Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Taking the Words Right out of His Mouth: From Ventriloquism to Symbol-Reading in J.-K. Huysmans

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Taking the Words Right out of His Mouth: From Ventriloquism to Symbol-Reading in J.-K. Huysmans

Article excerpt

Since Laurence Porter took critics to task in 1987 for "ignoring the pre-oedipal level" (52) of Huysmans' A Rebours, it is at their peril that readers now disregard the implications of the hero's infantilism. Invited to associate des Esseintes' quest for oral satisfaction with the rare linguistic pleasures he savors in literature, we are also encouraged to link his interest in jewels and lapidary imagery with the unabashed enjoyment he derives from his "lavement nourrissant a la peptone" (345). Everything about des Esseintes' behavior, from his hygienic practices to his artistic predilections, situates him squarely in the pre-genital stage of sexual development, to which his misogyny and occasional bouts of impotence relegate him anyway.

In A Rebours, des Esseintes' withdrawal to a closed retreat where people are banished, light is softened, and sound is muffled, conveys a desire for somnolent under-stimulation. At the same time, however, Huysmans' hero arranges for nourishment, furniture, flowers, and a turtle to be brought in, thereby blurring the line between inside and outside, self and other, Eros and death. Certainly des Esseintes' insertion of his dining room into ah aquarium attests to a longing for the oceanic fullness of the nursing infant. But as the sea is enclosed in the house, des Esseintes' project of universal incorporation subordinates the other senses (the eye/porthole gazing out at colored tides, the invisible window/nose inhaling smells of seaweed and tar) to the mouth, or door, connecting his apartment to the kitchen, the maternal topos from which sustenance is introduced and which communicates with his living quarters via a padded corridor of passageway.

Des Esseintes' autophagic fantasy of consuming memories, of living off predigested reflections on prose poems whose meaning has been turned into himself, only exacerbates the harmful effects of being starved of externality. In the "Preface ecrite vingt ans apres le roman," Huysmans dismisses gluttony as an unworthy literary vice, embodied only rarely in "des personnages episodiques" (57). So it is logical that an aesthete like des Esseintes should dine infrequently, importing stuff from the kitchen as seldom as possible. In A Rebours, the mouth becomes a threshold over which des Esseintes keeps surveillance, monitoring the admission and release of words and food, the carefully selected guests he entertains in his being.

Ultimately, as this paper argues, des Esseintes' aim to obliterate boundaries and restore a state of undifferentiation permitting him to be the infant-book containing everything that can profitably be utilized proves unfeasible. As the lips must be applied to the breast, the dining room must communicate with the kitchen, and des Esseintes is inevitably frustrated in his desire to consume only the words he puts in others' mouths. Unable to turn speech into audition, excretion into alimentation, des Esseintes cannot sustain the illusion of dialogue and interaction. Having failed to achieve the ventriloquist's goal of projecting his voice through other people, des Esseintes is ordered by his physician to return to society. In later novels, where the Decadent recluse is replaced by the Catholic symbologist, Huysmans will discover that the most comforting message is the one that originates outside him. The despairing words that the sickly hermit once addressed to himself are then drowned out by a symphony of meaning emanating from a world redeemed by the author's faith.

In A Rebours, des Esseintes' insistence on the controlled production of what others say is shown to date from his early childhood when, deprived of maternal affection, he had experienced family life as solitude and darkness. Pale, unspeaking, inactive, unmoving, des Esseintes' mother is a presence registered as an absence: "une longue femme, silencieuse et blanche, [qui] mourut d'epuisement" (80). Allowing for the substitution of word for breast, the mastery of language compensating the infant for the loss of the caregiver depends, as Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok say, on "l'assistance constante d'une mere possedant elle-meme le langage" (262). …

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