- Huysmans l’inchangé: Histoire d’une conversion
Throughout his career, J.-K. Huysmans resisted the labels "naturalist," "decadent," "symbolist," and "Catholic," arguing that his work, like his life, formed an indivisible whole. Inspired by Huysmans's convictions about the intrinsic unity of his work, Marc Smeets sets out to show that despite the author's well-publicized conversion to Catholicism in the 1890s, Huysmans's style, as well as many of his favorite themes, remained constant. As the book's subtitle - Histoire d'une conversion - suggests, Smeets tells the story of Huysmans's conversion through an examination of letters, journal entries, interviews, and other primary materials. But the book is much more than the chronicle of a conversion: its six chapters deftly explore topics common to all Huysmans's novels - art, saints, communion, flowers, food, sex, and suffering, among others - skillfully relating them to the author's aesthetic and religious [End Page 209] preoccupations. Smeets proposes that such recurring interests reflect a "sensibilité décadente," a tie that unites the seemingly disparate strands of Huysmans's work.
Chapter 1, "De l'art de bien se convertir," presents religious conversion as a profoundly transforming experience, manifestly different for each individual. Providing lengthy case studies of the conversions of Saint Augustine, Pascal, and Léon Bloy, Smeets proposes that nineteenth-century Catholic writers like Bloy and Huysmans, convinced of the importance of literature in and of itself, were not like earlier converts. Torn between writing for religion and writing as religion, they could not satisfactorily subordinate literature to the service of God.
The following chapter, "Une Histoire Spirituelle," uses primary materials to question Huysmans's ambivalence about his conversion. In this meticulously researched section, Smeets concludes that the transformation did not occur in a flash, but as a result of Huysmans's literary research into Satanism and Catholicism. Slowly but surely, his fascination with these topics led to his embrace of religion. This chapter is among the book's strongest, one of the most cogent and subtle studies of Huysmans's conversion in print today.
Huysmans l'inchangé claims that Catholicism was a logical extension of the decadent movement. Chapter 3, "Dieu et la Décadence," elucidates this relationship. Smeets defines decadence as a movement that wanted to "deauthenticize," while simultaneously seeking the authentic; it wished to be artificial, but nonetheless craved a lost order: religion. In this section, Smeets evokes the communion wafer - whose authenticity is guaranteed by the Catholic Church - as an example of the decadent hunger for purity.
"Souffrance et Sanctification," Chapter 4, emphasizes the importance of sick bodies and saintliness for Huysmans and his characters. Beginning with Baudelaire, Smeets traces the sickness trope through the last decades of the nineteenth century, positing it a key to Huysmans's uvre, in which suffering leads to sanctification: "Dans tout malade il y a un saint en herbe." Extending this analogy, Smeets equates the writer agonizing over his craft to a Christian martyr. This chapter is capital, though it also contains the most theoretical slippage. What are the differences for Huysmans between auto-mutilation, sadism, and vicarious suffering? Is admiring paintings of subjects in agony the same as suffering for personal enjoyment or as voluntarily taking on pain in order to expiate the sins of others (as Huysmans did in the last stages of his cancer)? What is a saint and for whom? The reader, presented primarily with examples from Huysmans's works, does not learn, for example, that the form of mystical substitution so lauded in Sainte Lydwine, was heretical. The most decadent aspects of Huysmans's theories are accepted as doctrinal, thus transforming Catholicism into a reflection of decadent ideals. One forgets that suffering, for Catholics of Huysmans's generation, was a means, not an end; given belief in the afterlife, the converted Durtal's inability to find happiness in his lifetime was not the failure it represented for Des Esseintes.
The final chapter, "Au Restaurant de l'âme," provides an often brilliant reading of Huysmans's obsession with food, sex, and religion. Smeets reveals the...