. The book ends with true tragedy, as he realises that ‘like a tide-race, the waves of human mediocrity are rising to the heavens and will engulf this refuge’. The dandy will seek refuge, spiritual and physical, in trying to escape these waves of mediocrity, but a flesh and blood human is no match for the inexorable tide of uncaring, implacable destiny. Yet their words, and lives, serve as an example to the rest of us. Whether it’s Wilde, Rochester, Des Esseintes, Byron or anyone else, their willingness to stand outside society and condemn banality serves as far more inspirational than any prurient account of simple carnal pleasures. For ultimately, dandyism must stem from one man, a man who had the courage to stand up in a rulebound, restrictive and cruel society and, armed with little more than faith and certainty, could declare that he was the way, the truth and the life. Those who follow in the footsteps of such men will never truly be alone.


One Response to “Against Nature”

  1. spot on m8..had everything, that wasn’t nailed down, one hand is on your purse, while the other is running up the inside leg of your lady-wife..hahaHa

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