- Dreams, Nightmares, and Lunacy in En rade: Odilon Redon’s Pictorial Inspiration in the Writings of J.-K. Huysmans
This essay illuminates selected aesthetic approaches that are symptomatic of the key role that Symbolist art played in the evolution of the poetic topoi of folly and madness in fin de siècle French culture, as nineteenth-century Romantic representations of exalted poetic frenzy gradually moved towards twentieth-century Modernist visions of nightmarish absurdity. Arguably, while the former may lead to meaningful prophetic insight, the latter often trigger an acknowledgement of life’s meaninglessness, in European literature and painting alike. In the process of transition, French Symbolism paved the way for such major twentieth-century figures as Joyce or Yeats, among many others.
Within this evolution, Huysmans’s novel En rade (1886), written during the author’s Symbolist phase, is a seminal text. For Huysmans in particular, Symbolism was in many ways defined as an antithesis to Naturalism: more specifically, he applied the former to his prose writing as an artistic method that focused on the irrational world of emotions, fantasies, and dreams. In En rade, similarly to the famous À rebours (1884) that preceded it as Huysmans’s first non-Naturalist novel, the Symbolist outlook finds expression in the protagonist’s rejection of contemporary society, nostalgia for the past, and escape from reality into elaborate fantasy and dream (which is often a decadent nightmare). Indeed, the foolishness (folly) of human society puts the protagonist of En rade, Jacques Marles, on the verge of insanity, or even lunacy. The procedure of inter-art comparison is essential for seeing the novel’s symbolic coherence, since the protagonist is assailed by grotesque nightmares that are largely inspired by Odilon Redon’s phantasmagoric drawings and lithographs of the late 1870s and the 1880s. Huysmans praises the latter in À rebours and in his prose poetry volume Croquis parisiens (second edition, 1886). [End Page 221]
The relationship between Huysmans and Redon is well documented, in primary and secondary sources alike. The first personal contact between the two figures seems to go back to Huysmans’s letter to Redon of 12 February 1882, in which the former expresses his admiration for the latter’s exhibition in the ‘salle des Dépêches’ of the newspaper Le Gaulois in the same year. Huysmans is especially impressed by the fantastic dimension of the lithograph album Dans le Rêve (1879):
Vous allez être sans doute fort étonné de voir qu’un écrivain naturaliste se soit passionné pour vos œuvres si délicieusement et si cruellement fantaisistes.
Charpentier m’a montré, ces jours-ci, vos Rêveries, des planches dont le funèbre comique anglais m’a profondément ravi; j’en rêve, depuis ce temps.1
Huysmans came to meet Redon in person at his atelier soon afterwards; this was followed by a friendship and correspondence that lasted for years, cooling down after Huysmans’s conversion to Catholicism in 1890–1891.2 Indeed, frequent personal contact between Huysmans and Redon was facilitated by the fact that they were neighbours in Paris, living ‘à 2 pas’ (a stone’s throw) from each other.3
Huysmans generously used his significant artistic and editorial contacts in France and elsewhere to promote Redon’s work, which he largely saw as a pictorial validation of his anti-Naturalist aesthetic in the 1880s. This stance can be traced in Huysmans’s famous comments on Redon in L’Art moderne (1883), his collection of essays on art:
Un autre artiste s’est récemment affirmé, en France, dans la peinture du fantastique: je veux parler de M. Odilon Redon.
Ici, c’est le cauchemar transporté dans l’art.4
Il serait difficile de définir l’art surprenant de M. Redon; au fond, si nous exceptons Goya dont le côté spectral est moins divaguant et plus réel, si nous exceptons encore Gustave Moreau dont M. Redon est, en somme, dans ses parties saines, un bien lointain élève, nous ne lui trouverons d’ancêtres que parmi des musiciens peut-être et certainement parmi des poètes.
C’est, en effet, une véritable transposition d’un art dans un autre...