À rebours (1884)
by J. K. Huysmans
Some pleasant passages from Joris Karl Huysmans re: attempted escape from civilization...
Already he had begun dreaming of a refined Thebaid, a desert hermitage equipped with all modern conveniences, a snugly heated ark on dry land in which he might take refuge from the incessant deluge of human stupidity.
He scoured the suburbs of Paris and eventually discovered a villa for sale on the hillside above Fontenay-aux-Roses, standing in a lonely spot close to the Fort and far from all neighbours. This was the answer to his dreams, for in this district which had so far remined unspoilt from rampaging Parisians, he would be safe from molestation: the wretched state of communications, barely maintained by a comical railway at the far end of the town and a few little trams which came and went as they pleased, reassured him on this point. Thinking of the new existence he was going to fashion for himself, he felt a glow of pleasure at the idea that here he would be too far out for the tidal wave of Parisian life to reach him, and yet near enough for the proximity of the capital to strengthen him in his solitude. For, since a man has only to know he cannot get to a certain spot to be seized with a desire to go there, by not entirely barring the way back he was guarding against any hankering after human society, any nostalgic regrets.
He set the local mason to work on the house he had bought; then suddenly, one day, without telling anyone of his plans, he got rid of his furniture, dismissed his servants, and disappeared without leaving any address with the concierge.
The husband's duty was to clean the rooms and go marketing; the wife's to do all the cooking. Des Esseintes gave up the first floor of the house to them; but he made them wear thick felt slippers, had the doors fitted with tambours and their hinges well oiled, and covered the floors with long-pile carpeting, to make sure that he never heard the sound of their footsteps overhead. He also arranged a code of signals with them so that they should know what he needed by the number of long or short peals he rang on his bell; and he appointed a particular spot on his desk where the household account-book was to be left once a month while he was asleep. In short, he did everything he could to avoid seeing them or speaking to them more often than was absolutely necessary.
Like an eremite, he was ripe for solitude, exhausted by life and expecting nothing more of it; like a monk again, he was overwhelmed by an immense weariness, by a longing for peace and quiet, by a desire to have no further contact with the heathen, who in his eyes comprise all utilitarians and fools. In short, although he had no vocation for the state of grace, he was conscious of a genuine fellow-feeling for those who were shut up in religious houses, persecuted by a vindictive society that cannot forgive either the proper contempt they feel for it or their averred intention of redeeming and expiating by years of silence the ever-increasing licentiousness of its silly, senseless conversations.
Next the man brought him another series of books which caused him rather more trouble. These were works of which he had gradually grown fonder, works which by their very defects provided a welcome change from the perfect productions of greater writers. Here again, the process of elimination had led Des Esseintes to search through pages of uninspiring matter for odd sentences which would give him a shock as they discharged their electricity in a medium that seemed at first to be non-conducting.
Imperfection itself pleased him, provided it was neither base nor parasitic, and it may be that there was a certain amount of truth in his theory that the minor writer of the decadence, the writer who is incomplete but nonetheless individual, distills a balm more irritant, more sudorific, more acid than the author of the same period who is truly great and truly perfect. In his opinion, it was in their confused efforts that you could find the most exalted flights of sensibility, the most morbid caprices of psychology, the most extravagant aberrations of language called upon in vain to control and repress the effervescent salts of ideas and feelings.
It was therefore inevitable that, after the masters, he should turn to certain minor writers whom he found all the more attractive and endearing by reason of the contempt in which they were held by a public incapable of understanding them.
Of all forms of literature, the prose poem was Des Esseintes' favourite. Handled by an alchemist of genius it should, he maintained, contain within its small compass and in concentrated form the substance of a novel, while dispensing with the latter's long-winded analyses and superfluous descriptions. Many were the times that Des Esseintes had pondered over the fascinating problem of writing a novel concentrated in a few sentences and yet comprising the cohobated juice of the hundreds of pages always taken up in describing the setting, drawing the characters, and piling up useful observations and incidental details. The words chosen for a work of this sort would be so unalterable that they would take the place of all the others; every adjective would be sited with such ingenuity and finality that it could never be legally evicted, and would open up such wide vistas that the reader could muse on its meaning, at once precise and multiple, for weeks on end, and also ascertain the present, reconstruct the past, and divine the future of the characters in the light of this one epithet.
The novel, thus conceived, thus condensed in a page or two, would become an intellectual communion between a hieratic writer and an ideal reader, a spiritual collaboration between a dozen persons of superior intelligence scattered across the world, an aesthetic treat available to none but the most discerning.
In short, the prose poem represented in Des Esseintes' eyes the dry juice, the osmazome of literature, the essential oil of art.
Slices cut off and served up at a concert lost all sense and meaning, for like chapters in a book that are complementary to one another and combine to reach the same goal, the same conclusion, Wagner's melodies were used to define the characters of his dramatis personae, to represent their thoughts, to express their visible or secret motives, and their ingenious and persistent repetitions could only be understood by an audience that followed the subject from the start and watched the characters gradually taking shape and developing in a setting from which they could not be removed without dying like branches cut from a tree.
Des Esseintes was therefore convinced that of the mob of melomaniacs who went into ecstasies every Sunday on the benches of the Cirque d'Hiver, barely twenty could tell what the orchestra was murdering, even when the attendants were kind enough to stop chattering and give it a chance of being heard.
Considering also that the intelligent patriotism of the French made it impossible for any theatre in the country to put on a Wagner opera, there was nothing left for the keen amateur who was ignorant of the arcana of music and could not or would not travel to Bayreuth but to stay at home, and this was the reasonable course Des Esseintes had adopted.
Des Esseintes collapsed into a chair.
"In two days' time I shall be in Paris," he told himself. "Well, it is all over now. Like a tide-race, the waves of human mediocrity are rising to the heavens and will engulf this refuge, for I am opening the flood-gates myself, against my will. Ah! but my courage fails me and my heart is sick within me! -- Lord, take pity on the Christian who doubts, on the unbeliever who would fain believe, on the galley-slave of life who puts out to sea alone, in the night, beneath a firmament no longer lit by the consoling beacon-fires of the ancient hope!"
(A Rebours, final words)