The OF Blog: J.K. Huysmans, The Damned (Là-Bas)

Monday, March 22, 2010

J.K. Huysmans, The Damned (Là-Bas)

"Then you are so convinced by these new theories that you plan to jettison all the clichés of the modern novel - adultery, love, ambition - in order to write a biography of Gilles de Rais!"

After a pause, he continued:

"It is not the obscenity of Naturalism I detest - the language of the lockup, the doss house and the latrines - that would be foolish and absurd.  Let's face it, some subjects can't be treated any other way - Zola's L'Assommoir is living proof that works of tremendous vision and power can be constructed out of the linguistic equivalent of pitch and tar.  That is not the issue, any more than the fact that I have serious reservations about Naturalism's heavy-handed, slapdash style.  No, what I really object to is Naturalism's immorality on the intellectual plain - the way it has turned literature into the living incarnation of materialism, the way it promotes the idea of art as something democratic!" (p. 3)

French author J.K. Huysmans wrote during one of the more fascinating eras of modern Western literature, that period from the late 1880s to the turn of the 20th century known as the fin de siècle.  Literally "end of the century," this term carries the dual connotations of decadence and anticipation a little over a century later.  During the 1870s and 1880s, the Naturalist school of art and literature, represented by Monet, Manet, and Zola, challenged prevailing opinions on the role and purpose of Art.  Their emphasis on showing things as they were rather than in an idealized state went against the core Romantic ideas that had influenced French (and by extension, much of Western Europe due to France's continuing cultural influence on its neighbors) Art for most of the 19th century. 

Following the Naturalists were the Decadents, a loosely-associated group of artists and writers who had perhaps as much (or little) in common with each other as would any other ephemeral association.  However, these Decadents, seemingly fixated (according to their critics) on the notion of decay and ruination of the "natural order."  In several works of the period, including those of Remy de Gourmont in France and Oscar Wilde in Great Britain, there was a much greater focus on the nasty, secret elements that underlay society.  To progress was not to pro-gress, in the eyes of these artists.  The old order of the Positivists and their Naturalist heirs was coming to an end, but what would replace it?  For several of these writers, there were few, if any, positive expectations.  Several stories tell of depraved souls, of societies falling into ruination, of primal forces being once again unleashed into the world.

Huysman's 1891 novel, The Damned (Là-Bas in the original French), is at its core a conversation between the two.  He opens the novel with the quote provided above, devoting several pages to expounding upon his beliefs (given only a thin veneer of fictionalization by the authorial stand-in protagonist, Durtal), before returning to the main focus of the novel, the mystery surrounding the life, change, and death of one of the most infamous serial murderers/pedophiles of the past 1000 years, the 15th century French knight and nobleman Gilles de Rais, who is believed to have killed (and in many cases, raped beforehand) somewhere between 80-200 children of both genders (with some estimates ranging as high as over 600) between 1435 and his trial and execution in 1440.  In particular, Huysmans focuses on the traditional account that de Rais may have become a Satanist during this time.

Over the course of this 266 page novel, Huysmans begins with his general overview of the French literary scene and its treatment of such people as de Rais (who incidentally has been one possible influence on the fairy tale "Bluebeard") and then deepens his investigations into the secret, nefarious world of Satanic worship in 19th century France.  For modern-day readers, Huysmans' slow build-up may seem a bit antiquated and the pace a bit too glacial, but for his contemporaries, Là-Bas was likely one of the more horrific novels of its era.  Huysmans explores vividly what happened to de Rais's victims, laying out in what then would have been considered near-pornographic terminology just what transpired in a Black Mass.  The overall effect is still somewhat chilling, considering how the story progresses.

However, The Damned is not explicitly a horror novel.  While it contains elements of the horrific, its main intent is to explore the decay and alteration of material culture.  What would influence people to experiment with the occult?  Can such temptations still be taking place?  These are the questions that interest Huysmans the most and for the most part, he created a story that unfolds methodically into a tale whose implications go far beyond what is printed within its pages.  It is not a perfect novel by any stretch of the imagination.  The author is prone to digressions and at times the thrust of the narrative appears to be blunted.  However, these flaws are more than offset by the fascinating mystery presented through the symbolic (and sometimes very real) references to Gilles de Rais and to other periods of French history.  In addition, even when he digresses, Huysmans' critiques of the Naturalists (and through implication, the emerging Decadents and Impressionists) adds extra layers of interpretation to the text, creating a rich narrative that certainly will reward the patient, reflective reader.

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