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Role Models: Des Esseintes

František Kupka, The Yellow Scale, 1907

František Kupka, The Yellow Scale, 1907

Why hello there! Come, let me make you a drink from my mouth organ! What’s a mouth organ? Well, funny you should ask, dearest Filthy Dreams reader: a mouth organ is only a bizarre instrument dreamed up by the deviant mind of one of our oldest Filthy Dreams’ role models: that sickly aesthete himself Jean Des Esseintes from Joris-Karl Huysmans’s decadent classic A Rebours or Against Nature. Don’t you see drinking as a symphony? We do.


Arthur Zaidenberg, “The Serpents ” (1931 illustration for A Rebours)

Once upon a queer time and place, a man named Heraclitus took it upon himself to go against the gods and against better reason when he declared that life is always in flux, never to repeat. Hallelujah! Step aside, morality! Christianity may have had her day, but in the 19th century, in reconsideration of this statement along with advances in scientific theories, two queer figures, Walter Pater and Huysmans, emerged to take Heraclitus’ statement to its il-logical conclusion. In short, if time is fleeting and if there is no transcendent way of being, then why aren’t we paying more attention to living in the moment? What they do is take the romantic notion of Carpe Diem and twist it on its head.

As you may have noticed, faithful Filthy Dreams readers, that many of our filth elders have all come from the mid to late 20th century, but that certainly does not mean that we derive our sleazy inspirations from one century alone. The mid to late 19th century, especially the literary and aesthetic strands of Aestheticism, Decadence, and Symbolism, still beat madly today. Tha-thump, THA-THUMP! Th-thump, THA-THUMP! No, that’s not Poe telling you to tear apart the floor boards; that’s Des Esseintes inviting you to look at his library!

Published in 1884, A Rebours details the perverse life of Des Esseintes in an almost terrifying intensity, opining endlessly on his decadent fancies and long-winded maniacal obsessions from his favorite books to perfumes to flowers and food. An aristocrat from an increasingly deteriorating family line, Des Esseintes, while not necessarily trash considering his high social status, is a romantically abject queer figure and a hero to us all.

Rejecting nature, society and any other prescribed laws, Des Esseintes leaves his house in Paris for a solitary life pondering aesthetic pleasures at Fontenay. Poet Paul Valery deemed A Rebours his “Bible and bedside book” and we’d certainly agree. In fact, Des Esseintes’ decadent lifestyle at his not-so-humble abode reads like a how-to book for decorating ideas.

For example, what color should I paint my apartment, Des Esseintes?

“As for those gaunt, febrile creatures of feeble constitution and nervous disposition whose sensual appetites crave dishes that are smoked and seasoned, their eyes almost always prefer that most morbid and irritating of colors, with its acid glow and unnatural splendor orange” (16).

Orange it is!

Dear Des Esseintes, how do you deal with having to see other people like a servant or, say, a roommate when you want to reject society completely?

“However, since the woman would have to pass alongside the house occasionally to get to the woodshed, and he had no desire to see her commonplace silhouette through the window, he had a costume made or her of Flemish faille, with a white cap and a great black hook let down on the shoulders, such as the beguines still wear to this day at Ghent. The shadow of this coif gliding past in the twilight produced an impression of convent life, and reminded him of those peaceful, pious communities, those sleepy villages shut away in some hidden corner of the busy, wide-awake city” (19).

Looks like I have to buy my roommate a cloak.

Arthur Zaidenberg, “Never had he experienced a more alluring relationship” (1931 illustration for A Rebours)

While Des Esseintes’ interior decorating at Fontenay is role model-worthy, this certainly does not mean his Parisian life was any less lurid. In one flashback, Des Esseintes recalls bringing an attractive young boy to “an establishment on the third floor of a house in the Rue Mosnier, where a certain Madame Laure kept an assortment of pretty girls in a series of crimson cubicles furnished with circular mirrors, couches and washbins” (66). Bringing the boy to the house of ill-repute, Des Esseintes hoped that by introducing the boy to his sexual urges, he would “make a murderer out of the boy” (67). You know, as you do.

In my favorite dialogue in the novel, reminiscent of a line spit out by Lung Leg in Richard Kern’s holiday classic You Killed Me First, Des Esseintes explains his idea to Madame Laure: “‘But where in the devil did you get a hold of that baby?’… ‘Why in the street, my dear'” (67).

Throughout A Rebours, Des Esseintes reveals in exhausting detail his startling beliefs and obsessions. Reading like a decadence manifesto, his aesthetic can be boiled down to an absolute adoration of artificiality. Simply put, “As a matter of fact, artifice was considered by Des Esseintes to be the distinctive mark of human genius” (22). We agree, Des-E!

A Rebours is an insane catalogue of fetishes from flowers to perfumes to library books. If Pater argues that, because time is fleeting, we must concentrate our energies on aesthetic appreciations of the impressions that objects make upon us, Des Esseintes finds time a prison to be broken. Nature eventually conquers us, so we must conquer it through artificiality. Instead of stopping to smell the roses, go shopping for essences of scents that smell better and that last longer! Have a Black Dinner to celebrate your sterility!

Camp before Susan Sontag even muttered a word, Des Esseintes’ love of artifice is also coupled with a complete rejection of nature. As Huysman writes, “Nature, he used to say, has had her day; she has finally and utterly exhausted the patience of sensitive observers by the revolting uniformity of her landscape and skyskapes” (22).According to Des Esseintes, artificiality is the genius of humanity. Nature itself is exhausted. Through his mimetic recreation of nature in the things with which he decorates his lifestyle, Des Esseintes criticizes nature for not being able to produce the perfection he seeks.

Arthur Zaidenberg, “He Possessed in Accordance With This Taste a Marvellous Collection of Tropical Plants” (1931 illustration for A Rebours)


Does that sound familiar to anyone? It’s only a belief shared by one of my favorite John Waters’ hysterics Peggy Gravel in Desperate Living who shouts, “You know I hate nature! Look at these disgusting trees, stealing my oxygen!” If Des Esseintes were alive, I’m sure he’d want to see those forests turned into housing developments too, Peggy.

Now of course, we can’t necessarily condone all of Des Esseintes’ behavior considering his quite memorable foray into animal cruelty with his doomed gilded and bejeweled tortoise who collapses and dies under the weight of such finery:

“It was still lying absolutely motionless. He touched it; it was dead. Accustomed no doubt to sedentary life, a modest existence spent in the shelter of its humble carapace, it had not been able to bear the dazzling luxury imposed upon it, the glittering cape in which it had been clad, the precious stones which had been used to decorate its shell like a jeweled ciborium” (49).

But what a way to go!

Des Esseintes perverts Pater’s theory of Aestheticism by revering the ugly and diseased. Gasp! Has he been reading Schopenhauer? We certainly hope so! Schopenhauer envisions the world as full of ugliness and suffering, and the only way to manage it is through Art. Enter Mr. Horticulturalist himself, Des Esseintes. By favoring cruelty and ugliness, Des Esseintes exposes nature for what it is: full of decay and repulsion.

With extended feverish rants and raves about literature from his favorites Poe and Baudelaire to Catholic writers, Des Esseintes begins to fall into an insane aesthetic reverie, becoming sicker and sicker and drifting further into his “nervous condition.” As Des Esseintes grows more ill, he eventually cannot handle eating food. Calling a doctor to cure him of his various ailments, Des Esseintes is prescribed an enema to give him necessary nutrients. Rather than being horrified by his new form of eating, Des Esseintes takes immense glee in its unnatural abjection:

“The operation was successfully carried out, and Des Esseintes could not help secretly congratulating himself on this experience which was, so to speak, the crowning achievement of the life he had planned for himself; his taste for the artificial had now, without even the slightest effort on his part, attained its supreme fulfillment. No one, he thought, would ever go any further; taking nourishment in this way was undoubtedly the ultimate deviation from the norm.” (193)

Unfortunately all good things must come to an end and for Des Esseintes, it means returning to Paris in order to prevent himself from perishing under his unnatural urges. What a pity!

As he breathlessly ponders at the end of A Rebours, ““Had he not outlawed himself from society? Had he heard of anybody else who was trying to organize a life like this, a life of dreamy contemplation?” (198).

*raises hands* Oh! Oh! We’d like to (well, except for the enema bit. Lets skip that).

Arthur Zaidenberg, “It Had Not Been Able to Support the Dazzling Splendour Imposed on it” (1931 illustration for A Rebours)

Comparing his return to society to a nonbeliever attempting to accept religion, Des Esseintes hollers, “Well it is all over now. Like a tide-race, the waves of human mediocrity are rising t 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 ancient hope!” (204).

Flirting with a near religious fervor throughout the text, Des Esseintes references perhaps the ultimate decadent move: turning to religion. And why not? If you can’t beat them, join them–with feverish devotion! Rather than run away from it, Des Esseintes embraces all the doctrines of Catholic worship to such a degree to make other congregational members cross their legs. Let this be a lesson to those of us who are allergic to the thought of assimilation: one can still be subversive and join the masses!

Halleluja! We are your sheep, Des Esseintes! Guide us to new perverse imaginaries!

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