By Joris-Karl Huysmans, Patrick McGuinness
The hero of this curious novel is des Esseintes, a neurasthenic aristocrat who has became his again at the vulgarity of recent existence and retreated to an remoted nation villa. right here, followed basically through a few silent servants, he pursues his obsessions with unique plants, infrequent gemstones, and complicated perfumes and embarks on a chain of more and more unusual aesthetic experiments, beginning with the choice to offer his mammoth puppy tortoise a jewel-encrusted shell...
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Additional resources for Against Nature (Penguin Classics)
But there was also a malaise more difficult to pin down: a sense that everything had been done, said, written, felt. As Des Esseintes muses reading Baudelaire, the late nineteenth century’s was a ‘mind that ha[d] reached the October of its sensations’. Yet there was something wilfully self-dramatizing about all these decadent attitudes – after all, the nineteenth century had known extraordinary technological, political and scientific advances, and all of these had happened at breathtaking pace.
Not for him the rounded education, the balanced mind and healthy body. His tastes are for the quirky, the difficult, the outrageous. He savours the Latin Decadents, he enjoys the sense of the language losing its clarity, becoming complex and strange, ‘a pagan tongue as it decomposed like venison, dropping to pieces’. Des Esseintes is also impotent, and, like his creator, a misogynist. 18 Des Esseintes has sought ever richer, more dazzling and dangerous pleasures; ever more eccentric, artificial or stage-managed sexual encounters – his literary and artistic tastes are exclusive and his sexual tastes eclectic.
Perhaps the belief that there was nothing new was itself a necessary prelude to creating the new. This is one of the great paradoxes of the late nineteenth century: that these contradictory views – of decadence and renewal, beginnings and ends, exhaustion and innovation – could be held simultaneously and often by the same people. One of the great formative novels of French Romanticism, Chateaubriand’s René (1802), had helped define what came to be called the ‘sickness of the century’ (mal du siècle) felt by the rootless, aimless, self-indulgent aristocrats in a world which seemed not to need them.