In his novel À rebours, Joris-Karl Huysmans constructs a house in the Paris suburb of Fontenay-aux-Roses where the Duc Jean Floressas Des Esseintes immerses himself in a delirium of sensory experience. Although references to music are sparse, those that do appear suggest important connections to the structure of the novel and Des Esseintes's house, as well as to the metaphysical dilemma that afflicts the Duc. Huysmans's compositional technique in À rebours evokes analogies with the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk and its use of leitmotifs to create structure. This is not to imply that Wagner was used as a model - Huysmans's knowledge of Wagner was superficial and mediated through acquaintances - but rather to propose that there are parallels between the German composer's formal strategies and those used by Huysmans to construct the novel. Des Esseintes's house also alludes to the Gesamtkunstwerk: it is not only the container for an aesthetic collection but a work of art itself, a retreat that suggests both a (mis)interpretation of Wagner's total work of art and a response to Wagnerism. Of the music discussed in the novel it is plainsong that will become important in Huysmans's books after his conversion; in À rebours it is little more than a reference to an unapproachable faith.
What role does Wagner's art play in À rebours if Huysmans's knowledge of the composer and his work was acquired secondhand (Mercier 225-29)? The issue can be examined using at least two different approaches. The first is a comparison of organizational techniques used by Huysmans and Wagner. The German composer's work is complex and varied, as are the treatises on art and music he wrote during his lifetime; as a result, the short analysis given here will be necessarily incomplete. What is suggested is not a correspondence through influence, but rather an analogy between the two artists' compositional strategies as they attempted to transcend formal boundaries. A second approach consists in analyzing Huysmans's creative (mis)reading of Wagner(ism). Huysmans's understanding of Wagner's art and philosophy as mediated through his French admirers, and his assessment of the Wagnerians themselves is suggested by passages on music, by the structure of the house at Fontenay, and by the outcome of Des Esseintes's experiment.
The widespread association of Wagner with controversy and radical change was partly due to the role of opera in France. Opera had been sponsored by the state since the time of Louis XIV as part of the wider program of promotion and control of the arts, a policy that continued in the nineteenth century with governmental oversight of opera houses through censorship and subsidies (Lacombe 16). Performances of Wagner's works were uncommon in the prestigious spaces of Opéra and the Opéra-Comique. Yet by the time Huysmans wrote À rebours the composer's music had become part of the musical repertoire at the Concerts Populaires organized by Léon Pasdeloup (Turbow 153-54) and a visit to Bayreuth had become a mark of sophistication for aristocrats and members of the haute-bourgeoisie (Koppen 345).
The Opéra was also a social space, a place to see and be seen. It would not conform to the requirements of the connoisseur who wanted a quiet atmosphere to experience the works, since there was interaction and conversation even during the performance (Lacombe 48-51). In the less formal space of the Cirque d'Hiver the distractions were more pronounced. The narrator of À rebours (which I quote throughout in Margaret Mauldon's translation published under the title Against Nature) complains that "in this rabble of melanomaniacs who every Sunday went into ecstasies ... there were scarcely twenty who, when the attendants kindly stopped chatting and allowed the orchestra to be heard, recognized the score that was being massacred" (167). The quality of the orchestra was not the only factor that affected how the composition was experienced, as it was common practice to revise and edit an opera for every performance (Lacombe 22-23). Wagner's refusal to interrupt Tannhäuser with the expected ballerina intermissions was the ostensible reason for the riots that precipitated the closure of the performances in Paris in 1861 (Rather 67-68).
The notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk transformed Wagner into the symbol of new art for many contemporary French intellectuals and artists. In his evolving search for a truly multimedia work, Wagner redefined the relationship between drama and music by altering the structure of traditional opera and modifying musical forms. Classical composers had used standard structural conventions and the organizing principles of tonality to create unity and coherence within a piece of music. Established musical formats provided the composer with a scheme to organize musical material and develop it according to a predictable pattern. The harmonic framework established a set of tonal relationships that determined the movement of chords and melodies and the manner in which they could interact and resolve. Musical frameworks could become regimented and predictable: French operatic forms were so standardized in the 1880s that listeners knew what to expect when hearing new music (Lacombe 274). By contrast, the leitmotifs in Wagner's mature works rely on relationships to what has gone before rather than to a musical format: each theme relates to previous occurrences to create unity. Because they are continuously redefined by their associations and by the context in which they appear (Dahlhaus, "Influence" 562), these melodies are not static. Wagner used the idea of a web - a suggestive metaphor for the reader of À rebours - to describe the function of his leitmotifs within the drama (Dahlhaus, "The Music" 304). Two related threads of leitmotifs that are interwoven throughout the narrative web of Huysmans's novel string together motifs that rely on synaesthesia and motifs that juxtapose religious and sensual imagery.
The belief in an equivalence among the senses has a long history but its French nineteenth-century incarnation is exemplified by Baudelaire's reflections on synaesthesia. Baudelaire suggested in his article Salon de 1846 that the concept of form in music is "essential" to an understanding of colour, thus linking sight and sound (Phillips 352), and proposed a common foundation for all the senses in an innate source,"an ideal beyond sensation" (Marvick 97). Writing about Wagner, the poet described how he was "overcome" with synaesthesia upon hearing some of the composer's music (Rather 69), adding that "what would truly be surprising would be for sound not to suggest color, for colors not to give the idea of a melody, and for sound and color to be incapable of translating ideas; for, ever since the day God uttered the world as a complex and indivisible totality, things have always been expressed in reciprocal analogy" (qtd. in Rather 69).
This relation between the senses informs the first "musical" passage in chapter IV of Huysmans's novel, the episode in which Des Esseintes "plays" the "mouth organ" to create imaginary compositions (39-40). The organ dispenses a variety of individual liqueurs that evoke different instruments, permitting the Duc to be in control of any combination of ensembles and the "interior symphonies" they produce (39). The complexity of aural imagery elicited by the organ demonstrates that synaesthesia in À rebours is not a mere equivalence of senses through simple correspondence, but a tool that transforms Des Esseintes's daily rituals into dramatic performances. Flavours conjure up the quality of the sound in detail, including the timbre of instruments from all sections of the orchestra, which can be combined to create different ensembles:
dry curaçao matched the clarinet whose note is penetrating and velvety; kummel, the oboe with its sonorous, nasal resonance; crème de menthe and anisette, the flute, at once honeyed and pungent, whining and sweet; on the other hand kirsch, to complete the orchestra, resonates in a way extraordinarily like the trumpet; gin and whisky overpower the palate with the strident blasts of their cornets and trombones; liqueur brandy booms forth with the deafening racket of the tubas, to the accompaniment of the rolling thunder of the cymbals and the drum as the rakis of Chios and the mastics strike with all their might upon the skin of the mouth!
He was also of the opinion that the correlation could be extended and that string quartets could perform under the palatal vault, with the violin represented by fine old liqueur brandy, smoky, pungent and delicate; rum, being more robust, more sonorous and rumbling, took the part of the viola; vespetro, heart-rendingly long-drawn-out, melancholy and caressing, was the cello; while an old, pure bitter stood in for the double-bass, vigorous, solid, and black. One could even, if one wanted to form a quintet, add a fifth instrument, the harp, which was very closely imitated by the vibrant flavour and aloof, high-pitched, silvery note of dry cumin. (39-40)
The correspondence is extend to the harmonic structure of the compositions - as in the minor-major key relationship between Benedictine and Chartreuse - that Des Esseintes uses to interpret and conduct the work of others as well as compositions he generates himself (40).
Another multisensorial experiment that alludes to music occurs in chapter X, where Des Esseintes explores his expertise in "olfactory science" by creating complex images with combinations of the vast quantities of perfumes he collects (92). The Duc uses bottled scents the way a poet employs words, a musician orchestrates notes, or an artist arranges colours. Disturbed by a smell that he is hallucinating, Des Esseintes initiates his performance with a "[resolve] to forge ahead, to strike a thunderous chord whose disdainful crash would drown the whispering of that wily frangipani, which was still sneaking stealthily into his room" (96). He conceives of the mixtures as having the same formal structure as poetry, so it is no coincidence that Baudelaire is evoked in a passage in which the perfumes precipitate a synaesthetic episode. The relations between word, image, and music are also suggestive of the enactment of a Wagnerian dramatic work, where it is these elements that come together to form the Gesamtkunstwerk. Thus, perfumes can invoke a leitmotif, an "opening theme, which reappear[s] at carefully determined intervals in the aromatic orchestration of the poem" (97). They can also stimulate intense visual imagery, as when "[h]e ... squirted a few drops of 'New-mown Hay' perfume among the now revived fragrances of lime-trees and meadows, and in the middle of the magic landscape - temporarily divested of its lilacs - haystacks appeared, ushering in a new season, releasing their exquisite emanations into the scented summer air" (98). Des Esseintes eventually gives "free rein to all his balms, so that a demented, sublimated nature exploded into the intolerably hot and stuffy room" (98), an orchestral-like climax that leaves the Duc dizzy and gasping for air.
Since the purpose of the house at Fontenay is to provide a continuous source of these and other synaesthetic possibilities, the appearance of the synaesthetic leitmotif is underwritten by the very definition of Des Esseintes's thébaïde. This theme of sensory stimulation is interwoven in a complex counterpoint with the Duc's physical and mental deterioration as the book progresses. Thus, what in the early chapters are episodes of liberation beyond the corporeal - as in the spectacular performances with the "mouth organ" - become in the later chapters symptoms of Des Esseintes's ailment and a reminder of the limits of his body.
The commingling of sensual and religious imagery is another leading motif that appears throughout the book. It is found, among other places, in the "triptych" of Baudelaire's poetry on a church lectern (15); in the bedroom furnished to resemble a monk's cell, but with expensive fabrics substituting for the more humble materials of the prototype (54); and in Des Esseintes's description of Barbey d'Aurevilly's literary production (129-33). D'Aurevilly's Les diaboliques "was unique among all the works of contemporary apostolic literature, being the only one manifesting that spiritual state, at once devout and blasphemous, to which Des Esseintes, impelled by the nostalgic appeal of Catholicism which his attacks of neurosis brought on, had so often felt drawn" (132). Attempts to merge these two diverging tendencies abound in the protagonist's house, which is repeatedly likened to that of a monk, thus implying a deeper purpose at Fontenay. But rather than transcending the senses through abstinence or mortification, the Duc attempts to do so through overstimulation, driven by a "spiritual" longing that conflates the religious and the profane (176-77).
The house as the site of Des Esseintes's performances extends the analogy with Wagner outside the works themselves and into the theatre at Bayreuth, for the hermeticism of the Duc's retreat is a characteristic shared by the venue almost exclusively dedicated to the German composer's works. James Treadwell goes so far as to state that Bayreuth is Wagner's "most characteristic creation" because it is an attempt to separate the artworks from the world and control their meaning and interpretation, but at the same time it is a dedicated space that "clothes Wagner's scores in flesh" (236-37). Bayreuth is a privileged space where initiates enter to participate in the house of Wagner as the total work of art. In the Duc's house at Fontenay, the meticulous visual, aural, olfactory, and tactile arrangements transform the retreat into a Bayreuth-like stage on which Des Esseintes performs alone a drama of epic proportions.
The narrator's role in À rebours is part of the dramatic effect of the novel in that narration functions here in much the same way as music in a Wagnerian work. The constant stream of narrative provides a cohesive continuity between the aesthetic space of the house and Des Esseintes's "interior"; with no dialogue, it is in this textual space that the evolution of the whole web of leitmotifs takes form for the reader. The narrator's voice as analogous to a musical score is suggested by passages such as the olfactory episode described above, which resembles Romantic metaphorical descriptions of music such as the following by Hector Berlioz:
Weber created moonlight in the accompaniment to Agathe's aria in the second act of Der Freischütz, because the hazy, calm, and melancholy color of his harmonies and the chiaroscuro sonorities of his instruments are a faithful image of those pale glimmers and, moreover, perfectly express the reverie into which the lovers so willingly let themselves fall at the sight of the nighttime orb whose assistance Agathe is now imploring. (qtd. in Lacombe 153)
Since repetition of leading motifs is a basic yet powerful tool that promotes coherence at every level, it is scarcely surprising that Huysmans and Wagner should resort to this technique. Parallels between writer and composer arise less through influence or recognition than from their similar solutions to the challenge of creating formal unity. On the other hand, the passages in the novel that reference the German composer's work suggest a conscious critique of Wagnerism.
Huysmans and the critique of Wagnerism
Huysmans did not know much about Wagner, but he would have acquired some notion of the German composer's philosophy and the scope of his work through the French Wagnerians and close acquaintances such as Henri Céard (Mercier 227). Baudelaire had been an ardent supporter of the German composer and was responsible for providing the original impetus to French Wagnerism with his Richard Wagner et 'Tannhäuser' à Paris, published in 1861 as a reaction to the canceling of the eponymous work earlier that year (Koppen 344). Huysmans would later write a textual representation of the images and emotions evoked by the music of Tannhäuser for the Revue Wagnerienne. Included in the 1886 reissue of his book Croquis Parisiens, the poetic text was heavily indebted to Baudelaire's earlier description (Mercier 228). In this first direct encounter with Wagner's work, Huysmans resorts to the language of À rebours to describe the effects of the multisensorial experience, using "exotic" imagery and sensual allusions that recall the descriptions of Moreau's Salomé painting owned by Des Esseintes. The Venus in Tannhäuser becomes, as she had for Baudelaire, the exemplification of lust: "an allegory of Evil struggling against Good, a symbol of our internal hell opposed to our inner heaven" (Parisian Sketches 157).
The most extended discussion on music in À rebours occurs in chapter XV. It is in this chapter that the clearest indication of Huysmans's interpretation of the total work of art is given in a passage describing the concerts at the Cirque d'Hiver. In these performances,
[p]ortions sliced off and served up in a concert's bill of fare lost all their significance, were deprived of all their sense, for, just as the chapters of a book complement one another and all lead to the same conclusion, to the same objective, Wagner used his melodies to depict the characters of his dramatis personae, embody their thoughts, and express their motives whether visible or hidden, and these ingenious and recurrent repetitions were only comprehensible to those listeners who had followed the subject from its exposition and had watched the characters gradually take shape and grow, in a setting from which they could not be removed without causing them to wither, like cut branches from a tree. (167)
To Mercier, this fragment is paradoxical when juxtaposed with Huysmans's review of the Tannhäuser overture: the former selection suggests that the hermeticism of an unobstructed setting is needed to appreciate Wagner's music; in the latter text Huysmans constructs a review from a written description of Tannhäuser, suggests that it is possible to extrapolate from the overture to understand the whole work, and considers the crowded space of the spectators adequate (Mercier 226-27). This opposition is paradoxical only if one accepts that Huysmans embraced the viability of the Gesamtkunstwerk, but the failure of the maison d'artiste at Fontenay suggests that he did not. Des Esseintes's retreat is clearly ineffective since the ideal of total control is undermined by the limits of the Duc's body. Des Esseintes's "what if" at Fontenay is answered by Huysmans with a definite "no."
Huysmans's translation of the Gesamtkunstwerk into the domestic sphere is suggested by an analogy made by Robert de Montesquiou, the Parisian aesthete on whom Des Esseintes was partially modelled (Banks 94; Mercier 227). Montesquiou described his aesthetic collection as having "no freedom in this flux of bibelots, dyked within strict laws and regulated by thematic correspondences no less systematic, no less ordered than a Wagnerian leitmotiv" (qtd. in Watson 64-65). These words resonate with the conflation of the retreat at Fontenay and the total work of art, for they at once evoke the Duc's house and reiterate the narrator's conception of the Wagnerian artwork in the passage describing the Cirque D'Hiver. Des Esseintes's house also resembles Edmond de Goncourt's La maison d'un artiste, which offers a detailed description of the writer's house and collection, and we learn that Goncourt's La Faustin is one of Des Esseintes's favourite novels: "that enticement to dream which he craved overflowed from the book, where, beneath the printed line, one could detect another line, visible only to the mind, signalled by a qualifier offering glimpses of passion, by an understatement hinting at depths of the soul which no word could satisfy" (148).
This notion of the double line is what Des Esseintes explores as a possibility for art. Huysmans will later label this double line "spiritual naturalism" and use it to describe an art imbued with realism but acknowledging a fundamental, inexpressible mystery, an art he would find exemplified in the paintings of the Northern Renaissance artists (Antosh 12). Huysmans would only define spiritual naturalism in his novel (1891), although he had begun formulating it in a letter to Goncourt in 1882 (Antosh 13). At the time of writing À rebours, it is a notion still not grounded in faith; it is what Des Esseintes seems to have been looking for but not found when in despair he declares "the death of art" (179). The failure of the house at Fontenay would thus suggest that the Gesamtkunstwerk has become, to paraphrase Nietzsche, the sepulchre of art (Nietzsche 181-82).
Because religious music suggests the transcendence of the Middle Ages, it is in plainsong that Des Esseintes searches for the memory traces of spirituality. This music,
now seen as a decadent and barbarous form of the Christian liturgy, as an archeological curiosity, as a relic of the remote past, was the very language of the ancient Church, the soul of the Middle Ages; it was the eternal prayer in song, modulated in accordance with the movements of the soul, the everlasting hymn offered up for centuries past to the Most High. (164-65)
For the Duc, plainsong emanates from a time when faith and aesthetics converged. The anonymity of plainsong (166) suggests a cohesive social milieu with values that are in stark contrast with the individualism of a commercial modernity. "[T]hat admirable Te Deum of plainsong, that hymn of such awe-inspiring simplicity" (166) was the only music "that could truly blend with the ancient basilicas and fill their Romanesque vaults, of which it seemed to be the very emanation and living voice" (165). This compatibility contrasts sharply with Des Esseintes's own house, whose multisensorial "voice" is artificially orchestrated and depends precariously on the isolation of the retreat. Françoise Court-Perez has suggested that the vocal music of plainsong occupies a liminal, in-between space that mediates between the embodied and the transcendental (96); for Béatrice Didier, on the other hand, it is music's untranslatability into text that makes it a metaphor for the transcendental in Huysmans's novels (303). In fact, in À rebours music is "emotional" and just one more tool in an arsenal of perfumes, colours, and liqueurs used to search for an ideal aesthetic realm. In this respect, Schubert's music evokes heightened emotional responses in Des Esseintes every bit as much as plainsong does; neither one occupies a transitional space to spiritual transcendence, because at that point there was no realm "beyond" the here and now.
In the preface written twenty years after the book was first published, Huysmans admits to having no religious inclination at the time of writing À rebours (Against Nature 194-95); yet he regards the passage on plainsong as the wellspring of the writing that was to follow (192). As Jean-Marie Seillan has argued, it was tempting for Huysmans to reassess the significance of the book by placing it in a narrative leading to his religious awakening, thus imposing a unity of purpose on his œuvre (46-57). Barbey D'Aurevilly's remark that Huysmans had positioned himself "to choose between the muzzle of a pistol and the foot of the cross" (Against Nature 197) might have seemed prophetic to the writer of À rebours in 1903, but in 1884 the author made Des Esseintes choose neither one nor the other; the protagonist of À rebours rejects both Schopenhauer and Christianity realizing "that the arguments of pessimism were incapable of giving him comfort, that only the impossible belief in a future life would give him peace" (180).
The cathedrals of the Middle Ages were, for Des Esseintes, a functional symbiosis of music and architecture. Before leaving for Paris in resignation, he had been hopeful the house at Fontenay would be a contemporary solipsistic equivalent, an aesthetic temple reverberating with art. But the domestic interior replete with sensory stimulations was undermined by the protagonist's own body, a fundamental material circumstance he could neither control nor escape. Huysmans's repetition and interweaving of motifs to construct the novel resembles Wagnerian techniques, but it is in the house as a total work of art that reference to the composer's theories is direct and substantial. Like Bayreuth, the protagonist's house is a hermetic performance space. It is also an attempt to contain and control Des Esseintes's underlying metaphysical desire. The author may have wanted to see in this longing the source of his religious awakening, but the Duc rejects the Catholic faith as a solution. Des Esseintes's return to Paris suggests that, at the time of writing the novel, the author rejected the utopianism of the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk and the rarefied domain of the aesthete as substitutes for the long-lost spirituality of the Middle Ages. As Huysmans was writing À rebours, the choice between a pistol and the cross was no choice at all.
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