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Elitist differentiation: melancholia as identity in Flaubert's November and Huysmans' A Rebours.

Both G. Flaubert's November and J. K. Huysmans' A Rebours exhibit great anxiety about preserving a sense of identity in the face of widespread cultural change. To combat this anxiety, the decadent heroes of both novels adopt and embrace melancholic identities. By focusing on how and why their heroes construct melancholic selves, Flaubert and Huysmans afford us a wealth of insight into the anxiety that pervades cultural change, the problematic nature of identity, as well as the cultural, aesthetic, philosophical and individual value that melancholia can hold.

Keywords: ennui; Flaubert; Huysmans; identity; melancholy


The social and intellectual conditions of nineteenth-century Europe shaped a new self-consciousness: a self-consciousness that decadent poet and critic Arthur Symons termed a 'morbid intensity in seeing and seizing things'; an 'intense self-consciousness' that is 'really a new and beautiful and interesting disease' (Symons, 1999: 1407, 1405). Symons' word choices--particularly the terms 'morbid' and 'disease'--are crucial to recognize, for in the midst of radical cultural alterations such as commercialization, mechanization and progress, all of which appeared to threaten individuality as well as humanity itself, this 'seeing and seizing' was neither uncomplicated nor unproblematic. And because this new self-consciousness revolved around metaphysical issues such as selfhood and identity, the task of introspection easily became untenable, even to many of its strongest proponents. It is no wonder, then, that self-conscious introspection was to many nineteenth-century intelligentsias both a blessing and a curse, both a cure and a disease.

While this 'intense self-consciousness' is visible throughout the nineteenth century, it is decadent writers who provide perhaps the most arresting examples of it, for as they came to realize that any semblance of authentic selfhood might very well be an illusion, many spent their lives attempting to create for themselves highly specific and distinguishable selves. The extremes to which decadents pursued aesthetic and physical pleasures, their attitudes toward sexual/ gender non-conformity, and their focus on 'abnormal' psychological states of mind all reveal the extent to which they felt partially identical with the multitude and, as such, saw an essential need to differentiate themselves. These attitudes also point to a revolt and a reaction against the age itself and elements of the culture as a whole. The age and its elements, it seemed, were only making the world and its people more alike.

Flaubert's November and J. K. Huysmans' A Rebours (Against the Grain) both exhibit this intense anxiety about preserving a sense of identity in the face of widespread cultural change; and both texts do so in a particularly striking way: by illustrating the construction of a melancholic self. While other decadent constructions of selfhood, such as dandyism for instance, are quite conspicuously, as Rhonda Garelick (1998) contends, 'the performance of a highly stylized, painstakingly constructed self' (3), melancholia as a method of fashioning identity is a bit trickier to detect. There are several reasons for this difficulty. First, melancholia, if viewed as Aristotle conceives of it, is an essential part of one's being. Only a select few, those with a high intellectual capacity and who spend a great deal of time brooding over speculative issues, are capable of experiencing the 'genius' of melancholia. With such an essentialist view in mind, the very act of 'constructing' a melancholic self might appear odd or impossible. Second, as Garelick's notions of dandyism intimate, it would seem that, for decadents in particular, constructions of selfhood would be highly stylized and one's identity quite marked. Yet, generally speaking, those who experience melancholia typically enjoy solitude and speculation and seem more than willing to pursue a quiet and unremarkable life. As this paper will argue, however, these two points of consideration do not in any way oppose the notion of melancholia as constructed selfhood; rather, they help to elucidate and explain how the decadent heroes of both novels adopt and embrace melancholia as a prime facet of their existence. Additionally, by following the heroes as they construct melancholic selves, we are afforded a wealth of insight into the ways in which melancholia can be treasured as a cultural, aesthetic, philosophical and individual value.

It is important at the outset to note that neither hero simply adopts melancholia outright, however. Rather, both men move through a strikingly similar progression of attempts to realize and preserve their identities before they ultimately discover and embrace melancholia. Because the men come from remarkably different backgrounds, the similarities found in their progression toward melancholic selfhood are certainly interesting in themselves. But these attempts are of more than fleeting interest, for it is only in recognizing and tracing these attempts that we are able better to comprehend how and why both men ultimately come to embrace melancholia as a distinct form of identity.

Utterly self-conscious from the first to the last pages of his short memoirs, the unnamed hero of November serves as an excellent segue into the details of this progression toward melancholic selfhood, for he exemplifies a decadent thinker's quest for identity. Succinctly and introspectively he reviews his life in order to discern how he came to his current mindset. The sad hero ultimately identifies one significant and precise cause for his tremendous sufferings. He painfully asserts: '[B]ut to live amid the crowd without being able to dominate it by genius or by money, and to remain as unknown as the most cowardly and the most imbecile ... that is the torture I have known' (Flaubert, 1987: 103).

What Flaubert's hero is claiming, in other words, is that his 'torture' consists of his inability to distinguish himself; he believes that he has and will remain unknown, unremarkable, merely one of millions 'amid the crowd'. The 'crowd', the 'herd', humanity in general is an extremely important symbol for both Flaubert's hero and des Esseintes, the subject of A Rebours. Both men desire not only to be distinguished from the crowd, but they also see themselves as wholly incompatible with the multitude. Early on in Against the Grain, des Esseintes speaks of his 'scorn of humanity' continually growing. He claims 'that the world is mostly made up of solemn humbugs and silly idiots [and that] he 'could entertain no hope of discovering in another the same aspirations and the same antipathies, no hope of joining forces with a mind that, like his own, should find its satisfaction in a life of studious idleness; no hope of uniting [himself with] a keen and doctrinaire spirit' (Huysmans, 1969: 6).

A simple glance at Huysmans' choice terms in this passage--'A keen and doctrinaire spirit', 'a chosen intellect', 'a lofty soul'--illustrates that Huysmans is dedicated to pointing out des Esseintes' areas of difference from the multitude. Such terms clearly depict des Esseintes as one of the elite, and he feels this distinction between himself and the rest of humanity all too well. Like des Esseintes, Flaubert's hero also feels quite different from the multitude. He 'saw other men live, but theirs was a life apart from [his]' (Flaubert, 1987: 43). Nor is he any less critical of humanity than des Esseintes, as he so vividly expresses in the following statement: 'that was what is called humanity--a shifting surface of malice, cowardice, stupidity and ugliness. And I moved amid the crowd like a torn fragment of seaweed on the ocean, lost amid innumerable waves rolling clamorous to engulf me' (44). Once again, we find a fear of indistinguishability: both men fear being swallowed by the multitude, and as a result, both men's hatred of humanity continues to grow to the point that they can no longer even glance at the busy streets filled with people; such a sight utterly nauseates them. This nausea, this ennui, overtakes both men early on in the novels; they both '[relapse] into the sleep of everlasting boredom' (43).

In order to escape the lack of feeling that ennui causes, both men urgently turn to the only thing that can give immediate release and satisfaction: a life of decadent pleasure. Just as Walter Pater claims that hedonism is an excessive reaction to periods of ennui, Flaubert's narrator easily isolates two reasons why he felt the need to pursue hedonistic activities. First, because he is already having difficulty 'feeling', he thrusts himself into excess in order to feel anything at all. Second, as he argues, his decadent passions are the results of 'the need of some new emotion, and an aspiration, as it were, towards something higher, the summit of which [he] was unable to discern' (28).

Interestingly, Flaubert's hero notes here one of the key descriptors of melancholy: whereas depression is oftentimes instigated by a direct cause, melancholy appears, for many, to exist for no good reason at all. As Julia Kristeva (1989) points out, the melancholic 'mourns not an Object but the Thing'--or 'the real that does not lend itself to signification' (13). For an audience attuned to melancholia, Flaubert's philosophical conclusion is striking. Yet Flaubert's narrator has not yet come to embrace melancholy; nor has des Esseintes. Both men must attempt to overcome ennui and determine some way in which to define their identities before an awareness of the pleasure and benefits of melancholia sets in.

Flaubert's hero's pleasure-seeking culminates in feelings of 'invincible disgust for the things of this world. One morning [he] felt old, full of the experience of a thousand things [he] had not yet known ... [he] saw nothing that was worth the trouble of desiring' (Flaubert, 1987: 34). And upon further reflection, he finds 'that [his] solitude ennobled [him] and that [his] heart was larger if [he] secluded it from all that made up the joy of other men' (32). Des Esseintes too 'found himself stranded, a lonely, disillusioned, sobered man, utterly and abominably tired' (Huysmans, 1969: 8); 'Simultaneously with his craving to escape a hateful world of degrading restrictions and pruderies, the longing never again to see pictures representing the human form toiling in Paris between four walls or roaming the streets in search of money, had obtained a more and more complete mastery over his mind' (50).

It is clear from such assertions that hedonism has failed. A hermitlike existence becomes, for both men, a final resort. The pleasure of hedonism is simply not enough to overcome ennui, for once the pleasure is complete or once all pleasures are exhausted, the unfeeling, bored state returns. Further, most of the pleasures in which the two men engage require another participant: namely, a woman. Already quite disgusted with humanity, such engagements only further the antipathy. Hence, both men ultimately turn to solitude and segregation, to a quiet life reading and appreciating literature, and finally to melancholia.

It is once both men are within the comforts brought about by solitude that they truly become cognizant of their attempts to discover their identities. Not unexpectedly perhaps, both men turn to literature. Flaubert's hero asserts that he turns to poetry, for in dreaming 'out the grief of the poets', he 'sometimes thought that the enthusiasm [he] felt for them made [him] their equal, raised [him] to their height' (Flaubert, 1987: 32). He also notes that this turn to literature is the immediate causal reaction to his bout of ennui--after 'recall[ing] nothing more than a long boredom which lasted for several winters of yawning, of desiring to have nothing more with living', he suddenly came to believe himself a poet. As he explains:
   For none of the poet's miseries did I lack, alas! As you see. Yes,
   once it seemed to me that I had genius, my brain teemed with
   magnificent thoughts, the style flowed beneath my pen as the blood
   in my veins ... My head was filled with complete dramas, full of
   scenes of fury and unrevealed anguishes; humanity, from the infant
   in its cradle to the dead man on his bier, found its very echo in
   me (45).

As the preceding quotation illustrates, Flaubert's hero finds that connecting himself with the misery and genius of the poet allows him to feel contented. No longer is he alone in the world, and no longer is he identical to everyone else. He is now distinct; his misery grants him the notion that he is one of a select few with the capacity to comprehend and empathize with all of humanity's anguishes.

Flaubert's hero is not alone in his turn to literature; both men engage in and enjoy literature, and it is the retreat to solitude combined with reading that leads both men to relish the melancholia that advances. Des Esseintes, in fact, not only prizes his specially crafted editions of Baudelaire's works above all else, for Baudelaire 'had revealed the morbid psychology of the mind that has reached the October of its sensations, detailed the symptoms of souls challenged by grief, set apart by spleen' (Huysmans, 1969: 134) but des Esseintes' other prized possession is a figure of Melancholia 'seated before a round sun's disk, on rocks, in an attitude of depression and despondency' (60). As the novel progresses, des Esseintes learns that by gazing at the figure of Melancholia, any distress he feels 'would be dissipated as if by magic; a pleasing sadness, a languor of gentle mournfulness, would fill his thoughts, and he would meditate for hours before this work' (61).

It is only when des Esseintes embraces this vision of melancholia that he is able to part with his neuroses stemming from the crowd and from existence; suddenly, he is 'ripe for solitude [and] ... expect[ant] [of] nothing more [from] existence; like a monk again, he was overwhelmed with an immense fatigue, a craving for peace and quiet, a longing to have nothing more to do henceforth with the vulgar, who were in his eyes all utilitarians and fools' (64). Finally, des Esseintes can escape his ennui. And any time he is plagued with notions of the outside world, he immediately turns to his figure of Melancholia or to Baudelaire for solace. He comes to recognize that the 'morbid psychology' of Baudelaire was not a discussion of 'childish maladies', but something much more stirring: Baudelaire had 'sounded those more incurable, more poignant and more profound: wounds that are inflicted by satiety, disillusion and contempt in ruined souls tortured by the present, disgusted with the past, terrified and desperate of the future' (135). In other words, the maladies of which Baudelaire speaks are what des Esseintes comes to recognize as his own, just as Flaubert's hero comes to discover that all of the poets' griefs are his own.

Interestingly neither man succeeds in retaining his solace and solitude in the end. Flaubert's hero so wholly lacks an identity that even when he simply 'disappears' at the close of the novel and his acquaintance concludes the narration, he still remains unnamed. And des Esseintes is ultimately forced by his physician to return to Paris; the novel closes, in fact, with des Esseintes lamenting that 'the waves of human mediocrity rise to the heavens and ... will engulf [his] last refuge' (206). We might say that both men's self-conscious quest for identity was simply not enough to combat the changing culture, for in a culture where even the houses all look alike, as Flaubert's narrator is careful to note, both gaining and maintaining an identity proves extremely difficult. Yet both men's lack of success is perhaps neither surprising nor wholly unexpected. What is remarkable is that both men isolate melancholia as the only way in which they can feel superior to the multitude. Literary genius--even just reading it--gives both men solace in that they truly are not alone, nor are they simply one of the multitude. Rather, literary genius, together with melancholia, provides both men with the confidence to believe that they have the profundity and the insight that only a select few--the elite--have.

Further, although it would seem that in their attempts to construct a melancholic self neither man is supportive of the essentialism implicit in Aristotle's conception of melancholia's 'exceptionality', we ultimately end up with a striking argument about essentialism and elitism for, from the very start, both Flaubert and Huysmans further Aristotle's conception of melancholia as an exceptional disease. Both authors insist on noting that, even while still in childhood, both of their heroes are, in a word, different from other children. Des Esseintes, the hero of Huysmans' novel comes from an 'exhausted race' with an 'excess of lymph in the blood' (2). His childhood is 'beset by perils' (2)--at a young age he contends with 'persistent attacks of fever', and at 17 both of his parents die--his mother of a 'general debility', his father of 'a vague and mysterious malady' (2). Once at school, he is highly regarded for his intelligence and aptitude, and the Fathers of the school allow des Esseintes to do what he pleases rather than suppress his intellect. Hence des Esseintes 'spent the hours in reading or dreaming, drinking his fill of solitude ... constantly brooding over the same thoughts' (3). Flaubert's hero, rather than focusing on experience, as does des Esseintes' descriptor, focuses on his internal condition: 'I was born with the longing for death. Nothing seemed more stupid than life, nothing more shameful than to cling to it' (Flaubert, 1987: 43).

It appears, then, that the assumption that both heroes make about their 'difference' is an acute observation, for even in childhood both men experience melancholic thoughts. Yet until they both struggle to define themselves in the midst of a culture that looks all the same, until they both recognize that the very suffering that makes them unhappy is the very same suffering that will give them distinction, melancholia is simply ignored. It is only when the men embrace their melancholia, their diseased difference, that they truly feel as though they can be distinct and can gain a sense of identity.


Flaubert, Gustave (1987) November, trans. Frank Jellinek. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers.

Garelick, Rhonda (1998) Rising Star: Dandyism, Gender, and Performance in the Fin de Siecle. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Huysmans, J. K. (1969) A Rebours. New York: Dover.

Kristeva, Julia (1989) Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia. New York: Columbia University Press.

Symons, Arthur (1999) The Decadent Movement in Literature, in The Broadview Anthology of Victorian Poetry and Poetic Theory, ed. Thomas J. Collins and Vivienne J. Rundle. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, pp. 1405-13.

Melissa Rowell Blackman is Corder Fellow in the Department of English at the Texas Christian University. Address: Department of English, Texas Christian University, TCU Box 297270, Fort Worth, TX 76129, USA. [email:]
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Author:Blackman, Melissa Rowell
Publication:Journal of European Studies
Date:Dec 1, 2003
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