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"After such a book, it only remains for the author to choose between the muzzle of a pistol and the foot of the cross"
on 15 February 2012
To understand and appreciate this book, which by its very nature seems to reject the reader, or perhaps to withdraw from the reader any semblance of the forms of contact and intimacy that are the usual business of one person writing and another person reading the words, is to accept that the process by which we come together in this case is ultimately bizarre. Huysmans rejected the naturalism of his compatriot Emile Zola and turned it on its head. Rather than drawing from human nature and seeking to understand humanity, Huysmans found his oeuvre with the paintings of Gustav Moreau and he was linked to the heady extremes of symbolist poetry by the likes of Mallarme and Moreas.
Against Nature displays a profound disgust for women as well as an effete sensibility that rejected `normality' and convention. Huysman's erudite encapsulations of Classical history and literature are marked by a strong sense of the privileged position he was able, by means of his wealth, to attain. This seam of extremism played itself out via the Symbolist movement and it (arguably) reached its peak in the poetry of Maeterlinck and in the art of (among others) Arnold Bocklin and Ferdinand Hodler. As such it is one of the strangest movements in the Modernist era, linking figures as various as Baudelaire and Edward Burne-Jones. The styles of the Symbolist painters varied considerably, but they shared many of the same themes particularly a fascination with the mystical and the visionary. The erotic, the perverse, death and debauchery were of particular interest for the Symbolists. The leading figures of the movement included the two French men, Odilon Redon and Paul Gauguin, but Symbolism was not limited to France with other practitioners including the Norwegian Edvard Munch, the Austrian Gustav Klimt and the British Aubrey Beardsley.
But what is the book about? A man, Des Essientes, drawn to silence, order and the exhaustion of the senses, tends his exotic plants, studies the classics, travels a little now and again, but always without learning anything of the places he visits or interacting with any of the people there. Other people are abhorrent, they don't understand his own tender sensibilities and therefore they are beneath his notice. He collects beautiful artefacts, gorgeous and expensive paper, for example. As Brendan King writes in the introduction to the new Dedalus edition: "In prioritising the elite over the popular, the singular over the general, and the unique and rare over objects of mass production, Against Nature stood against what Zola and many of the Naturalists considered to be the forces of progress." Des Essientes believed in a hierarchical society, with himself, preferably, at the top. Against Nature was his manifesto - weird, strange and polluted though it might be.