Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 937
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 essentially products of human artifice. He loves the exotic because, for him, exoticism is the ultimate manifestation of human imagination and human artistry. His antipathy to the natural is reflected in antipathy to the realistic; he despises representative works of art, preferring those that attempt to transform and transcend ordinary experience. This is one reason why he retires from the company of human beings. In the flesh, people cannot rise above their essential ordinariness; their artwork offers something more.
The character of Des Esseintes is to some extent a caricature. Some of his tastes and mannerisms are borrowed, tongue-in-cheek, from the most famous of contemporary Parisian men-about-town, Count Robert de Montesquiou. Des Esseintes is also a fantastic self-projection of the author, and there is an unmistakable depth of feeling behind the calculatedly absurd mask. The character’s final decision to throw himself into the arms of the Church—not because its doctrines are true but rather because they are fantastic—anticipates the direction the author was to take in real life. Huysmans’s account of a man who ardently desires to do everything in stark opposition to the way things are conventionally done is based on his authentic and wholehearted rejection of the tyranny of normality.
Against the Grain never tries to deny that an uncompromisingly Decadent worldview cannot actually work as a practical, or better yet impractical, way of...
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living. Experiments in the building of private utopias are always doomed to failure. The narrative is content to insist that the Decadent’s view of life and art is clearer and more logical, aesthetically and morally, than anything that passes for common sense or orthodox faith. The pose that Des Esseintes adopts is not entirely sincere, and it contains a strong element of self-mockery, but its insincerity and irony are the velvet glove that overlies the iron determination of Des Esseintes’s condemnation of the world. The moral parables he derives by comparing barmaids with prostitutes, and by throwing crusts of bread to a mob of street urchins, have a sharp satirical bite.
The key to Des Esseintes’s entire enterprise is that he is sick, in body, mind, and heart. The treatment of his sickness eventually leads to the most absurd and most brutal of all his inversions of normality, when he begins to take his daily nourishment by enema. His doctor leaves him in no doubt that if he continues to nurture his sickness instead of trying to cure it, he will die. At this point, Des Esseintes capitulates to the tyranny of fate and gives up his experiment. He never surrenders the conviction, however, that his sickness allows him to step outside the world of the commonplace and look back at it objectively, thus giving him a clearer insight into the condition of the world than what is contained in the self-satisfied illusions of healthy, normal people.
Huysmans does not ask or expect his readers to sympathize with Des Esseintes or to accept his conclusions. The text is designed to provide a challenge rather than be a guidebook. It intends to make its readers take a step back from the moral and aesthetic judgments that they take for granted, and to wonder whether such judgments might profitably be inverted. Huysmans scrupulously leaves the verdict open and is careful never to forsake his sense of humor while summing up the evidence.