Abortion, Evil, and J. K. Huysmans

By Short, Edward | The Human Life Review, Winter 2016 | Go to article overview

Abortion, Evil, and J. K. Huysmans


Short, Edward, The Human Life Review


In the aftermath of the trial of Kermit Gosnell, the doctor found guilty of murdering several children in his abortion clinic in Pennsylvania, commentary followed two tracks. The first argued that the trial exposed the savagery of abortion; the second that it exposed the need to make abortion more efficient by making it more accessible. When, subsequently, Planned Parenthood staff were filmed discussing selling body parts of aborted babies, commentary again followed the same two tracks, one decrying the tapes as proof that abortion is murder and the other calling for more efficient regulation to ensure more efficient abortion. Despite this commentary, the response of the general public to both scandals was oddly muted. Why there was not more widespread outrage is a nice question. Perhaps the inherent grisliness of the scandals was too much for many to confront, let alone denounce. What was it T. S. Eliot once said? "Human kind cannot bear very much reality." Another possible explanation might be not so much that the general public is unable to register reality as that they are unable to register the reality of evil. To explore this possibility, I shall revisit the work of the nineteenth-century French novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans, who took up the issue of evil in several of his books, first in À Rebours (1882) and then in a lesser-known but brilliant tetralogy, comprising Là-Bas (1891), £>2 Route ( 1895), La Cathédrale ( 1898), and L'Oblat (1903). However, before looking at how these books shed light on the evil of abortion, and on what the author considered to be the only effective antidote to that evil, I should say a few brief words about Huysmans himself.

Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848-1907) was born and educated, worked and died in Paris. For most of his adult life, in addition to writing art criticism and fiction, he worked as a civil servant in La Sûreté Générale, the government department responsible for state security. His early work was written under the influence of Zola and the pseudo-scientific literary school of naturalism. Indeed, in En Ménage ( 1881 ), he wrote what amounts to a fictional tribute to the determinist pessimism of Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), the philosopher whose work animates the work of all of the naturalists. In one of his last books, Schopenhauer gave a useful summation of his thinking, which I shall quote at length, if only because the despair at the heart of his philosophy is an essential ingredient of the despair that Huysmans wrote so much of his later fiction to anatomize.

That human life must be some kind of mistake is sufficiently proved by the simple observation that man is a compound of needs that are hard to satisfy; that their satisfaction achieves nothing but a painless condition in which he is given over to boredom; and that boredom is nothing other than the sensation of the emptiness of exist- ence. For if life, in the desire for which our essence and existence consists, possessed in itself a positive value and real content there would be no such thing as boredom: mere existence would fulfill and satisfy us. As things are, we take no pleasure in existence except when we are striving after something-in which case distance and difficulties make our goal look as if it would satisfy us (an illusion which fades when we reach it)-or when engaged in purely intellectual activity, in which case we are really stepping out of life so as to regard it from outside, like spectators at a play. Even sensual pleasure itself consists in a continual striving and ceases as soon as its goal is reached. Whenever we are not involved in one or other of these things but directed back to existence itself we are overtaken by its worthlessness and vanity and this is the sensation called boredom.

There is a certain dark comedy in this. Indeed, it reminds one of the bleak puzzles of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot {1953). Dark comedy appealed to Huysmans, who had a good sense of humor of his own, at once sardonic and farcical. …

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