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23. October 2019

Literary Looks: Jean Floressas des Esseintes


Yves Yannick Stork

This time around, Literary Looks takes a closer look at Joris-Karl Huysmans‘ Against Nature (1884). The novel is regarded as one of the foundational works of the Decadent movement. It triggered the moral decay of a certain Dorian Gray and celebrated Théophile Gauthier’s tenet of art for art’s sake.

The novel, lacking anything resembling a causally connected plot, follows the young aristocrat Floressas des Esseintes (henceforth: Des Esseintes). Disgusted by Parisian society, Des Esseintes retreats to a mansion in the periphery of Fontenay. Des Esseintes, who is the last member of his bloodline (due to a history of incestuous relationships), is characterised as a frail young man of thirty, anaemic and nervous, with hollow cheeks, eyes of a cold, steely blue, a small but still straight nose, and long, slender hands.

For fear of making any kind of contact with other human beings, Des Esseintes demands his servants behave as inconspicuously as possible. He avoids society at all costs. However, his self-imposed isolation eventually leads to unbearable boredom and lethargy. Des Esseintes attempts to escape this state by engaging with the arts, the artificial, and any means of aestheticising his existence. His attempts to bring his ennui to an end are moments of uncurbed creativity.

Hence, the reader is confronted with what can only be described as a disturbing journey through the protagonist’s mind. At first, Des Esseintes contemplates the meaning of wall colours. To him, the most pressing question is how specific shades appear when illuminated by his lamps – i.e. under artificial light. He creates eccentric scents, indulges in sexual phantasies and encrusts a tortoise with diamonds and gold. Having decorated his rooms with artificial flowers, produced by some of the most renown craftsmen in Paris, he later turns to gardening and orders a variety of natural flowers. Their appeal, though, lies in the fact that their appearance reminds him of artificial flowers. He wished to go one step beyond. Instead of artificial flowers imitating real flowers, natural flowers should mimic the artificial ones. Eventually, the plants wither, and the tortoise suffocates from its embellishment.

Likewise, Des Esseintes’s insatiable search for new sensory stimuli leads to an ever-increasing exhaustion. When his doctor advises him to return to society in order to improve his health, Des Esseintes exclaims: Well, crumble then, society! Perish, old world! […] To think that I am about to go back into the degraded and slavish mob of the century!

Overcoming his initial doubts, Des Esseintes does indeed gather his remaining energy and decides to leave his suburban exile for a trip to London. (Who can blame him?) It is at this point that his interest in clothing becomes most apparent. In preparation for the trip, he needs to decide which outfit to wear for his return to society. He chooses a suit ordered some time before from London. By now, there should be no doubt about his taste in clothing. The suit is grey with a light-grey check. Des Esseintes obviously expects the weather in London to be gloomy, thus, matching the colour of his suit. In combination with the grey suit, he wears lace-up shooting boots with broguing, an inverness-cape, a little round hat, and drab silk socks. An extravagant choice which, nevertheless, seems perfectly adequate in terms of practicality and colour. Despite having meticulously crafted this outfit, Des Esseintes will never actually travel to London. He arrives in Paris, where his journey is supposed to begin, on a rainy, foggy day. The gloominess triggers his imagination which is further supported by the discovery of a London-Baedeker guide book. Right before he is supposed to get on the train to London, Des Esseintes decides that there is absolutely no justification for all the effort. He claims that he has experienced everything that he could have experienced in London anyways. The poignant summary of his journey follows promptly: He loitered idly in this London of the imagination.

Before Des Esseintes had turned to his self-imposed isolation, his clothing was equally extravagant: He won a great reputation as an eccentric, – a reputation he crowned by adopting a costume of black velvet worn with a gold-fringed waistcoat and sticking by way of cravat a bunch of Parma violets in the opening of a very low-necked shirt.

After his abortive trip to London, his health gradually declines and Des Esseintes has to make some changes to his wardrobe. Due to his increasing stomach pain, he no longer feels comfortable wearing a buttoned trouser-belt or a buckled waistcoat. In this phase, I imagine him wearing silk morning robes with Kimono-prints inspired by his fascination for Japan. The prints might resemble the motifs which adorn his Japanese room. After all, even the ornamentation of his tortoise is modelled on a Japanese drawing of flowers.

Now, did we spark your interest in a trip to London? Are you making an inventory of your favourite writings from the Catholic tradition? Or are you simply trying to escape from society in the upcoming months?

Inspired by Des Esseintes’ wardrobe, we would like to make the following suggestions: For the quieter days spent at home, you might have a look at our pyjamas and morning robes. Kimono-prints in muted colours would certainly look wonderful: cranes, violets and cherry blossoms are classic motifs – either on black or navy silk.

Should you be obliged to take part in society, you might opt for something more serious. We would suggest a mid-grey, three-piece, flannel suit. Instead of a window or gun check, Glen check is a more dashing option. Replace the purple violets with a tie in the very same colour and combine it with a lilac shirt, black Chelsea boots and – should you indeed be taking a trip to London – do not forget your umbrella.