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  • Writer's pictureValeria Pugliese

À rebours: a "fin du globe" taste for Beauty

The year is dying.

I am held captive in a Tier 4 lockdown London.

Spleen has been devouring me.

My ennui led me to acute political pondering on the most recent events resulting in too much Douglas Murray and other conservative readings; I may be growing tired of London.

I often quote Oscar Wilde in this blog, I am anachronistic and proud after all, so I will do this time:

"I wish it were fin du globe,” said Dorian with a sigh. “Life is a great disappointment.”
“Ah, my dear,” cried Lady Narborough, putting on her gloves, “don't tell me that you have exhausted life.
When a man says that one knows that life has exhausted him.”

Would the alleged Orwellian "Great Reset" in 2021 be our fin du globe?

If so, that would have little to none dying Beauty.

Right, enough with my EOY political rants.

I am just cynic and intensely bored; aren't we all?

Anemoia may be my disease.

My anemoia, usually about Ancient Egypt, Roman Empire and 1980s, during lockdown has been predominantly about fin de siècle (1890s); I suppose I have been searching for cheer in artificiality and Beauty.

Among my 2020 torments, the precious thing I did not let go has been my taste for Beauty.

While WFH, the colleagues did not understand why I persevere being daily well dressed on video-call (as much as I do not understand how adults can wear hoodies); this evening is frosty outside, there are eight scented candles burning in my sitting room, the rarefied air makes me panting, I am wearing a chinoiserie kimono robe, I am having a glass of merlot while listening to a playlist of waltzes, pretending to write: ah, Italian hygge!


As the fin de siècle writer would have done in a forced lockdown, I am glorifying ephemeral human pleasures and clutter.

Decadent literature has been the most pleasant companion during my confinement, concealing the outside commotion of the "progress" which does not appeal to my aesthetic.

I, therefore, chosen a congruous reading: "poisonous French novel", a plotless story on neurotic Beauty, À Rebours, breviary of Decadence, by the French writer Joris-Karl Huysmans, published in 1884.

I do not speak French.

I also could not bear the thought of continuously stop looking for forgotten English descriptive adjectives on WordReference.

I foretasted pages of intimate recollection of an aesthete, which shall be relished without dash, without repose, only with a tasteful immediate self-identification with the main character, Jean Floressas Des Esseintes.

I had to read the novel in the most glorious Italian translation by Fabrizio Ascari: Controcorrente is the title.

"Huysmans' words must shine, blaze, sparkle.

The outcome is a perfect symbiosis between language and character.

The lexicon, rich and rare, is the collector's."

Huysmans predicted his novel would be a failure:

"It will be the biggest fiasco of the year—but I don't care a damn! It will be something nobody has ever done before."

When published, in May 1884, the book scandalised the critics while appealing young aesthetes; Emile Zola, Huysmans' former mentor, said that the novel represented "a terrible blow to Naturalism" (...)"leading the school astray".

It is believed that À rebours is the "poisonous French novel" that leads to the nemesis of Dorian Gray, whose plot may have influenced the young Dorian in leading a life of lustful hedonism.

"It was a novel without a plot, and with only one character, being, indeed, simply a psychological study of a certain young Parisian, who spent his life trying to realize in the nineteenth century all the passions and modes of thought that belonged to every century except his own. (...)
The style in which it was written was that curious jeweled style, vivid and obscure at once, full of argot and of archaisms, of technical expressions and of elaborate paraphrases, that characterizes the work of some of the finest artists of the French school of Symbolists. (...)
One hardly knew at times whether one was reading the spiritual ecstasies of some medieval saint or the morbid confessions of a modern sinner.
It was a poisonous book.
The heavy odour of incense seemed to cling about its pages and to trouble the brain.
The mere cadence of the sentences, the subtle monotony of their music, so full as it was of complex refrains and movements elaborately repeated, produced in the mind of the lad, as he passed from chapter to chapter, a form of reverie, a malady of dreaming "
Photo source:

Peter Gundry was in the fourth position among my most listened to artists of the year on Spotify; his latest composition is the soundtrack for the modern Des Esseintes:

A "plotless plot"

The reader is welcomed in a silent portrait room at the Chateau de Lourps.

A fine portrait room aesthetic: Dorian Gray's portrait room, Penny Dreadful.

The ancient ancestors' portraits, austere gazes, yatagan-shaped moustaches, broad shoulders and bulging chests filling the enormous armors, told a story of a dynasty of once virile warriors.

The empty space in the portraits' row was filled by one picture only, connective link between past and present, where the impoverished and mincing constitution was already noticeable: a mysterious head with dull and haggard features, cheekbones blushed with rouge, the hair braided with pearls, a stiff neck emerging from the starched frilled collar.

The decadence of this lineage had followed, of course, a regular expected course; two centuries of inbreeding guaranteed the inexorable effemination of the males.

The Duc Jean Floressas Des Esseintes, was a willowy, nervous young man of thirty, with delicate hands, sunken cheeks, fair beard, thin nose and steel-blue cold eyes.

It is thought that the character of Des Esseintes is based on the Comte Robert de Montesquiou, French aesthete, Symbolist poet, art collector and dandy, also model for Proust’s Baron de Charlus.

Robert de Montesquiou - Giovanni Boldini, 1897

His childhood had been funereal, menaced without rest by consumptive illnesses.

Des Esseintes attended a Jesuit school; precociously brilliant in Latin, Jean showed no aptitude for living languages and elements of the sciences.

At the completion of this Jesuit education, once received his title and fortune, Des Esseintes got acquainted with the cousin Comte de Montchevrel and old relatives.

Bored, he began to seek out the company of young men: he pretended to befriend those educated in religious institutions, then those educated in the lycees, finally gay men.

Ah, Parisian youth, debauched, philistine, simplistic, unselective: Des Esseintes felt contemptuous weariness and distanced himself from his peers.

Consequently, he moved to literary men and "free thinkers" (or doctrinaires of the bourgeoisie).

Des Esseintes' contempt for humanity deepened even further; his conclusion: the world was composed of scoundrels and imbeciles.

Women might have curbed his contempt:

"He had taken to carnal repasts with the eagerness of a crotchety man affected with a depraved appetite and given to sudden hungers, whose taste is quickly dulled and surfeited."

Persisting in the excesses while pretending to silence the indomitable ennui resulted in a nearly fatal neurosis: his nervous system collapsed.

The recovery was lonely and sobering; the frightening awareness of a dissipated financial patrimony made Des Esseintes sell the Chateau and move to Fontenay-aux-Roses, far-off countryside retreat, distant from Paris vulgarity.

More than two months passed by in moving arrangements and interior design of the retreat at Fontenay, "motionless ark in which to seek refuge from the unending deluge of human stupidity."

Ad interim, Des Esseintes ultimate idiosyncrasy before the refined solitude was the "funeral banquet"; the scenario is exquisitely decadent:

"In one instance in particular, modelling the entertainment on a banquet of the eighteenth century, he had organized a funeral feast in celebration of the most unmentionable of minor personal calamities.

The dining-room was hung with black and looked out on a strangely metamorphosed garden, the walks being strewn with charcoal, the little basin in the middle of the lawn bordered with a rim of black basalt and filled with ink; and the ordinary shrubs superseded by cypresses and pines.

The dinner itself was served on a black cloth, decorated with baskets of violets and scabiosae and illuminated by candelabra in which tall tapers flared.

While a concealed orchestra played funeral marches, the guests were waited on by naked negresses wearing shoes and stockings of cloth of silver besprinkled with tears.

The viands were served on black-bordered plates, — turtle soup, Russian black bread, ripe olives from Turkey, caviar, mule steaks, Frankfurt smoked sausages, game dished up in sauces coloured to resemble liquorice water and boot-blacking, truffles in jelly, chocolate-tinted creams, puddings, nectarines, fruit preserves, mulberries and cherries.

The wines were drunk from dark-tinted glasses, — wines of the Limagne and Roussillon vintages, wines of Tenedos, the Val de Penas and Oporto. After the coffee and walnuts came other unusual beverages, kwas, porter and stout.

The invitations, which purported to be for a dinner in pious memory of the host’s (temporarily) lost virility, were couched in the regulation phraseology of letters summoning relatives to attend the obsequies of a defunct kinsman."

Des Esseintes eventually moved to Fontenay:

"(...) He lived practically his whole life at night (...)

Moreover, he reaped a special and peculiar satisfaction from finding himself in a room brilliantly lighted up, the only place alive and awake among surrounding houses all buried in sleep and darkness, — a sort of enjoyment that is not free from a touch of vanity, a selfish mode of gratification familiar enough to belated workers when, drawing aside the window curtains, they note how all about them the world lies inert, dumb and dead."

The backstory served the to readers to get acquainted, and grow quite fond, of Des Esseintes.

There commences the larger plotless section of the novel; each chapter is an attentive description of the protagonist's quest for satisfying one or more of his consumed senses.

The topics, newly protagonist of the scene, are now wallpapers's shades, furniture, exotic tapestries, Stendhal syndrome episodes over paintings, composition of perfumes, Latin literature, contemporaries as Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé, tropical floral arrangements (cause of a tremendous nightmare about syphilis), liqueurs' tasting, erotic memories about Miss Urania, a muscular acrobat and ventriloquist mistress.

The contemplation of Gustave Moreau's "The Apparition" is one of the finest examples of the highly descriptive although plotless writing:

"There, the palace of Herod arose like an Alhambra on slender, iridescent columns with moorish tile, joined with silver beton and gold cement. Arabesques proceeded from lozenges of lapis lazuli, wove their patterns on the cupolas where, on nacreous marquetry, crept rainbow gleams and prismatic flames.

The murder was accomplished. The executioner stood impassive, his hands on the hilt of his long, blood-stained sword.

The severed head of the saint stared lividly on the charger resting on the slabs; the mouth was discolored and open, the neck crimson, and tears fell from the eyes. The face was encircled by an aureole worked in mosaic, which shot rays of light under the porticos and illuminated the horrible ascension of the head, brightening the glassy orbs of the contracted eyes which were fixed with a ghastly stare upon the dancer.

With a gesture of terror, Salome thrusts from her the horrible vision which transfixes her, motionless, to the ground. Her eyes dilate, her hands clasp her neck in a convulsive clutch.

She is almost nude. In the ardor of the dance, her veils had become loosened. She is garbed only in gold-wrought stuffs and limpid stones; a neck-piece clasps her as a corselet does the body and, like a superb buckle, a marvelous jewel sparkles on the hollow between her breasts. A girdle encircles her hips, concealing the upper part of her thighs, against which beats a gigantic pendant streaming with carbuncles and emeralds.

All the facets of the jewels kindle under the ardent shafts of light escaping from the head of the Baptist. The stones grow warm, outlining the woman's body with incandescent rays, striking her neck, feet and arms with tongues of fire, — vermilions like coals, violets like jets of gas, blues like flames of alcohol, and whites like star light.

The horrible head blazes, bleeding constantly, clots of sombre purple on the ends of the beard and hair. Visible for Salome alone, it does not, with its fixed gaze, attract Herodias, musing on her finally consummated revenge, nor the Tetrarch who, bent slightly forward, his hands on his knees, still pants, maddened by the nudity of the woman saturated with animal odors, steeped in balms, exuding incense and myrrh.

Like the old king, Des Esseintes remained dumbfounded, overwhelmed and seized with giddiness, in the presence of this dancer who was less majestic, less haughty but more disquieting than the Salome of the oil painting.

In this insensate and pitiless image, in this innocent and dangerous idol, the eroticism and terror of mankind were depicted. The tall lotus had disappeared, the goddess had vanished; a frightful nightmare now stifled the woman, dizzied by the whirlwind of the dance, hypnotized and petrified by terror.

It was here that she was indeed Woman, for here she gave rein to her ardent and cruel temperament. She was living, more refined and savage, more execrable and exquisite. She more energetically awakened the dulled senses of man, more surely bewitched and subdued his power of will, with the charm of a tall venereal flower, cultivated in sacrilegious beds, in impious hothouses."

L'Apparition - Gustave Moreau 1874-1876

Des Esseintes, in a horror vacui crisis, buys a pet tortoise: the sexual dimorphism and languorous movements of the beast were not deemed enough appealing by the aesthete; the tortoise is condemned to a "precious" death, after its carapace is encrusted with jewels.

A rare visual example of bejewelled tortoise. Colette, 2018

Des Esseintes' feverish lockdown is temporarily interrupted by the curiosity of London, encouraged after reading Dickens; prior to departure, during a dinner in a tavern at Dieppe, he decides he has had his taste of Albion by merely listening to some drunken Anglophones; the intrigue ends, he returns back to Fontenay.

Towards the end of the novel, Des Esseintes attempts to seek solace in Catholicism.

The finale is the disillusioned awareness of the absence of comfort found in religion and a silent cynic atheism (although the author, Huysmans, eventually converted to Catholicism).

The metastatic neurosis obscures what is left of his lucidity.

The doctor verdict is clear: he "has to give himself over to the waves of human mediocrity", he shall return to Paris.

The value of Decadence in the 2020 "fin du globe"

In a 2020 (almost) "fin du globe", the novel À Rebours certainly encourages a reflection on how the modern man senses', constantly overwhelmed, "fattened up" with diverse stimuli are never fully satiated and how, a supposed-to-be contentedness is suffocated by a gloomy "I do not why" sense of unsatisfaction.

In my captive ennui, overloaded by the noise of information and materialistic clutter, I suffered of a universal solitude, feeling frighteningly detached by my Self as never occurred before.

2020 became the pretext to disguise a depressive failure of the individual on the circumstance, the pretension of being heroic just going with the flow.

Huysmans, in the novel À vau-l'eau, defines all of the above quoting Schopenhauer:

"...he realised the futility of changing direction, the sterility of all enthusiasm and all effort. 'You have to let yourself go with the flow; Schopenhauer is right', he told himself, "Man's life swings like a pendulum between pain and boredom". So there's no point trying to speed up or slow down the rhythm of its swings; all we can do is fold our arms and try to get to sleep..."

As Des Esseintes, I often wondered if getting fully re-acquainted with the Catholic Church would give me a spiritual peace.

No, I still do not know what shall be done.

I may need to find an open-minded priest with whom I can discuss my nihilism on after-life, my animus possession and my need for a dark Madonna archetype.

We are all looking forward to 2021, anxious and famished for something "new"; I wonder if, when the "new" will be there, if and how intensely our drained senses will rejoice.

À Rebours has been a landmark reading during my 2020 spleen.

The tale of Des Esseintes gives us no definitive answers although does an exquisite job in showing how a taste for Beauty could be a way forward, if not the only one.

Wishing you all a Happy New Year,

With Love,



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