the Anatomy of Conversion
Carol A. Mossman
The Catholic church made a prestigious conversion in the case of J.-K. Huysmans. In his 1903 preface to A rebours (1884), the converted author attempts to explain, as much to himself as to his readers, the curiously monkish tastes of the novel's neurotic hero, des Esseintes, who is nothing if not a dyed-in-the-wool hedonist bent on exploring the limits of sensual experience. Far from repudiating this earlier product of an "unChristian" phase, as one might have expected him to do, Huysmans maintains that "all the novels which I have written since A rebours are contained in embryonic form in that book" (Preface, A rebours 50). 1
Thus a continuity is postulated throughout the work in spite of a radical shift in state of mind occurring somewhere within the span. Nonetheless it is a troubled continuity, one which is (to use the phraseology of conversion) not without lapses: "I understand ... up to a certain point," proffers Huysmans, "what happened between the year 1891 and the year 1895, between Là-bas and En route, but nothing at all about what happened between 1884 and 1891, between A rebours and Là-bas" (A rebours 58).
How, then, might one account for Huysmans's celebrated passage from the profane to the mystical, for that shift which is merely apparent since A rebours is an embryonic form of all future creations? Referring to des Esseintes, Huysmans advances the following: "It seems in fact that the neuroses open up fissures in the soul through which the Spirit of Evil penetrates" (51). The conversion which took place at an indeterminate point in the erstwhile naturalist's career was already manifest in