You have a lot of time to kill if you’re the only character in a novel. Take the Duke des Esseintes, for example, from J.-K. Huysmans’s Against Nature (1884). He spent his twenties as a wastrel in Paris, taking opium and hosting funeral-themed dinners for bored friends. But by middle age, his energy and ducal inheritance began running out.So as the story opens, he retreats to a small villa in Fontenay-aux-Roses, on the outskirts of the city, in order to pull himself together. This is a challenge, since he is neurasthenic and needs to feel difficult sensations simply to keep a mental balance. “I seek,” he says, “fresh perfumes, larger blossoms, pleasures as yet untried.” He hires two servants to take care of life’s mundane details and removes them to a system of specially built external corridors where they pass unseen and, in mandatory felt slippers, unheard. Once indoors, des Esseintes spends the novel in pursuit of a final thrill: creating an aesthetic domain so self-contained that it suggests a tomb.
He starts by ordering specialty items, including a damask cope from a defunct guild of weavers in Cologne, several blue fox pelts, and an aventurine-studded box containing “Pearls of the Pyrénées”—candied lozenges made of orchids and “female essence,” used to enhance his sexual memory. He also covers a live tortoise with a pattern of occidental turquoise and cymophanes. He then lets it roam around in the semidarkness to throw off glints of color, until it asphyxiates in a corner under the weight of the jewels.
Nature, he concludes, “has had her day.” So why bother imitating it? He disdains flowers made of taffeta or silk as naive (“cheap theatrics”), and fills his vestibule instead with a “tide” of live plants that in some way mimic human artifacts: the caladiums look like rusted stovepipes, the cibotium spectabile like monstrous, slightly gangrenous bishops’ croziers. Perfumes infuse the drawing room as a phantom layer of ornament. A self-taught expert in scents, des Esseintes “paints” the air by mixing myrtle water, coal-tar, and heliotrope into a series of olfactory scenes—derelict mill towns, Chinese meadows—that are as startlingly present in detail as they are perishable. He then does up the bedroom like a monk’s cell, to create a refuge from the sensory overload in the rest of the house. Though here, too, the decor gets a last (thin) laugh. The austere furnishings are made of luxury materials, and scuff marks from a penitent’s sandals are meticulously worked into the flooring.
Soon after Against Nature was published, it became known in Europe as “the bible of decadence”—decadence being, in this case, the late-nineteenth-century taste, across the arts, for the ornamental and doom-laden. Des Esseintes’s villa was the movement’s archetypal scene, where its tastes were first developed and probed.
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