Adam Moritz


Against Nature
Book Review

To say that Against Nature by Joris-Karl Huysmans is a singular novel would be an understatement. It bears the form of the conventional novel like a serial killer wearing their victim’s dismembered face. In this sense it can be deeply unsettling. The book is a chronicling of one weird, rich, sickly French man’s various obsessions and indulgences. It ranges from a chapter describing Des Esseintes’ journey finding the perfect paint color for his study and weighing the principles of color theory against the way the hue changes when viewed under candlelight, to one on the dense lineages of Latin authors. As this was my second go around with the book (I “read” it as part of a French art history class in college), I knew what I was getting myself into, but reading this book again revealed how much my own aesthetic sensibilities have developed since the first read.

    In reading this book a second time, I almost envied Des Eissentes and his life away from the world. The way he could spend seemingly infinite money and time on his various artistic indulgences seemed idyllic, almost Utopian. His obsessions come from a wholly anti-utilitarian place, leaning much more on the sensory and the mystical than the practical or tactical; in a chapter dedicated to analyzing the painting “Salome” by fellow Decadent Gustave Moreau, Des Eissentes bleeds into rapture: “And, deep in reverie, he sought to understand the origins of this great artist, of this pagan mystic, of this Illuminatus who could sufficiently disassociate himself from the world to see blazing gloriously, in the very heart of Paris, the cruel visions and magical apotheoses of an earlier age.”  It is upon these magical apotheoses of earlier ages that Against Nature rests, and where a part of me wants to live. There’s an undeniable desire for that reclusive life, being constantly on the cusp of euphoria.  

    But for all its glamor, Des Eissentes’ life is equally grotesque. His all-consuming dedication to living an aesthetic life is only made possible by a variety of servants who “were accustomed to the caring for the sick, to the regular, hourly dispensing of doses and draughts and tisanes, to the unvarying silence of the cloistered monk who lives without communication to the outside world.” As his health declines in the latter half of the book, he  becomes even more pitiable, his pompous aesthetic tastes leading eventually to such bodily distress that he receives doctor’s orders to return to society. For Des Eissentes, this is a fate worse than death.

    There is this idea that art exists in a plane above the messiness of real life, that it represents some sort of transcendence beyond our own meager humanity. Des Eissentes’ is the literary representation of this ideal, condemning nature and “real” life in pursuit of beauty.  I’m certainly guilty of this, too. In compartmentalizing of my work and my creative lives, I’ve attempted to separate my psyche into the part that is analytical from the one that is aesthetic. Even within my own subconscious, I have ascribed to the belief that art happens in an altogether different place than life. For Des Eissentes, this divide was so great that he felt that he must leave society, but he failed, and I am increasingly convinced that this failure is quite meaningfu.

    Huysmans, despite an obvious deep love for the subjects Des Eissentes loves, cannot help but condemn his protagonist’s pursuit of pure art. The most beautiful, transcendent art only reaches such heights because it is built on the scaffolding of life. Fiction is a perfect example of this: the absolute best fiction, at least to me, is that which makes the reader feel tingly with aliveness. Literature is the primary way of proposing fundamental questions about life, and by definition must be imbued with a certain wisdom of lived experience. The perceived dichotomy between reality and art does not exist, no matter how much I or Des Eissentes want to believe it. To make and appreciate great art, you must go into the world and live.