Review: A Rebours

A Rebours is a book about nothing. Well, not nothing exactly. It is mainly a catalogue of things the central character, Des Esseintes, owns. The plot, as such is this: Des Esseintes has some digestive trouble. He moves away from the city in the hope that more aesthetically pleasing surroundings will cure him. It doesn’t. In between, there are long chapters devoted to detailing all things that do or don’t appeal to Des Esseintes’ taste. For example, he redecorates his rooms repeatedly, with extra attention paid to which fabrics he uses, which colors suit his mood, which books he chooses to display. He has a dining room made with fish tanks in place of the windows so that he can pretend he’s underwater. He makes his servants wear fake headdresses so he can pretend they are nuns when he sees them walking past his window. There are chapters listing which Latin books Des Esseintes approves of and which ones he finds vulgar. He makes some perfume, has a turtle covered in jewels and collects a lot of plants that are intended to look fake. Much of the book is taken up with descriptions of paintings and interiors, but there is little to define the character of Des Esseintes other than his possessions.

I found much of the book tedious and skipped many of the exhaustive lists of Latin books in Des Esseintes’ library. There were two incidents that nearly began some character development, both of which suffered for having been mere memories. In the first, Des Esseintes decides he will make a murderer of a young man by taking him to expensive brothels and then withdrawing his financial support. Why does he want to do this? He seems to come close here to acknowledging his own irrelevance. As though by believing he could wield such influence he hopes to prove to himself that something he does has external consequence. But this matter is dropped because Des Esseintes becomes bored with the game before he sees the outcome. I suspect the real matter here is that Des Esseintes, in living a life slavishly devoted to solipsism, may even doubt his own objective existence, and the failure of this experiment would prove that. Therefore, he abandons the project lest he find out the unpleasant truth—that he really doesn’t matter to anyone.

The second incident that raised my expectations was the fling Des Esseintes has with an Amazonian circus performer named Miss Urania. (Hint. Hint. Hint.) Initially, Des Esseintes is charmed by the daring feats and impressive stature of Miss Urania. Eventually, he becomes disgusted that she doesn’t use her superior physical strength to toss him about like a ragdoll. Also, she inconveniently has emotions and preferences of her own which are far too vulgar for Des Esseintes to tolerate. This memory led me to expect that we would learn after all that all of Des Esseintes deathly boredom was due to perverse appetites the sort of which led to imprisonment in those days. No. From there the book laments that the Church isn’t as brutally strict as it used to be and spends several pages describing a specially made volume of Les Fleurs Du Mal which I would very much like to have. On the way to the end, Des Esseintes is physically sickened by the ugly faces of commoners, stops eating and is told by his doctor that if he doesn’t go back to the city he’ll die. The end.

At first I was surprised at Des Esseintes’ religiosity. After I thought it over, it made perfect sense. What’s the joy in devoting yourself to decadent sensation unless it breaks someone else’s rules? Without the Church, there’s not one to define what’s wrong and therefore pleasurable. What Des Esseintes laments when he rails against the marginalization of the Church is the leaching away of transgressive pleasure from life.

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One Response to “Review: A Rebours”

  1. That book sounds really interesting. At least it’s something different for a change. The lack of “Church” makes sense. Being unhappy in order to be “religious” is an institutionally made up rule for Christianity.

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