j.k huysmans

Barbaric in its profusion, violent in its emphasis, wearying in its splendor, it is - especially in regard to things seen - extraordinarily expressive, with all the shades of a painter’s palette. Elaborately and deliberately perverse, it is in its very perversity that Huysmans’ work - so fascinating, so repellent, so instinctively artificial - comes to represent, as the work of no other writer can be said to do, the main tendencies, the chief results, of the Decadent movement in literature.

Arthur Symons, The Decadent Movement in Literature

Technically, a decadent style is only such in relation to a classic style. It is simply a further development of a classic style, a further specialization, the homogeneous, in Spencerian phraseology, having become heterogeneous. The first is beautiful because the parts are subordinated to the whole; the second is beautiful because the whole is subordinated to the parts. Among our own early prose writers Sir Thomas Browne represents the type of decadence in style. Swift’s prose is classic, Pater’s decadent. Hume and Gibbon are classic, Emerson and Carlyle decadent. Roman architecture is classic, to become in its Byzantine developments completely decadent, and St. Mark’s is the perfected type of decadence in art; pure early Gothic is classic in the highest degree, while later Gothic, grown weary of the commonplaces of structure, is again decadent.

In each case the earlier and classic manner -for the classic manner, being more closely related to the ends of utility, must always be earlier-subordinates the parts to the whole, and strives after those virtues which the whole may best express; the later manner depreciates the importance of the whole for the benefit of its parts, and strives after the virtues of individualism. All art is the rising and falling of the slopes of a rhythmic curve between these two classic and decadent extremes.

Decadence suggests to us going down, falling, decay. If we walk down a real hill we do not feel that we commit a more wicked act than when we walked up it. But if it is a figurative hill then we view Hell at the bottom. The word “corruption”-used in a precise and technical sense to indicate the breaking up of the whole for the benefit of its parts- serves also to indicate a period or manner of decadence in art. This makes confusion worse, for here the moralist feels that surely he is on safe ground. But as Nietzsche, with his usual acuteness in cutting at the root of vulgar prejudice, has well remarked (in “Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft”), even as regards what is called the period of “corruption” in the evolution of societies, we are apt to overlook the fact that the energy which in more primitive times marked the operations of the community as a whole has now simply been transferred to the individuals themselves, and this aggrandizement of the individual really produces an even greater amount of energy. The individual has gained more than the community has lost. An age of social decadence is not only the age of sinners and degenerates, but of saints and martyrs, and decadent Rome produced an Antoninus as well as a Heliogabalus.

Introduction to A Rebours, by Havelock Ellis

Three gems, and only three, he employed for this purpose,–Ceylon cat’s-eyes, cymophanes and sapphirines.

All three were stones that flashed with mysterious, incalculable sparkles, painfully drawn from the chill interior of their turbid substance,–the cat’s eye of a greenish grey, striped with concentric veins that seem to be endowed with motion, to stir and shift every instant according to the way the light falls; the cymophane with bluish waterings running across the milky hue that appears afloat within; the sapphirine that lights up blue, phosphorescent fires on a dull, chocolate-brown background.

The lapidary took careful notes and measures as to the exact places where the stones were to be let in. “And the edges of the shell?” he presently asked Des Esseintes.

The latter had thought at first of a border of opals and hydrophanes. But these stones, interesting as they are by their curious variations of colour and changes of sparkle, are too difficult and untrustworthy to deal with; the opal has a quite rheumatic sensitiveness, the play of its rays is entirely modified according to the degree of moisture, and of heat and cold, while the hydrophane has no fire, refuses to light up the grey glow of its furnace except in water, after it has been wetted.

Finally he settled on stones whose hues would supplement each other,–the hyacinth of Compostella, mahogany red; the aquamarine, sea green; the balass ruby, vinegar rose; the Sudermania ruby, pale slate-colour. Their comparatively feeble play of colours would suffice to light up the deadness of the dull, grey shell, while leaving its full value to the brilliant bouquet of jewelled blossoms which they framed in a slender garland of uncertain splendours.

—  Against the Grain, J.K Huysmans 
Confused cravings for a change of time and place spring up, which find their satisfaction in reflexion and reading. Instincts, sensations, preferences transmitted from his ancestors awake, grow more and more precise and govern his thoughts as masters. He recalls memories of persons and things he had never personally known, and there comes a time when he escapes impetuously from the prison-house of his century, and wanders forth, in freedom, in another epoch, with which, by a crowning piece of self-deception, he believes he would have been in better accord.
—  Against the Grain, J.K Huysmans 


Other times again, when despondency weighed heavy on his spirit, when on rainy Autumn days he felt a sick aversion for everything,-for the streets, for his own house, for the dingy mud-coloured sky, for the stony-looking clouds-, he would fly to this refuge, set the cricket’s cage swinging gently to and fro and watch its movement repeated ad infinitum in the surrounding mirrors, till at last his eyes would grow dazed and he seemed to see the cage itself at rest, but all the room tossing and turning, filling the whole apartment with a dizzy whirl of pink walls.
—  Against the Grain, J.K Huysmans

Des Esseintes studied, analyzed the soul of these fluids, expounded these texts; he took a delight, for his own personal satisfaction, in playing the part of psychologist, in unmounting and remounting the machinery of a work, in unscrewing the separate pieces forming the structure of a complex odour, and by long practice of this sort, his sense of smell had arrived at the certainty of an almost infallible touch.

Just as a wine-merchant knows the vintage by imbibing a single drop; as a hop-dealer, the instant he sniffs at a bag, can there and then name its precise quality and price; as a Chinese trader can declare at once the place of origin of the teas he examines, say on what farms of the Bohea mountains, in what Buddhist Monasteries, each specimen was grown, and the date at which its leaves were gathered, can state precisely the degree of heat used and the effect produced by its contact with plum blossom, with the Aglaia, with the Olea fragrans, with all or any of the perfumes employed to modify its flavour, to give it an added piquancy, to brighten up its rather dry savour with a whiff of fresh and alien flowers; even so could Des Esseintes, by the merest sniff at a scent, detail instantly the doses of its composition, explain the psychology of its blending; all but quote the name of the particular artist who wrote it and impressed on it, the personal mark of his style.

J.K Huymans, Against the Grain

At the date when “Against the Grain” was published, in 1884 that is to say, the state of things therefore was this: Naturalism was getting more and more out of breath by dint of turning the mill for  ever in the same round. The stock of observations that each writer had stored up by self-scrutiny or study of his neighbours was getting exhausted. Zola, who was a first-rate scene-painter, got out of the difficulty by designing big, bold canvases more or less true to life; he suggested fairly well the illusion of movement and action; his heroes were devoid of soul, governed simply and solely by impulses and instincts, which greatly simplified the work of analysis. They moved about, carried out sundry summary activities, peopled the scene with tolerably convincing sketches of lay-figures that became the principal characters of his dramas. In this fashion he celebrated the Central Markets, and the big stores of Paris, the railways and mines of the country at large; and the human beings wandering lost amid these surroundings played no more than the part of utility men and supers therein. But Zola was Zola–an artist a trifle ponderous, but endowed with powerful lungs and massive fists. 

The rest of us, less robust and concerned about a more subtle method and a truer art, were constrained to ask ourselves the question whether Naturalism was not marching up a blind alley and if we were not bound soon to knock up against an impassable wall.

To tell the truth, these reflections did not actually occur to me till much later. I was striving in vain to escape from a cul-de-sac in which I was suffocating, but I had no settled plan, and “Against the Grain,” which, by letting in fresh air, let me get away from a literature that had no door of escape, is a purely unpremeditated work, imagined without any preconceived ideas, without definite ntentions for the future, without any predetermined plan whatever.

It had appeared to me at first in the light of a brief fantasy, under the form of an extravagant tale; I saw in it something like a pendant to A vau-l'eau transferred into another milieu; I pictured to myself a Monsieur Folantin, more cultured, more refined, more wealthy and who has discovered in artificiality a relief from the disgust inspired by the worries of life and the American habits of his time; I outlined him winging a swift flight to the land of dreams, seeking refuge in the illusion of extravagant fancies, living alone and aloof, remote from his own country, amid the association called up by memory of more cordial epochs, and less villainous surroundings. The more I pondered over it, the more the subject grew and the more it seemed to demand long and patient researches. Each chapter became the extract of a speciality, the sublimate of a different art; I found it condensing into a “meat essence” of precious stones, of perfumes, of flowers, of literature religious and lay, of profane music and plain-song.

(Part Of The) Preface - Written 20 Years After The Novel

J.K Huysmans, Against the Grain