The Rotted Heart of Sin

By Tara Isabella BurtonOctober 29, 2013

The Rotted Heart of Sin

French Decadent Tales by Stephen Romer

TODAY, THE NOVELISTS and short story writers that comprise the canon of French Decadence — delineated, loosely, as beginning with Barbey D'Aurevilly in the mid 1840's and ending with the death of Joris-Karl Huysmans in 1907 — are all too often forgotten, or remembered only for eruptions of quasi-pornographic literary excess: the hideous tortures detailed in Octave Mirbeau's Le Jardin des Supplices, the protagonist's nightmares of vagina dentata in Á Rebours, or the infamous “yellow book” that exerted such a corrupting influence on Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray. At best, they are read, as Robert Irwin describes Barbey D'Aurevilly's Les Diaboliques, as  “a celebration of pride, the pride of the ancient aristocracy of evil.”

The lurid floridity of these texts — itself a response to Zola-style naturalism — might at first invite such a reading (where else can you find a character so devoted to aesthetic fulfillment that he inadvertently kills a turtle by encrusting it with gemstones?). But the greatest examples of French decadence are more than mere panegyrics to excess. Rather, they subvert the very “aristocracy of evil” they at first seem to uphold by seducing readers into complicity with the dandies and decadents who are revealed to personify the rotted heart of sin.

Exquisitely mannered language, settings of rarified luxury, elegantly structured scenes-within-scenes, breathlessly erotic imagery all serve to create worlds in which the artist – the supreme organizing being — seems triumphant over what Huysmans's Des Esseintes calls “that withered old crone Nature.” But aesthetic victory, we soon learn, comes at a catastrophic spiritual price; the artist gains self-mastery at the cost of his soul. In Villiers de l'Isle-Adam’s story “Sentimentality,” one character notes the case of a singer who stood by his fiancee's death-bed, and “listening to his sister's convulsive sobbing, could not restrain himself from commenting ... on the defects of her vocalizing.” The aestheticizing gaze becomes a means of alienation, destroying the ability of the artist to empathize with the rest of humankind. Indeed, “Sentimentality's” emotionless dandy-protagonist ultimately commits suicide, becoming, in death, one with the ordinary mortals he claimed to abhor. “Does Art then lead to a certain hardening?” his former lover had asked him. We are left with no doubt that it has.

Oxford University Press's new, highly readable, anthology French Decadent Tales (translated with rare lyrical precision by Stephen Romer) does much to highlight the movement's profoundly ambiguous treatment of the relationship between art and life. As they are meant to, the strongest stories in the collection simultaneously titillate and repulse. We are treated to stunningly erotic passages – descriptions of beautiful sickly women, of delectable feasts — that segue alltoo naturally into the horrific: a woman’s body ravaged by consumption, a cake containing the remnants of a human heart. By exploring the relationship between art and life, the dandy and his conquest, the storyteller and his listener, these tales challenge us to investigate the spiritual core of the artist's need for aesthetic control and with it, the nature of art itself.

Aesthetic control in these tales generally takes one of three forms. For many of the authors featured in French Decadent Tales, the act of self-creation — of consciously creating oneself as a character — is paramount. The murderous “dandy of the unpredictable” Deshoulieres in Jean Richepin's story of the same name, the consciously insincere aesthete Maximilian in Villiers de l'Isle-Adam's “Sentimentality,” all embrace to excess Baudelaire's famous maxim that the dandy should live his life in front of a mirror: these men deny their own humanity in order to author themselves as beautiful personalities, or what infamous Decadent (and occultist) Joséphin Péladan called called kaloprosopia.

One particularly powerful example of the trope occurs in Villiers's “The Desire to Be a Man.” “For nearly half a century,” the retired tragedian Chadval laments, “I have acted, I have played the passions of other people without ever feeling them — in fact, I have never felt anything myself.” His experiences, he comes to realize, have been subsumed into the realm of the aesthetic: utterly removed from his own emotional state. To be a “real man,” Chaudval decides, he must learn to succumb to “Passions! Feelings! Real actions! REAL!”

But romantic love, glory, ambition — these are too prosaic for our Chaudval. Instead, he tries to spur himself towards “REMORSE! That's what my dramatic temper needs,” he says, starting a fire that kills hundreds of Parisians in an attempt to evoke the desired emotion within himself. “What a Man I shall be!” he crows. “Now at last I shall know what it feels like to have a tormented conscience!”

Yet Chaudval, like so many of Villiers' artist-protagonists, receives a punishment at once terrible in its justice and chilling in its simplicity: he feels nothing at all — or, at least, is unable to recognize the theatrical artistry in the “despair” and “shame” that have come to consume him. He cries out in vain for ghosts, apparitions, spirits to punish him — “I have earned it!” — unaware, Villiers tells us, “that he had himself become what he sought.” The silence Chaudval experiences is profoundly ambiguous. Is it the silence of an ultimately empty world, one in which there is no such thing as “a man” after all? Or is this silence, so perfect in its poetic justice, an ironic example of the (very, if rather heretically) Catholic Villiers' vision of divine punishment? Chaudval, in becoming the master of his own personal universe, must face the hellish emptiness of a world without God. Here, no audience can absolve his sins.

So too the second of the main tropes we find in the decadent ideology of creation — the “creation” of another. While none of the stories anthologized in French Decadent Tales treats this motif as literally as does Villiers' 1886 novel Tomorrow's Eve, in which a dandy and a scientist conspire to create the perfect (i.e. mechanical) woman, the dandies we find in Tales nevertheless seek to demonstrate their artistic mastery via their influence on others. Themes treated by Romantic authors – the creative act of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, for example – are taken to their natural extreme: the scientist protagonist of Tomorrow's Eve does not merely assert that he can create life, but indeed argues that artificial, machine life, is hardly any different from the organic kind: “a little more dependent on electricity than that of her model, but that's all.” Such an obsession with the idea of mastery finds its manifestation not merely in content, but also in form – here, too, a departure from the Romantic mode: the Decadent prose style is not fluid but fixed, consciously artificial – what Karen Humphreys, writing on D'Aurevilly, calls the “lapidary style.”

Barbey D'Aurevilly, in “The Crowning Achievement of Don Juan,” gives us an implicit link between artistic and sexual control. In this tale, the Don Juan in question, the aging and unsubtly-named aristocrat Ravila de Raviles, recounts his “crowning” seduction to a breathless crowd of former mistresses. His most fondly-remembered conquest, he tells us, is not a voluptuous demimondaine, but rather a naïve and frightened virgin in whom he has induced a hysterical pregnancy without ever sleeping with her. His gaze alone, he tells his former lovers, proved enough to make “her back straighten[...] up, as if by gazing at her I had put a bullet through her spine and broken it.”

This is not the carnal voluptuary we find in the Don Juan narrative of Moliere. Rather, the decadent Don Juan is the ultimate dandy — he who (to quote D'Aurevilly's own definition of the dandy) produces an effect upon another without ever being affected himself. He is the artist of another's seduction, yet is himself impervious to the yearnings and satisfactions of eroticism.

Seduction is, in the decadent text, indistinguishable from the narrative act itself. Decadent Don Juan's tale, which he recounts with “the nonchalance of a man who knows how much delay exacerbates desire,” is as much about the psychic rape of a young and nameless virgin as it is the decidedly erotic titillation of the former lovers to whom he tells it. The act of storytelling, here and elsewhere in the decadent text, becomes a kind of power play, an opportunity for the storyteller to create his public identity at the expense of the helpless listener, who finds herself in a position analogous to that of Don Juan's unfortunate virgin — a mere object against whom the storyteller can define his own selfhood.

This kind of doubling allows Barbey to turn his ironic gaze upon us as readers. Have we, too, not listened eagerly to Ravila's tale; have we too not allowed ourselves to be seduced; have we not expected the quasi-erotic consummation of narrative fulfillment? What we are left with, however, is not climax but death: the nameless virgin gets married and “dies young,” her story aestheticized for our erotic consumption (D'Aurevilly never states that Ravila is directly responsible for her death, but the callous off-hand way in which Ravila remarks upon it is certainly suspicious.) The creation of the other, like the creation of the self, is a spiritually problematic act, an implication only heightened by Barbey's frequent textual comparisons of Ravila to the devil.

For the Decadents, “pursuit of Art” can border on mania. For many of the decadents and dandies that populate these fictions, the need to shape one’s own surroundings, to ensure that it conforms to the self’s ideas of the aesthetics, is pathological. The paradigmatic example of this trope (indeed, of French decadence generally) can be found in Joris-Karl Huysmans's 1884 novel À Rebours, in which the aristocratic Des Esseintes seeks to retreat from the world altogether, inhabiting instead an aesthetically pleasing estate of artificial flora and fauna (featuring, most notably, a gem-encrusted turtle), a miniature universe of his own creation. In the Decadent universe, today’s control freak is a collector who attempts to organize and create his own surroundings by means of objets d'art.

Thus does the collector Van Hulst in Georges Rodenbach's “The Time” develop an obsession with purchasing and synchronizing clocks, a need for control that Rodenbach casts in erotic terms: “Every time he entered the shop, Van Hulst would set to and examine the precious thing once more, with the excitement, the feeling in his fingertips that is a kind of pleasure; he had the nervous sensitive hands of the collector, who are tactile by nature, and he would touch, handle, stroke the object of desire. It was as though he already half-owned it. But the incomplete, a half-possession, the caress of the fiancé who has dreams of a full consummation.” Van Hulst waits for the moment when his clocks will synchronize and chime at once. But when he falls in love with the clock-maker's daughter, he finds that both love and art are beyond his control. His beloved dies, her human heart no match for the regularity of the mechanical timepieces, and his clocks achieve the desired synchronization only while she is dying, and he is thus unable to appreciate their harmony. The collector, trapped between the world of flesh and the world of art, is ultimately barred from both.

Such delineations between creation of self, other, and world are far from fixed, however. In Guy de Maupassant's “The Tresses”, for example, a collector's obsession with a severed lock of hair found in an antique drawer leads him into madness as he creates a mental ideal of the woman to whom it once belonged. So too the Don Juan of Remy de Gourmont's “Don Juan's Secret,” whose influence on the women he seduces becomes a kind of self-creation, as he adopts each of the qualities that he admires in his conquests.

In all of these cases, however, the lure of the artificial — the self that attempts to create itself, to influence another, to organize its surroundings — proves a siren call into the abyss. Dandies, overwhelmed by their need to prove their artistic superiority to the common man, become murderers — like Chaudval, or the “dandy of the unpredictable” Deshoulieres in Jean Richepin's story of the same name — or they end up suicides, as in Villiers' “Sentimentalism.” Great seducers like the protagonists in Barbey D'Aurevilly's “Don Juan” and Jean Lorrain's “The Man Who Loved Consumptives” are revealed as spiritual vampires, implicit murderers of the women over whom they exert psychic control. Collectors of objets d'art — as in de Maupassant's “The Tresses” and Rodenbach's “The Time” — fail in their attempts to organize their worlds on aesthetic grounds, becoming victims of their own obsession.

Aesthetic control, in all its forms, is thus revealed not merely as unobtainable but as a kind of blasphemy. The religious language of sin and salvation dominates several of these texts — the narrator of D'Aurevilly's “Don Juan” hints that his protagonist is, in fact, the devil; the priapic incubus of de Gourmont's “The Faun” is a distinctly demonic creation, brought into being by a young woman's fantasies about an idealized lover. In each case, the act of aesthetic creation is treated as the dark mirror of divine creation; the dandy-artist appropriates the divine prerogative in order to improve upon a world no longer suffused with the glory of God.

Yet, we find, the world is suffused with — if not orthodox “divine glory” — at least an aura of the supernatural. Fate, magic, poetic justice — all these devices serve to subvert the victories of our dandy-artists, hinting that they are not, after all, the authors of their own identities. Each is a character in a story beyond his control, a point made manifest by its literal truth: the “unpredictable” Deshoulieres, Villiers's Chaudval, D'Aurevilly's “Don Juan”, Rodenbach's Van Hulst, are, after all, nothing if not characters in the stories of another.


For Decadent authors it is not enough to eroticize the act of narrative seduction, they must take eroticization to disturbing extremes. Rape, necrophilia, and other sexual perversions abound, and the act of storytelling is transformed into a Gothic act of quasi-vampirism, strengthening the teller and weakening the listener, rendering him (or, very often in these texts, her) a mere proxy for the teller's self-aggrandizing behavior. That is not to say, however, that Villiers, Barbey, or Rodenbach should be read as Christian writers, authors of straightforward apologetics. Certainly, many of these figures were anything but orthodox, freely blending a contradictory mix of often-fanatical Catholicism with shades of occultism and equally rabid anti-clericalism. Regardless of their personal beliefs, however, these authors write within a definitively Christian context — their language is the language of sin and redemption, grace and diabolism. It is precisely this tension — a keen awareness of sin rivaled by a fascination with its aesthetic powers — that makes these texts so effective as examinations of the intersection between theology, art, and sin.

Such sin is twofold. On the one hand, our authors hint, the storyteller, in seeking to transform his listener into an “other-I”, at once extension and proof of his own artistic genius, inevitably denies the listener the right to her own autonomous selfhood, to tell her own story, an act that our authors frequently liken to rape. In this paradigm, all others become mere proxy-selves — not fully-realized beings but avatars of the artist's own selfhood.

Not only does the decadent-dandyist storyteller assume a false autonomy — unlike his characters, who are in and of his textual world, the storyteller adopts the persona of the “divine creative genius.” Yet in so doing, we learn, he denies his own facticity; his role as a character in the divinely-authored drama of creation, a fundamental oversight that leaves him incapable of engaging truthfully with his own self, a self that must, D’Aurevilly and Villiers alike hint, be understood with reference to God.

Yet perhaps what is most striking in our authors' examinations of the connections between narrative and sin is the willingness to use, and subvert, the textual medium — the locus of the storyteller's power over his listener, and thus the ultimate seat of danger, the means by which power is exerted. Using multilayered narratives, stories-within-stories, and a hyper-artificial literary style that highlights the aesthetic appeal of a number of gruesome and horrific acts, these stories exemplify in form as well as content the seductive, dangerous relationship between storyteller and listener. We are seduced into sympathy with the charming dandies of the text — their linguistic dexterity serving to distance us from the horrors of their crimes — only to be revealed as complicit in the death and destruction that inevitably follow. If, after all, “the pursuit of Art leads to a certain hardening,” we too as readers have hardened our hearts. It is this set of tensions that makes the decadent short story a powerful meditation on the nature of the artist-subject relationship, and indeed on the nature of storytelling itself.


Tara Isabella Burton is working on a doctorate in literature and theology as a Clarendon Scholar at Trinity College, Oxford.

LARB Contributor

Tara Isabella Burton is working on a doctorate in literature and theology as a Clarendon Scholar at Trinity College, Oxford. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in National Geographic Traveler, The Paris Review Daily, The AtlanticElectric Literature, and more. 


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!