- The Mirror of Divinity: The World and Creation in J.-K. Huysmans
J.-K. Huysmans, nicknamed "K.-K. (Caca) Huysmans" by the press for creating characters plagued with digestive ailments, is a particularly good candidate for psychoanalytic interpretation. Indeed, a host of scholars including Jean Borie, Julia Przybos, and Jean-Marie Seillan have successfully mined Huysmans's work in this vein, evaluating his predilection for topics such as indigestion, impotence, misogyny, and nostalgia. In The Mirror of Divinity, Robert Ziegler contributes to this corpus of Freudian interpretation while providing valuable new insights into Huysmans's puzzling shift from Naturalism to Catholicism.
Ziegler uses the figure of the mirror to evoke Huysmans's quest to find legibility in the world. It is not simply the Naturalist microscope, focused on reality; it also becomes a narcissistic Decadent looking glass and then a cipher, a means of translating symbols. Each of the book's three sections traces Huysmans's attempts to come to terms with his source material, concluding that the novelist's fictional oeuvre is held together by his search to understand how art should represent reality. Art itself, argues Ziegler, is a mirror, the hidden key to understanding Huysmans's oeuvre.
In the first section, "The Mirror of Reality," Ziegler argues that Huysmans never truly ascribed to the Naturalist aesthetic. Instead, beginning with Le Drageoir aux épices, his impulse was to mediate reality through art, describing the world in terms of pre-existing paintings, sketches, or poems. Discussing Marthe, Les Soeurs Vatard, "Sac au Dos," "Emile Zola et L'Assommoir," En Ménage, and A Vau-l'eau, Ziegler shows the contradiction between Naturalism's goal of representing an "undistorted reflection of the real," and Huysmans's tendency to filter the real through the "screen of his art," to improve reality with his style.
Huysmans abandoned his Naturalist project, Ziegler concludes, because the sensorial overload of reality became a madhouse. In the second section, "The Mirror of the Self," he reveals that Huysmansian heroes escaped from the cacophony of the outside world by retreating into the silence of tightly controlled private environments. Directing the mirror from the outside world to themselves, they replaced reality with narcissism. Examining A Rebours, En Rade, Un Dilemme, and La Retraite de Monsieur Bougran, Ziegler concludes that this claustration provided no more understanding of the world than direct analysis; his characters long for the comprehension that eludes them; they are nostalgic for the alleged transparency of Catholicism, a religion they cannot embrace.
The final section, "The Mirror of Divinity," equates the writer's experiments to alchemy, in which material is violently transformed in the quest for a purer form. Discussing Là-Bas, En Route, La Cathédrale, Sainte Lydwine de Schiedam, L'Oblat, and Les Foules de Lourdes, Ziegler chronicles Huysmans's conversion to Catholicism, revealing how the discovery of God shrank his authorial ego and led to an expanding world view. Suddenly, Huysmans's writer-characters understand that it is not they who assign [End Page 189] meaning to the world, but God who does so; their previous incomprehension was the result of a failure to listen. Increasingly, they realize that it is more important to recognize and emulate God's artistry than to create it themselves. Discussion of the medieval concept of the mirror as a speculum (mentioned by Huysmans and contemporary Emile Mâle) would have further reinforced this point, since unlike a true mirror, in which one sees things as they are, medieval specula showed things as they ought to be.
Ziegler proposes that Huysmans himself progressively abdicated authorial responsibility in these late novels, allowing objects to speak for themselves. He "emptied the text of the author in order to make room for the material." These concluding comments about art, God, and self-sacrifice are rich and explain many of the questions surrounding what scholars consider the defects of Huysmans's post-conversion novels: lack of plot, increased space given to enumeration, the bland "style gris." Ziegler's conclusion that Husymans performs divine alchemy...