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  • The Dream of the Hermetic Utopia:A rebours as Allegory for the World after Germ Theory
  • Debra Segura (bio)

In the late nineteenth century, a concern with cleanliness and purity emerges in the work of European literary artists and essayists. For instance, John Ruskin declares that "the beginning of art is in getting our country clean, and our people beautiful" in promoting his program for political and public health reform (76, my emphasis). A similar quest for purity in the aesthetic realm is manifest in Walter Pater's assertion that "all art does but consist in the removal of surplusage" (402). For Pater, such surplusage is "abhorrent to the true literary artist" who endeavors to realize the "elementary particles of language" (402). In the realm of philosophy, Nietzsche quips that "[a] man with genius is unendurable if he does not also possess at least two other things: gratitude and cleanliness" (73).

This desire for cleanliness and purification is particularly pronounced in Joris-Karl Huysmans' novel A rebours (1884). In this work, the "grêle" protagonist, Duc Jean Des Esseintes, "anémique et nerveux," effects to realize his dream of "une thébaïde raffinée, à un desert confortable . . . où il se réfugierait loin de l'incessant déluge de la sottise humaine" that proliferates in the capital city ("slender" . . . "anemic and nervous" . . . "an exquisitely refined and profound solitude, to a comfortable desert . . . where he would take refuge far from the incessant deluge of human stupidity") (28, 33).1 The setting he chooses for this idyll is a small house on a hill in [End Page 49] Fontenay-aux-Rose, "un pays peu ravagé par les Parisiens," where "la hauteur où elle était assise, son isolement, ne laissaient pas pénétrer jusqu'à elle le brouhaha des immondes foules" ("a village little ruined by the Parisiens," . . . "the elevation upon which it was situated, its isolation, kept it from being infiltrated by the brouhaha of the filthy mobs") (35, 53). Des Esseintes' self-imposed exile from the metropolis seems to prefigure an adherence to Nietzsche's tenet that "solitude is with us a virtue: it is a sublime urge and inclination for cleanliness which divines that all contact between man and man—'in society'—must inevitably be unclean. All community makes somehow, somewhere, sometime—'common'" (195).

Des Esseintes' quest for purity and cleanliness does not merely take place on the metaphysical plane. His nervous disorder produces frequent and genuine physical pain. Moreover, his weak constitution renders him susceptible to disease and illness; somehow he has survived a childhood "[m]enacée de scrofules, accablée par d'opiniâtres fièvres," enervated by "la chlorose" ("susceptible to scrofula, laid low by persistent fevers," . . . "chlorosis") (28). Into adulthood, Des Esseintes' identity is as an invalid: He maintains the atmosphere of an infirmary in his domestic arrangements and his servants grow accustomed "à un emploi de garde-malade," dispensing "d'heure en heure, des cuillerées de potion et de tisane" ("accustomed to the job of orderly," . . . "hour by hour spoonfuls of medical potions and infusions") (46).

Scholars have noted the generic connections between Huysmans' narrative and rhetorical conventions in the medical literature. In her article "Le Discours médical pris au piège du récit," Françoise Gaillard demonstrates how Huysmans followed, and in turn undermined, the structural model of the medical monograph or treatise in presenting the "case study" of Des Esseintes ("Medical Discourse Caught in the Snare of Narrative"). Ludmilla Jordanova likewise asserts that the themes, imagery, and structure of the novel conform to, and verge on, parodying certain models of medical literature, namely, the case study and the advice book on achieving good health (115-18). Methodologically, the case study isolates and focuses tightly upon the individual so as to read the context from the vantage point of, and in terms of relevance to, the sick subject.

I would like to zoom the lens out in order to see the subject not just in the rhetorical traditions of scientific and medical discourse, not just in the context of the gender and class issues that Jordanova addresses, but in a broader cultural and historical landscape. The medical and biological sciences...


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