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Porter, L.M. (1987). Huysmans' “A rebours”: The Psychodynamics of Regression. Am. Imago, 44(1):51-65.

(1987). American Imago, 44(1):51-65

Huysmans' “A rebours”: The Psychodynamics of Regression

Laurence M. Porter

When Joris-Karl Huysmans' novel A rebours (“Against the Grain”) appeared in 1884, it simultaneously marked the onset and the high point of the international Decadent movement in literature. Huysmans himself, however, was not concerned with founding a tradition. His retrospective preface in 1903 characterized the novel as a transition between the Naturalism of his earlier writings and his eventual conversion to Catholicism. But he continued: “To tell the truth, these notions came into my mind only much later…. I had no fixed plan and Against the Grain is a work that is quite unconscious.1 In its immediate context, the word unconscious suggests that Huysmans composed his novel by releasing and transcribing a flow of unpremeditated associations. But in a broader context, it reveals that Huysmans was aware of the unconscious. To prepare his portrait of a mentally ill hero, he read contemporary studies of psychopathology—Bouchut's Le Névrosisme aigu et chronique and Axenfeld's Traité des névroses. He was trying to understand his own psychosomatic symptoms and those of his friend Anna Meunier. His sources described the photophobia of certain neurotics, their hallucinatory episodes involving sounds and odors, and the cures recommended at the time: drugs, hydrotherapy, and quitting the place where the symptoms were experienced.2 All these elements were systematically integrated into the story of A rebours' main character, des Esseintes. In the opening pages, the author also comments directly on the hereditary, physical, mental, and situational causes of des Esseintes' condition. Thus Huysmans, like the Romantics before him and the Decadents after him, anticipates twentieth-century psychoanalytic theories.3


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