J. K. Huysmans
The book had the distinction of being referred to in Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Grey,2 and has one of the most bizarrely eccentric “heroes” in all literature. The thoroughly weird Duc Jean Floressas des Esseintes. A man whose taste in furnishings, to give but one example is bizarre.3 The jewel encrusted living tortoise ambling about his living room should give anyone an indication of our “hero’s” taste.
Now my purpose here is not to discuss des Esseintes taste in decoration but his taste in Latin literature. It is one of the most enjoyable essays in Classical literary criticism ever published and our fictional “hero” does not lack in interesting opinions.4
The truth was that the Latin language, as it was written during the period which academics still persist in calling the Golden Age, held scarcely any attraction for him. That restricted idiom with its limited stock of almost invariable constructions; without suppleness of syntax, without colour, without even light and shade; pressed flat along all its seams and stripped of the crude but often picturesque expressions of earlier epochs – that idiom could, at a pinch, enunciate the pompous platitudes and vague commonplaces endlessly repeated by the rhetoricians and poets of the time, but it was so tedious and unoriginal that in the study of linguistics you had to come down to the French style current in the age of Louis XIV to find another idiom so willfully debilitated, so solemnly tiresome and dull.5
Has for Virgil, supposedly the ultimate genius of this period we have our fictional “hero” say that Virgil:
…impressed him as being one of the most appalling pedants and one of the most deadly bores that Antiquity ever produced;…
…he might in fact have put up with all the indescribable fatuity of this rag-bag of vapid verses; but what utterly exasperated him was the shoddy workmanship of the tinny hexameters, with their statutory allotment of words weighed and measured according to the unalterable laws of a dry, pedantic prosody;…
…and that poverty-stricken vocabulary with its dull, dreary colours, all caused him unspeakable torment.6
Years later I read with joy and pleasure Huysmans’ creation des Esseintes comments about that overrated hack Virgil. At last someone who admitted the sheer boredom of Virgil’s lifeless poem! I do however mourn for the millions of poor students who for over 2000 years been forced to read this “masterpiece”. I also deeply regret that this dull piece of crap survived. It is and remains unalterably sad that Virgil’s last wishes were not carried out.
Ovid’s writing is described has “limpid effusions”7. Any reading of Ovid would indicate that although Ovid was a very good writer; his writing was indeed weak and lacking in backbone. Certainly the writings he did in exile, which consisted of alternating whining about his “suffering” and embarrassing suck ups to the Julio-Claudian dynasty would make anyone want to tell him to “shut the @#$% up!”.
Horace is described has writing “vulgar twaddle”, “stupid patter” and further that Horace:
…simpers at his audience like a painted old clown,8
Regarding Cicero I must say I fully agree with the following:
In prose, he was no more enamoured of the long-winded style, the redundant metaphors and rambling digressions of old Chick-Pea; [Cicero] the bombast of his apostrophes, the wordiness of his patriotic perorations, the pomposity of his harangues, the heaviness of his style, well-fed and well-covered, but weak-boned and running to fat, the intolerable insignificance of his long introductory adverbs, the monotonous uniformity of his adipose periods clumsily tied together with conjunctions, and finally his wearisome predilection for tautology. All signally failed to endear him to des Esseintes.9
Not surprisingly Cicero ended up getting killed by far more able and ruthless politicians who realized that they were dealing with, at most, an annoying dilettante who unfortunately believed his own self created myth.
I have little to add to Huysmans’ comments through his character des Esseintes concerning Cicero. Cicero’s style is indeed full of the most annoying self satisfaction and is in the end dreary and dull. Cicero’s style can be summed up by the phrase “I love me! I really love me!!”10
Regarding Caesar des Esseintes says:
Nor was Caesar, with his reputation for laconism, anymore to his taste than Cicero; for he went to the other extreme, and offended by his pop-gun pithiness, his jotting-pad brevity, his unforgivable, unbelievable constipation.11
Finally Huysmans has des Esseintes describes Livy as “pompous and sentimental”12. A characterization which I deem to be entirely fair. Livy’s importance has a historian of Rome has led to outside estimations of his literary talent. Well simply because Livy is important has a historian of early Rome does not mean he was a great writer. In fact Livy was a rather dull writer in most respects. Livy seemed to have a knack, at least in translation, of reducing exciting episodes to a muzak monotone. That and his rather embarrassing, to modern readers, pro-roman slant of his writings makes a lot of what he wrote have an “official” state sanctioned aspect that makes it a history we have to read between the lines of.
That is it for the time being about Huysmans and his character des Esseintes ideas about Latin literature. It was and is good to have someone say publicly that the Emperor indeed has no clothes.
1. Translated into English with the title Against Nature, Huysmans, J. K., Penguin Books, 1959. You can find more about Huysmans at Huysmans. Org Here
2. IBID. p. 5.
3. IBID. Chapter 2, pp. 25-39, for the mind bending details.
4. IBID. Chapter 3, pp. 40-52.
5. IBID. p. 40.
6. IBID. pp. 40-41.
7. IBID. p. 41.
8. IBID. p. 41.
9. IBID. p. 41-42.
10. Apologies to Sally Field.
11. Huysmans, p. 42.
12. IBID. p. 42.