À rebours (Against Nature) by Joris-Karl Huysmans : Scents in Books

“From black-rimmed plates they ate turtle soup and eaten Russian rye bread, ripe Turkish olives, caviar, salted mullet-roe, smoked Frankfurt black puddings, game in gravies the colour of liquorice and boot-blacking truffled sauces, chocolate caramel creams, plum puddings, nectarines, preserved fruits, mulberries and heart-cherries; from dark coloured glasses they drank the wines of Limagne and Rousillon, of Tenedoes, Val de Peñas and Oporto, and, after the coffee and the walnut cordial they enjoyed kvass, porters and stouts.”

― Joris-Karl Huysmans, Against Nature

His writing inspired Oscar Wilde—and corrupted Dorian Gray. As an art critic, he discovered Degas and Odilon Redon. Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848-1907) was one of the most prominent stars of the European art scene at the end of the 19th century, and yet he remains little known to the general public. However, two events this year are putting Huysmans into the spotlight. First, the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, published by Gallimard, has added his works to their prestigious collection of classics. Second, Musée d’Orsay will hold an exhibition from 26th November 2019 to 1st March 2020 devoted to Huysmans’s contributions to 20th century aesthetics.

As Huysmans’s work is celebrated, the timing is ideal to read his novel À rebours, translated into English as Against Nature. Controversial and sensual in equal parts, it still retains its power more than a century after it was published in 1884 during an era, much like today, filled with unprecedented changes and anxieties. One might well understand why the novel’s hero Des Esseintes decides to escape the world by retiring to a country home and creating his own universe.

Against Nature abounds in sensory references as Des Esseintes composes perfumes, tastes liqueurs or falls into daydreams. For this reason, perhaps, the novel is often found on perfumers’ bookshelves. I took a page from it and in my recent FT magazine article, Three Decadent Perfumes, I imagined what fragrances would be chosen by des Esseintes.

One would follow Des Esseintes’s example of self-isolation to their peril. “It was the strangest book that he had ever read,” writes Wilde of his doomed character Dorian Gray. “Things that he had dimly dreamed of were suddenly made real to him… It was a poisonous book.” In a way, however, the novel reminds us that art and literature are essential for weathering life’s upheavals. And of course, scents, which inspire fantasies, bring back the past or promise an interesting future.

What perfumes strike you as decadent?

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14 Comments

  • maja: Your writing… truly beautiful.
    I haven’t read it and the only person I know who has read Huysmans is my decadent gourmet and all things sensual friend who, I guess, perfectly fits the description of Des Esseintes. 🙂 February 17, 2020 at 7:49am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you!
      Do read it, if you have a chance. The belief in the redemptive power of art that’s behind decadent literature is inspiring. To the extent that anything can redeem us, that is. February 17, 2020 at 11:31am Reply

  • Karen A: Interesting post Victoria! (And what a beautiful table for your writing, drawing etc). Hmmmm decadent perfumes, first that jumps to my mind is Civet by Zoologist. Eaumg’s review described it as smelling like the woman she wished she was – or something like that. February 17, 2020 at 7:51am Reply

    • Victoria: Victoria of Eaumg has a great talent to capture the mood of scents. I like this expression of hers. February 17, 2020 at 11:28am Reply

  • Golnar: The most opulent scent that I can think of is that of tuberose. Perhaps because it is always used in both weddings and funerals in Iran. No matter how grand the floral arrangements may be, tuberose can almost always be found tucked beneath the orchids and roses, heavily imbuing the air with its scent.

    I have two non sequitur questions that I hope you’ll see.
    First, can you think of anything to layer Mitsouko with or am I being blasphemous?

    And second, I used to love Gwen Stefani’s harajuku lovers G perfume, (I’m not a very refined perfume connoisseur, I know) recently I came across coconut fizz by Guerlain, and it seems to my untrained nose that the scents are exact replicas of each other. I can’t find any comparisons of the two perfumes anywhere, so I thought to ask you. February 17, 2020 at 9:00am Reply

    • Victoria: My other Iranian friend also associates tuberose with funerals, so I was curious to read your note. Makes sense. Such associations are very strong and lingering.

      I have a couple of articles on this topic here, with layering recommendations from perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena. He sometimes layers classical Guerlains, so no, it’s not such a strange idea:
      https://boisdejasmin.com/note/layering-perfume
      There are two parts to this article.
      As for Mitsouko, layering it with a simple peach perfume would be the best way to go. Even inexpensive one note peaches like something from Demeter would be interesting. Please let me know how it goes.

      To be honest, I don’t remember what either perfume smells like, apart from the creamy note, but if you find them similar, then there must be something. I’m going to look for them. February 17, 2020 at 11:27am Reply

  • Gregory Tozian: It has always been my favorite novel. A masterpiece.
    That and take your pick of Alfred Jarry (or Stanisław Witkiewicz, Virginia Woolf & Carl Jung) and what else could a growing child need to develop the grit to give the finger to earth’s pre-programmed-zombie “societies,” free of blinders?
    Thanks for spreading the good word. Cheers. February 17, 2020 at 12:20pm Reply

  • Fleurycat: A beautiful and inspiring post! I love the dark, dark, rich and oily food references in that description. So visceral. Huysman’s Against Nature is going on my must read list. Just what I am in the mood for and I appreciate your comment on the redemptive power of art that’s behind decadent literature. It reminds me of an art book I loved when I was in my 20’s: Dreamers of Decadence. Not my thing now but it had the power to inspire me, then.
    I agree that Tuberose as well as Gardenia and Datura perfumes seem decadent because while sweet, they can be overwhelming, almost suffocating, and Datura because it is poisonous as well. Lilac perfumes have a more melancholic quality, like Guerlain’s Apres L’Ondee, which is close in mood, and then of course the decadent 80’s perfumes: YSL’s Opium and Calvin Klein’s Obsession!
    I am traveling in Vietnam and reveling in all the intoxicating flowers, herbs, plants, and the many conflicting and magical smells of nature. Always such a panoply of scents: intoxicating, sweet, savory, pungent, foul. I find them very interesting, evocative, and inspiring.
    And the fresh herbs are so delicious! February 17, 2020 at 12:28pm Reply

  • Orchid Lover: I loved your article! I wasn’t familiar with Huysmans at all, but his beautifully descriptive writing certainly drew me in; I need to explore his world further.

    As far as decadent perfumes go several come to mind: Caron’s Narcisse Noir and French CanCan, Bal a Versailles by Jean Desprez, Amoureuse by Parfums DelRae and Serge Lutens’ Datura Noir. I love them all. February 17, 2020 at 3:50pm Reply

  • John Luna: Thanks for this very thought-provoking post. I have a copy of Against Nature in the teetering mountain on my nightstand, and do mean to finish it (I tend to bite off things in moods, and the dentist scene was so horrifying it knocked me out for awhile, but I’ll get back to it.)

    I just finished the problematic-but-interesting Submission by Michel Houllebecq which references Huysmans constantly. Curiously, its protagonist (a Husymans scholar at the Sorbonne) is very un-sensual, seeming chronically depressed. My own experience with Huysmans comes via admiring painters he references: Odilon Redon and Gustave Moreau… Can I say, as a complement to the places you mention in your magazine piece, that Moreau’s studio in Paris is a must-see? A beautiful space (the loft aesthetic meets 19th century Art Nouveau) as well as a well-kept time capsule, it’s right up there with the Neue Galerie in NYC for satisfying one’s art nouveau gesamptkunstwerk fix.

    My experiences with ‘decadent fragrances’ has been pretty limited. I found a big bottle of vintage Opium once and gave it to my son, who has the personality to pull it off…It seems decadent to me, but not in a way that sets off any puritanical alarm bells. I’d love to try Rien sometimes, as I’ve crossed paths with it often in my reading, though not in life. I used to find the heavy and multifaceted myrrh note in the original formulation of Eau Sauvage Parfum slightly decadent, but something in the balance of the root-y vetiver in that composition made it feel just battened down enough to be saved by chivalry. Actually, that seems to be a trend with me… Le Troisième Homme by Caron (one of my favourites) seems to flirt with decadence with its whiff of something skanky (indolic jasmine? civet? Not sure) but the coolness of its prominent clove note holds it aloof.

    Truthfully, decadent fragrances often make me feel a little sad. I think it’s the beauty. Not a complaint but a curiosity. But what really makes a fragrance decadent? As I ask myself, I try to push past the cultural cues that treat the fragrance notes common to other cultures as ‘exotic’ and ‘other’ as well as the basic question of sex… a true acolyte of decadence like Huysmans (who ultimately converted to Catholicism) is usually after something more. For me, its the idea that there is beauty so involving and distracting that other cares and concerns fall away. I think of the many ways Wilde talked about prioritizing aesthetics over conventional morality in a way that made his choices feel dangerous but necessary. February 17, 2020 at 4:14pm Reply

  • Fazal: First of all, I am glad Golnar asked about layering because I would not have discovered those layering articles, that Victoria posted, otherwise.

    I am not usually a believer in layering because I think perfumes are finished compositions. In a way, each perfume is already comprised of layers of different accords that the perfumer decided are most suited to exist together. But when someone like Ellena offers layering recommendations, it is worth paying attention to.

    Your FT article suggests Rien. I so wish I had liked it but I did not 🙁 Among ELDO’s creations, my favorite and possibly only like remains Jasmin et Cigarette. I actually tried Rien’s original composition because I feel that all ELDO original releases have gone through reformulation. If my memory serves me right, ELDO got a Kuwaiti investor and since then I have noticed that their compositions have been relatively safer than their original ones. The original ones have also become lighter compositions (maybe due to economic reasons as well as to improve their wearability). Once an outside investor is on board, the brand has little choice but to focus more on commercial viability of old and new compositions. February 17, 2020 at 10:00pm Reply

  • rickyrebarco: I read some Huysmans in a modern poetry class, along with Mallarme’, Valery, et al. I have not read this book, however. It’s going on my reading list.
    Decadent perfumes- I would say, Viktoria Minya’s Hedonist, Hermes Ambre Narguile and Baruti Unter den Linden. These are all fulsome, rich, spicy, almost overwhelming, and bring to mind (at least for me) women and men in furs, sitting on velvet chairs, drinking the finest Tokays and Sauternes along with the finest finger foods. February 18, 2020 at 2:18pm Reply

  • Lydia: Thank you for this fascinating post! I read À rebours in my early 20s and barely remember it I didn’t have enough cultural and historical context in my head then for it to come alive for me. I would love to reread it and see what I’d find in it now.

    I so much wish I could see the Musée d’Orsay exhibition. (There ought to be a cheap, unlimited international flights pass specifically for art lovers who just want to hop over to see art exhibitions in other countries.)

    Your comparison of our current uncertain times to 1884 is interesting. I often think about how people might have felt at the turn of the century through the two world wars. Imagine living through the fall of so many countries and governments, and the rise of so many technological advances, and such profound cultural changes. But it is indeed quite similar in many ways to our current era. Things are moving head-spinningly quickly now, and I can certainly understand a desire to retreat from it all into a world of exquisite pleasures.

    The first perfume that comes to my mind for decadence is Rappelle-Toi by L’Artisan. On my skin, it smells very much like an autumnal version of Ostara (another Duchaufour creation). The daffodils are wilted but still have a suggestion of spring sunshine and pollen. There’s a liqueur note, a fermented and syrupy floral that’s almost too concentrated, but also a bit irresistable. I can’t stop smelling it, trying to catch that flash of spring sunshine hidden under the twilight velvety, honeyed decay. (Perfume as a 16th Century vanitas still life.) February 19, 2020 at 1:01am Reply

  • Aurora: I read A rebours in my teens and don’t remember it well, I should revisit. Dior Poison seems decadent to me (I can’t wear it as I smelled too much of it when it was released). And for Des Esseintes I would select l’Heure Bleue as he is a melancholic soul. February 22, 2020 at 5:21am Reply

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