Against the Grain became the central document of the French Decadents, partly because its elaborate description of Des Esseintes’s tastes in art and literature established a frame of reference for Decadent writers and painters and partly because the characterization of Des Esseintes helps to define the Decadent sensibility. The novel instructs the acolytes of the movement in what to read, how to appreciate what they read, and how to pass cynical judgment on the affairs of a world that they are fully entitled to despise. It sends people forth in search of new ways to experience the world, and it offers philosophical arguments to justify all manner of self-indulgent fetishisms. Its most attentive readers were doubtless careful to bear in mind that the whole thing is a joke, but it must be admitted that not everyone noticed that.
In the beginning of the story, Des Esseintes gives up the kinds of activity that most people think of as decadent. He abandons all his mistresses and concludes his experiments in unnatural passion. His experiments with drugs never really go far, because drug-taking only makes him vomit. His one desire is to seek solace in well-furnished isolation. He isolates himself in carefully designed luxury, like a castaway on an island infinitely better in its equipment than that on which Robinson Crusoe found himself. Incidentally, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the champion of the essential goodness of nature and the human spirit, to whose ideas Huysmans and the Decadents were diametrically opposed, recommended Robinson Crusoe (1719) as the only book that a boy needed by way of education.
It is important to notice that Des Esseintes does not see this process of careful isolation as an abandonment of human relationships. He craves contact with the minds of men, as others do, but he desires to refine that contact into a peculiar kind of perfection by restricting his contact to the works of art that are the finest product of human endeavor and the best medium of human communication.
Unlike many who retreat from society, Des Esseintes is not intent upon private communion with God or nature. He acknowledges the contribution made by nature to the hothouse flowers and perfumes of which he is a connoisseur, but insists that they are...
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