Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 884

Down There is more a debate than a novel. In his most famous work, À rebours(1884; Against the Grain, 1922), Joris-Karl Huysmans took a flirtatious delight in overturning all conventional evaluations of morality and art in his description of the reclusive Jean Des Esseintes’s attempts to live a perfectly decadent life. Durtal is by no means as ambitious a protagonist, and his flirtation with Satanism and Madame Chantelouve is distinctly half-hearted. If Madame Chantelouve is a vampiric succubus—as Durtal briefly suspects—she is not a very effective one.

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That is, in the end, the worst charge Durtal brings against Satanism: not that it is evil, but merely that it is inefficient. Its inefficiency is revealed not so much by the fact that Dr. Johannès triumphs over Canon Docre in the war for Gévingey’s soul, but by the fact that the visions of grandeur and exoticism that Satanism offers prove in the end to be tawdry. When Durtal finally gets to see the black mass, he finds it sadly lacking in esthetic excitement as well as demoniac power; it is not sufficiently impressive to impose itself upon him, and its failure dispels the illusion that briefly binds him to Madame Chantelouve.

Down There was researched as conscientiously by Huysmans as its imaginary biography of Gilles de Rais was by Durtal, and many commentators have regarded the novel as a roman à clef. Paris was full of occultists in Huysmans’s time; many of them are cited in the text. Most took their inspiration from the career of Eliphas Lévi (Alphonse Louis Constant), who successfully posed as a practitioner of the occult arts a generation before. The most famous of these would-be magi was Joséphin Péladan, whose Rosicrucian lodge was loudly advertised in his prolific writings. His writings included a long series of novels railing against the decadence of the age and calling for its renewal by a syncretic faith whose architect he desired to be. That Huysmans ever saw an actual black mass is, however, doubtful; Satanism was then, as it is now and always has been, much more a product of lurid fantasies than the active practices of the unholy.

In all probability, the dull truth of the matter is that Gilles de Rais was innocent of all the charges brought against him. Like other victims of famous sorcery trials, he was framed by his enemies, who used the same vicious slanders to discredit and destroy him as the English earlier used to discredit and destroy his companion-in-arms, Joan of Arc. Gilles de Rais’s trial was a domestic affair, however, and later generations of the French were content to let his conviction stand so that the Church might use it as a terrible example to those who faltered in the faith. The success of Down There as a scary story is an ironic testament to the power of the terrorism of the imagination that killed Gilles de Rais.

It is significant that the flights of fancy on which Durtal and his two friends continually embark are forever being brought down to earth by the kindly attentions of Madame Carhaix, who is always bustling around with supplies of good hot food. She, rather than the devout bell ringer, is the novel’s paragon of common sense and virtue. Her unobtrusive presence is testimony to the fact that Huysmans never lost touch with reality while he was in pursuit of his obsession of the moment.

The methodology of Durtal’s historical research is explicitly modeled on that of Jules Michelet, a historian who attempted to place himself imaginatively in the shoes of the people of past ages. Michelet wrote a book, La Sorcière (1862), about the witch hunts and sorcery trials of the Middle Ages in which he put himself into the shoes of accused witches so as to make them into heroic rebels against the tyranny of an autocratic and misogynist Church. These witches elevated their folk medicine into a kind of Satanism in an expression of ideological resistance. Michelet’s book thus became the parent of all the modern scholarly fantasies that insist (falsely) that there was a witch cult, although it was misunderstood and misrepresented by the Church. Durtal’s conclusion that Gilles de Rais was eventually driven to madness and remorse by the knowledge that there were no further depths of evil to be plumbed is a fantasy similar to Michelet’s, arising from the error of putting a thoroughly modern decadent consciousness into a situation in which it does not belong.

The historical aspects of Down There are questionable, but it was not written as history, however, and ought not to be condemned on that account. As a philosophical novel debating the status and worth of religious faith in the decadent Paris of the 1890’s, it is fascinating. It explores extremes of hypothetical faith and possible feeling hitherto untreated with such scrupulousness. As a record of Satanism it is completely unreliable, but it remains a remarkably intense examination of the possible utility of Satanism as creed and ritual. Its conclusion—that Satanism can never be anything but a hollow sham, incapable of delivering any kind of aesthetic or material gratification—is surely secure, no matter how convoluted the argument that led Durtal to its achievement.

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