Huysman's Des Esseintes wants to experience a continual state of exaltation in all his private doings. A wonder at certain sublime works of art and artifice and a fond reminiscence of past literary and social adventures, are his principal occupations. The decorations of his palace of art he chooses with forethought and sophisticated analysis, and yet he seems to regard them somehow as outside the realm of choice or personal taste, their aesthetic value existing innately. His chore, then, is not to challenge his palate with styles and sensations he will grow to admire, but rather to identify and isolate those stimuli which leave an immediate and a recurring impression upon him, because of, as it were, some predetermined aesthetic quality. He considers particular colors tied inextricably to certain personality types; he believes in an olfactory language, whose grammar and vocabulary he merely need learn in order to decipher the fixed poetry of smells; flowers to him seem to carry a sort of social class with them, so that flowers of a certain kind should be revered while others reviled. His intense aesthetic selectivity deludes him into believing in some universal doctrine of natural aesthetic laws. He can even anticipate precisely what effect a certain stimulus will have upon him at a certain time of day under certain weather conditions, based upon his past experience of it.
At first he had thought of some opals and hydrophanes; but these stones, interesting for their hesitating colors, for the evasions of their flames, are too refractory and faithless; the opal has a quite rheumatic sensitiveness; the play of its rays alters according to the humidity, the warmth or cold; as for the hydrophane, it only burns in water and only consents to kindle its embers when moistened. [Ch.5]
He is a scientist of aesthetics, searching for laws, developing machines, all of his pursuits directed toward becoming a god over his own feelings. Yet because of his scientific attitude, he regards those things which do not appeal to him as inherently flawed, as aesthetically and even morally base because they do not conform to his taste. And so he reacts to them with the nausea and devastation one might experience in witnessing a person grow up inside-out. They ugly not only to him, but to the natural order of things.
The very sight of certain faces made him suffer. He considered the crabbed expressions of some, insulting. He felt a desire to slap the fellow who walked, eyes closed, with such a learned air; the one who minced along, smiling at his image in the window panes; and the one who seemed stimulated by a whole world of thought while devouring, with contracted brow, the tedious contents of a newspaper.
Such an inveterate stupidity, such a scorn for literature and art, such a hatred for all the ideas he worshipped, were implanted and anchored in these merchant minds, exclusively preoccupied with the business of swindling and money-making, and accessible only to ideas of politics Ñ that base distraction of mediocrities — that he returned enraged to his home and locked himself in with his books. [Ch.3]
Des Esseintes's retreat into his palace of art is destructive to him and to those with whom he interacts, not because of its illusiveness or lack of substance, but because of the egotism it generates in his opinion of the world.
1. Des Esseintes simulates certain experiences like travel, artificially inducing its impressions and sensations without ever leaving the room. Similarly, the entire world of art in which he immerses himself is one of mimicry, representation, and artifice, but one that nevertheless generates genuine feelings. How does Des Esseintes (and how does Huysman) deal with the distinction between reality and artificiality?
2. Man is depicted here in many ways as above the natural world, manipulating it in order to create an ideal home and lifestyle. Within the old, dreary world he fashions a new and stimulating world of his own. And yet, though he approaches a God-like role, he is not a creator but only a mimic. He does not create new images, new sensations, but only heightens or warps preexisting ones. In what ways does the artifice in the book challenge or overcome nature, and in what ways does it merely participate in and perpetuate it?
3. A condition of the palace of art is solitude, since it represents the embodiment of one's personal aesthetic. How does Des Esseintes relate to other characters in the book? Are there any with whom he identifies?
4. What is Huysman's attitude toward Des Esseintes and the world he inhabits?
Last modified 14 April 2009