Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

The Bed and the Book: J.-K. Huysmans's Crucibles of Suffering

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

The Bed and the Book: J.-K. Huysmans's Crucibles of Suffering

Article excerpt

Conception and childbirth, dream and death: beds in J.-K. Huysmans are the site of bodily changes and out-of-body journeys. In Huysmans, women's beds are where pleasure is banished and suffering is welcomed. Huysmans's sleeper/ invalid may seem insentient and motionless, yet her bed is the departure point for trips to a higher plane, where forbidden impulses are dramatized and spiritual truths are revealed. A gendered topos, a woman's bed corresponds to the page, the surface on which maie intelligence is laid out. Women's suffering is like the style that purifies male literature. As the alchemy of language turns communication to poetry, "cette divine alchimie qu'est la Douleur" (Sainte Lydwine de Schiedam 2: 126) transmutes a woman's suffering, refining an ignoble body into a medium of redemption. While men may sit at their desks or preach from their pulpits, "la femme," Huysmans writes, "se tord en silence sur un lit" (loo). In Huysmans, the bed and the book are the retort or the crucible in which the alchemical processes of art and religion occur.

From ignominious rutting to mystical transports, what is described as happening in women's beds are critical episodes on which Huysmans's works focus. For every scene that shows the sins of the flesh, there is another that charts the spirit's ascent into heaven. The intersection of horizontal and vertical axes, a woman's bed is where Huysmans positions his ideal of Spiritual Naturalism. Dehased physicality, corruptible matter are consigned to the plane of biological dcterminism, while above--cleaving the air, along "un chemin parallele" (La-bas 11)--are the soul's aspirations toward freedom and purity. Framed in La-bas as arcs inescapable dilemma is the need to wed naturalism's verisimilitude and honesty to new spiritual themes that will guide literature out of its impasse. What Huysmans pictures as arcs uncertain future is linked to the Decadents' sense of metaphysical pessimism: a belief that accounts of bodily vice presage the exhaustion of literature and the end of the world. Huysmans's narratives that focus on women's bodies and beds show that physical abjection, the putrefaction of substances are threshhold events signalling a spiritual and artistic rebirth. As Marc Smeets has noted, Huysmans's writings center on this quest: "vouloir retrouver le spirituel au fond de la matiere. Autrement dit, faire apparaitre dans ce qui est le plus bas, le plus laid, le plus exEcrable, ce qui est en vEritE le plus beau, le plus haut, le plus prEcieux" (103).

As women's suffering effects a transmutation of matter, the corruption of literature exploring depravity and evil heralds its regeneration as an expression of the sacred. Huysmans's narratives that originate in women's beds trace this progression from the neutrality of naturalism that leaves its material unchanged to the transformative processes initiated by Huysmans's ideal of naturalisme spiritualiste.

Huysmans first shows a woman's bed as a demystified place, which disappoints the male seeker and denies his hopes of transcendence. He reveals in LA-bas and again in LA-haut that evil encountered there is a reverse of the holiness and deliverance that his characters long for. Representations of women's beds in Huysmans's fiction chart his evolution from the inoperativeness of naturalist objectivity to depictions of Satanism, tales of spiritual quests that catalyze the narrator's goal to develop his faith. As Dolorism is alchemy that exchanges redemption for sin--that replaces women's tormented bodies for their rapturous spirits--writing transforms naturalist inertia into Catholic energy. It is in a woman's bed that Huysmans shows the death of Decadent art and its rebirth as a literature of the sublime and the miraculous.

Already in A rebours--prior to the beginning of the Durtal cycle--Huysmans had identified a woman's bed as the the place of things profane and sacred, matters disgustingly proximate and sublimely remote. …

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