Where to start? As Oscar Wilde muses in Chapter 10 of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Joris-Karl Huysmans’ À Rebours is a book without a plot, a mere psychological study, but a thorough one. Because of that, it hardly seems worth it to put up a spoiler warning, but here it is, nonetheless.
[Mild spoilers for À Rebours follow.]
À Rebours (or Against the Grain or Against Nature, depending on the translation) follows a middle-aged man by the name of Des Esseintes, who has experienced everything he believes life has to offer and is simply sick of it. He retreats to a home outside Paris and designs his life there so that he only has to have minimal interaction with his two servants.
Des Esseintes is fascinated with falsehood and the ways in which man has learned to imitate nature and, in his opinion often exceed it — from flowers to scents to jewels to colors. At one point, he decides he is in need of a trip to London, and after spending only an evening, decides that he’s had his fill, that his imagination had served up these images and experiences just as well if not better than the real thing, and he finds himself content to never leave his home away from civilization again.
Sadly for him, it comes to pass that his doctor (and numerous other specialists in nervous disorders, whom he consults when he is unhappy with his doctor’s prescription) insists that he move back to Paris and find a way to enjoy the company of others. Even this is anti-climactic. As distasteful as he finds the idea, he is deathly afraid of, well, death and illness. Thus he would rather be psychologically miserable than physically so.
This reaction to a life of excess, to having experienced everything he believes there is to experience, leads him to a life where he wants to experience nothing. He wants to ruminate, to remember, to analyze, but never to experience. In the most severe bouts of his illness, he even goes so far as to prefer nourishment via enema and is disappointed when his doctor prescribes a return to food.
[Spoilers for The Picture of Dorian Gray follow.]
Knowing the relation of the two novels (À Rebours is the unnamed novel delivered to Dorian Gray by Lord Henry Wotton, a novel Dorian himself calls poisonous), it’s practically impossible not to compare and contrast Des Esseintes and Dorian Gray. Dorian, of course, experiences none of the ravaging effects of the excessive lifestyle that Des Esseintes does. Even so, he does become bored and introverted and tired of society, though he never wishes to escape it in the way that Des Esseintes does.
Nonetheless, both men do tire of exploring the sin of gluttony, and, when they do, they take decidedly different paths. Dorian decides he wants to be a good person. He breaks off the affair he’s having with a young woman before it gets too serious for her to end up another Sibyl Vane. (It’s worth noting that, shortly after his shunning of Sibyl, he does in fact profess to want to become a good person. However, this is done out of fear and duty more than anything else. After all, at that point in Dorian’s life, there were still plenty of other, more immediately satisfying sensations to be had, and he was easily convinced to leave that conviction by the wayside.) Des Esseintes, it seems, never had much interest in becoming virtuous. Once he’d experienced everything he felt there was to experience, he gave way to sloth and apathy.
Their reactions to this aspect of their lives are telling. The gluttony of experience for Des Esseintes was a mere academic study. Dorian, on the other hand, was devoted to beauty and pleasure. Des Esseintes was a bored academic; Dorian was, essentially, a constantly fascinated hedonist.
The Effect of Beauty on Personality
Des Esseintes was a sickly child, but not uncared for. He received appropriate and above-standard care at the Jesuit school he attended as a youth. Because the emphasis for his success in life was always put on his intellect, he spent his efforts developing it. Despite his skepticism regarding the religious beliefs of his professors, he was very well respected for his mind and encouraged to think and explore for himself. Because of that, he was also resistant to influence. A man like Henry Wotton would likely have been an interesting companion for a time (before Des Esseintes bored of him), but he would never have had the influence on Des Esseintes that he was able to have on Dorian.
Dorian was beautiful, but unloved. It is not until he met Basil that he experienced any sort of adoration. Wotton only serves to further this emphasis on Dorian’s beauty (and youth) as his only perceived worth. Dorian is, in essence, a sort of cypher. He is a blank slate for other people’s philosophies and interests. Basil and Wotton praise his youth and beauty; he comes to believe he must treasure these things above all else. As a young man, very much a boy in so many ways, to have his first experiences with love and encouragement and being wanted be based on his looks, it is no wonder he makes the flippant oath that he does. After all, having known what is like to be without those feelings, it’s truly horrific for him, especially in his emotionally immature state, to imagine being without them once his youth and beauty fade.
Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Pride
Throughout the course of his life, Des Esseintes has to deal with illness and the failure of his body to comply with his desires. This culminates in what could have been a final blow to his pride: impotence. Even then, Des Esseintes takes no responsibility for his ails — neither physical nor social — instead choosing to blame genetics and the intellectual failings of others. There is never a moment where he wavers in his pride; instead, he retreats to a place where his pride will meet no challenges. He abandons the world because it doesn’t meet his standards. He sees his own intelligence as so far above the masses that he can’t bear even the smallest interaction. He simply recoils from anything that would challenge his pride. For a man so interested in questioning everything else, he never bothers to question himself, an act which makes him interesting but entirely unsympathetic.
Dorian, however, has no such refuge. In his own portrait, he sees how each of his actions should affect him, and he has to live with the knowledge that it hasn’t. This phenomenon is alternatingly horrifying and fascinating to him. In essence, he lives with the theoretical responsibility of his actions, but he has no physical or (for a very long time at least) social consequences. Because of this, there is a constant psychological tug of war going on in Dorian’s mind between the proof that his actions are depraved and the fact that he doesn’t have to suffer for them. Having never had any intrinsic pride instilled in him as a youth, as Des Esseintes had, he found his pride in extrinisic things: in others’ reactions to him, in his acquisition of beautiful things, and in the change of the painting. He is both massively proud of his ability to get away with the things he does (via the painting, not his own doing) and terribly ashamed of those same actions and behaviors. The final blow to his already tenuous pride, the thing that pushes him over the brink, is Wotton’s flippant assertion that he is, essentially, a lost cause. To hear from his mentor, the architect of so much of his psyche, his constant source of encouragement, that there is no hope for him or his soul? It’s the last push over the edge for a mind that had always been unsure, emotional, impetuous, and desperate for approval.
It’s likely Des Esseintes would have found Dorian to be rather simpering, too emotional, and, frankly, annoying. Dorian is sort of like the little brother, trying very hard to be like his older sibling, but never quite succeeding. However, it’s for those very reasons that I connected so strongly with Dorian’s story. I was intrigued by Des Esseintes, but there was no emotional connection to the man. He was interesting but entirely unlikeable. Sure, I could understand some of his views; I even agreed with some of them. We see him struggle against his health, against others, but he never looks inside himself. He was an interesting man, but I didn’t care for him. In that way, Dorian is his inverse. I was invested in Dorian; I wanted him to rise above his influences. Watching his descent was difficult enough, but my heart broke when Wotton crushed his last hope. In the end, though, they both died (or at least it can be assumed in Des Esseintes’ case) as they lived: Des Esseintes, bitterly and stubbornly misanthropic in the only company he could tolerate — his own; and Dorian, passionately, impetuously, and tragically yearning for something he could never obtain.