The decline of Rome held special relevance for the French because the architects of the French Revolution took Republican Rome as their model of governance. The work of the traditionalist critic Désiré Nisard, who compared the poetry of the decadent Romans to that of his romantic contemporaries, and the art of Thomas Couture are first considered. The writings of Baudelaire, Théophile Gautier, Joris-Karl Huysmans, and Marguerite Eymery Vallette (who wrote under the pen-name Rachilde) are also discussed. Their decadence was mostly confined to the literature they wrote. Such cultural decadence is typical of the Parisian variant during the 1880s.
The decline of Rome held special relevance for the French. After all, the architects of the French Revolution, like those in America before them, took Republican Rome as their model of governance. Moreover, the French found in Napoléon a Caesar who betrayed the revolution by taking the title of emperor. In French political chronology, the First Republic (1792–1804) is followed by the Napoleonic era known as the First Empire (1804–1815), leading some historians to say that the French repeated several centuries of Roman history in just over two decades.
Even before Napoléon, the French-Roman analogy appears to have been quite insistent among the French themselves. Just as Rome experienced a Golden Age during the reign of the Emperor Augustus (r. 27 BCE–14 CE), so did France during the reign of Louis XIV (r. 1643–1715), the Sun King, with the classical poets Virgil and Horace having their latter-day French counterparts in such exponents of classicisme as Racine and Corneille. And if Rome had its decadence, then so did France, with the difference that the decadence of France seems to recur at regular historical intervals.
Both the rococo art and the libertine literature that marked the reign of Louis XV are decadent in comparison to the great age of neoclassical art that came before, or so goes conventional opinion. That opinion was reasserted in 1834 by the traditionalist critic p. 35↵Désiré Nisard when he compared the poetry of the decadent Romans to that of his romantic contemporaries in Études de moeurs et de critique sur les poètes latins de la décadence (Cultural-critical studies of the Latin poets of the decadence). At the end of this book Nisard makes explicit what he had already implied throughout his study: that Victor Hugo and other romantic poets of Nisard’s day had something in common with the inferior poets who wrote during the decline of Rome.
Decadence, it turns out, is a style, one that draws the reader’s attention to individual words and phrases at the expense of the whole, that indulges in imaginative flourishes rather than reasoned discourse. The lack of unity and the lack of reason offer no benefit to the reader, unlike classical literature (whether Roman or French), which possesses “truths essential to the preservation of man’s moral grandeur.” Later, Nisard’s negative criticism would be put to positive use, as attention to detail, imaginative fantasy, and the removal from morality became hallmarks of the decadent aesthetic.
After Nisard, the most important negative critique of decadence comes in visual form, in 1847, when the artist Thomas Couture captured the comparison of the Romans and the French on canvas: The Romans of the Decadence asks the viewer to consider anew just how completely the cultural decline of France mirrored the fall of Rome. While the artistic merits of Couture continue to be debated, his most famous painting undoubtedly illustrates some critical dimensions of decadence. From the first, the painting was regarded as both a political and a cultural allegory: Couture’s contemporaries understood the scene as a representation of Roman decadence all right, with the decadent Romans standing in for the decadent French. The basic device of the painting recalls Suetonius: the statues that look down in disapproval on the florid orgy below them suggest the Roman writer’s contrast of the decadent emperors’ actions with those of their virtuous ancestors.
p. 36In Couture’s painting, the central figure of Germanicus, the austere commander of Roman forces in the north and the father of the dissolute Caligula, makes the contrast clear. And so do the stern faces of the other statues, all completely counter to the visage of the figure identified as the Emperor Vitellius, the portly character just below the bare-breasted, gyrating dancer with her head thrown back. Possibly, the presence of Vitellius dates the orgy to 69 CE, the “year of the four emperors” when Rome was wracked by civil war. Hence, the painting becomes a prescient image of civil conflict in France, looking forward to the Revolution of 1848. That retrospective reading, however, is hard to justify given Couture’s own conservative politics: his sympathies lay with the aristocracy displaced by the July Monarchy of 1830, which led him to treat the rising bourgeoisie as literally ignoble and figuratively decadent. In this regard, Couture confirms a more general tendency p. 37↵to regard forms of social modernity as a species of decadence. But it is also true that the painting can function as an all-purpose allegory, since the dualistic contrast of noble ancestors and decadent descendants can be interpreted in a wide variety of ways.
One such interpretation is consistent with another feature of decadence that we have already identified, namely, its inherently generative dimension. In addition to making a social critique, Couture also used The Romans of the Decadence to make a statement about the need for a new artistic direction. In fact, the sensational canvas served as a large-scale advertisement for the new school of art that Couture himself founded the same year he exhibited it. The formal announcement for this “École de M. Couture” made the artist’s eclectic aims clear: he meant “to found a school of national painting adequate to the needs of the time” that would reject both “the spurious classical school” and “that abominable school, known under the rubric of ‘Romantic.’” He also rejected “petty artistic commercialism” in favor of the great art of Greek antiquity, the Italian Renaissance, and the Dutch Golden Age.
While Couture does not single out the art of ancient Rome in the prospectus for his school, The Romans of the Decadence obviously does, by way of the monochrome statues mostly copied from ancient marbles and bronzes. Of course, some critics would say that Couture’s mannered, eclectic mixture of different artistic styles is itself an example of decadence. For this reason, Couture has not received that much credit for the revolution in nineteenth-century painting wrought by Édouard Manet, who trained in Couture’s studio. Still, the Couture-Manet connection says much about the cultural dynamics of decadence. Perhaps Manet emerged as a true painter of modern life because his training put him in the position of re-thinking the worn-out conventions and traditions Couture promoted.
Why Baudelaire should have chosen the illustrator Constantine Guys as the exemplary “painter of modern life” for his 1863 essay rather than the artist Manet remains an unanswered question. p. 38↵The essay was actually written around the time that Baudelaire met Manet, in 1859, the same year the artist painted The Absinthe Drinker, a work that breaks new artistic ground. That painting might fairly be called Baudelairean because of the paradoxical nature of the representation: the derelict man is a definite modern type, simultaneously dignified and sordid. The aesthetic kinship between the poet and the painter is undeniable, as their contemporaries recognized: one critic called Manet “the pupil of Goya and of Charles Baudelaire.” What the two have in common is the sense that all aspects of contemporary reality, including those traditionally regarded as distasteful or forbidden, merit the same level of artistic respect. When Baudelaire writes about prostitutes, for example, or when Manet paints them, the point is not to shock but to show that such subjects are integral to the circumstances of social modernity. In his essay on Guys, Baudelaire wrote about prostitutes in the hope that some artist might one day come along who could capture their “nobility”—“even in the mire.”
While we would not today describe the social issue of prostitution in such terms, in 1863 Manet seems to have been following Baudelaire’s lead when he painted Olympia, a nude in the noble tradition of Venetian, Spanish, and French masters reclining in the “mire” of a modern brothel. One detail of the painting has been specifically identified with Baudelaire: the black cat arching its back at the far right edge of the canvas. The image might be a visual allusion to “Le Chat” (The cat), a poem in which Baudelaire describes himself stroking his cat, looking into its “agate eyes,” and seeing there the same “cold, deep gaze” as the one his Creole mistress, Jeanne Duval, dark like the cat, directs at him. Although Manet is rarely considered in the context of decadence, he shares with Baudelaire a skeptical attitude toward modernity, one reflected in his paintings by the artistic choice of subjects—such as absinthe drinkers and prostitutes—that reveal the downside of progress, the negative effects of the bourgeoning, bourgeois society of both the Second Empire and the early years of the Third Republic.p. 39↵
The Paris into which Baudelaire was born in 1821 still had the character of a medieval village, or collection of villages, so during his lifetime he was literally witness to the modernity that took shape all around him, when Baron Hausmann began the renovation of the city in 1853. By the time Baudelaire died in 1867, roughly 25,000 buildings had been destroyed, including the house—and the street—where the poet was born.
The vast project of urban renewal was mostly the brainchild of Charles Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, nephew of the emperor. Elected president of the Second Republic in 1848, Louis-Napoléon engineered a coup toward the end of what was supposed to have been a single term, dissolved the Legislative Assembly, rewrote the Constitution, and established himself as Emperor Napoléon III. One of his first acts as emperor was to enlist the career bureaucrat Georges-Eugène Hausmann as Prefect of the Seine to execute the plan that would transform Paris from a medieval to a modern city. p. 40↵Population growth necessitated the renovation: the industrial revolution brought thousands into the city from the countryside. From 1825 to 1850, the population of Paris grew from 855,000 to 1,314,000, making it the second-most populous city in Europe, after London. The addition of almost half a million people to Paris in a quarter century created problems that had to be addressed in the areas of public safety, transportation, and sanitation.
The renovation of Paris marks the somewhat tardy triumph of modernity over medievalism, but Baudelaire remained nostalgic for the old Paris the new one had replaced. Indeed, the characters who populate Baudelaire’s poems are unimaginable as residents of Hausmann’s Paris, with its wide, gas-lit boulevards and airy public parks. Rather, they seem to belong forever to the vanished warren of dark alleyways and claustrophobic spaces of the old medieval city.
Consider, for example, the poem titled “Les Sept Viellards” (The seven old men), from the Tableaux Parisiens (Parisian scenes) section of Les Fleurs du mal (The flowers of evil), the volume of poetry Baudelaire published in 1857. The poet describes a street so muddy it resembles a river, the houses that line it compared to wharves. Suddenly a bent, broken old man, dressed in rags, appears, a look of malevolence in his eye. He tramps past in the mud and slush, “as though crushing the dead beneath his clogs.” Then, “from the same hell,” the man’s twin appears, then another, and another, until seven old men, or seven apparitions of old men, stand before the poet, who turns and staggers home, like a drunk who sees things double. Resuming the nautical metaphor that opens the poem, Baudelaire describes himself as a helmsman struggling to steer a boat without a mast in a storm, “through a monstrous, shoreless sea.”
The setting of the poem is mostly hallucinatory and hardly realistic, but it is difficult to imagine the sentiments Baudelaire expresses in it being inspired by the modern Paris of Napoléon III p. 41↵and Baron Hausmann. Quite the contrary: the seven old men seem pretty clearly personifications of the seven deadly sins of Catholic theology, with the city itself becoming an analogue of hell. The key point here is that Baudelaire’s poetic imagination involves a conflict of medievalism and modernity, a conflict that was, so to speak, manifested by the physical transformation of Paris that Baudelaire experienced first-hand. The old Paris, and its down-and-out inhabitants, were, for Baudelaire, everyday evidence for original sin, for the innate depravity of humankind.
Depravity is not necessarily decadence, but the idea of original sin that drives all of the smaller, subsidiary sins that constitute the nature of humanity as orthodox Catholic doctrine conceives it is part of the idea of decadence that begins to emerge in the nineteenth century with the growth of Baudelaire’s reputation. Moreover, the conception of original sin undergirds what is perhaps the most significant element of the break with romanticism that decadence entails: the negation of the concept of nature as a positive ideal. The French romantics, following the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, advocated a return to nature as the cure for the disease of civilization. The notion of the noble savage reflects the idea that man in a state of nature approaches perfection, not unlike Adam in Eden before the fall. Baudelaire rejected such thinking completely, insisting not only on the fact of original sin, but also on humanity’s innate predisposition for self-destruction.
In “Au Lecteur” (To the reader), the poem that serves as a prologue to Les Fleurs du mal, Baudelaire imagines Satan as a kind of puppeteer pulling the strings that make us love the things we should find repugnant. And if we have not yet poisoned or stabbed someone, it’s not because we are good, only that we are timid, afraid to act on our devious desires. As with “Les Sept Viellards,” the deadly sins are again personified in “Au Lecteur,” this time as animals: jackals, panthers, hounds, apes, scorpions, vultures, serpents. But among this “vile menagerie of vices” one stands out p. 42↵as “uglier, nastier, fouler” than the rest: “C’est l’Ennui!” Ennui or boredom is then personified as an addict of opium or hashish, “smoking his hookah” and dreaming of destruction: “He would gladly reduce the world to rubble, and swallow all creation in a yawn.” Possibly, the reader knows this “fastidious monster” so well because the act of reading itself might be evidence of ennui. In any event, the reader who sits back and judges from a position of superiority the human condition Baudelaire describes will be brought up short by the poem’s closing line: “— Hypocrite lecteur, — mon semblable, — mon frère!” (Hypocrite reader,— my likeness,— my brother!).
In “Au Lecteur,” Baudelaire takes the anti-romantic position that human nature is fundamentally evil, not good. That reaction to Rousseau’s belief in the inherent goodness of humanity is only the first part of the poet’s anti-romantic agenda: the second concerns his antagonism to nature as a model for art. The romantics, of course, did not invent the idea of art as an imitation of nature, but they revived it, or, better, revitalized it as a model not only for art but also for life. To Baudelaire’s mind, such thinking is not only erroneous but dangerous: the less evidence of the insidious presence of nature in both art and life, the better. In “The Painter of Modern Life,” Baudelaire praises the use of cosmetics as one way to obscure or negate natural beauty; indeed, Baudelaire regards “natural beauty” as an oxymoron and says that anyone who prefers nature unadorned is degenerate.
Part of Baudelaire’s thinking here is misogynistic: as the more “natural” gender, woman must do more to obscure the physical signs of innate depravity. But cosmetics is also a metaphor for art, which, in turn, assumes ethical dimensions: “Everything beautiful and noble is the result of reason and calculation. Crime, of which the human animal has learned the taste in his mother’s womb, is natural by origin. Virtue, on the other hand, is artificial, supernatural […] Evil happens without effort, naturally, fatally; Good is always the product of some art.” Baudelaire’s reversal of p. 43↵the romantic hierarchy of nature and art makes of nature itself something degenerative, not restorative, so there is a kind of moral imperative toward art and artifice. At the same time, the human condition is ineluctably natural: in one sense, the human animal is decadent by definition, and anyone who wishes to overcome this condition must become as artificial and refined as possible.
The book that did so much to form this idea of decadence, Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal, is dedicated to Théophile Gautier (1811–1872). The admiration Baudelaire felt for Gautier is partly due to his novel Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835), a work that reflects the liberated thinking of the romantic era to which it belongs. The story concerns the strange attraction that the young poet d’Albert and his mistress, Rosette, both have toward a delicate youth named Théodore de Sérannes, in reality Mademoiselle de Maupin cross-dressing as a man. The novel is not quite so scandalous as it sounds (once the gender disguise is dropped the various characters settle into their normative heterosexual roles), but it did much to ensure a place for Gautier in literary history as one of the great precursors of the decadent movement.
That status is mainly the result of its celebrated preface, a lively, irreverent attack on those critics who insisted that literature be both virtuous and utilitarian, that it should, in short, reflect the ideals of progress. Gautier points out that the proponents of progress have not really achieved as much as they claim. They have not, for example, invented a new mortal sin (there are still only seven), nor have they surpassed in cuisine the menu of Trimalchio’s dinner that Petronius describes. As for literature, utilitarian progressiveness is simply beside the point, as Gautier says in what is undoubtedly the most salient paragraph of this influential preface: “Nothing is really beautiful unless it is useless; everything useful is ugly, for it expresses a need, and the needs of man are ignoble and disgusting, like his poor weak nature. The most useful place in a house is the toilet.” Here is the origin of the p. 44↵aesthetic doctrine that came to be known as “art for art’s sake,” so crucial to the development of decadence in both France and England, and that Oscar Wilde was to echo more than fifty years later: “All art is quite useless.”
The preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin combines with another of his prefaces, the “Notice” introducing the third, posthumous edition of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal (1868), to make Gautier one of the more influential theoreticians of decadence in the nineteenth century. The importance of the essay lies in the way Gautier ameliorates the concept of decadence by drawing a distinction between a decadent poet and a poet of decadence. Like Nisard before him, Gautier describes the decadent style, which more properly should be called the style of decadence, that is, the style that is best suited to describing what life is like in a period of historical decline and social decay. Unlike Nisard, who urged a return to the clarity and reason of the classical style, Gautier stresses the need for a new style capable of expressing all the obscure, half-formed feelings that life in a decadent age entails.
Only two years after Gautier wrote his preface to Baudelaire’s book, the decadence of France seemed very real indeed, with the defeat of the nation in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. A year later, Paris descended into anarchy—and anarchism—when the Commune de Paris (municipality of Paris) seceded from the state. The fragmentation of French society in the 1870s soon led to social theories of decadence, and, once again, Baudelaire was the inspiration. In a series on “Contemporary Psychology,” the critic Paul Bourget took Baudelaire as an exemplary figure of the period. Writing in 1881, he adopted the scientific language of positivism to combine Nisard’s concept of the decadent style with Gautier’s idea of the decadent society. Nisard had argued that a decadent style was one that emphasized smaller units of composition over the whole. Gautier had argued that the style of decadence was necessary to express what life was like in a declining empire. Bourget said that the formal markers of the decadent style were p. 45↵p. 46↵equivalent to the political characteristics of the decadent society—in fact, one “law” governed them both. A healthy “organic” society was one in which all the individual “cells” were subordinated to the “total energy” of the whole. The “social organism” becomes decadent once individuals acquire autonomy and the unity of the organic society disintegrates. The same principle applies to language: “A decadent style is one in which the unity of the book falls apart, replaced by the independence of the page, where the page decomposes to make way for the independence of the sentence, and the sentence makes way for the word.” He adds that “there are innumerable examples in current literature to corroborate this hypothesis and justify this analogy.”
Gautier’s description of Baudelaire’s style
The author of Les Fleurs du mal loved what is inaccurately called the decadent style, which is simply art that has reached the extreme point of maturity that marks the setting of ancient civilizations. It is an ingenious, complex, learned style, full of shades and refinements of meaning, ever extending the bounds of language, borrowing from every technical vocabulary, taking colors from every palette and notes from every keyboard; a style that endeavors to express the most inexpressible thoughts, the vaguest and most fleeting contours of form, that listens with a view to rendering them to the subtle confidences of neurosis, to the confessions of aging lust turning into depravity, and to the odd hallucinations of fixed ideas passing into mania. This decadent style is the final expression of the Word which is called upon to express everything, and which is worked for all it is worth. In connection with this style may be recalled the speech of the Lower Empire, that was already veined with the greenish streaking of decomposition, and the complex refinement of the Byzantine school, the ultimate form of decadent Greek art. Such, however, is the necessary, the inevitable speech of nations and civilizations when fictitious life has taken the place of natural life and developed in man wants till then unknown. It is no easy matter to write in this style, […] for it expresses novel ideas in novel forms and uses words hitherto unheard. Contrary to the classic style, it admits of the introduction of shadows in which move confusedly the larvae of superstition, the haggard phantasms of insomnia, the terrors of night, the monstrous dreams that impotence alone stays in their realization, the gloomy fancies at which day would stand aghast, and all that the soul has of darkest, most misshapen, and indefinably horrible in the depths of its uttermost recess.
Bourget’s theory of decadence found its greatest philosophical apologist in Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), who incorporated the Frenchman’s analysis of the relation of style and society into his own richly dialectical thinking on the problems of modernity. Nietzsche saw the signs of literary decadence—“The word becomes sovereign and leaps out of the sentence, the sentence reaches out and obscures the meaning of the page, the page gains life at the expense of the whole”—manifest in society as the moral basis—“freedom of the individual”—for a particular political theory: “equal rights for all.” His point is not so much that democracy is decadent, but that systems of morality should not be used to justify political arrangements. Elsewhere, Nietzsche uses the terms master morality and slave morality to explain that the origins of morality lie in power: the masters are “good” and the slaves “evil.” But Nietzsche goes further in his analysis of morality and says that those who are dominated by the strong make a virtue of their weakness through a process that he names ressentiment (resentment). This type of thinking results in “the morality of decadence or, more concretely, Christian morality.”
Nietzsche ultimately defines morality quite succinctly as “the idiosyncrasy of decadents, with the ulterior motive of revenging p. 47↵oneself against life—successfully.” Although Nietzsche began his philosophical career as an admirer of Richard Wagner, toward the end of that career he used the composer as the arch-example of both decadent morality and decadent style. The theme of redemption in Wagner’s operas shows the need for the Christian “to be rid of himself” and so affirms the resentful sickness of slave morality. Throughout the essay on Wagner, Nietzsche uses French words and phrases—including the key term décadence—and compares the composer to French writers (such as the Goncourt brothers, Jules and Edmond). “Wagner est une névrose” (Wagner is a neurosis), he says, and links the composer quite specifically to the emerging tradition of Parisian decadence. For example, we are told that Wagner “avoided psychological motivation” by “putting idiosyncrasy in its place.—Very modern, isn’t it? Very Parisian. Very decadent.”
Nietzsche’s description of the idiosyncratic, “Parisian” nature of Wagnerian opera could almost stand as a description of that most influential example of decadence in literature, Joris-Karl Huysmans’s À Rebours. The title has been translated both as “Against the grain,” a literal translation, and “Against nature,” which is more of an interpretation than a translation. True, most of the “againstness” in the novel is directed at nature, but it also adopts a contrarian attitude toward society, so much so that the novel’s aristocratic hero separates himself from society altogether, choosing to live an extremely artificial life, with only his collection of rare books and fine art prints as his companions. Early in his career, Huysmans had been a disciple of Émile Zola (1840–1902), whose naturalistic school of fiction purported to use the novel to conduct social experiments. Most of these romans expérimentals (experimental novels) took the French working class as their social laboratory, subjecting characters to the constraints of heredity and environment that determined their lives, inevitably for the worst.
In À Rebours, Huysmans appears to be parodying the type of novel his former mentor Zola advocated by showing what happens when p. 48↵the life of an aristocratic rather than a working-class character is determined by an artificial environment instead of a naturalistic one. Huysmans’s character, the Duc Des Esseintes, suffers from the requisite hereditary taint, for he is the lone remaining descendant of an ancient aristocratic family whose décadence has “followed a regular course” over the centuries, “with the men becoming progressively less manly.” The environment he creates for himself, in a house outside of Paris in the suburb of Fontenay-aux-Roses, is artificial in the extreme, with a dining room made to look like a ship’s cabin, complete with portholes, so the hero can go on imaginary voyages. Des Esseintes chooses Fontenay for its remoteness from urban life (the village is “unspoilt by rampaging Parisians”). The place would also have been remote from Baron Haussmann’s urban renovations, which form the background to a comic interlude that adds evidence for the idea that Huysmans set himself to parody naturalism when he wrote the novel. Once he is settled into his new artificial environment, Des Esseintes spends much of his time daydreaming about his prior life in Paris. One such reverie concerns his amused recollection of a friend’s decision to marry. While others urge the man to remain a bachelor, Des Esseintes enthusiastically counsels matrimony when he learns “that his friend’s fiancée wanted to live on the corner of a newly constructed boulevard, in one of those modern flats built on a circular plan.” Des Esseintes knows that the couple will need furniture specially designed to fit the circular walls of the apartment, that this expense will eventually force the couple to move to a less-costly but conventional residence, and that the custom furniture will not work in an apartment with straight walls and right-angled corners. Sure enough, the urban environment determines the marital destiny of the couple, whose life together becomes unbearable and leads to legal separation. The story is a roman expérimental writ small.
The most frequently cited example from À Rebours also lampoons the “scientific” principles of naturalism. Des Esseintes is having trouble with the decorative scheme of his dining room: the p. 49↵iridescent Oriental carpet on the floor requires some kind of contrast to heighten its “gleaming tints.” On a shopping expedition to Paris he happens upon a huge tortoise displayed in the window of an up-market food shop. He buys the creature and has it delivered, but when the natural colors of the tortoise’s shell fail to achieve the right aesthetic effect, Des Esseintes has the shell glazed with gold, then encrusted with precious jewels in a floral pattern derived from a Japanese print. He is quite pleased with the effect, but it is not long until the hapless reptile dies, unable “to bear the dazzling luxury imposed on it.” The episode is easy to read as a naturalistic allegory of what lies in store for Des Esseintes himself, whose fantastically artificial environment and life of dazzling luxury eventually sicken him and force an ironic return to Paris for the sake of his health. That interpretation, however, seems far less interesting than the display of extreme aesthetic eccentricity the episode captures.
The same chapter contains another such display featuring Des Esseintes’s “mouth organ,” a collection of liqueurs to which the character has assigned various musical attributes, so that, for example, he can “taste” the sound of the flute by drinking crème de menthe and anisette, “at once sweet and tart, soft and shrill.” Here, Huysmans parodies symbolisme (symbolism), another literary school contemporary with naturalism. The symbolist poets, following the example of Baudelaire’s sonnet “Correspondances,” explored the concept of synaesthesia, the idea that sensuous experiences are interchangeable to the point that one sense, such as smell, can be triggered by another sense, such as sight. In his famous sonnet, Baudelaire says that “sounds, smells, and colors correspond”: some perfumes smell as fresh as a baby’s skin feels or as sweet as an oboe sounds. Des Esseintes’s mouth organ takes the Baudelairean doctrine of correspondences to an absurd extreme when the character contemplates playing a string quartet in his mouth, “with the violin represented by an old brandy,” for example, and “the viola simulated by rum.” The absurdity is elevated when Des Esseintes decides not to “listen to p. 50↵the taste of music” and settles on a glass of Irish whiskey, the taste and odor of which lead somehow to a daydream about the sordid experience of having a rotten tooth pulled by a lower-class dentist. In other words, a synaesthetic, symbolist stream of associations leads to the kind of squalid, slice-of-life episode typical of a naturalistic novel.
But Huysmans does more in À Rebours than simply parody the literary trends of his age: he also offers some genuine critical insights. The critical commentary comes by way of the character, as Des Esseintes reflects on the different writers who appeal to him, Baudelaire most of all. He admires the poet for the “morbid psychology” that makes exhaustive examination of human depravity possible and allows exploration of “those districts of the soul where the monstrous vegetations of the sick mind flourish.” Les Fleurs du mal is usually translated “the flowers of evil,” but Huysmans reminds us of the ambiguity that attaches to the word mal: it also means “sickness” (as in malady). Hence Des Esseintes also admires Baudelaire for expressing “the unhealthy conditions of weary spirits and melancholy souls” in paradoxically healthy terms (that is, in clear, precise diction).
It goes almost without saying that the authors Des Esseintes admires for their morbid interests write in the decadent style Gautier identified in Baudelaire. When Huysmans describes the decadence of his own times, he makes the same comparison with ancient Rome that Gautier did, the only difference being “that the decomposition of the French language had occurred suddenly and speedily.” For Des Esseintes, the poets Paul Verlaine and Stéphane Mallarmé and the novelists Jules and Edmond de Goncourt best exemplify the French decadence because they all write in what Huysmans calls “the gamey style.” In French, “the gamey style” is “le style faisandé,” the adjective faisandé derived from faisan, “pheasant.” The phrase is really a metaphor that conveys a type of taste that is simultaneously elegant and depraved, refined and corrupt: pheasant and venison are the kind of food found on p. 51↵aristocratic tables, but when such food is gamey, or faisandé, it is starting to turn, on the point of going rotten. Earlier in the novel, Huysmans uses the word faisandage (gaminess) to describe the literary language of fourth-century Rome, “as it decomposed like venison, dropping to pieces at the same time as the civilization of the Ancient World, falling apart while the Empires succumbed to the barbarian onslaught and the accumulated pus of ages.” Here again we see the correspondence of literary and social decay that formed the basis of Nisard’s negative polemic and Bourget’s more neutral analysis, only now it is presented as an object of positive appreciation. Decay, in short, has become desirable.
Like Baudelaire, Huysmans was also a perceptive critic of contemporary art and was one of the first to appreciate the hard-to-classify paintings of Gustave Moreau. The difficulty of classification is part of the painter’s appeal: he is simply unlike anyone else, a “unique figure in contemporary art,” with no antecedents and no successors. The other part of Moreau’s appeal, for Des Esseintes, is his removal from modernity. The paintings Des Esseintes most admires are Salome Dancing before Herod and The Apparition, both first exhibited in 1876. The biblical story of King Herod’s daughter-in-law dancing before the king at her mother Herodias’s insistence is extremely sparse in its details (not even the name Salome appears, supplied later by the first-century Jewish historian Josephus): the girl’s dancing so pleases the king that he says he will give her whatever she wants, and her mother tells her to ask for the head of John the Baptist.
This spare narrative becomes, for the decadents, a misogynistic allegory of female temptation and cunning. In Huysmans’s telling, Moreau’s static painting is animated with erotic energy: as Salome begins the “lascivious dance” meant to arouse the “dormant senses” of the old king, “her breasts rise and fall, the nipples hardening at the touch of her whirling necklaces.” Clearly, the dance is mainly in the mind of the beholder, the “potent depravity” of the dancer “accessible only to brains shaken and sharpened and p. 52↵rendered almost clairvoyant by neurosis.” Gautier also used the word névrose to signal the decadent sensibility in his essay on Baudelaire, and it is clear that in his description of Moreau’s painting Huysmans means to do for the artist what Gautier did p. 53↵for the poet. Gautier said that Baudelaire revolutionized the language of poetry by “borrowing from every technical vocabulary, taking colors from every palette and notes from every keyboard.” Huysmans says that Moreau extended the frontiers of painting by borrowing “from the writer’s art its most subtly evocative suggestions, from the enameller’s art its most wonderfully brilliant effects, from the lapidary’s and etcher’s art its most exquisitely delicate touches.” The analysis can serve as a broader description of the hybrid, eclectic aesthetic that informs the art of decadence.
The “plot” of À Rebours is mostly memory: the action is almost wholly recollected, including Des Esseintes’s sexual exploits. Mainly because of the sensational accounts of the sex lives of the emperors by unreliable Roman historians, decadence is often imagined in sexual terms that are perverse, excessive, or both—as in Suetonius’s story of Nero covered in the pelts of wild beasts ravenously attacking the genitals of both men and women. Nothing so sensational makes its way into Huysmans’s novel, but it does include a few accounts of Des Esseintes’s sex life that are decadent for different reasons: impotence and exhaustion. In his youth the hero experienced traditional affairs, keeping mistresses “famed for their depravity,” but he soon wearies of normative depravity and begins to indulge in “unnatural love affairs and perverse pleasures.” So we are told in the prologue to the novel, and it is not until chapter 9 that we get a sampling of these affairs. There are three of them. The first involves a muscular female American acrobat called Miss Urania, whom Des Esseintes pursues because, he thinks, his feebleness will perfectly complement the hefty young woman’s strength: “he got to the point of imagining that he for his part was turning female.” But he is disappointed: Miss Urania is, after all, an American, and proves to be “positively puritanical in bed.” The next recollected affair concerns a female ventriloquist who can throw her voice when Des Esseintes is in bed with her to create the illusion that the woman’s outraged husband is at the door of the bedroom, threatening to catch his wife in flagrante delicto. Des Esseintes p. 54↵derives “extraordinary pleasure from this panic-stricken hurry of a man running a risk, interrupted and hustled in his fornication.”
The third affair begins when he runs into a young man on the street who asks Des Esseintes for directions to the Rue de Babylone. Now, that street actually existed in the Paris of Huysmans’s day, and does so still, but the way the encounter plays out suggests that Babylon, the name of the ancient city with biblical associations of luxury and corruption, is some kind of homosexual code. The chance meeting leads to a “mistrustful friendship” lasting for several months that Des Esseintes recalls with a mixture of horror and delight: “never had he run such risks, yet never had he known such satisfaction mingled with distress.” Although homosexuality was not against the law in France as it was in England at the time, social stigma still attached to same-sex relations, especially among men of different social classes, as would have been the case with the aristocratic Des Esseintes and the “poorly clad” young man who accosts him, obviously lower down on the social scale. While the last affair that Des Esseintes recollects is overtly homosexual, details of the other two also suggest same-sex attraction: the ventriloquist parts her hair “like a boy’s,” and the physical description of Miss Urania is such that she appears to be “an integral, unmistakable man.” Besides, the term uranian was used in the nineteenth century to describe same-sex affection as a higher, more heavenly form of love (from Latin ūrania “heavenly”) than heterosexual attraction. Also relevant to all three relationships is a sense of inversion, another term used in the nineteenth century to describe homosexuality (as an “inversion” of “normal” sex), because in all three Des Esseintes assumes a sexual role traditionally assigned to women. Given the broader logic of the novel, this would be sex à rebours.
The gender reversals and inversions that form only a small part of À Rebours are treated much more fully in another novel first published in 1884: Monsieur Vénus (Mister Venus), by Marguerite p. 55↵Eymery Vallette (1860–1953), who wrote under the pen name Rachilde. Monsieur Vénus is the story of Raoule de Vénérande, an aristocratic woman who develops a complicated attraction for one Jacques Silvert, a commoner who makes dresses and artificial flowers—occupations traditionally associated with the grisette, a working-class woman who supplemented her meager income with prostitution. Raoule often dresses as a man and calls Jacques her mistress, treating him as a kept woman by setting him up in an artist’s studio with all the requisite bohemian trappings. Jacques’s body is frequently feminized: “the curve of his back” is compared to that of the Venus Callipyge; his round thighs “make his sex uncertain”; and his high calves somehow give “prominence to his bust.” But these gender reversals are often unexpectedly reversed, as when Raoule, “her brain reeling before a young man as weak as a girl,” insists, “Jacques, you are master here.”
Traditional male-female power relations are undermined, to say the least, when a woman masquerading as a man tells a feminized boy that she wishes to be mastered by his weakness. Later, conventional gender roles become even more unstable when the Baron de Raittolbe, a former military officer and a paragon of masculinity, confronts Jacques, his rival for Raoule’s love. Struck by Jacques’s white skin and full buttocks, the Baron experiences an hallucinatory wave of attraction accompanied by a violent physical reaction: “his mustache stood on end, his teeth clenched, a shudder convulsed his body, and he broke out with cold perspiration.” He is almost frightened as he mutters, “I’ll be damned if it isn’t Eros himself.” The Baron’s moment of homosexual panic has all the earmarks of an hysterical attack, itself a gender reversal, which ultimately leads the Baron to challenge the boy to a duel. When Jacques is killed, Raoule is distraught, but she consoles herself by having a German craftsman fabricate “a wax figure covered in transparent rubber” that incorporates her lover’s hair and eyelashes, as well as his teeth and fingernails. The artificial body is really an automaton geared to perform specific erotic functions. When Raoule embraces it and p. 56↵kisses it on the mouth, “[a] hidden spring, installed at the inside of the hips, connects with the mouth and brings it to life.” Although necrophilia is not really new, the addition of the artifice wrought by Rachilde makes it seem so, as if to counter Gautier’s comment that no one had invented a new sin since the Romans.
Verlaine praised Rachilde for her innovative efforts and said that anyone credited with the creation of a new vice should be regarded as a benefactor to society. But such “progressiveness” was belied by Rachilde’s social conservatism, quite paradoxical in view of the wildly liberated behavior of her heroines. She may have dressed in men’s clothes and presented herself with a calling card reading “Rachilde: homme de lettres” (Rachilde: man of letters), but she also wrote a pamphlet titled “Why I Am Not a Feminist” (1928), explaining that she had “never had any confidence in women.” Her own cross-dressing she excused by saying that “my tendency to adopt a masculine style has never tempted me to claim rights which do not belong to me.” “Mademoiselle Baudelaire,” as some contemporaries called her, proved an apt epithet: Rachilde was like Baudelaire in both her pursuit of literary controversy and her resistance to social progress. She was also like the career bureaucrat Huysmans and the schoolteacher Mallarmé in that her decadence was mostly confined to the literature she wrote. Such cultural decadence is typical of the Parisian variant during the 1880s, with the obvious exception of Verlaine, whose decadence was both social and cultural. The decadents of London in the 1890s may not have taken their inspiration exclusively from Verlaine, but decadence in that city took a definite social turn that made it more than just a style of writing: it was also a way of life.