Don’t Kill Your Turtle

Hannibal de Pencier

In an epiphanic state of paranoia I’ve begun to feel like an unwilling companion of Jean Des Esseintes, the eccentric aesthete in the 1884 novel, A Rebours.  Written by Joris-Karl Huysmans, A Rebours – commonly, yet loosely, translated in English as Against Nature – is a surreal case study of morbidly anti-social decadence.  Disillusioned of the pleasures and purpose of womanizing, socializing, and debating in the bourgeoisie circles of Paris, Huysmans’ young, massively wealthy protagonist determines that he should retire to a sensational hermitage.  In his rationalized agoraphobia, Des Esseintes furnishes his home with exotic furniture, brilliantly multi-coloured walls, and a boundless collection of artwork.  For amusement, he arranges bouquets of poisonous flowers, reads Latin literature, concocts elaborate perfumes, or drinks from an opulent collection of liquors. He never leaves his surreal microcosm, or speaks to anyone; all he desires is supplied by servants with whom he religiously avoids physical or verbal contact.

A Rebours is often cited as a figure-head of the countercultural decadent literary movement and it must be acknowledged that along with the artwork itself, Des Esseintes’ lifestyle and its corresponding philosophical rationalization is brilliant, convincing, and most importantly: provocative.  A century and a half later it seems we’ve been seduced.  Fueled by technological advancement and personal liberty, the inertia of countercultural decadence has exponentially emerged as cultural decadence.  While the danger of hedonism is perhaps hard to appreciate when examined as an isolated concept, we no longer live in the days of Epicurus, whose hedonism was by necessity rather benign.

A Rebours is a parable of the danger we face indulging hedonism in a postmodern age.  If we follow Des Esseintes (which is often considered to be a pseudonym for Huysmans himself) down his rabbit hole of escapism we see him acclimatize to the availability of pleasure; he becomes bored, morbidly depressed, and deathly ill.  It’s not hard to compare Des Esseintes’ psychopathological arch with that of western society.  With instant pacification, entertainment, and gratification of our strangest desires always available at our finger tips, we’re more lethargic and depressed than ever.  Via Netflix, Instagram, Snapchat we’re desensitized to the pleasures of life.  We’re isolating ourselves within sensational digital hermitages just as Huysmans’ protagonist does in his surreal mansion.

There’s a part of A Rebours when Des Esseintes buys a tortoise.  For Arguments sake let’s assume that this tortoise is symbolic of Des Esseintes’ capacity for pleasure.  He determines that he should have an array of rare gems set permanently on the shell of the tortoise that will reflect light, rendering him an ambulatory disco-ball of sorts.  He pulls out all the stops.  He bedazzles the shit out of this turtle. Our tragic protagonist is amused briefly, but then goes away to explore some other fancy.  When he next encounters the wandering tortoise it’s stopped, receded into his shell, dead under the tremendous weight of hydrophane opal and Balas rubies.  My point is to be careful what you indulge.  You just might kill your turtle.