On Material and Immaterial Digestion in A rebours

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The much-belabored stomach of the weary aristocrat des Esseintes finally fails as the project of À rebours comes to an abrupt halt, grinding on the final emptiness of its dream of refined isolation; his failure of digestion is responsible in no small part for the decision of his doctor to send him back out into the self-satisfied world of lucre and petty ambition from which he had thought to comfortably escape. This concludes a long development of digestive problems both metaphorical and inexorably literal, forming one of the novel’s organ systems alongside that of the nerves and the senses.

He arrives having weakened an already delicate constitution through high living and sensual pleasures, driven on by ennui. Persisting against doctors’ orders, he is like “ces gamines qui, sous le coup de la puberté, s’affament de mets altérés ou abjects”; his complaint “d’avoir tout épuisé,” after all, includes both culinary and sexual pleasures. The retreat to Fontenay, meanwhile, transposes these pleasures and desires into the realm of décor as his actual eating habits become predictable, abstemious, and simple. The great banquets of the past as well as any desire to “singularise” himself before others are now exhausted; “les défaillances de son estomac” (47) demand that within his calm and composed interior the rules and details of eating be determined in advance and that the act of eating surround itself with layers of protective walls, in a room within a room that allows him to travel while remaining perfectly still. The pleasures of simulacra, it seems, are strongly linked to those of eating and drinking: since fine vintages artificially manufactured, he argues, are indistinguishable from the real thing,

en transportant cette captieuse déviation, cet adroit mensonge dans le monde de l’intellect, nul doute qu’on ne puisse, et aussi facilement que dans le monde matériel, jouir de chimériques délices semblables, en tous points, aux vraies (50).

The books and styles of prose with which Des Esseintes cohabits become flesh as he reads them: they are musclé, or “charnu, nourri, mais tourné à la graisse” (58); they experience constipation and dyspepsia, they decay and deliquesce. He also experiences them frequently by way of orality: he grazes in them for pâture; he finds them “indigestes” (65); the hymns of Fortunat are “taillés dans la vieille charogne de la langue latine, épicée par les aromates de l’Eglise” (68). Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s late style is “une rillette raclée sur l’établi littéraire du premier venu” (240), while Baudelaire’s works contain, “sous leur splendide écorce, une basalmique et nutritive moelle” (234). Those works that des Esseintes doesn’t like are either inedible – “l’amas de suie…les saumons de plomb” (70) – or written in a “nauseous” style (188). On the other hand, those works that do not induce nausea but are themselves sickly, “mal portantes, minées et irritées par la fièvre” (200), keep his interest – he loves their “goût blet” (205), “ce faisandage dont il était gourmand” (232). It should be added that these books, in order to enter his collection in the first place, had to undergo a form of inorganic digestion (aside from the “digestion” involved in their systematic organization):

A force de les avoir passées, dans son cerveau, comme on passe des bandes de métal dans une filière d’acier où elles sortent ténues, légères, presque réduites en d’imperceptibles fils, il avait fini par ne plus posséder de livres qui résistassent à un tel traitement et fussent assez solidement trempés pour supporter le nouveau laminoir d’une lecture (222).

Des Esseintes’ orgue à bouche is a system of analogues with taste in which the sounds of musical instruments are not just delicately transferred to the palate but are virtually tongued and chewed: “Il arrivait même à transférer dans sa mâchoire de véritables morceaux de musique” (78). Memories in turn are provoked and reawakened by a “fatale exactitude d’odeurs” (79), in the first of which he relives a horrifying feat of dentistry. He ruminates upon his Baudelairean exploits, aristocratically sowing anarchy, and it is these memories that appear to bring on the first warning signs of his impending crisis. Suddenly, just as he had reached sensual satiety before Fontenay, he has reached the limit of satiety with literature and art:

Il était maintenant incapable de comprendre un mot aux volumes qu’il consultait; ses yeux mêmes ne lisaient plus; il lui sembla que son esprit saturé de littérature et d’art se refusait à en absorber davantage. (108)

He poses the accumulation or absorption of works of art as a barrier to uncontrolled recollection, but the flow of memories is too powerful to allow further ingestion – as in an access of vomiting, he can’t keep anything down.

It is also at this point, when he begins to feed on himself ( “se nourrisait de sa propre substance” ) like a hibernating animal “tap[i] dans un trou,” that his warm and comforting notions about solitude begin to evaporate. A growing nausea demands fresh food for thought, novel impressions, and eventually even human interaction. With his better-regulated life at Fontenay his neurasthenic symptoms have migrated from his head to his stomach, À rebours of his desired transposition of the pleasures of the body to those of the mind. When he finally loses all physical appetite, he must also abstain from reading. No longer disposed to the enchantments of style, he moves a step closer to the outside world, gathering flowers; while his books had been the distillations of subtle brains, his flowers are strained through a sieve of subtle skill, hybrids of nature and artifice. But instead of bringing him the pleasure of possession, they bring him nightmares.

It is unthinkable, but as his powers of digestion grow weaker, he begins to wonder if his “flair” – the olfactory version of taste – is failing as well, for he is not as sensitive as he should be to the contamination of certain works in his collection by popular appreciation. Driven by increasingly unbearable solitude to travel, his mind “s’étourdissant à moudre à vide” (166), he tours the “engrenage broyant” (168) of an imaginary London, safe in his Paris carriage and in the arche tiède of the English-themed Bodega. The good-natured equine appetite of the women there, who are safely disguised by des Esseintes as Londoners, stimulates his own appetite back to robust health, and once home the charm of his possessions returns to him as well – if only for a short while.

It is the weather that betrays him. Nauseated by the sight of food and unable even to suck on ice, “la surexcitation qui le soutenait, depuis qu’il se plaisait à rêvasser…avait pris fin” (206). His favorite objects no longer call up pleasant images before his mind’s eye. Now, he must devote all his artifices and devices “à leurrer la défiance de l’estomac” (220), which mercilessly calls him back from his reveries. He tries sweeter, more cloying, more unctuous foods, craving even the “immonde tartine” of a group of village children, and all indeed looks bleak until the saving advent of the sustenteur, which transforms beef and vegetables into an “essence de nourriture,” a “caresse veloutée” (220). Mallarmé, the reader discovers, is also a kind of sustenteur, one who produces “une littérature condensée, un coulis essentiel, un sublimé d’art” (242). Des Esseintes’ favorite literary form is, furthermore, the prose poem – a literature “à l’état d’of meat,” its “suc cohobé”: “en un mot, le poème en prose représentait, pour des Esseintes, le suc concret, l’osmazôme de la littérature, l’huile essentielle de l’art” (245).

What should be pointed out here is, first of all, that this savory reduction of literature to its essence is associated with a certain “impermutability” of words. In a prose poem,

…les mots choisis seraient tellement impermutables qu’ils suppléeraient à tous les autres; l’adjectif posé d’une si ingénieuse et d’une si définitive façon qu’il ne pourrait être légalement dépossédé de sa place, ouvrirait de telles perspectives que le lecteur pourrait rêver, pendant des semaines entières, sur son sens, tout à la fois précis et multiple, constaterait le présent, reconstruirait le passé, devinerait l’avenir… (245).

This passage brings the concentrated osmazome of prose poetry alongside the novel’s critique of mass production, or of what Benjamin calls “the singular debasement of things through their price as commodities.” The opposite of the commodity would be the inexchangeable: in Baudelaire la nouveauté, for example, “represents that absolute which is no longer accessible to any interpretation or comparison.” It seems that digestion, as well as “digestive” essentializing and concentrating devices and forms such as the sustenteur and the prose of Mallarmé, is a principle counter to that of the watery soup of mass production and inauthentic ownership. Just as one can have symbolic acquisition, symbolic capital, and symbolic revolt, there can also be symbolic digestion. The reading of the Mallarméan prose poem, for example, is described as an epicure’s communion, a mysterious interchange between writer and author, as if a mother bird were regurgitating food for her young, or as if their stomachs were communicating vessels, exchanging sublimates. If everything in the world could be reduced to metaphysical meat broth, all of des Esseintes’ problems would be solved. The problem is that À rebours also stages a return from symbolic to physical digestion, a return to the exigencies and frailties of the body. For what must also be pointed out is that this Mallarméan “of meat”-ness is also identified in this chapter with decadence, decay, and deliquescence:

En effet, la décadence d’une littérature, irréparablement atteinte dans son organisme, affaiblie par l’âge des idées, épuisée par les excès de la syntaxe, sensible seulement aux curiosités qui enfièvrent les malades et cependant pressée de tout exprimer à son déclin, acharnée à vouloir réparer toutes les omissions de jouissance, à léguer les plus subtils souvenirs de douleur, à son lit de mort, s’était incarnée en Mallarmé, de la façon la plus consommée et la plus exquise (245).

Digestion, as an autonomic process of the body, threatens des Esseintes’ artificial and anti-natural autonomy; it is unavoidably tied to the organic, to nature, to the animal commonality of beings. It is perhaps for this reason that the Latin literature that appeals most to his taste is both centripetal and centrifugal: in a state of irremediable decay and dispersion, it also seeks to draw everything into itself, to borrow from all dialects and special vocabularies.

Des Esseintes’ tastes, as condensed in his admiration of Mallarmé, tends toward the consommé: first of all toward the past, toward what is already completed or consummated in the temporal sense, toward cultural periods of consumption understood as progressive wasting or decay; secondly toward consummation understood as progressive essentialization or refined perfection, both intangibly in literature (the prose poem) and tangibly in artisanal objects, the results of consummate skill and consummate taste. Des Esseintes’ consumption must also be consummate – not vulgar or cheap. As he collects both objets and œuvres d’art they must be consonant and harmonious with each other. He finds analogies and correspondences between them, redeeming them from their dispersion in the world and perfecting them in an integrated whole. What cannot be consummated through the body (in his relationships with women, for example) can be consumed through the mouth (his pastilles, for example, of “essence of woman”). Further, what has been cruelly perpetrated upon others (in the sense of the phrase “consommer un crime”) can be re-consumed in memory. Des Esseintes consumes his money just as prodigally at Fontenay as he did in the period before, setting it ablaze in a bonfire of personal vanity, and at the same time longs for an unattainable Catholic faith, for a moment of grace, for the consuming fire of the presence of God. In the meantime he is compelled to swallow bouillon and consommé, the quintessence of meat, the result of a consummate art of cookery, for he is sick, wasting away, subject to spiritual and physical consomption, wrapped in futile dreams (in other words he consomniates, from the Latin consomniare, to dream). In his circumscribed world, to destroy and to perfect become one.

In English “consume” began its career as a word for destruction, waste, squandering, and devouring, and eventually drifted into pleasure, enjoyment, and possession; to consume is now also to purchase, to gather, to add to oneself, to enlarge, enrich, or deepen one’s self. Thus one might say for des Esseintes that in consuming, he is consumed. This might mean that in perfecting, he is perfected, but that in his attempts at perfecting, he is destroyed; in his acts of destruction he is perfected, but in them he is eventually destroyed. But most importantly, the result of the refining fire to which he subjects his material and spiritual acquisitions is nothing less than a consommé.

Consumption also takes place on the level of the novel itself: each chapter of À rebours, states Huysmans’ preface,

devenait le coulis d’une spécialité, le sublimé d’un art différent; il se condensait en un « of meat » de pierreries, de parfums, de fleurs, de littérature religieuse et laïque, de musique profane et de plain-chant (11).

Twenty years after the novel’s publication, however, Huysmans feels that this is not enough. The problem, in his opinion, is that À rebours does not communicate well enough with the objects it contains; it does not make them speak. It does no more than arrange them in a showcase, much as, for des Esseintes, in Gautier “l’impression des objets s’était fixé sur son œil si perceptif, mais elle s’y était localisée, n’avait pas pénétré plus avant dans sa cervelle et dans sa chair” (234). Thus Gautier’s works are not “ductile au rêve” and des Esseintes leaves them hungry. The novel, perhaps, as mere display, has failed to fully digest the objects it ingests, and perhaps this is the cause of its failure to make them signify. It merely englobes them, without that intimate inter-communication with them that takes place in digestion.

In À rebours the language of Baudelaire, in telling contrast to that of Gautier, is one that is able to transform the immaterial into the material and vice versa, for it is itself corporeal – “musculeuse et charnue” (185). The struggle to transfer objects bodily into one’s own interior is parallel not only to the arranging of objects within the comfort of one’s home but also to the attempt to carry the enigmatic materiality of objects into the interior of language, to make language digest them. It requires a corporeal language, perhaps a muscular language with its own digestive system, to do so.

Des Esseintes’ enthusiasm for the sustenteur wanes just as he finishes enthusing over Mallarmé, and his dyspepsia returns in full force. He vomits up everything he tries to feed himself. In the mirror he finds his face disfigured, wasted. His doctor gravely notes white streaks in his urine, often caused by the presence of phosphates (mentioned repeatedly in À rebours, whether expended or preserved). As nervous and cerebral tissues are rich in phosphorus, this may be a sign, as one British doctor of the mid-19th century puts it, of “the inordinate consumption or mal-assimilation of some tissue intimately connected…with the organic tissue of nerves.” If the nervous or cerebral tissue is in a state of growth, less phosphoric acid appears in the urine, while in the case of decay and disintegration more is present. Phosphates would appear, one might say, in the urine of one who is steadily consuming his own nervous matter.

The peptone enema soon follows, a mixture of meat and dairy proteins. “La nourriture ainsi absorbée,” comments des Esseintes, “était, à coup sûr, la dernière déviation qu’on pût commettre” (256). In this way he has attained one of his most treasured goals, which is to eat and digest in a purely symbolic fashion, but also to consume authentically, purely, in freedom, beyond those mere necessities of the body to which the vulgar are subject. With the enema, however, freedom and necessity coincide: this transgression against the natural is precisely what is required for his body to maintain its natural functioning and to return to health. The enema does gradually restore his digestive function, but the health of his nerves will not follow, he discovers, unless he leaves his “thébaïde raffinée” and rejoins the simple and unmediated pleasures of others. Outside of Fontenay monastic community might present an ideal compromise between living in the world and turning one’s back on it, but religious faith, unfortunately, cannot be consumed – bought, ingested, or even fastened to one’s body.

He is too weary to do anything but believe in an impossible heaven, a distant beyond, though he is well beyond deceiving himself any longer. All he has is to rejoin “le grand bagne de l’Amérique transporté sur notre continent” (268). For the American neurologist George Miller Beard, neurasthenia was native to “civilized, intellectual communities,” but particularly to America. Calling neurasthenia “the American nervousness,” he writes that “a new crop of diseases has sprung up in America…a class of functional diseases of the nervous system…seem to have first taken root under an American sky, whence their seed is being distributed.” This nervousness, as a result of which the central nervous system becomes “dephosphorized,” arises primarily under the influence of “climate, institutions – civil, political, and religious, social and business – personal habits, indulgence of appetites and passions” (vi). Beard goes on to demonstrate that an increase in competitive business and in the number of business transactions is a particularly strong factor in the spread of neurasthenic symptoms. The U.S. Rexall drug company even marketed an “Americanitis Elixir,” proclaiming that it was “especially recommended for nervous disorders, exhaustion, and all troubles arising from Americanitis,” including of course one of its well-known symptoms, dyspepsia. This is unfortunate for des Esseintes seeing as, in his mind, he has been sent to this very milieu to heal his dyspepsia and nervous exhaustion. It seems that he can’t do with this world and can’t do without it – a contradiction that emerges throughout the novel in various guises.

In Sartre’s account, bourgeois thought mediates its relationships with natural forces through manufactured, partially idealized and thoroughly humanized objects, becoming a manipulator of symbols and symbols of symbols that play over mirrors and surfaces.

Il s’est convaincu que l’univers était réductible à un système d’idées; il dissous en idées l’effort, la peine, les besoins, l’oppression, les guerres; il n’y a pas de mal, mais seulement un pluralisme; certaines idées vivent à l’état libre, il faut les intégrer au système. Ainsi conçoit-il le progrès humain comme un vaste mouvement d’assimilation: les idées s’assimilent entre elles et les esprits entre eux. Au terme de cet immense processus digestif, la pensée trouvera son unification et la société son intégration totale.

While the artist, in response, wants to create objects that are inassimilable and indigestible, bourgeois society does not really need anyone to restore “l’étrangeté et l’opacité du monde” but rather “…de le dissoudre en impressions élémentaires et subjectives qui en rendent la digestion plus aisée” (147), and all the better if this takes the form of a kind of inventory. Inventory, as the delimitation and organization of the possible, is an act intimately allied with bourgeois digestion.

Sartre aims in Qu’est-ce que la littérature? to move beyond what he calls “la littérature de consommation,” which studies what unites being to having and sensation to enjoyment, and instead address what unites being and doing. The literature of consumption had always pretended to be in opposition to the utilitarian bourgeois ideology of its only real readers, attempting to make of literature a pure negativity, a symbolic revolt. It cultivated poetic relationships to objects, and fashioned for itself an aristocratic disdain characterized by impeccable taste. Art, in other words, became “la forme la plus élevée de la consommation pure” (160), consuming both the world and literature itself in an access of aristocratic prodigality. In this age of “impressions,” which enact a shift of bourgeois ideology to a higher register, one had to “absorb” things in the deepest way possible,

à l’instant ambigu qui rejoint la fin de l’ingestion au début de la digestion, où la subjectivité est venue imprégner l’objectif sans que ses acides aient commencé de le ronger, où les champs et les bois sont champs et bois encore et état d’âme déjà (285).

One might attempt an escape from the bourgeois, then, by spiritualizing and sublimating not only consumption but digestion.

The problem with all this, according to Sartre, was that the bourgeoisie was on its way in the same direction. By the time Sartre was writing, the bourgeoisie had already won its symbolic aristocracy, had found its own poetic bonds with its possessions. It had long since learned the practice of spiritual digestion, where property is justified by “cette lente osmose qui diffuse dans l’âme des possédants les vertus des choses possédées” (299). Although des Esseintes sees the bourgeois as creatures of utility, surfaces, idées reçues, exchangeability, uniformity, and inauthentic consumption, in his attempt to escape them – in his bid for an entirely immaterial form of digestion – he places himself at the avant-garde of their evolution toward the hothouse museum-womb of the 19th century bourgeois interior (both psychological and architectural), in which every object is wrapped in a velvety layer of abstraction, symbolism, and fantasy.

Des Esseintes is, of course, a collector as well as a digester. To digest an object makes it signify for the body just as within a collection an object signifies in a new and intimate way. To collect and to digest also give one something to do in relation to an object. One wants to possess what one loves or admires, but possession only goes so far: the closer one gets to it, the more, so to speak, it gets in the way. As Benjamin writes, the act of collecting, in which the object “is detached from all its original functions in order to enter into the closest conceivable relation to things of the same kind,” is “a grand attempt to overcome the wholly irrational character of the object’s mere presence at hand through its integration into a new, expressly devised historical system: the collection.” There are few possible ways of satisfactorily responding to an object that is simply, irrationally there (whether food, art, or other people) – of fortifying mere having with some doing. Aside from having sex with it, one can only collect it, or eat it.

Sexuality and orality, in this case, are difficult to dissociate from taste in the sense of refined appreciation. What is largely at stake in Pierre Bourdieu’s socio-cultural analyses in Distinction, for example, is the demonstration that culture in the “normative” sense and culture in the “anthropological” sense should not be separated – that there is no fundamental difference between “the elaborate taste for the most refined objects” and “the elementary taste for the flavors of food.” As “social necessity made second nature, turned into muscular patterns and bodily automatisms” (474), taste is class embodied as nature, the result of a long sedimentation of social relations, governing in both its physical and aesthetic hypostases “the propensity and the capacity to appropriate” and informing all modes of incorporation – everything ingested, digested, and assimilated, both physiologically and psychologically. The definition of “pure taste” is no more than a negation of the “impure taste” that treats the things of the body as low and coarse and those of the spirit as high and fine – a defensive distinction against the leveling force of nature which ignores cultural acquisitions and symbolic capital.

To refuse simple aisthesis or un-sublimated enjoyment is to refuse a “reduction to animality, corporeality, the belly and sex, that is, to what is common and therefore vulgar…Nature understood as sense equalizes, but at the lowest level” (489). The pleasure of the senses becomes the more acceptable the more it is veiled in successive layers of symbolic distancing. Taste, as “the practical operator of the transmutation of things into distinct and distinctive signs” (175), imposes forms and formalisms on, for example, the act of eating as “a way of denying the meaning and primary function of consumption, which are essentially common” (196). If the body remains the locus of transformation of physical impulses and values into social and cultural ones and vice versa, it is no wonder that des Esseintes witnesses the reduction of his elaborate cultural repast as well as his intricate metaphysics of taste into a simple matter of what his body will and will not absorb.

In the context of Nietzsche’s philosophical treatment of digestion, Silke-Maria Weineck points out that for Nietzsche the digesting body is not a force of selection and circumscription but rather “permeable, unstable, invaded and inhabited by other (parasitic) bodies, constantly busy ‘changing stuffs’ [ Stoffwechsel ] which will in turn enter other bodies….Hence, the idea of a self-contained and self-containing body is relegated to the realm of the fantasmatic.” Des Esseintes experiences what Weineck sees as a progressive externalization of digestion (42), a progressive obviousness of the permeable physicality that lies behind all of his dreams of sublimated, spirituous refinement, of a pure digestion of the soul. In the early stages of his isolation from the world, as the novel settles down and begins to digest books, disciplines, and natural forms, retelling histories in terms of taste, the food des Esseintes eats becomes less and less substantial. But if as in Nietzsche digestion is a principle of permeable openness to the world, and moreover if the distinction between physical and aesthetic taste is a false and fragile one, it is no wonder that the failure of his digestion is what causes the whole edifice to fall.

At the beginning of À rebours des Esseintes longs for “une arche immobile et tiède où il se réfugierait loin de l’incessant déluge de la sottise humaine” (33). Even better than this would be a mobile bourgeois interior, present at hand wherever he traveled. He could thus remain at the threshold of all things, in the world but not of it, keeping as far from the inside as one can be without casting oneself outside. He would live inside a coque molded to his body, like a snail. The ideal would perhaps be an entire world criss-crossed by a velvet-lined warren into which he could disappear at any moment. He could live as an earthworm, as nothing less than a mobile digestive system carving a network of intimate tunnels in the very act of feeding on rich dead matter.

I would question a certain frequent assumption about des Esseintes and his interior(s). Vilcot, for example, draws attention to the pervasiveness of imagery along the lines of “une lustrine rouge,” “une douce doublure,” “un milieu duveté,” “une quiétude involutive,” summing them up to an “image d’euphorie qui associe, sur un mode des plus régressifs, tiédeur, élasticité moelleuse et l’enveloppement le plus proche de soi qu’on puisse réaliser” (126). Limat-Letellier is more direct, speaking of “la recréation d’un milieu amniotique, d’un lieu fœtal” (44). Further conclusions about womblike havens abound. I would like to conclude, however, in wondering whether this ideal haven might not be more like a stomach: a haven ordered by the principles of selection and taste, an interior that is also his own interior, where his palace – his palais – is his palate.

Catherine Hansen