Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 884 words.)