Tuesday, April 07, 2009

des Esseintes and Latin Literature

One of the most enjoyable books I have in my book case is a very strange but quite fun English translation of the novel A Rebours,1 by J. K. Huysmans, published originally in 1884.

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

Not fair but having read all too much of this stuff while taking Classics at university I can vouch for the fact that this critique contains a great deal of truth. Certainly the fictional des Esseintes is right about the essentially boring nature of much of this literature. Much of it is dull and tedious indeed.

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

That our fictional “hero” is describing here is that supposed “masterpiece” of Latin literature Virgil’s Aeneid. Now the important thing to remember about Virgil’s “great” epic poem is that it is indeed a dreary painful poem to read. It has however an inflated reputation. Virgil supposedly was dissatisfied with what he had written. It was apparently only a first draft, and Virgil in his will requested that it be destroyed. Unfortunately and sadly his request was ignored and the Aeneid joined that large corpus of “masterpieces” whose reputation seems to be based upon the idea that if something causes extreme pain and agony to read through it must be good. The old good medicine tastes bad idea. In this case the poem is simply a grade z variation of the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer and spectacularly inferior to both. I remember being forced to read the Aeneid in a classics course I took and being stunned by its bottomless dullness. It was a torment to read and it was dull in ways that were amazing to me.

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
Having read Horace, who I find very amusing, I find this an unfair criticism but I can certainly see where Huysmans through des Esseintes is coming from. Horace certainly does seem to be playing for the audience and his stuff does read at times like a bad episode of Seinfeld. Certainly a lot of Horace does read like a knowing smirk with an undercurrent of “aren’t we so clever!!”.

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

Cicero is one of those overrated figures whose reputation seems to be based on the idea that he should be read and not read at the same time. Thus we are told how brilliant he is even though a reading of his writings reveal a man who, although he is a first class orator and rhetorician, is in most other respects a thoroughly unoriginal, pedantic mind. Cicero did however have a first class ego; he was definitely a legend in his own mind. As revealed in much of his writing; which reads properly has so much mental masturbation and unlimited self-love. Cicero love of himself seems to have been bottomless and so was his admiration for his political skills and abilities. Cicero never tired of telling others how great he was. Unfortunately Cicero was never has great has he thought he was and spent most of his political career on the outside looking in. Cicero was simply outclassed by so many other politicians of his time and rather than realize that he was outclassed whined about how he was not getting his due.

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

Although I frankly enjoy Caesar’s well crafted laconic style describing it has constipated is in fact fair. Caesar who was affected by a major case of extreme self-love, carefully crafted his writings to give the impression that they were simply reports of events and unbiased. Amazingly many have taken his writings as such. Of course they were in fact extremely well crafted propaganda pieces designed to glorify Caesar and whose laconic style was simply a ploy to hide the obvious propagandistic nature of the pieces.

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.
The Comte de Montesquiou who was one of the
models for des Esseintes

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.

Pierre Cloutier

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