Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

The Seasons of the Soul in J.-K. Huysmans's la Cathedrale

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

The Seasons of the Soul in J.-K. Huysmans's la Cathedrale

Article excerpt

In La Cathedrale, a novel infected with what its hero calls "la demence du symbolisme" (1: 174), Huysmans's spokesman, Durtal, complains of being stalled on the path to heightened spirituality. No longer tormented by impure visions of the prostitute Fernande that had bedeviled him during his sojourn at La Trappe, he complains of being stricken with an aridity of the soul, of being undermined by "les assauts muets d'un ridicule orgueil" (1: 56). Whereas the property of lust is to fertilize forbidden desires, pride is a cold and sterile state, freezing the impulse to pray, chilling the room in which the Lord should be welcomed. Yet readers also know that, for Huysmans, creator of the patrician aesthete des Esseintes, superciliousness is a fecund vice, as the author's condescension was the ground in which he planted the seed of his religious faith.

In his writings, Huysmans establishes a parallel between the stages of his spiritual development and his evolving view of nature. For example, des Esseintes' collection of exotic tropical plants features the meat-eating Cephalothus, the hairy Nidularium, the impressive Amorphophallus, "plante [...] aux longues tiges noires couturees de balafres" (A rebours 193-94). For his perverse pleasure, des Esseintes assembles an array of rare and hideous flowers in which the distinction between the animal and vegetal realms is often blurred. No longer does he recognize a clear opposition between artifice and nature, but instead perceives a continuum moving from the biological to the aesthetic. Simulating human genitalia, flowers, with their stamens and pistils, grow from the dirt into the light. What is grotesque at its base is lovely at its tip. What is monstrous is also natural, and out of the soil bed of the organic rises the blossom of the work of art. In the orchid, Huysmans identifies a transitional creation marking a juncture between the physical and the spiritual. In it, beauty's bloom transforms the baseness of its unclean Naturalist origins into a symbolic longing for transcendence and elevation. Plants that formerly had been sexualized, evoking leprous skin, diseased organs, shameful flesh, are gradually rehabilitated in Huysmans's later works, suggesting that images of vegetation provide an essential indication of the author's awakening religious faith. Growing from impurity, the plant can be nurtured, cultivated until it flowers and bears fruit as its creation.

In La Cathedrale, Durtal reviews a scholarly botanical taxonomy of sins as plants, in which lust is coupled with pride in the figure of the pumpkin. Fertile "a cause de ses nombreuses semences et de sa facilite a croitre," the pumpkin also signifies vanity "a cause de l'importance de son enorme tete creuse et de son enflure" (2: 26). Evidence of narcissistic inflation, displays of self-exalting scholarly complacency often make Huysmans's own swollen-headed protagonist an embodiment of the pompousness of the gourd. Orange, ripe, anchored in the soil by its sinuous vine, the pumpkin is a central symbol in Huysmans's encyclopedia of religious symbols, rooting the author's fictional epigones in the ground of the unconsciousness, while the majestically grotesque fruit is like the text that disavows its provenance.

Already in En Rade, the pumpkin had been incorporated into the record of Jacques Marles's oneirical journeys, acting as a clef des reves that unlocked the door to impulses both sordid and sublime. In a dizzying dream-nexus of images of verticality, celestial wells, subterranean aeries, dark vaults infested with creatures like Madame Chantelouve's cold-bodied incubi, Marles imagines climbing down from a sky "constelle d'astres comestibles" (En Rade 215) and then traversing a pumpkin field resembling "un champ de fesses mongoles, un potager de derrieres appartenant a la race jaune"(216).

Motivated by regret over his childless union to an invalid wife, Marles's vision of pumpkins features barren wombs, spilled semen, failed creation, thwarted flights. …

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