2017 July: Reading Huysmans and Woolf

I have felt a little lost. Although my novel is the singular goal I set myself for the time ahead, now that I am free from the supposed obstacles that preoccupied much of my first year in the MA, I still find it hard to write it very often.

I wondered that this may be because I need to feed it with something (as cliche as it is to call upon the gods of inspiration). I have long been in the business of devising all kinds of schemes to encourage a healthy practice. As someone who has chosen art as a lifelong discipline, I’ve always taken it as given that I should be examining what “works” and “doesn’t work” in an artistic practice and then pepper in a bit more of the stuff that worked into my daily practice. I don’t mean features of my individual works that proved effective or interesting, necessarily, but what worked on my practice in terms of nurturing creativity.

And since coming to see creativity as an evolutionary mechanism that – if it finds its expression in human art – is completely wrought from the linguistic and cultural fabric which it then contributes to and alters, every work then, is a reworking of other works. Every image or text that means anything does so only by virtue of its skilful, economic, complex handling of countless references, and is a concoction that is indeed purely populated by preexisting references summoned in its present iteration, yet which in combination inspire the constitution of something entirely novel, albeit familiar. A new work of creativity is curious owing to its novelty and meaningful owing to its heritage.

Given that I’ve come to see images as defined by and potent to the extent of their citationality, it followed for me that my study as an artist ought to comprise a study of nuances of meaning via conduits as diverse as advertising, television programme scripts, interior design, clothing, song, classic versus contemporary literature, and so on. The realm of possible conduits of meaning in culture(s), no matter how narrowly I limit my focus group of cultural exchange, are impossibly broad, of course. Yet it seems to me that an individual, even one who, unlike me, does not commit to a long-term, conscious interrogation of these through rehashed texts and images of their own, still comes, through the necessities of navigating daily life, to become highly adept at reading at least some types of texts and images. And indeed, some types of imagery and media become highly pertinent to a society at certain moments in history, when its readers become even more acute to nuances in the differences between repeated instances.

A cliche is formed when it takes little to recall an atmosphere or feeling, because the image is so familiar – and yet – what once could have been subtle differences between the instances that together form the cliche cloud now become amplified and markedly discrete as that cliche is developed. The cliche acquires new dimensions, all the while warping and shapeshifting in its entirety to the impact each new iteration has on its reputation as a whole.

In a sense, every meaningful sign or text bears the qualities of a cliche in that it is familiar, thanks to harking back to predecessors of its iterative presence, yet also inevitably refuses to be visible without insisting on being read. You have to do the work of reading to activate the meaning a text will exert on you by association to its referents. This provisional apprehension may be more immediate upon encountering contemporary advertising with its vested interest in removing that work for you, than a classic novel with outdated referents – but there is always some degree of work involved, no matter how passive.

Realising that the potency of an image entirely relies on its citationality compelled me to aspire to cramming my own library of references high, and saturating myself with culture. It seemed to me even that no influence could even be remiss; any progeny of culture, as far as I can tell, is fertile enough to beget something new, something exciting even, if remixed ingeniously enough.

So I see it as part of my work to saturate myself in culture.

Culture is very big, though.

Perhaps some sort of selectivity is in order. But where then, to begin? With what will I feed my novel? Do I turn to cult-classic film and literature? Or the standard scholarly art bibliography of Berger, Benjamin, Barthes, Deleuze, through to Krauss, Harraway, Steyerl. Or rather still, do I trust instead in serendipitous meetings with authors, composers – names blown my way as whispers in the wind which promise to open to a treasure trove of oeuvres; locales of intense citational activity which I can then draw from?

 

Against Nature (1884) by Joris-Karl Huysmans

A name did flutter my way innocuously recently, and catch my eye. It was the name Against Nature, by Joris-Karl Huysmans, first published in 1884, and this book, as it happens, became an apt parody of my own recent fantasies of a feverish study of the arts.

The name of this novel arrived to me when I presented a link to one of my tutors, to a Kickstarter campaign I recently launched for my novel which, incidentally, is not going terribly well. And he responded to my exposition of Anomaline, what with its somewhat fantastical and archaic language, its (it must be admitted) latent form of innocent eroticism, and its lone character born as a clean, impressionable slate into a library within a gothic manor upon a hill (in short, a room crammed with referentiality, within a home of historic sedimentation, upon a Brontean backdrop of romantic-gothic cliches). He responded – with what else – but a list of associations of his own: A descriptive short story about a mysteriously idyllic valley by Poe, a narrative sequence of etchings evoked by a recurring woman’s glove by Max Klinger, and Against Nature by Huysmans.

Without yet appreciating the difficulty inherent in translating the original title of the latter novel, Á Rebours, I already loved the sound of it. The translation, (otherwise also typically translated as Against the Grain) evokes the backwardness connotative in the original term, which in the French language has broad applications (variously: rubbing something up the wrong way, stroking a cat against the inclination of its hairs, going against the grain, taking an unusual alternative route to getting somewhere, attacking someone from behind, etc). Its protagonist (the ultimate hipster), whose elite tastes are characterised by his unpopularity, eclecticness and eccentricity, is indeed the poster boy of “going against the grain”. But I liked the word “nature” in this translation, although it is not implied in the French original, and which actually does in a roundabout way do justice to the protagonist’s resolution to immerse himself in pure artifice, fiction and contrivance – denying all things deemed “natural”.

I liked it because I am finding that my novel attempts to embody a study of nature undivided from what might be deemed “artifice”. Character development assumes a patient, embryonic temporality, and aspires to mimic organic evolution as its protagonist allegedly absorbs the histories latent in the domestic shell she resides in. And being, like Des Esseintes (the protagonist of Against Nature), confined within my lot of a stuffy old house and near almost no other storytelling scenery, I’ve by necessity had to focus my attention to atomic details and subtle quantum relations in the lethargic distribution of energy within that place. As a result, certain chapters have, in Anomaline, begun to serve as discrete “physics lessons”, as if I had contrived of the fictive circumstances secondarily – in service of an educational tour of quantum physics. In fact it was the other way round; there was first the idea of “a room”, “a table”, and an atmosphere thick with molecules of air, and only then was it the need to activate this picture which I probably felt then called for some laws of physics to set it in motion, which I then promptly make it my task to illustrate and define.

Doubtless Anomaline (an anomaly is also something “against nature”), though it assumes a very different style and attitude, also takes issue with the fantasy of a recluse, or the condition of being saturated in objects that are themselves so culturally condensed and saturated: the books, antiquities, historic spaces that comprise the world of the novel. Especially the books – it is a library into which my protagonist is born; this most excessive repository of countless volumes, each constituting the larger part of someone’s life’s work, each the result of so much attempted finesse and revised ideas requiring many hours of life. The novel I think is fascinated with the ease with which a place as cliche as that castle-upon-the-hill summons colossal histories of work, toil, effort, and expended spirits.

Though I resist the temptation to succumb to a serendipitous account of my encounter with Against Nature, risking that I myself may be enforcing a literary comparison whose basis could lie more in the fact that I just happened to read this and not another book, I will accept a certain consequential kind of reading of my encounter with the novel. And that is, that by virtue of the fact that all things are indeed contingent and relational, there are comparisons to be made between all works of literature, and any common ground of agreement or contention between my work’s and Huysmans’ is worth reflecting upon – for it was this book that I read and not another, and it is likely that it is with this book as opposed to others that I am feeding my own.

Des Esseintes retreats therefore, into his off-grid abode and flings his sickly, frail constitution before the passions and the mercy of these powerful books, paintings, flowers, fragrances, colours, sounds and tastes with which he has infused his living space. Professing misanthropic broodings, he despises all members of society but the very fewest of an elect group of geniuses with whose works he has populated his home. The presence of people otherwise causes him physical anguish, he suffers at the hand of his own distinguished and off-kilter tastes – yet is proud of this distinction that elevates him above all the banalities of contemporary Parisian life, equally undignified throughout the social classes. There are fascinating episodes reflected upon retrospectively in his solitary musings regarding his interactions with other people, which, as the translator notes in her introduction, evoke Des Esseintes’ desire to orchestrate dubious machinations and constitute him as a “stage manager” that puppeteers the behaviours of others rather than participate in living himself. Recollections, for example, where he precipitates the inevitable break up of his friends marriage by encouraging its inevitable downfall – how? – by supporting the newly wed couple’s wish to move into a rotunda. (They amassed a collection of curved furniture to accommodate the shape of the house, which, when they later moved into a rectangular house, could not fit anywhere and proved so exasperatingly awkward and frustrating that the clumsy environs perpetuated the stagnant misery of their marital relationship).

Another episode details how he supposedly takes a street urchin under his wing and reveals to this young boy the pleasures of a brothel, feeding an addiction to luxury, sexuality and entitlement which peers within his own social class would otherwise be ignorant of (and all the more blissful for it). The visits to the brothel Des Essaintes then abruptly ceased funding, in the hopes of inspiring hateful broodings in the young boy who, all things going to plan, would go on to become a criminal and, in the best case scenario, a murderer that may eliminate any one of the society so despised by Des Esseintes. These schemes rather stuck with me, these attempts at implausible control which I suspect Huysmans rather parodied.

Des Esseintes embraces Schopenhauer’s theory of pessimism, acknowledging that it embarks from the same deplorable diagnosis of worldly living that the bible elaborates, without simply offering the delusional hope of incorporeal rewards in the afterlife. Des Esseintes feels himself as one of the few willing to face how bad things are, and accepting that that’s as good as it gets, too.

With this, the novel ebbs and flows between cathartic pleasure, warm contentedness and then utter despair and suffering, all inspired by that very solitude which magnifies such small pleasures as the complementary colours in wallpapers and carpets, as well as the stifling effects of his olfactory-factory which makes him eventually pass out. Such a top notch aesthete is he, that even his own unique tastes become eventually too mainstream and therefore nauseating to him, or in his words, the “promiscuity of admiration” that an artwork receives proves to him most off-putting. I recall how he mused for a long time that artificial flowers were in every way superior to the natural ones that everyone else held in such esteem, but, upon getting bored of even this counter-intuitive view, embarks then on the project to decorate his home with real flowers that looked like artificial flowers!

This character, extreme in every way, provided much food for thought for me regarding the virtues of virtual vs. visceral experience, the real or the natural vs. the imagined and the contrived, which I think forms some important part of the discussion in my own novel, if approached very differently.

 

Virginia Woolf // Mrs Dalloway

 

A scene I like (pg 168):

‘It was unsatisfactory, they agreed, how little one knew people. But she said, sitting on the bus going up Shaftesbury Avenue, she felt herself everywhere; not “here, here, here”; and she tapped the back of the seat; but everywhere. She waved her hand, going up Shaftesbury Avenue. She was all that. So that to know her, or any one, one must seek out the people who completed them; even the places. Odd affinities she had with people she had never spoken to, some woman in the street, some man behind a counter – even trees, or barns. It ended in a transcendental theory which, with her horror of death, allowed her to believe, or say that she believed (for all her scepticism), that since our apparitions, the part of us which appears, are so momentary compared with the other, the unseen part of us, which spreads wide, the unseen might survive, be recovered somehow attached to this person or that, or even haunting certain places, after death. Perhaps – perhaps.’

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