Closely arrayed, side by side, in the old frames which their broad shoulders filled, they startled one with the fixed gaze of their eyes, their fierce moustaches and the chests whose deep curves filled the enormous shells of their cuirasses. These were the ancestors. There were no portraits of their descendants and a wide breach existed in the series of the faces of this race. Only one painting served as a link to connect the past and present—a crafty, mysterious head with haggard and gaunt features, cheekbones punctuated with a comma of paint, the hair overspread with pearls, a painted neck rising stiffly from the fluted ruff. In this representation of one of the most intimate friends of the Duc d'Epernon and the Marquis d'O , the ravages of a sluggish and impoverished constitution were already noticeable. It was obvious that the decadence of this family had followed an unvarying course.
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Closely arrayed, side by side, in the old frames which their broad shoulders filled, they startled one with the fixed gaze of their eyes, their fierce moustaches and the chests whose deep curves filled the enormous shells of their cuirasses. These were the ancestors. There were no portraits of their descendants and a wide breach existed in the series of the faces of this race. Only one painting served as a link to connect the past and present—a crafty, mysterious head with haggard and gaunt features, cheekbones punctuated with a comma of paint, the hair overspread with pearls, a painted neck rising stiffly from the fluted ruff.
In this representation of one of the most intimate friends of the Duc d'Epernon and the Marquis d'O , the ravages of a sluggish and impoverished constitution were already noticeable. It was obvious that the decadence of this family had followed an unvarying course. The effemination of the males had continued with quickened tempo. As if to conclude the work of long years, the Des Esseintes had intermarried for two centuries, using up, in such consanguineous unions, such strength as remained.
There was only one living scion of this family which had once been so numerous that it had occupied all the territories of the Ile-de-France and La Brie. The Duc Jean was a slender, nervous young man of thirty, with hollow cheeks, cold, steel-blue eyes, a straight, thin nose and delicate hands. By a singular, atavistic reversion, the last descendant resembled the old grandsire, from whom he had inherited the pointed, remarkably fair beard and an ambiguous expression, at once weary and cunning.
His childhood had been an unhappy one. Menaced with scrofula and afflicted with relentless fevers, he yet succeeded in crossing the breakers of adolescence, thanks to fresh air and careful attention.
He grew stronger, overcame the languors of chlorosis and reached his full development. Des Esseintes was then seventeen years of age. He retained but a vague memory of his parents and felt neither affection nor gratitude for them. He hardly knew his father, who usually resided in Paris.
The husband and wife would meet on rare occasions, and he remembered those lifeless interviews when his parents sat face to face in front of a round table faintly lit by a lamp with a wide, low-hanging shade, for the duchesse could not endure light or sound without being seized with a fit of nervousness. A few, halting words would be exchanged between them in the gloom and then the indifferent duc would depart to meet the first train back to Paris.
Jean 's life at the Jesuit school, where he was sent to study, was more pleasant. At first the Fathers pampered the lad whose intelligence astonished them. But despite their efforts, they could not induce him to concentrate on studies requiring discipline. He nibbled at various books and was precociously brilliant in Latin.
On the contrary, he was absolutely incapable of construing two Greek words, showed no aptitude for living languages and promptly proved himself a dunce when obliged to master the elements of the sciences. His family gave him little heed. Sometimes his father visited him at school.
She scarcely noticed him; when she did, her gaze would rest on him for a moment with a sad smile—and that was all. The moment after she would again become absorbed in the artificial night with which the heavily curtained windows enshrouded the room.
The servants were old and dull. Left to himself, the boy delved into books on rainy days and roamed about the countryside on pleasant afternoons.
It was his supreme delight to wander down the little valley to Jutigny , a village planted at the foot of the hills, a tiny heap of cottages capped with thatch strewn with tufts of sengreen and clumps of moss. In the open fields, under the shadow of high ricks, he would lie, listening to the hollow splashing of the mills and inhaling the fresh breeze from Voulzie.
Sometimes he went as far as the peat-bogs, to the green and black hamlet of Longueville , or climbed wind-swept hillsides affording magnificent views. There, below to one side, as far as the eye could reach, lay the Seine valley, blending in the distance with the blue sky; high up, near the horizon, on the other side, rose the churches and tower of Provins which seemed to tremble in the golden dust of the air.
Immersed in solitude, he would dream or read far into the night. By protracted contemplation of the same thoughts, his mind grew sharp, his vague, undeveloped ideas took on form. After each vacation, Jean returned to his masters more reflective and headstrong. These changes did not escape them. Subtle and observant, accustomed by their profession to plumb souls to their depths, they were fully aware of his unresponsiveness to their teachings.
They knew that this student would never contribute to the glory of their order, and as his family was rich and apparently careless of his future, they soon renounced the idea of having him take up any of the professions their school offered. Although he willingly discussed with them those theological doctrines which intrigued his fancy by their subtleties and hair-splittings, they did not even think of training him for the religious orders, since, in spite of their efforts, his faith remained languid.
As a last resort, through prudence and fear of the harm he might effect, they permitted him to pursue whatever studies pleased him and to neglect the others, being loath to antagonize this bold and independent spirit by the quibblings of the lay school assistants.
Thus he lived in perfect contentment, scarcely feeling the parental yoke of the priests. But soon the time came when he must quit the Jesuit institution. He attained his majority and became master of his fortune. The Comte de Montchevrel , his cousin and guardian, placed in his hands the title to his wealth. There was no intimacy between them, for there was no possible point of contact between these two men, the one young, the other old.
Impelled by curiosity, idleness or politeness, Des Esseintes sometimes visited the Montchevrel family and spent some dull evenings in their Rue de la Chaise mansion where the ladies, old as antiquity itself, would gossip of quarterings of the noble arms, heraldic moons and anachronistic ceremonies. The men, gathered around whist tables, proved even more shallow and insignificant than the dowagers; these descendants of ancient, courageous knights, these last branches of feudal races, appeared to Des Esseintes as catarrhal, crazy, old men repeating inanities and time-worn phrases.
A fleur de lis seemed the sole imprint on the soft pap of their brains. The youth felt an unutterable pity for these mummies buried in their elaborate hypogeums of wainscoting and grotto work, for these tedious triflers whose eyes were forever turned towards a hazy Canaan, an imaginary Palestine. After a few visits with such relatives, he resolved never again to set foot in their homes, regardless of invitations or reproaches.
One group, educated like himself in religious institutions, preserved the special marks of this training. They attended religious services, received the sacrament on Easter, frequented the Catholic circles and concealed as criminal their amorous escapades. For the most part, they were unintelligent, acquiescent fops, stupid bores who had tried the patience of their professors. Yet these professors were pleased to have bestowed such docile, pious creatures upon society. Gay young men dazzled by operettas and races, they played lansquenet and baccarat, staked large fortunes on horses and cards, and cultivated all the pleasures enchanting to brainless fools.
After a year's experience, Des Esseintes felt an overpowering weariness of this company whose debaucheries seemed to him so unrefined, facile and indiscriminate without any ardent reactions or excitement of nerves and blood. He gradually forsook them to make the acquaintance of literary men, in whom he thought he might find more interest and feel more at ease.
This, too, proved disappointing; he was revolted by their rancorous and petty judgments, their conversation as obvious as a church door, their dreary discussions in which they judged the value of a book by the number of editions it had passed and by the profits acquired.
At the same time, he noticed that the free thinkers, the doctrinaires of the bourgeoisie, people who claimed every liberty that they might stifle the opinions of others, were greedy and shameless puritans whom, in education, he esteemed inferior to the corner shoemaker.
His contempt for humanity deepened. He reached the conclusion that the world, for the most part, was composed of scoundrels and imbeciles. Certainly, he could not hope to discover in others aspirations and aversions similar to his own, could not expect companionship with an intelligence exulting in a studious decrepitude, nor anticipate meeting a mind as keen as his among the writers and scholars. Irritated, ill at ease and offended by the poverty of ideas given and received, he became like those people described by Nicole —those who are always melancholy.
He would fly into a rage when he read the patriotic and social balderdash retailed daily in the newspapers, and would exaggerate the significance of the plaudits which a sovereign public always reserves for works deficient in ideas and style.
Already, he was dreaming of a refined solitude, a comfortable desert, a motionless ark in which to seek refuge from the unending deluge of human stupidity. A single passion, woman, might have curbed his contempt, but that, too, had palled on him. He had taken to carnal repasts with the eagerness of a crotchety man affected with a depraved appetite and given to sudden hungers, whose taste is quickly dulled and surfeited. Associating with country squires, he had taken part in their lavish suppers where, at dessert, tipsy women would unfasten their clothing and strike their heads against the tables; he had haunted the green rooms, loved actresses and singers, endured, in addition to the natural stupidity he had come to expect of women, the maddening vanity of female strolling players.
Finally, satiated and weary of this monotonous extravagance and the sameness of their caresses, he had plunged into the foul depths, hoping by the contrast of squalid misery to revive his desires and stimulate his deadened senses. Whatever he attempted proved vain; an unconquerable ennui oppressed him. Yet he persisted in his excesses and returned to the perilous embraces of accomplished mistresses.
But his health failed, his nervous system collapsed, the back of his neck grew sensitive, his hand, still firm when it seized a heavy object, trembled when it held a tiny glass. The physicians whom he consulted frightened him. It was high time to check his excesses and renounce those pursuits which were dissipating his reserve of strength! For a while he was at peace, but his brain soon became over-excited.
Like those young girls who, in the grip of puberty, crave coarse and vile foods, he dreamed of and practiced perverse loves and pleasures. This was the end! As though satisfied with having exhausted everything, as though completely surrendering to fatigue, his senses fell into a lethargy and impotence threatened him.
He recovered, but he was lonely, tired, sobered, imploring an end to his life which the cowardice of his flesh prevented him from consummating. Once more he was toying with the idea of becoming a recluse, of living in some hushed retreat where the turmoil of life would be muffled—as in those streets covered with straw to prevent any sound from reaching invalids. It was time to make up his mind. The condition of his finances terrified him. He had spent, in acts of folly and in drinking bouts, the greater part of his patrimony, and the remainder, invested in land, produced a ridiculously small income.
He liquidated his other holdings, bought government bonds and in this way drew an annual interest of fifty thousand francs; in addition, he reserved a sum of money which he meant to use in buying and furnishing the house where he proposed to enjoy a perfect repose.
Exploring the suburbs of the capital, he found a place for sale at the top of Fontenay-aux-Roses , in a secluded section near the fort, far from any neighbors. His dream was realized! In this country place so little violated by Parisians, he could be certain of seclusion. The difficulty of reaching the place, due to an unreliable railroad passing by at the end of the town, and to the little street cars which came and went at irregular intervals, reassured him.
He could picture himself alone on the bluff, sufficiently far away to prevent the Parisian throngs from reaching him, and yet near enough to the capital to confirm him in his solitude. And he felt that in not entirely closing the way, there was a chance that he would not be assailed by a wish to return to society, seeing that it is only the impossible, the unachievable that arouses desire.
He put masons to work on the house he had acquired. Then, one day, informing no one of his plans, he quickly disposed of his old furniture, dismissed his servants, and left without giving the concierge any address. More than two months passed before Des Esseintes could bury himself in the silent repose of his Fontenay abode.
He was obliged to go to Paris again, to comb the city in his search for the things he wanted to buy. What care he took, what meditations he surrendered himself to, before turning over his house to the upholsterers!
He had long been a connoisseur in the sincerities and evasions of color-tones. In the days when he had entertained women at his home, he had created a boudoir where, amid daintily carved furniture of pale, Japanese camphor-wood, under a sort of pavillion of Indian rose-tinted satin, the flesh would color delicately in the borrowed lights of the silken hangings.
It was also translated into English as Against Nature. In both its style and its subject, the work epitomizes the decadence of late 19th-century French elite culture. The protagonist, Des Esseintes, exhibits the debilitating symptoms of neurasthenia, a generalized psychosomatic disorder that came into vogue during that period. Cloistered in luxury, Des Esseintes contrives a regimen of exquisite sensualism.
Against the Grain
Oscar Wilde declared that it was what inspired him to write The Picture of Dorian Gray and, though it remains unnamed, it is clearly recognizable as the yellow-bound book Dorian reads over and over again with unwavering admiration. Wilde was not the only one who saw a kindred spirit in Huysmans: Against the Grain is still considered the embodiment of the Decadent aesthetics. Yet at first glance it is rather difficult to see why this book should have exerted such a powerful fascination over its readers. Its hero, the thirty-year-old duke Jean des Esseintes, is sickly, neurotic, asocial, and misogynistic. Moreover, there is no plot whatsoever: des Esseintes, having given himself over to every conceivable form of debauchery in Paris, and still suffering from an incurable ennui , decides at the beginning of the novel to retire to a small house in the country outside Paris and live frugally, dedicating himself to purely aesthetic pursuits. At the end of the novel, after spending six months or so living as a recluse, his health deteriorates to such an extent that the doctor orders him to return to Paris.