The Dandy and the Decadent

Floressas des Esseintes as imagined by Jules Marie Auguste Leroux

Some thoughts on J.K. Huysmans À Rebours

 “Alain n’avait jamais regardé le ciel ni la façade des maisons, ni le pavé de bois, les choses palpitantes; il n’avait jamais regardé une rivière ni une forêt; il vivait dans les chambres vides de la morale: ‘Le monde est imparfait, le monde est mauvais. Je réprouve; je condamne, j’anéantis le monde’. “
 (Alain had never looked at the sky or the facades of the houses or the wooden pavings, the things full of life; he had never looked at a river or a forest; he lived in rooms empty of morality: “The world is imperfect, the world is wicked. I reprove, I condemn, I destroy the world.”)

Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, Le Feu follet

As far as des Esseintes is concerned it is but one trait that interests me: That of dandyism in decadence. The origins of dandyism proper go back to the Regency and in the main center around one man: George Bryan „Beau“ Brummell, whom the writer and illustrator Max Beerbohm quite rightfully called the „father of modern costume“: George Brummell was born June 7th, 1778, the son of William Brummell, private secretary to the prime minister Lord North, and his wife Mary Richardson. His paternal grandfather was a servant. These humble origins he later obscured by making them even lowlier then they were anyway: “Who ever heard of George B’s father,” he would say, “and who would ever have heard of George B himself, if he had been anything but what he is?” Brummell’s father, however, had acquired enough of a fortune to buy some land and send George to Eton, where the boy distinguished himself by taking fastidiousness to extremes in his choice of clothing, earning the nickname ‘Buck’ Brummell. During his time at Eton and especially later at Oxford, George was successful in acquiring friends among the “first families of England”. He made the acquaintance of the “First Gentleman of Europe”, the Prince of Wales, later George IV, during his time at Oxford. Subsequently, it was the Prince who obtained an officer’s commission for him in his personal regiment, the 10th Hussars. Despite his antipathy towards military service, Brummell managed to become very popular and win some aristocratic friends among the members of this supremely elegant regiment. Unfortunately, his division was soon transferred to Manchester, which Brummell considered beyond the call of duty; he promptly retired from the army with the rank of captain.

The beginnings of Brummell’s existence in London coincided with his coming into the inheritance left him by his late father. Though modest in comparison with the fortunes of his aristocratic friends, this inheritance provided him with considerable means, and he now began his self-invention as a dandy, distancing himself from his family and completely ostracizing his brother and sister. In 1797 he moved into apartments that he furnished exquisitely yet not extravagantly. The next step in his evolution into a dandy came with the creation of a stage on which to show off his art: through the patronage of the Prince of Wales and the friends he had made in the army, he gained access with ease to the most exclusive gentlemen’s clubs in London. Soon he became the most respected and – on account of his sharp tongue – the most feared member of Brooks’s and White’s; he was also the first non-aristocrat on the guest lists for the balls at Almack’s. From the bay window at White’s, this arbiter elegantiarum in the making delivered his often damning judgements on the clothing of passers-by. At Almack’s balls, where he appeared late and stayed briefly in order to achieve maximum impact, his company was sought by the most beautiful women – yet it is not certain that he ever indulged in a single affair of the heart. All men sought to copy his style and the “First Gentleman of Europe” followed his counsel more or less blindly. A baronet is supposed to have asked Brummell’s tailor whether he would recommend the Prince’s preferred cloth or the Beau’s; “I think Mr Brummell has a trifle the preference,” the tailor dared to venture.

St.Brummell by Massimiliano Mocchia di Coggiola

In the long run, the future king found the dandy’s nonchalant superiority intolerable. Apart from Brummell’s precisely aimed impertinence – “Ring the bell, George,” he was once heard to command the Prince when a servant was needed – the admiration and friendship that the Prince had originally felt for  this subject who was sixteen years his junior eventually turned into an unwillingness to bear his insufferable insubordination any longer, and in 1811 they fell out irrevocably. At first this falling out was of little concern to Brummell as he was still surrounded by influential friends – indeed he even proceeded to cut the Prince Regent dead in public. But in 1816 his prohibitively high debts, largely acquired at the gaming tables, forced him to leave London virtually overnight. The twenty years of his reign were followed by twenty-four increasingly bitter ones in exile. Initially he still managed to set himself up in Calais in somewhat inappropriate comfort – considering his debts – and kept himself entertained with visits from friends and curious travellers.

The final decline started when he got the first job – even if it was a sinecure –of his life. In order to help him to pay off his debts, the Duke of Wellington managed to have him appointed British Consul in Caen. But the required repayments were vastly disproportionate to his salary, and his situation deteriorated rapidly, culminating in the abandonment of the Consulate in Caen by the Crown. In 1835, at the instigation of his creditors, Brummell spent two months in debtors’ prison. After his release, the remainder of his life was little more than a dance of death: he subsisted – despite his circumstances – on his favourite delicacy, the dainty and rather expensive biscuit rose de Reims; and his increasingly threadbare clothes were patched up for free by a sympathetic tailor. In 1840 the Beau had descended to a state of not only financial but also mental anguish that was intolerable (actually Brummell had suffered episodes of depression throughout his life. According to his biographer Ian Kelly these ‘blue devils’ in their chronic later form were probably symptoms of syphilis). Eventually Brummell was carried off to an asylum where he was soon to die, crying, “Loose me, scoundrels! I owe nothing!”

While dandyism in England, as exemplified by Brummell’s fate, was often of a perilously personal nature, French dandyism developed into an ideal, an abstraction. Around the middle of the 19th century French dandyism was primarily a literary doctrine, a wave of intellectual revolt. In the last decade of the century this vague dandyiste was to rebound to England and provide the ideological fundament for the naughty nineties. The centre of the decadent ideology was doubtlessly provided by À Rebours, the book which the cultural historian Mario Praz called the “pivot around which the ideology of the whole decadent movement was centred”. While Brummell stands at the beginning of a modernism that was empowered by classicism, “ A Rebours “ ironically marks the turning point in Joris Karl Huysmans oeuvre which in the end was to  lead him away entirely from the form of classical literature embodied by the novel.

Huysmans the naturalist

Huysman had started his literary career as a Naturalist. With the hopefulness of the literary beginner he had sought contact with  Emile Zola  in 1876, in order to give the “Master of Médan” ( the location of the house which Zola had financed by his  relatively recent success) a few manuscripts to read. Zola soon welcomed Huysmans amongst his acolytes, not least because he was always keen to use aspiring authors as researchers. Consequently Huysmans early novels concerned themselves with some of the favourite topics of naturalism. Five years before Zola’s chef d’oeuvre “ Nana “, Huysmans first novel Marthe (1876) dealt in an entirely unsentimental manner with the life of a prostitute. His second novel Les Soeurs Vatard takes place in a small bookbinders, a milieu very much familiar to Huysmans: after his lithographer father’s early death his stepfather took over the family bookbinding business which was located on the ground floor of Huysman’s mother’s house in the rue de Sévres (The exotic bindings of  des Esseintes books were then to assume a prominent role in the diametrically opposed milieu of  À Rebours . The book itself is thought to feature in Wilde’s Dorian Gray as “the yellow book”).

In En Ménage (1881) Huysmans concerns itself with the according to him little desirable state of matrimony. Huysmans had only had one early and most disconcerting experience of cohabitation with a young actress after which he contented himself with prostitutes and mistresses who kept their own apartment. A pragmatic decision to keep rather unavoidable crises juponnières under control. His next very brief book was À Vau l’Eau an indictment of Parisian gastronomy in which he describes the awful fare his delicate stomach had been subjected to in the capitals restaurants in great detail. This vein is continued in Huysmans’  Croquis Parisiens, brief dispatches from the milieu of Parisian workers which gain a negativist poetry specifically by their wallowing in the mostly base and down-at-heel aspects of day to day life.  The mythical flip-side of ordinary Parisian life was later made to shine by Aragon in his Le Paysan de Paris.

One of the reasons for the volte-face which À Rebours signifies in Huysmans’ oeuvre was his increasing disgust with the modern world which had been  nourished by precisely this excursive research into Parisian day-to-day living. Another was a stylistic weariness. As Valéry was to point out later, Huysman had paved the way for the transition from naturalism to Symbolism – the inevitable result of a style that had been taken to its outer limits, a kind of systematic heightening of expression. Parallel to his literary endeavours Huysmans also engaged himself as an agitator for Impressionist painting. Huysmans’ discovery of Degas’ painting in an exhibition in 1876 proved to be a Damascene revelation in his ideas about art and representation. In his ensuing art-criticisms – which after some difficulty were published in 1883 under the title L’Art Moderne – he praised the new “living and breathing” art with a measure of enthusiasm equalled by his simultaneous contempt for the academic, classicist art of the salon. Naturally some of these early enthusiasms can still be found in À Rebours. After extensive aesthetic / philosophical musings Huysmans relapses into an hyperrealistic tone when he describes des Esseintes psychosomatic illnesses –  he talks quite unceremoniously about the latter’s périnée humide and a few other graphic details. Originally the central role in the pages that deal with fine art was to be played by a painting by Degas rather than Moreau’s Salomé dansant devant Hérode. It is here that the leap from the depiction of the horreurs of the modern world to her complete renunciation takes place.

In the spring of 1883 Huysmans wrote to his friend Théodore Hannon of his being “buried in the depths of writing a most peculiar novel, a little spirutual, a little homosexual, the story of the end of an old family, corroded by the memories of a religious upbringing and nervous disorders. A novel with only one character! I think it will be quite curious. Especially as it contains the the ultimate refinements of everything: Literature, art, flowers, interiors, gems,  Zola could hardly interpret the concentration on a figure so atypical and ‘anti-social’ as anything other than a personal affront when À Rebours was published in 1884. The central and ultimately only character in the novel is that of the aristocratic dandy Floressas des Esseintes who has turned his back on the world of mass-consumption and mass-manipulation formerly inhabited by Huysmans, in order to dedicate himself solely to the complete and isolated  cultivation of his aesthetic preferences. We find des Esseintes in a phase of his life in which excesses of ‘active decadence’ have somewhat weakened him and he has retreated to a self-created hermitage in the banlieue. Here he fights his ennui with stylistic recreations of the most refined kind, virtual excessses, the creation of taste-symphonies made up from exotic liqueurs in his palate and the study of ecclesiastical and late-period Roman literature. Being the last in an aristocratic lineage which has become increasingly anaemic over the generations, des Esseintes is hyper nervous and pathologically sensitive to everything and everybody. Similarly as in Wilde’s Dorian Gray we only get a very vague impression which pleasures have so oversatiated des Esseintes that his eyes – d’un bleu froid d’acier – look at his surroundings with universal disdain at this stage. Sexually we learn however that it was a scale which began with singers and actresses, then lead him via the périlleuses caresses of mistresses of great virtuosity in the arts of lovemaking to increasingly base whores and ultimately to amours exceptionelles and joies déviées. The apparently unavoidable consequences of this polymorphous kaleidoscope are lethargy and impotence. The retreat into pure aesthetics separated from contents is ultimately doomed to failure: Des Esseintes doctor – a pragmatist devoid of metaphysical inclinations – gives his patient only two choices towards the end of the book: return to ‘healthy’ life or imminent death.

Des Esseintes dissapearing courtesy of VVeylie

When measuring des Esseintes dandyism against the Brummellian ideal there are two aspects which need to be considered. The first is the decline inherent to the ideal. By his nature a living art-piece, the dandy aspires not to the state of doing but that of being. Perfected early on, he faces eternity. The philosopher Otto Mann boils the dandy’s idleness down to its essence: “…it (his idleness) is not a natural flight from achievement but a philosophically dictated lack of realisation”. Des Esseintes refusal of profitable endeavours is similarly a  silent protest against barbarised, useful man. In October 1882 Huysmans had written to Mallarmé à propos À Rebours : “Repulsed by the American way of life, full of disdain for the new money-aristocracy, the last representative of an illustrious family retreats into absolute solitude”.  As well as by commerce, des Esseintes is horrified by any kind of collective identity, like e.g. nationality and the public world of politics in general, “cette basse distraction des esprits médiocres”.  But it is of course idleness that is the source of all melancholy as already Plutarch knew. The flip sides of the euphoria of complete stylisation – existential angst, dereliction and depression – rarely fail to reveal themselves to the dandy.  He lacks the armoury to fight them. He finds himself as Otto Mann notes : “… without religion, without Heimat, without political beliefs, without the support of a creative force as such; furthermore without the possibility of anaesthesia, without a soothing relationship to nature and quickly sated and wearied by women.” But the dandy does not understand the – in parallel to classical tragedy – inevitability of his descent  as compromising his dandyism. Melancholia, dereliction and early death are the flowers of evil which he wears as a buttonhole. Indeed the desire for a tragic destiny remains the only aspiration of the dandy who is free of worldly ambition. He realises himself in death as his life becomes like his appearance before a unified whole.

Hence the maladroitness at life that des Esseintes encounters in society as well as after his retreat into solitude (Huysmans’ original title was Seul) does not contradict his dandyism. Furthermore he is an appropriate character in the pantheon of modernity, especially because of his disgust with it. The spirit of Baudelaire, whom des Esseintes extols over several pages, provides us with a key to his ambiguous relationship with modernity. In this sense Huysmans himself was – until his retreat to the cloisters –  a flaneur parisien if a flaneur à rebours, willfuly perverse in his choice of locations. Despite the fact that Huysmans set his reportages to a background of misery and poverty, it wasn’t the social but the aesthetic aspect that he was interested in. Viewed from this angle À Rebours describes the flaneur’s last station: The attempt to stand still. Particulary poignant in this context is the episode of the ‘journey to England’. Despite seemingly telling the story of the failure of a planned aesthetic experience, the intensity and the perceptiveness with which des Esseintes senses fragments of English life in Paris, which he combines in his mind with actual memories of England to form a sufficiently English experience, are of Proustian accuracy and modernity. The fact that the experience ultimately remains virtual does not diminish it – quite the opposite it enhances its intensity. This episode is interesting also in another aspect: It is the only passage in À Rebours which refers to the root of French dandyism in anglophilia or rather anglomania. When des Essseintes describes a particularly discreet English bespoke suit he has chosen for the journey, he indirectly bows to Brummell.

The truth the dandy represents consists of the seamless amalgamation of form and contents, of artificiality and naturalness. Huysmans gives us a wonderful metaphor for dandyism when he speaks of des Esseintes horticultural experiments: “Après les fleurs factices singeant les véritables fleurs, il voulait des fleurs naturelles imitant des fleurs fausses.“ (Tired of artificial flowers aping real ones, he wanted some natural flowers that would look like fakes). A further apparent contradiction in the character of the dandy is his looking back at the aristocratic on one hand and his role as harbinger of democracy on the other. The dandy appears as Baudelaire said “especially in those periods of transition when democracy has not yet become all-powerful, and when aristocracy is only partially weakened and discredited”. The nostalgic side of this Janus-head is much stronger in des Esseintes and rarely do we find a more elegant description of the joys of nostalgia in literature: „ En effet, lorsque l’époque où un homme de talent est obligé de vivre, est plate et bete, l’artiste est, à son insu meme, hanté par la nostalgie d’un autre siècle. Ne pouvant s’harmoniser qu’a de rares intervalles avec le milieu où il évolue; ne découvrant plus dans l’examen de ce milieu et des créatures qui le subissent, de jouissances d’observation et d’analyse suffisantes à le distraire, il sent sourdre et éclore en lui de particuliers phénomènes.  De confus désirs de migration se lévent qui se débrouillent dans la réflexion et dans l’étude. Les instincts, les sensations, les penchants légues par l’hérédité se rèveillent, se dèterminent, s’imposent avec une impérieuse assurance. Il se rapelle des souvenirs d’etres et de de choses qu’il n’a pas personnellement connus, et il vient un moment où il s’évade violemment du pénitencier de son siécle et rode, en toute liberté, dans une autre èpoque avec laquelle, par une dernière illusion, il lui semble qu’il eut été mieux en accord.“ (The fact is that when the period in which a man of talent is condemned to live is dull and stupid, the artist is haunted, perhaps unknown to himself, by a nostalgic yearning for another age. Unable to attune himself, except at rare intervals, to his environment, and no longer finding in the examination of that environment and the creatures who endure it sufficient pleasures of observation and analysis to divert him, he is aware of the birth and the development in himself of unusual phenomena. Vague migratory longings spring up which find fulfilment in reflection and study. Instincts, sensations, inclinations bequeathed to him by heredity awake, take shape, and assert themselves with imperious authority. He recalls memories of people and things he has never known personally, and there comes a time when he bursts out of the prison of his century and roams about at liberty in another period, with which, as a crowning illusion, he imagines he would have been more in accord.)

The second and dominating aspect in the judgement of des Esseintes dandyism however is the decline of the ideal itself. This decline can be detected in des Essseintes himself but in parallel also in the significance of À Rebours in the cultural history of dandyism. As the dandy defines himself through his clothing, dandyism also entails a general distance from the feminine. It seems that Brummell maintained mostly platonic relationships with women – he was a close friend of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and Frederica, Duchess of York, remained a strong support throughout his time of exile. It is not known whether this lack of amours was the result of a bad experience. What is clear, however, is that the possible consequences of love – a wife and children – would have meant an unbearable atavism for someone who had already divested himself of his birth family. Just as parents and siblings had hindered his self-realization, a wife and children would have hindered his self-cultivation. Even if we assume that he would have been capable of an amourette within the confines of the rules perfected by the previous century, he was clearly no Valmont. Of course the assumption that Brummell was homosexual, and even that the dandy as such is homosexual, is ever close at hand. Indeed the cultural historian Egon Fridell posited that the whole of classicism was homosexual in its approach: “The homosexual eye predominantly sees contour, usage of space, outline, beauty of line, plasticity. The homosexual eye has no sense for dissolved form, blurring valeurs, purely painterly impressions. And so, looked at in the bright light of day, the whole idée fixe of ‘classicism’ stems from the sexual perversion of a German provincial antiquary.”He is of course referring to Winckelmann, who had the following to say about gender and the appreciation of art: “I have noticed that those who are solely aware of the beauty of the female gender and are hardly or not at all touched by the beauty of our own gender, are not usually blessed with an easy, lively and general appreciation of beauty in art.” But his origins in masculine-dominated classicism do not necessarily draw the dandy to homosexuality. It is far more his leaning towards the cerebral – the rational paired with an over-developed sensibility directed exclusively towards one goal – that makes him wary of sensual abandon. Although woman is the opposite of the dandy, according to Baudelaire, he does not despise her. Because of his roots in classicism, he seeks to overcome the female principle by either ousting or incorporating it. An androgynous appearance and a vaguely effeminate manner serve to adorn him. Indeed, effeminacy is often a characteristic of the Englishman’s portrayal of cultivated masculinity. Furthermore, the dandy’s social life is necessarily dominated by men. To display his art he requires a public made up of tailoring cognoscenti. Generally these are male.

In the final analysis the answer to the question of sexuality in Brummell’s case seems to be ‘nothing’ while in des Esseintes case it is ‘everything’ The dandy of the Fin de siecle replaces Brummell’s asexuality with the celebration of sexual marginality and pathology.What emerges as the definition of decadence is the progressive replacement of the harmony of form and content by sensual stimulation. Otto Mann sees parallels to this emphasis on sensuality in the modern art of the late nineteenth century: “A new irrational melody, its strength revealed by Schumann, its weakness by Mendelssohn, a new perception of the soul, far removed from Bach’s dryness and depth, far removed from the sweet yet measured clarity of Mozart, a diminishing of rationality, a surplus of sensuality . . .’ ‘Baudelaire,’ Mann continues, ‘whose instincts were always so accurate, occasionally found in the fervent, despotic music of Wagner, painted on a backdrop of darkness, the swooning traces of opium… Equally, one is struck by the transition from the superior deep harmony of Rembrandt’s colours to the brilliant inflammation of a Delacroix, from the sculptures of Michelangelo to those of Rodin, from the sonnets of Shakespeare to those of Baudelaire.”  The inherent problem of this survival by sensual stimulation lies in the law of ever diminishing returns, of dulling of the senses. To retain its power, the stimulus has to become ever finer or coarser. To the dandy, who is already defined by being excessively sensitive, the ceiling in terms of refinement is soon reached – he needs stronger, coarser incitements. Thus the relative failure of fin-de-siècle dandyism seems to derive not so much from its decadence as from its vulgarity. 

The point of discussion here is of course taste which is the question sine qua non to the dandy. It then appears – to paraphrase Proust’s Swann – that des Esseintes doesn’t lack taste, no much worse: he has got HIS. It has to be admitted that the classicist taste of Brummell – which is attacked at every point by des Esseintes (as for example in his condemnation of classicist academién poets: „…cette volontaire décrepitude à laquelle l’avaient réduite les Malesherbe, les Boileau, les Andrieux, les Baour-Lormian, les bas distillateurs de ses poèmes.“-…and in short resolutely repudiated the voluntary decrepitude to which it had been reduced by its Malesherbes, its Boileaus, its Andrieux, its Baour-Lormians, the vulgar distillers of its poems), has, by the late 19th century, become the taste of  the establishment, of the Salon. Hence each attempt at formulating an avant-garde at this stage could be perceived as an indirect affront to Brummell. The germ of decadence caused even more alarming inflammations once it had travelled to England. As the authoritative chronicler of 19th century dandyism, Ellen Moers, describes it  “dandies and corruption, dandies and sin, dandies and les fleur du mal “ became partners in klischee in the ‘naughty nineties’. Baudelaire’s ideal dandy was made ridiculous by the posing of Dorian Gray, holding a yellow-bound copy of À Rebours, and seeing evil as merely a way of realising his ideas of beauty.” Wilde’s mind had been ill-formed by the teachings of Walter Pater and John Ruskin, whose lectures he had attended at Oxford. Ruskin with his Christian moralistic views on art, which had long been suppressed by Wilde but chastened by his term in prison,  he gave them full expression in his ‘serious’ work De Profundis. The differentiation between seriousness and posing is in itself undandyistic: the dandy takes his appearance seriously. Pater, whom Wilde emulated in his l’art pour l’art-hedonism, his blind adoration of beauty as an end in itself. After having been an ardent admirer, Marcel Proust was to accuse Ruskin of idolatry late in life: “The search for the outer beauty of symbols rather than the truth they contain.” Des Essences himself keeps coming up against the limitations of pure style: „Ne pouvant plus s’enivrer à nouveau des magies du style…“ ( No longer able to intoxicate himself afresh with the magical charms of style…). So he attempts to use his aestheticism to re-access his catholic education: „Il n’y a pas à dire, pensait des Esseintes  s’essayant à se raisonner,à suivre la marche de cette ingestion de l’élément Jésuite, à Fontenay; j’ai, depuis mon enfance, et sans que je l’aie jamais su, ce levain qui n’avait pas encore fermenté; ce penchant meme que j’ai toujours eu pour le objets religieux en est peut-etre une preuve.“ (‘there is no doubt about it, Des Esseintes said to himself, after a searching attempt to discover how the Jesuit element had worked its way to the surface at Fontenay; ‘ ever since boyhood, and without my knowing it, I’ve had this leaven inside me, ready to ferment; the taste I’ve always had for religious objects may be proof of this.’) These musings culminate in a highly amusing lament of the decline of holy mass, singling out the consistence of the eucharistic bread  „Or, Dieu se refusait à descendre dans la fècule.“  (Now God refuses to come down to earth in the form of potato flour !)

Ruskin and Pater, who led Wilde to antiquity and to the Renaissance, did not lead him to classicism. On the contrary, Wilde expressly positions himself against classicism, which he sees as a canon of dead rules antipathetic to his own Christian romanticism. Consequently Wilde’s love for the Renaissance is confined to the early Christian one which spawned Giotto, Dante and Chartres, while the classical one of Raphael, Petrarca and Palladio is abhorrent to him. The idea of a continuous flux of new styles was alien to antiquity – the ideal of perfection that lies at the heart of classical antiquity only allowed for gradual and nuanced adjustments.The vilification of the western Renaissance in favour of the ‘holy’ middle ages was quite common amongst romantics. In Huysmans’ next significant ‘mediaeval’ book Là- Bas Grünewald is allocated the central role in fine art that Moreau takes in À Rebours. In Wilde’s England one result of Ruskin’s teachings were of course the Pre-Raphaelites, the aesthetic atrocities of which make des Esseintes’ love for symbolism seem like a mild eccentricity. Wilde’s understanding of individualism as an amorphously unfolding interiority is the polar opposite of the dandy’s art, to whom the rule and it’s occasional transgression create the frame for the expression of a specific contents. Ironically, Wilde returned to dandyism at precisely the point at which he believed he had left it behind. In believing suffering to be the secret of life, which nourishes the soul and transcends the banality of pleasure, he brought the dandy’s unconscious to the surface. The decline to which both Brummell and Wilde fell victim,  and that decadence celebrated, is as inherent to the dandy as it is to the antiquity that guides him. Yet he does not consciously seek it. The true dandy is more Stoic than Epicurean. 

Huysmans at the foot of the cross by Dornac

À Rebours is indeed Huysmans’ first Christian book. A religiosity which was to lead him – via a detour into satanism with La Bàs – to the arrant catholicism of La Cathédrale. The proximity of sadism / satanism to catholicism is already apparent in À Rebours: „La force du sadisme, l’attrait qu’il présente, git donc tout entier dans la jouissance prohibée de transférerà Satan les hommages et les prières qu’on doit à Dieu“ (The strength of Sadism then, the attraction it offers, lies entirely in the forbidden pleasures of transferring to Satan the homage and the prayers that should go to God; it lies in the flouting of the precepts of catholicism, which the sadist actually observes in topsy-turvy fashion when, in order to offend Christ the more grievously, he commits the sins Christ most expressly proscribed – profanation of holy things and carnal debauch). Black mass is merely a reversal of mass: Instead of blessing the body and blood of Christ they are cursed and mocked. The figure of the Satanist Docre is partly based on the real defrocked priest Joseph-Antoine Boullan.  Ironically it was Brummell’s biographer Barbey d’Aurevilly who lead the way to Huysmans negative/religious understanding of the dandy. Barbey d’Aurevilly was known ”to see potential catholics, where his contemporaries saw perverse celebrants of evil things”. It was also d’Aurevilly, who declared on the publication of À Rebours  that the creator of des Esseintes was so disgusted by modernity, that he had only the choice between the muzzle of a pistol and the foot of the cross. Huysmans’s decision was for religion. For more modern acolytes of les paradis artificiels, like Alain Leroy, the hero of Pierre Drieu La Rochelle’s Le Feu Follet,  suicide was to prove the more plausible decision in a universe that had become godless.