UC Berkeley Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal

A Premier Humanities Research Journal at the University of California, Berkeley

Lu Xun and Huysmans: A Trans-Continental Conversation with Baudelairean Aestheticism in the Late 19th/Early 20th Century

Lu Xun and Huysmans: A Trans-Continental Conversation with Baudelairean Aestheticism in the Late 19th/Early 20th Century

Jin Yun Chow

This paper puts 20th century Chinese novelist Lu Xun in conversation with 19th century French decadent novelist J.-K. Huysmans through examining their creative responses to Baudelairean aestheticism. Baudelaire’s radical proposal of “art for art’s sake” (l’art pour l’art) ripped through France in the late 19th century, giving rise to a momentous push-back against the longstanding tradition of literature as a reflection of social mores and ethical values. Huysmans’s seminal work À rebours is seen as the epitome of this aestheticist tradition, where the practical functionality of art is reduced to mere sensual pleasure. By contrast, upon Lu Xun’s exposure to Baudelaire’s ideas in the 20th century, he responded in a way that, at first glance, seems very different than Huysmans’s approach. Lu Xun shuns the idea that art has no purpose; in his short story collection Wandering, he makes the case that art as literature has an obligation towards edification and is shackled to the representation of reality. Yet, a closer look at these two authors’ implicit reactions to the principle of aestheticism shows that perhaps Huysmans’s stance on the “utility of art” is in fact much more aligned with Lu Xun’s anti-aestheticism than his status as a “Decadent” might lead one to think. This paper analyzes the ways in which these two seemingly incommensurable fictional texts are in fact (1) reacting to the same set of ideas proposed by Baudelaire, and (2) through drastically different tropes and techniques, reflect a very similar skepticism about the philosophy of art for art’s sake.

“Would we but permit ourselves to look into our own souls, we should immediately there discover that under the sun there neither exists nor can exist any work more thoroughly dignified, more supremely noble, than this very poem…—this poem written solely for the poem’s sake.”

—Edgar Allan Poe

Aucun poème ne sera si grand, si noble, si véritablement digne du nom de poème, que celui qui aura été écrit uniquement pour le plaisir d’écrire un poème.

 “No poem will ever be as great, as noble, as truly worthy of being called a poem, as the one that has been written solely for the pleasure of writing a poem.”

               —Baudelaire, L’art romantique (188)

LU XUN (1881-1936) AND J.K. Huysmans (1848-1907) are two authors whose works have never been considered under the same critical framework. They have never entered into direct dialogue with each other, nor do they seem to uphold the same aesthetic or literary beliefs. Yet, both Lu Xun’s short story collection Wandering (1924-5) and Huysmans’s novel À rebours (1884) can be read as responses to Baudelaire’s aestheticism and its incarnation of the l’art pour l’art principle. Baudelaire, writing in the mid-1800s, detested the idea that art and literature should assume an instructional and functional role. He believed in depoliticizing art and disengaging it from society. In response, Lu Xun, the acerbic Chinese critic of Baudelaire, wields the short story genre as a political tool to expose and correct the indigence of the masses the cowardice of the intelligentsia, and feudalistic conservatism, forces that stifled society in the 1920s. In seemingly obvious contrast, Huysmans’s À rebours is the “Bible” of French decadence—the nature-hating, misanthropic aesthete Jean des Esseintes retires into his ivory-tower-like country home. Determined never again to venture into the outside world, he indulges in exotic art. Des Esseintes’s attempt to cure his neurasthenia through decadent sensory overload ultimately flounders and the doctor forces him to relocate to Paris for special medical treatment. While at first glance, Lu Xun seems to condemn and Huysmans to celebrate the idea that aesthetic pleasure should be the sole governing force of both artistic production and consumption, careful analysis of the texts proves otherwise. This paper will first introduce the critical framework of Baudelaire’s aestheticism with which the two works engage. Then, Lu Xun will be introduced within the context of the history of Chinese literary development. A close reading of two of his short stories will follow, with particular emphasis on the ways in which they oppose Baudelairean aestheticism. Lastly, the essay will move into a discussion of late 19th century French literary development, which will then transition into an analysis of Huysmans’s À rebours, comparing it both in style and in plot with the two Chinese stories discussed. Through an examination of the ways in which Huysmans stealthily reveals the limitations of Baudelaire’s aesthetic theory, one realizes that the crumbling of des Esseintes’s ivory tower places Huysmans’s disillusionment with Baudelairean aestheticism on the same critical front as Lu Xun’s blatant politicization of art. Yet identifying similarities is but the first goal; the second is to contrast the authors’ divergent methods in exposing the limitations of l’art pour l’art – Huysmans subverts Baudelairean aestheticism by working within that very artistic system, revealing that art, and in particular religious art, should play a functional role in a person’s psychological healing, whereas Lu Xun attacks the system from without, directly wielding his art as a functional cure for social and political ills.

In understanding Baudelairean aestheticism, it is first important to point out that although Baudelaire mainly focuses on poetry in his theoretical writing, his theories are, in fact, applicable to various artistic genres. While this paper emphasizes Baudelaire as the major theoretical figure to which the two authors respond, he is in no way the first champion of disengaged and autono-mous art. The tradition can be traced back to Immanuel Kant, who in Critique of Judgment defines schöne Kunst (fine art), as “purposive for itself” and that “although devoid  of a purpose, [it] has the effect of advancing the culture of the mental powers” (Kant 38). The lack of an external purpose in artistic creation is coupled with “disinterestedness” in artistic consumption and appreciation: “Everyone must admit that a judgment about beauty, in which the least interest mingles, is not a pure judgment of taste” (39). Social or personal investment in an artistic object precludes the derivation of pure aesthetic pleasure. This tradition achieved its height in the latter half of the 19th century. Prior to the establishment of the Second Empire in 1851, Baudelaire was under the influence of Romanticism and had not yet forcefully embraced the concept of l’art pur (pure art). During the final years of the July Monarchy, as the literary field shifted its center of gravity towards the left and an emergence of l’art social, Pierre Bourdieu wrote that “Baudelaire lui-même parle de la puérile utopie de ‘l’art pour l’art’ et s’élève violemment contre l’art pur” (“Baudelaire himself speaks of the childish utopia of ‘art for art’s sake’ and rises up vehemently against pure art”; Bourdieu 89). Yet the failed revolution of 1848 and the establishment of the Second Empire in 1851 catalyzed “la vision désenchantée du monde politique et social” (“the disenchanted vision of the political and social world”), which went hand-in-hand with “le culte de l’art pour l’art” (“the cult of ‘art for art for art’s sake’”; 91).

The abrupt régime change in 1851 led Baudelaire to take the defiant stance that art should never be politically engaged. As he famously says in a letter to M. Ancelle, “le 2 Décembre [1851] m’a physiquement dépolitiqué” (“the 2nd December [1851] has bodily depoliticized me”). This de-politicization of the self and of art can be read as a form of escapism in which art is analogous to a retreat into an ivory tower. This marks the beginning of Baudelaire’s aestheticism, where a rupture with the ordinary world is accompanied by a constitution of “le monde de l’art comme un monde à part, un empire dans un empire” (“the world of art like another world, an empire within an empire”; 89). From this point onwards, Baudelaire extolled artistic autonomy: “l’art est-il utile? Oui. Pouquoi? Parce qu’il est art” (“Is art useful? Yes. Why? Because it is art”; 86). In Baudelairean aestheticism, the artist should have no purpose or function other than the pleasure of artistic creation and representation. While it should not be “functional” in any sense of the word, he was not an anti-realist; he believed, as the Naturalists did, that true artists could and should “étudier toutes les plaies comme un médecin qui fait son service dans un hôpital” (“study all the wounds like a doctor who works in a hospital”; 86), but that descriptive diagnosis is all that was required—medication, judgment, and moralizing should all be strictly prohibited. Conversely, while a work of art may “ennoblir les moeurs (188), or glorify certain morals, such positive effects are at best byproducts of the artwork’s aesthetic charm, whereas once the poet writes with a moral agenda to reform society, “il n’est pas imprudent de parier que son oeuvre sera mauvaise” (“It is not unreasonable to assume that his work will be awful”; 189). His aestheticism is further characterized by a belief in the self-contained nature of art. To him, “l’enseignement” (“education”) is nothing other than “l’hérésie moderne capital” (“the great modern heresy”; 192), an inevitable corollary of the heresies “de la passion, de la vérité et de la morale” (“of passion, of truth and of morality”; 188), all of which, to him, are fundamental non-objects of art.

II. Lu Xun and the Conversation about the Artistic Function

Baudelaire’s influence on the Chinese literary scene took off in the early 1920s, when his works were first translated and brought into the country. Yet, in situating Lu Xun’s voice in the polyphony of early 20th century Chinese literary voices, one must first understand the general trajectory of Chinese literary development. From the Tang dynasty (7th-8th century AD) onwards, the literary scene was characterized by a principle called wen yi zai dao,[1] meaning “literature should be a vessel for moral teachings.” Two centuries later, a Song dynasty (10th-13th century) philosopher Zhou Dun Yi, summarized this prevailing philosophy: “the function of literature is to carry meaning. Much like how a carriage is meant to carry passengers, if it does not fulfill its function, no matter how ornate it is, it ultimately fails.”[2] The exposure of Chinese writers to Baudelaire’s thought challenged this largely unquestioned guiding principle, spurring the momentous rise of China’s very own decadent literary movement. Baudelairean aestheticism inspired poets such as “the Chinese Baudelaire” Shao Xun Mei, as well as “The Creation Society,” a literary society established in 1921 with l’art pour l’art as its motto (Hsia 95). Shao Xun Mei’s collection of poetry, Flowerlike Evil (Bien 115), was obviously modeled after Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal. Lu Xun lampoons his contemporaries’ work as the emblem of decadent aestheticism that flies in the face of the practical, functional role of literature. In response to his collection of sentimentalist poetry, Lu Xun criticizes in his acerbic way, “[Shao] has rich in-laws, a wealthy wife, and uses her dowry as creative, literary capital” (准风月谈).[3] In painting a derisive, “pretty boy” image of Shao, Lu Xun ridicules his belief in depoliticized literature. He also ridicules the phenomenon of wen ren wu xing,[4] or “writers have no moral conduct,” which anchors itself in Lu Xun’s disgust towards literature disengaged with politics. Lu Xun associates with the emergent decadent movement spear-headed by Shao.

In the face of what he saw as a moral crisis of Chinese literature, Lu Xun vociferously advocates for the other extreme of wen yi zai dao. The very antithesis of the decadent Shao Xun Mei and his hero Baudelaire, Lu Xun is the spiritual diagnostician of the ills of Chinese society. Having watched a shocking newsreel showing the apathy and spectator-mentality of the Chinese population towards atrocities committed by the Japanese (Hsia 30), he abandoned a promising medical career to become a writer, deciding that “curing physical ills was not as important as curing spiritual ones” (Preface). He exposes the vices of the Chinese population, hoping to shock readers into recognizing their imminent demise under the suffocating grip of conservative feudalism. In his preface to a short story collection A Call to Arms, he lays out the metaphor of literature as a cry of salvation:


Imagine an iron house without windows, absolutely indestructible, with many people fast asleep inside who will soon die of suffocation… Now if you cry aloud to wake a few of the lighter sleepers, making those unfortunate few suffer the agony of irrevocable death, do you think you are doing them a good turn? But if a few awake, you can’t say   there is no hope of destroying the iron house.[5] (Lu Preface)


This is further bolstered by the affirmation of his belief in the politicization of literature: “[I write] not in order to literarize and canonize my work, but to use its power to better and cure society” (南腔北调集). He also decries any aesthetic appeal of writing and “avoids writing in overly-complicated, flowery phrases” because he would much rather “convey my message to my readers without relying on ornamentation” (ibid.). As a testimony to his desire to write about the masses, for the masses, he wrote a short prose poem, The Dog’s Retort, in response to Baudelaire’s Le chien et le flacon (Bien 90). The French poem stigmatizes the “mauvais goût” (“bad taste”) of the people, suggesting that the “flacon d’excellent parfum” (“a bottle of exquisite perfume”), a thinly veiled metaphor for art itself, is not something that could be appreciated by or be shared with the masses. In writing that the dog would have appreciated a vial of excrement much more than the exquisite scent, Baudelaire mocks the lowly artistic taste of the masses. A corollary of this argument is that limited accessibility to an elite audience should not hinder artistic production; au contraire, it should fuel the creation of ever more esoteric masterpieces. In Lu Xun’s response, the narrator speaks of a dream in which a dog barks at him because of his tattered clothing. In reversing the class prejudice and revealing the dog’s internalized contempt for an unkempt human being, Lu Xun casts the dog as a representation of human prejudice.  He satirizes the very absurdity of the snobbish recrimination of popular taste depicted in Baudelaire’s poem and allegorizes his belief that the disadvantaged masses should be spoken to, written to, and not ignored.

To summarize, it can be said that there are three major literary trends that Lu Xun lampoons: the first is the elite aestheticism associated with artistic production, the second is the consumer’s disinterested consumption of the artistic object, and the third is the Chinese intelligentsia’s blind idolatry of Western philosophy and literature. In a sense, his negative reaction to Baudelaire occurs very much outside of the system of French aestheticism; not only was he geographically and temporally removed from the motherland of the movement, he also directly reverses what Baudelaire preaches through form, which will later be contrasted with Huysmans’s within-the-system critical approach.

“Happy Family” and “Regret” are two short stories collected in Wandering that are highly symbolic of Lu Xun’s implicit criticism of Baudelairean aestheticism governing both artistic production and consumption. The first short story dissects the futility of disengaged artistic production as a means of escape. It is an example par excellence of poioumenon, a meta-fictional text about the process of literary genesis. In the story, a writer struggles to write a short story for publication in an attempt to increase his family’s income. Steeped in poverty, he exercises his imagination and fantasizes about an ideal family. He attempts to write a fictional account about a day in the life of a well-off, loving Chinese couple educated abroad who spends its free time reading and discussing An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde (Lu 37). Readers are inducted into the writer’s stream of consciousness, but as we witness his flow of thoughts, the reader is frustrated by reality constantly interrupting the genesis of this highly artificial story. The anonymous protagonist’s writing project and his attitudes are a perfect embodiment of Baudelaire’s principle of depoliticized art. The story opens with his stream of consciousness lamenting his lack of writerly success:


… One writes simply as one feels: such a work is like sun-light, radiating from a source of infinite, intangible brightness, not like a spark from a flint struck on iron or stone. This alone is true art. And such a writer alone is a true artist… But I… what do I rank as?[6] (35)


To him, “true literature” is an express-ion of aestheticism in that it is light emanating from an ethereal source utterly sundered from the reality of materiality. The stark contrast established between the “infinite, intangible source of light” of “true” literature and “sparks from flint struck on iron” of inferior versions can be read as a metaphor for the tension between abstract aestheticism and concrete, engaged art. Here, Lu Xun ironically exposes the melancholic sentimentalism and self-effacement of this fictive writer, creating a clear base that he later spends the length of his short story attacking. It is worth pointing out a slight distinction between the type of aestheticism that Lu Xun protests against and Baudelairean aestheticism: the highly stylized, aesthetic nature of the work of art is common to both, but while Lu Xun describes an essentially escapist, aesthetic project, Baudelairean aestheticism itself does not necessitate escapism.

Throughout the genesis of the story within the story, the writer attempts to craft a narrative entirely dissociated from his own state of penury. In examining Lu Xun’s design of the metafictional story as well as his employment of narrative structure to reveal the futility of an art form that attempts to escape reality, one realizes that satire forms the crux of his critical apparatus. In deciding on the setting of his story, the anonymous writer thinks:


Peking?… That won’t do; it’s too dead, even the atmosphere is dead. Even if a high wall were built around this family, still the air would scarcely be kept separate. No, that would never do! Kiangsu and Chekiang may find themselves in war any day, and Fukien is even more out of the question. Szechuan? Kwangtung? They are in the midst of fighting. What about Shantung or Honan? … No, kidnapping is too prevalent, and if that happened the happy family would become an un-happy one. The rents in the foreign concessions in Shanghai and Tientsin are too high… I don’t know what Yunnan and Kweichow are like, but public transportation systems have all broken down … He racked his brains but, unable to think of a good place, decided tentatively to name his imaginary town  ‘A—’ (Lu 36)


The reader’s first foray into the fictional author’s interior monologue reveals Lu Xun’s dual purpose. First, it exposes the ridiculousness of sundering literary inspiration from reality. Although one may argue that using reality as a negative generative means is also a way of basing literature on real life, Lu Xun satirizes the active attempt of establishing an “otherworldly” milieu as a means of egress from his real-life poverty. The protagonist’s struggle with finding a place in which one could plausibly conceive of a “happy family” is both entertaining and ironic. His meticulous enumeration and subsequent elimination of all major Chinese cities not only exposes the violent instability that plagued all corners of China, but also reveals the sheer artificiality and irresponsibility of writing about idyllic peace at a time of war. Lu Xun acknowledges the fact that escapism may function as personal therapy during trying times, but he does not hesitate to point out that avoiding the problem will never solve it. One question that arises from this cursory analysis is whether Lu Xun’s disgust with escapism, which is clearly evident here, is synonymous with aversion to Baudelairean aestheticism. To tease out the various concepts at work, it may be of use to set up two axes: one contains the two extremes of Baudelairean aestheticism and engagement, and the other contains the extremes of escapism and realism. These two axes do not align perfectly, for it is more than possible to have a work written according to aesthetic principles but that is simultaneously realistic. Yet, Lu Xun collapses the ideas of escapism and aestheticism under one target that can be summarized as “naïve idealism.” He achieves this by merging contempt for the fictional author’s escapist tendencies with scathing satire of his perfectionist process of choosing the “right,” stylized setting for his short story.

Lu Xun’s criticism of his protagonist’s escapist and aesthetic idealism is linked to his hatred of Chinese idolatry of all things occidental. Western cultural products and practices, including Baudelairean aestheticism, had become the “ivory tower” refuge of many members of the Chinese intelligentsia, who had largely turned a blind eye to their own country’s flailing state. The jarring and artificial naming of the ideal city with the English letter “A” also points to this escapist tendency. The anonymous author himself admits that “nowadays many people object to the use of the Western alphabet to represent the names of people and places, criticizing it for reducing readers’ interest” (36), but for the lack of a better suited Chinese city, he settles with “A.” One might interpret this writer as a manifestation of the Western-educated, cowardly intellectual that Lu Xun so despises. Although he knows that his text will be rendered reader-unfriendly by allusions to the English alphabet, he still decides to do so, thereby further showing that his work, much like Baudelaire’s “flacon de parfum,” is fundamentally disengaged with the population. Similarly, the fictional author later designs a dialogue wholly in English between the husband and the wife at the dinner table: “They take up their chopsticks simultaneously, point to the dish, smile sweetly at each other, ‘My dear, please.’ ‘Please you eat first, my dear.’ ‘Oh no, please you!’” (39).[7] One English translation  of this story in fact renders this in French, and the translator further takes the liberty of transposing the second person pronoun into the more formal vous form. This is indicative of the artificial formality and snobbish exclusivity of this dialogue. Even more so than the name of the city “A,” this feature alienates the masses.

Another manifestation of Lu Xun’s deep-rooted hatred for the negligence of the masses occurs in the protagonist’s description of the fictional couple’s reading habits: “What books do they read? … Byron’s poetry? Keats? … Ah, I have it: they both like reading An Ideal Husband. Although I haven’t read the book myself, even university professors praise it so highly that I am sure this couple must enjoy it too…” (37). In this case, the character himself has never even read these texts, yet he sheepishly bends his plot to follow the prevailing intellectual trend. Not only does such an insertion exclude the masses from his writing, but is also itself a hypocritical act. In the protagonist’s stream of consciousness, readers see that Lu Xun’s criticism runs deeper than a mere satire of the project’s unrealistic nature. Readers of Lu Xun familiar with western texts would know that An Ideal Husband is one of Wilde’s most frivolous comedic plays; thus, Lu Xun’s invocation of Wilde over any other Western author is a subtle move that can be seen as tacit criticism of another major proponent of the art for art’s sake movement. The name of Wilde’s play, An Ideal Husband (emphasis mine), is also thematically ironic, for the story-within-a-story is ostensibly about an ideally happy Chinese couple. Further-more, Lu Xun layers multiple critical statements onto this one small detail, ultimately succeeding in ridiculing both the blind conformism that has infested Chinese intellectual life, but also the resulting aestheticism that trivializes art. This relates to the previous discussion of Lu Xun’s disgust with Shao Xun Mei, who essentially commits the same error of building his ivory tower around Western cultural products, specifically Baudelaire’s aestheticism. In addition, the same passage that reveals the impossibility of disengaged art is precisely the one that politicizes Lu Xun’s larger story. In this passage, he presents a brutally honest diagnosis of the China’s social problems: war, violence, breakdown of infrastructure, astronomical real estate prices, etc. If he had stopped here, Baudelaire may still have sympathized with him, as the French poet was also supportive of detailed diagnosis through observation. Yet, Lu Xun transcends the role of a mere diagnostician and attempts to do what Baudelaire most despises— suggesting potential cures for the society. In parodying escapism among intellectuals, he advocates for solidarity and confrontation of problems, and in satirizing the indifference in the population, he hopes to provide impetus for social change.

Similarly, the protagonist’s thought process regarding the back-ground of the family is also steeped in irony, for the actual penury of the average Chinese family is subverted by a defiant rejection of reality and a blind turn to the west.


The family naturally consists of a husband and wife—who married for love. Their marriage contract contains over forty detailed terms and stipulations, so that they have extraordinary equality and absolute freedom. Moreover they have both studied abroad and belong to the cultured élite … Japanese-returned students are no longer the fashion, so let them be Western-returned students. The master of the house always wears a foreign suit, his collar is always snowy white. His wife’s hair is always curled up like a sparrow’s nest in front… but she wears a Chinese dress… (40)


The greatest irony here lies in Lu Xun’s satirical description of the protagonist’s obsession with the “freedom of marriage”—Western-style. It is not the ideas of gender equality and free love that he disparages, but rather the protagonist’s denial of his own living conditions through seeking refuge in the unrealistic and the aesthetic. He also exposes this anonymous writer’s ignorance of the concept of “free love”—the marriage contract bound by “over forty terms and stipulations,” a description that flies in the face of “freedom” as we reach Lu Xun’s tongue-in-cheek remark: “so that they have extra-ordinary equality.” Much like the empty references to Western literature, his descriptions of “free love” are artificial and engineered. The physical appearance of the husband and wife, who seem like they emerged straight out of a 19th century European novel, harbors a strained combination of highly stylized, aesthetic fashion styles à la française juxtaposed with a strange insistence on their simultaneous “Chinese-ness,” as exemplified  by the wife’s “Chinese dress.” This may even be read as a parody of the alleged nationalism professed by these intellectuals who are in fact completely westernized. This is the epitome of disengaged artistic creation—not only do the descriptions actively deny reality in a hypocritical way, but also celebrate blindly occidental social attitudes.

This is ultimately followed by Lu Xun’s direct criticism of decadence, as shown in his protagonist’s contemplations about this couple’s lunch menu:


What dish? It doesn’t matter, so long as it is something exotic. Fried pork or prawn roe and sea-slugs are really too common. I must have them eating ‘Dragon fights Tiger.’ But what is that exactly? Some people say it’s made of snakes and cats, and is an upper-class Cantonese dish, only eaten at big feasts. I’ve seen the name on the menu in a Kiangsu restaurant; still, Kiangsu people aren’t supposed to eat snakes or cats, so it must be made, as someone else said, of frogs and eels. (39)


The writer’s absurd obsession with luxurious and rare foods can be seen as a satire of the Chinese decadent movement. By unearthing the thought process behind his choice of the dish “Dragon fights Tiger,” we see that the author made this decision purely for the sake of exoticism and aestheticism. One can also detect implicit moral criticism—when the rest of China is steeped in instability and warfare, is the fictional couple’s retreat into their ivory tower of frivolous texts and luxurious meals justified? Similarly, how legitimate is the protagonist’s writing about an “ideal family” when the country is ravaged by suffering and plight?

It is interesting to note that the luxurious decadence described here is very similar to Huysmans’s lavish portrayals of des Esseintes’s meals: “On avait mangé dans des assiettes bordées de noir, des soups à la tortue, des pains de seigle russe, des olives mûres de Turquie, du caviar, des poutargues de mulets…” (“You have eaten, from plates trimmed in black, soups made with tortoise, breads of Russian rye, ripe Turkish olives, caviar, poutargues de  mulets…”; Huysmans 84). While Huysmans does not seem to pass overt judgment on his matter-of-fact list of exotic food items, his Chinese counterpart expresses much critical sentiment. Ingeniously, by writing about an author who writes apolitically and for “art’s sake,” Lu Xun does the opposite to his own work—he politicizes it. In so doing, he tells us precisely that there is no part of the country where one could have such luxurious meals and where one could find a happy family. The sheer artificiality of this story within a story speaks to its impossibility.

Second, the story’s structure further demonstrates the failures of aestheticism as a form of escape. The fabric of this story is comprised of two interwoven strands: the nested strand of the anonymous author’s story about the westernized couple and the outer strand of his actual family life. Lu Xun creates the impression that this story will be an uninterrupted thread of literary creation, but that illusion is soon disrupted. As the protagonist begins to brainstorm the food items of the couple’s luxurious lunch, he “grows aware of a hollow feeling in his stomach and puts down the pen” (37). This is one of many instances wherein less-than-ideal reality interrupts imagination and causes the disintegration of the escapist writing project. The author is later interrupted multiple times by his wife’s domestic queries:


The table is spread with a snowy white table cloth, and the cook brings in the dishes—Chinese food. ‘Twenty-five catties.’ Of what? Never mind… The first dish is brought in, but what is this first dish?… ‘Firewood…’ He turned his head with a start, to see the mistress of his own family standing on his left, her two gloomy eyes fastened on his face. “What?” He spoke rather indignantly, feeling that her coming disturbed his work. “The firewood is all used up, so today I have bought some more. Last time it was still two hundred and forty [cents] for ten catties, but today he wants two hundred and sixty. Suppose I give him two hundred and fifty [cents]? (37)


His wife’s voice (here italicized) constantly interrupts his train of thought and draws him from his ivory tower back into reality. The phrases “25 catties” as well as “5 times 5 is 25” haunt him throughout the rest of the story, forcing him to confront the fact that there is no escaping from the penury in which he lives. The stark contrast between the wife’s petty haggling over the price of firewood and the exotic dish of “Dragon fights Tiger” renders the latter all the more absurd. Lu Xun also asks readers to consider the moral legitimacy of the writer entertaining such decadent thoughts at a time when his family can barely eke out a living.

Moreover, the fictional writer is not the only one that Lu Xun satirizes; our reading experience also morally implicates us as guilty consumers of art. As readers, we are fully invested in the protagonist’s stream of consciousness and in the exotic, albeit artificial, story emerging from the nib of his pen. The reader, like the protagonist, grapples with disappointment and frustration at   the intermittent interruptions where “life” encroaches on “art.” Yet, upon learning of the dire straits in which this writer’s family lives, one feels guilty for desiring to skip the distracting “noise” concerning firewood or his wife’s slapping of the child later in the story. The reader comes to the uncomfortable realization that perhaps it was wrong to think of his family members as distractions to his creative process; perhaps it is his aesthetic attitude that distracts him from solving the problems of real life. Related to his acerbic criticism of the artist’s disengagement with reality is Lu Xun’s lampooning of any artistic purpose that is un-political and selfish in nature—the greatest of all being the purpose of money-making. Interestingly, while Lu Xun couples his criticism of the mercenary aspect of the literary industry with his wider disgust with aestheticism, the prior is in fact an argument with which Baudelaire would agree. In Baudelaire’s eyes, art should be “utile” (“useful”) only in that it is art (Baudelaire 82); its utility does not and should not be derived from its ability to act as a source of monetary gain. In a sense, both Baudelaire and Lu Xun are equally “puritan”: the penniless Baudelaire shuns commercialized art and advocates for art to be governed by the puritanism of aesthetic beauty, whereas Lu Xun believes that only untainted political motive should be the driving force behind literature. In the postscript to the latter’s collection of essays, Huai Feng Yue Tan, he condemns the choice of some writers who engage in writing more as a means of earning money and a “profession” than as a moral responsibility (淮風月談). He says that most writers enter the profession because “they either do not have enough to eat, or they have food but are not satiated” (ibid.). This, coupled with the complete neglect of the masses and of reality, forms the basis of Lu Xun’s scathing satire of this writer, who is at once an incarnation of Baudelairean aestheticism and the paragon of the cowardly Chinese intellectual of the 1920s.

Unlike “Happy Family,” which deals mainly with disinterested artistic production, a second short story in the collection, “In Memoriam,” exposes the dangers of disinterested artistic consumption. Lu Xun depicts the life of a progressive couple, Zi Juan and Juan Sheng. They attempt to isolate themselves from the rest of society with art, literature and philosophy, but their escapist project ultimately fails. Their neighbor, a gambling friend of the son of Juan Sheng’s post office employer, is wary and perhaps jealous of the couple’s quiet paradise; he thus makes up a rumor that causes Juan Sheng to lose his job. Unemployment catalyzes the downward spiral of their lives into penury, causing their ultimate separation and Zi Juan’s suicide. Although Lu Xun never makes any explicit connection between “In Memoriam” and “Happy Family,” it is more than helpful to see the story of Zi Juan and Juan Sheng as a sequel to that of the unnamed couple in “Happy Family.” As perfect as the anonymous protagonist’s fictive characters may seem, their lives in 1920s China may have very well turned out to conform to the tragic destiny lived by Zi Juan and Juan Sheng of “In Memoriam.”

The narrative structure of this piece is indicative of Lu Xun’s desire for his readers to confront the naiveté of the couple’s attempt to escape from the ills of society rather than trying to solve them. Written in the form of the husband Juan Sheng’s memoir, we start at the end of the narrative. In the days after the couple’s separation and the tragic suicide of Zi Juan, Juan Sheng had moved out of the “hope-filled small home in Ji Zhao Street” into a “shabby little room” elsewhere (119). He lays out his writing project as an urgent need to “express my remorse and guilt, for the sake of Zi Juan and for my own sake” (119). The overall tone of the first analeptic paragraph is melancholic: the room décor amplifies the reverberations of destitution. A lone window is broken, the wisteria tree outside is half wilted and “emptiness and silence” fill this room. After this bleak introduction, Lu Xun plunges readers into a hopeful flashback of happier times. Juan Sheng would anticipate Zi Juan’s footsteps with glee, and once she entered their safe haven, they would enjoy a quiet evening of reading and intellectual discussion.


Suddenly I would hear her coming nearer step by step, and by the time I was out to meet her she would already have passed the wisteria trellis, her face dimpling in a smile… the shabby room would be filled with the sound of my voice as I held forth on the tyranny of the home, the need to break with tradition, gender equality, Ibsen, Tagore and Shelley… She would nod her head, smiling, her eyes filled with a childlike look of wonder (120-1)


In juxtaposing this hopeful passage with the bleak opening, Lu Xun accentuates the couple’s naïve faith that their ivory tower could withstand the cruel blows of society. The fact that they can only speak openly of “rejecting tradition” and “gender equality” inside the confines of their carefully constructed home speaks to their project’s unrealistic nature. Although the phrase “tyranny of the home” here refers to the feudalistic family values that oppress society, it could be interpreted as a reference to the despotism of their idyllic home. The “freedom of speech” provided by this safe haven of a prison is turned into a source of oppression—a constant reminder of what the larger society lacks. Similarly, much like the way Lu Xun ridicules the ignorant innocence of the author in “Happy Family,” he extends a form of caustic pity to this couple’s selfish act of carving out a piece of society for themselves. Lu Xun debunks the illusory existence of utopias in a sobering way, by framing these happy, innocent times against the couple’s ultimate failure and the wife’s death, thus setting up the reader to be subjected to the bias of hindsight and to believe in the inevitability of their failure.

It is also important that in the description of the environment both within and outside the room, every-thing that is western and nominally “progressive” is contained within their apartment, whereas everything rooted in the reality of Chinese society occurs without. For example, the Wisteria tree, native to Northern China and representative of Chinese culture, stands in the courtyard outside the apartment. Similarly, the hateful neighbor who always “wore a thick layer of white face cream” and traditional Chinese clothing lives in close quarters with the couple, but is strictly relegated outside of the apartment (121). Conversely, the décor of the apartment itself is antithetically “occidental” and is symbolic of the Chinese intelligentsia’s attachment to the west: “On the wall was nailed a copperplate bust of Shelley, cut out from a magazine…. It occurred to me later that it might be better to substitute a picture of Shelley being drowned at sea, or a portrait of Ibsen” (120-1). The westernization achieved by this couple makes it difficult for readers to situate this apartment in 1920s China. Much like the discomfort one feels upon reading the artificial English dialogue in “Happy Family,” the reader’s inability to reconcile this image with the larger setting of the story speaks to this household’s disengagement with the larger Chinese society. Yet, within the picture that Juan Sheng would like to have placed on the wall, one can see Lu Xun tacitly pointing towards the inevitable failure of the couple’s selfish idealism. The image of Shelley drowning at sea could be symbolic of the metaphorical “death” of Shellian idealism that so characterizes this young couple’s early zeal.

However, one may wonder to what extent the couple reads these literary works with an engaged eye to improve society. Although they do discuss social issues such as gender equality and conservative feudalism, these intellectual discussions remain on the theoretical level and are never explicitly applied to Chinese society. In other words, Lu Xun criticizes the couple not for what they are discussing, but for what they fail to discuss. It is perhaps useful for readers to under-stand that he does not have anything against the above Western thinkers and was himself quite acquainted with western philosophy—what he berates is the disinterestedness with which Juan Sheng and Zi Juan approach these artistic works. In his view, what they should be doing is using literature as a means to achieve political awakening, but even that is not enough—they need to wield the knowledge they have gained to better society. This is in line with Lu Xun’s own belief in literature and art serving an inherently political purpose. The physical and intellectual separation of this body of western knowledge from the flailing society at large is Lu Xun’s way of criticizing what he sees as the fundamental selfishness and cowardice of this couple. It is nothing other than selfishness that they should hold onto this knowledge and not use it to benefit society, and it is nothing other than cowardly fear that they should retreat to their ivory tower every day after work.

In terms of the interweaving of two different narrative strands, this story is also quite similar to “Happy Family.” In the same way that the wife’s voice of reality intervenes in the writer’s imagination, conservative social forces preclude privacy and safety in the couple’s ivory tower. Try as they might to avoid conflict, virulent nepotism ultimately costs Juan Sheng his job, as the gambling friend of his employer’s son spreads rumors about him out of malice. Throughout the story, Lu Xun provides us with snippets of this man’s unnerving gaze: A “creature with an extra-thick layer of white face cream, who always had his pale, leering face plastered on the bright glass window” (121), his gaze is a brutal force of reality that encroaches on the paradise that the couple has so meticulously built. This minor character is the personification of corruption and the powerful role that connections play in determining one’s fate. These are all societal problems that remain undiscussed and unsolved, and, as this couple has shown, escape has proven to be futile. This leaves confrontation as the only appropriate reaction.

Yet unemployment is not the most painful blow dealt to the couple. For a moment, they regain strength and hope, determined to “start a new life” (127). Juan Sheng decides to draft letters to different publishers asking for jobs as a translator, slowly rebuilding their crumbling ivory tower. In a moment of moving solidarity after they posted the first letters, “we straightened up, silently, as if conscious of each other’s fortitude and strength, and able to see new hope growing from this fresh beginning” (128). Yet, every letter of rejection and every “book coupon” instead of check they receive for hours and hours of hard work deal an additional blow to the couple. In their furious attempt to uphold their enclosure of western idealism, voices of oppression and penury from the real world distract them and shatter their dreams. Perhaps Lu Xun is suggesting that this is the price they pay for living in denial and for consuming valuable works of art without considering their potential applications to the betterment of society. A further manifestation of this would be Juan Sheng’s attempt at escaping from his now-crumbling safe haven by leaving his apartment early in the morning and hiding for most of the day in the public library, in which he has “found his new paradise” (131). Lu Xun’s choice of the public library as Juan Sheng’s choice of refuge is anything but accidental. The fact that he “sees like a flash, a new path before me” in the library is symbolic of his unrealistic project of using literature to open a new universe in which he can hide, rather than as a cure (ibid.).

Lastly, in considering the beautiful language of this short story, one might claim that it contradicts Lu Xun’s declaration that he does not care for the aesthetic beauty of his language. One prominent example would be when Juan Sheng, after spending the whole day at the public library avoiding his wife, returns home to find Zi Juan gone:


I frantically ran out to the middle of the courtyard, where it was dark all around. Bright lamplight shone through the window paper of the central rooms, where neighbors were tickling a baby to make her laugh. My heart grew calmer, and I began to glimpse a way out of this heavy oppression: high mountains and great marshlands, thoroughfares, brightly lit feasts, trenches, pitch-black night, the thrust of  a sharp knife, noiseless footsteps… (137)


The sentimental, emotive nature of the prose here is very unusual. One finds the environmental metaphors of darkness, oppression as well as the imagery sequence signifying a glimmer of hope to be very uncharacteristic of Lu Xun’s typically economical style. Yet, rather than to see the language of this story as an anomaly, perhaps this is Lu Xun’s satire of the overly flowery literary style of contemporary Chinese intellectuals. It is important to remember that this text is in the form of a diary or memoir, thus framing the narrative voice as strictly Juan Sheng’s. The whole text is steeped in an overwhelming tone of lamentation. Lu Xun’s implicit criticism of this style also works through insidious moral implication of the reader. As the reader progresses in the story, they begin to get caught up in the elegant metaphors, paying more attention to the play of light in the courtyard and the tragic contrast between the serenity of neighboring family life against Juan Sheng’s loneliness than to the lessons we should learn from this couple’s life. Yet, upon reaching the disturbing image of “a sharp knife,” the reader encounters a stylistic anomaly that is symptomatic of Lu Xun’s desire to break out of the overly-stylized and aesthetic literary style. The intervention of the knife is a painful reminder that escapism is not a sustainable coping mechanism, and that sooner or later, reality always triumphs. Upon reaching the last line of the story, Lu Xun’s acrid criticism of Juan Sheng’s cowardliness and hyper-sentimentalism begins to dawn on us. Juan Sheng ends this memoir with a dramatic act of self-abandonment, “I must make a fresh start in life. I must hide the truth deep in my wounded heart, and advance silently, taking oblivion and falsehood as my guide…” (142). Forgetting the lessons he learned is, according to Lu Xun, precisely what he should not do; his elegantly phrased “silent advancement” and his pledge to “oblivion” are but signs of cowardice. Lu Xun points out that Chinese intellectuals know only to avoid reality by hiding behind a façade of self-indulgent expression. Yet, this could only lead to oblivion and the annihilation of any possibility of happiness.

III. Huysmans’s subversion of Baudelairean aestheticism

In moving from Lu Xun to Huysmans, it is important to sketch out the relationship between literary decadence and Baudelairean aestheticism. By the 1880s, art has become “fort bien degagée” (“very well cleared out”) and the sole purpose of art for this movement is “uniquement de se réaliser soi-même” (“only to fulfill itself”; Gourmont 86). The decadent literary movement of the 1880s radicalized the l’art pour l’art principle. Though “decadence” and “symbolism” are slightly different movements with contrasting ideas of the merits of nature and artificiality, they are often used interchangeably, for they share a strong belief in the dissociation of aesthetics from politics and morality. Jean Moréas’ Manifeste du symbolisme (1886) characterizes decadence as “l’abus de la pompe, l’étrangeté de la métaphore, un vocabulaire neuf où les harmonies se combinent avec les couleurs et les lignes” (“the excess of ceremony, the absurdity of metaphor, an innovative vocabulary or harmonious blends of colors and lines”; Moréas). Moréas speaks of symbolist writing as the enemy of “l’enseignement, la déclamation, la fausse sensibilité, la description objective” (“teaching, speechmaking, false sensitivity, objective portrayal”; Moréas). In addition, he affirms that while the text is a vehicle used to convey an “idea,” the words themselves are written for expression’s sake and remain, in and of themselves, the subject of the work. A work written in the symbolist tradition is fully self-contained, and by extension, the artist is also “enclosed” and “isolated.” Mallarmé, the exemplary poet of both the decadent and symbolist movements, is described by Rémy de Gourmont as plagued by “ce souci de fuir les yeux et les mains de la popularité. Fuir, où fuir? Mallarmé se réfugia dans l’obscurité comme dans un cloître…” (“this concern about fleeing the eyes and hands of popular acclaim. Flee? Flee where? Mallarmé takes refuge in obscurity as though in a cloister…”; Gourmont 105). The desire to escape into the ivory “cloître” of aestheticism is an idea that echoes Baudelaire’s depoliticization of art as well as the attempts of Lu Xun’s protagonists at seeking refuge from life in art. It takes Baudelaire’s celebration of artistic elitism in Le chien et le flacon to the extreme, rendering the artistic process a purely individualistic, orgasmic experience.

On a stylistic level, Paul Bourget defines decadence as the disintegration of the whole into individual parts:


Pour que l’organisme total fonctionne avec énergie, il est nécessaire que les organismes moindres fonctionnent avec énergie, mais avec une énergie subordonnée. Si l’énergie des cellules devint indépendante, [elles] cessent pareillement de subordonner leur énergie à l’énergie totale, et l’anarchie qui s’établit constitue la décadence   de l’ensemble.

(“For the entire organism to function with energy, the lower organisms must necessarily function with energy, but a subordinate energy. If the energy of the cells becomes independent, they likewise cease to subordinate their energy to the overall energy, and the anarchy which establishes itself forms the decline of the whole”; Bourget 14)


The usurpation of power by individual elements can be read as the disintegration of the political or societal context of any work of art. It is also a call for the careful study and appreciation of the beauty that can be found in the minute. Decadence as defined by Bourget is a form of artistic production and appreciation predicated upon the magnification of the beauty of parts rather than the “teachings” of the whole. The thematic and semantic unity of a literary oeuvre disintegrates: “Un style de décadence est celui où l’unité du livre se décompose pour laisser la place à l’indépendance de la phrase, et la phrase pour laisser la place à l’indépendance du mot” (“A decadent style is one in which the unity of the book rots away to leave space for the independence of the sentence, and the sentence to leave space for the independence of the word”; ibid.). Moréas characterizes decadent writing as that which allows the reader to lose himself in the intricate beauty of the language, for it is “…un style archétype et complexe; d’implorés vocables, la période qui s’arc-boute alternant avec la période aux défaillances ondulées, les pléonasmes significatifs, les mystérieuses ellipses” (“an archetypal and complex style; of imploring phrases, self-supported spans alternating with ones of quavering weakness, eloquent pleonasms, mysterious ellipses”; Moréas). This, as we shall see, describes À rebours perfectly.

Much like Mallarmé and the principal characters in Lu Xun’s short stories, Huysmans’ protagonist Jean des Esseintes too seeks refuge in metaphorical “cloîtres” of artistic indulgence. On the surface, it seems as though Huysmans’s depiction of des Esseintes’s debauched consumption and creation of art is an overt confirmation of the art for art’s sake principle. Des Esseintes’s obsession with artifice, ornamentation, and the pleasure derived from it can be seen as a concretization of Baudelairean aestheticism. Yet, the many ideological paradoxes within the novel complicate such simplistic statements. Huysmans writes within the system of Baudelairean aesthetics only to later subvert it. Firs, while the character and exotic hobbies of this eccentric recluse may seem completely in line with Baudelairean aesthetic theory, des Esseintes’s reason for engaging in “pure art” is quite telling. Art for him is a “cure”: he suffers from neurasthenia, and “quand le spleen le pressait, quand par les  temps pluvieux d’automne, l’aversion de la rue l’assaillait” (“when the melancholy presses upon him, when by the rainy autumn weather, the aversion to the streets assails him”; 82), he hopes to “se composer… un intérieur confortable et pare néanmoins d’une façon rare, à se façonner une installation curieuse et calme, appropriée aux besoins de sa future solitude” (“construct for himself… an interior space that is comfortable and yet protective in a strange way, to fashion for himself a curious and calm place, adapted to  the needs of his future of solitude”; 84). Already, his depression has led him to seek in pure art the functionality of a spiritual cure, an attempt that clearly flies in the face of Baudelaire’s radical statement that the art does not harbor any utility outside of its own artistic nature.

An investigation of two scenes that appear indisputably “decadent” and aesthetically “Baudelairean” will show that Huysmans weaves in paradoxes that encourage us to interpret his novel as a tacit criticism of l’art pour l’art on both the production and consumption levels. The first scene in question is des Esseintes’s perhaps most famous attempt at artistic creation—his decoration of a large tortoise. After buying the animal on a whim, he thinks it an aesthetically pleasing idea to “faire glacer d’or la cuirasse de sa tortue” (“gild his tortoise’s shell”; 118). After setting the gleaming tortoise in front of him, he feels as though this gigantic jewel of an animal has potential to be an even greater masterpiece, and that “il ne serait vraiment complet qu’après qu’il aurait été incrusté de pierres rares” (“he would never be truly complete until he’d been encrusted with rare gemstones”; 119). At this point, des Esseintes’s project conforms perfectly with the stipulations of Baudelairean aestheticism: the decorated tortoise as a work of art does not have a greater moral or political “purpose” other than serving as a source of pure aesthetic pleasure for the artist during the process. This is followed by a detailed list of gemstones he wishes to use in the jewel-encrusted design of “un essaim de fleurs” (“a swarm of flowers”) to be set on the tortoiseshell. He embarks on an exotic list:


L’œil de chat d’un gris verdâtre, strié de veines concentriques qui paraissent remuer, se déplacer à tout moment, selon les dis-positions de la lumière. / La cymophane avec des moires azurées courant sur la teinte laiteuse qui flotte à l’intérieur./ La saphirine qui allume des feux bleuâtres de phosphore sur un fond de chocolat …

(“the greenish-grey cat’s eye, striped with concentric veins which appear to writhe, to shift themselves at every moment, with the angle of the light. / The chrysoberyl with its iridescent blues running along the milky hue floating within. / The saphirine that lights up with shining, phosphorous blues upon depths of chocolate…”; 121)


Here, the reader finds it difficult to envisage the entirety of the floral pattern, in which a swarm of flowers is supposed to spring “en fusées d’une mince tige” (“in fireworks from a slender stem”; 119). We are drawn into ever-magnified fragments of exotic stones, unable to extricate ourselves from stylistic details to grapple with its meaning. The pattern’s disintegration into individual gemstones, which then further dissolve into the veins and specks of color found within the material, is the epitome of what Bourget would term “power usurpation” by the parts of a whole. The curious syntax and use of frequently indented phrases further accentuates the individuation of particles. In this case, not only does the grammatical sentence disintegrate into extended noun phrases, but so does the reader’s attention. As each gemstone receives its own paragraph and indentation, Bourget’s theory of decadence as an anarchical “manque de subordination” (“lack of subordination”) comes to life. Each element usurps the reader’s attention, making it impossible for one to even grasp the totality of the object under scrutiny. The failure of des Esseintes’s over-emphasis on aesthetic style is further mirrored by the fate of the tortoise.

This anarchy of the gemstones eventually causes the sudden expiration of the animal: “Elle ne bougeait toujours point, il la palpa; elle était morte” (“She would never move again, he could feel it; she was dead”; 128). This is a veritable death by embellishment, since the animal “n’avait pu supporter le luxe éblouissant qu’on lui imposait [et] la rutilante chape dont on l’avait vêtu” (“could not cope with the dazzling luxury imposed upon it [and] the sparkling cape with which it had been clothed”; 128). This death metaphorically points to the ultimate failure of an act of artistic production predicated upon nothing but aesthetics and style. Relating this back to the Bourdieu’s discussion of artistic autonomy, perhaps Huysmans is tacitly telling readers that the de-contextualization and dissociation of art from reality, much like the removal of the tortoise from its natural habitat and the exotic jewels imposed on it, could only result in death and ontological annihilation. This is a paradox in which the very methods of decadence make us lose sight of the subject of our aesthetic admiration, thus rendering this mode of artistic appreciation and production an ultimate failure. Another dimension to this metaphor is that although this scene and so much of this novel seem to be a celebration of artifice and a condemnation of nature, it is worth pointing out that it is nonetheless artifice: “dont elle n’avait pu supporter” (“which she could not have borne”); in other words, life is smothered by the layer of jewels (128). In a way, this is an allegory for the fatality of shielding oneself with pure art. What is even more ironic is that although the brilliance of gemstones is an incarnation of dematerialized beauty, its very material weight fatally injures the tortoise. In a sense, literally and figuratively hiding under the façade of aestheticism will eventually lead to the subject’s demise. In this reading, the tortoise represents des Esseintes himself, a neurasthenic aesthete who curls up under a large shell of decadence and exoticism in an attempt to cure himself. The tortoise’s death is perhaps an omen of des Esseintes’s eventual demise. This is also consistent with the doctor’s analysis of des Esseintes’s physiological health; he declares: “[la guérison serait] impossible à suivre à Fontenay, il fallait quitter cette solitude, revenir à Paris, rentrer dans la vie commune” (“[recovery would be] impossible to pursue at Fontenay, he would have to leave this solitude, go back to Paris, return to town life”; 307). Upon hearing this injunction, des Esseintes himself realizes in despair that this change in lifestyle was “une question de vie ou de mort, une question de santé ou de folie compliquée” (“a question of life or death, a question of health or intricate madness”; 307). Here, one witnesses des Esseintes’s growing cognizance of his imminent death upon continuation of his current lifestyle. Revisiting the tortoise scene suggests that Huysmans had intended for its death to foreshadow des Esseintes’ ambiguous fate. Tying this discussion back to Lu Xun’s short stories, the death of the tortoise could be read as a much larger allegorical representation of the cowardly intellectual who seeks to escape under the shield of aestheticized versions of foreign art and thought, only to realize that such disengaged consumption can only ever be doomed to fail.

The second scene in which Huysmans stealthily employs Baudelairean aestheticism only to subvert it is his rather unconventional description of the Gregorian chant. In all his other artistic exploits, he subjects the artistic object to a form of decadent textual exegesis, where his admiration stems from the division of the whole into its parts. Yet religious music curiously escapes this fate and is the only artistic form not governed by decadence. His praise for these melodies is predicated upon their coherence and simplicity, characteristics he never once admired in literature or the visual arts. Des Esseintes obsesses over le plain-chant’s “puissant unisson, ses harmonies solennelles et massives, ainsi que des pierres de tailles” (“powerful unison, its massive, solemn harmonies, just like cut stones”; 296, emphasis added). In addition, the Te Deum, when sung as a plainsong, is further extolled for being “si simple, si grandiose, composé par un saint quelconque… qui, à défaut des ressources compliquées d’un orchestra, à défaut de la mécanique musicale de la science moderne, révélait une ardente foi, une délirante jubilation…” (“so simple, so spectacular, composed by an everyday saint… who, lacking the intricate resource of an orchestra, lacking the musical machinery of modern science, would reveal a passionate faith, an exuberant joy”; 298). The italicized words point towards a diction that departs from the decadent tradition. “Simplicity,” “unison,” and “solemnity” are not words used to describe the scintillating tortoiseshell, nor did des Esseintes praise Gustave Moreau’s Salomé for the simplicity of its contours. With other forms of art, the point of attraction has always been the ornateness. What is it about religious music that reverses his method of artistic evaluation?

Des Esseintes compares religious music to its secular counterpart:


Dans les conceptions les plus admirables de Haendel et de Bach, il n’y avait pas la renonciation d’un succès public, le sacrifice  d’un effet d’art, l’abdication d’un orgueil humain s’écoutant prier, tout au plus, avec les imposantes messes de Lesueur célébrées à Saint-Roch, le style religieux s’affirmait-il, grave et auguste,    se rapprochant au point de vue  de l’âpre nudité de l’austère majesté du vieux plain chant.

(“In the most admirable designs of Handel and of Bach, there was no renunciation of public success, of the sacrifice of artistic effect, of the abdication of human pride in attending to its prayer; at most, with the imposing Masses of Le Sueur performed at Saint-Roch, the religious style asserted itself, serious and majestic—drawing nearer in outlook to the brutal starkness, the stern majesty of the old plainsongs”; 297)


By lamenting the lack of “le sacrifice d’un effet d’art” (“the sacrifice of artistic effect”) among other elements in secular music, he implies that his admiration of religious music in fact stems from the very presence of the renunciation of artifice. What this means is that he criticizes secular music’s very consciousness of its own artfulness when religious music seeks a truth that is of greater value than its aesthetic style. In other words, he indirectly praises the anti-Baude-lairean nature of religious music—while it still does not seek to enseigner (“teach”) in the moralistic sense the way Lu Xun’s works does, it definitely serves a functional, larger-than-aesthetic purpose. Whether this purpose is to approach divine truth or provide some other psychological solace, des Esseintes does not specify. He does, however, praise the De profundis hymn for its ability to represent an “appel désespéré de l’humanité pleurant sa destinée mortelle, implorant la miséricorde attendrie de son Sauveur” (“desperate cry of humanity lamenting its mortal fate, begging for the tender mercy of its Savior”; 296). This seems to be an exaltation of the divine connection that religious music provides human beings. Huysmans sows a seemingly innocuous seed of doubt in his unique treatment of religious music, thereby insinuating that perhaps Baudelairean aesthetics and Bourget’s deconstructive decadence are not where one can find true solace and inspiration in life. In fact, Huysmans’s own biography is illuminating: he converted to Catholicism and even became a devout oblate in a monastery after the publication of Là-Bas (1891). He was undoubtedly influenced by religious thoughts as he wrote À rebours in 1884, and thus it seems more than likely that these scenes are a prefiguration of his impending conversion.

In fact, his obsession with unity seems to be applicable to more than just religious music. This suggests that perhaps des Esseintes harbors conflicting thoughts about his decadent and hyper-aesthetic approach to art. In discussing his views on an opera by Wagner, he expresses his disgust with concerts in general, where “les morceaux [de musique], découpés et servis sur le plat d’un concert, perdaient toute signification, demeur-aient privés de sens” (“the pieces [of music], carved up and served on the platter of a concert, lose all meaning, remaining deprived of sense”; 299). Although Wagner did write music with religious subjects in his earlier years, his later work was characterized by a strong anti-Christian sentiment, a result of his close friendship with Friedrich Nietzsche. Therefore, from this passage alone, it seems to be the case that des Esseintes’s admiration for unity has extended beyond the domain of religiosity to encompass secular art forms as well. Huysmans invites readers to pose the question: has des Esseintes’s appreciation for transcendental coherence in religious music led to a change in his general aesthetic attitude? Does he now think that there is more to an artwork than the aesthetic beauty of its constituents? When he laments that music fragments “perdaient toute signification” (“lose all meaning”) when interpreted in isolation, is he insinuating that when considered in its entirety, the piece will have meaning that is greater than the mere sum of its parts? Perhaps, like religious music, a meaning that is engaged with the reality or with truth in some transcendent way? One does not see Huysmans explicitly denying the validity of artistic autonomy and artistic disengagement, but through his appreciation of religious music, he acknowledges the value of anchoring art—and not just religious art—in something greater than and outside of itself. It is also of note that while “unity” is an important aesthetic value that Baudelaire himself may well have endorsed, it is not an inherently or decadent value; conversely, “natural simplicity” is a value that both decadence and Baudelairean aestheticism are known to despise; this is an example of the aforementioned imperfect mapping of Baudelaire’s aestheticism onto the decadent movement.

Lastly, the ending of the novel can be seen as des Esseintes’s ultimate disillusionment with the ability of l’art pour l’art to cure spiritual ills. He leaves us on a very ambiguous note as he prepares to leave Fontenay for Paris: “tout est  bien fini; … Seigneur, prenez pitié du chrétien qui doute, de l’incrédule qui voudrait croire, du forçat de la vie qui s’embarque seul, dans la nuit…” (“it’s all over; … Lord, take pity on the Christian who doubts, on the skeptic who wants to believe, on the slave of life who embarks alone, in the night…”; 318). Readers are left to wonder about the exact meaning of “tout” (“all”) in “tout est bien fini.” Perhaps he is abandoning his entire aesthetic approach to art as a force of personal salvation, privileging an integrative, engaged approach instead; or maybe religion and religious art will replace the role that he so wanted decadence to play in his life. One could even see a biblical echo in des Esseintes’s words: moments before Jesus is nailed onto the cross and expires, he says, “It is finished” (John 19:30) / “Tout est accompli.” While the comparison is not explicit, parallels could be drawn between the suffering of des Esseintes and the passion of Christ. In both cases, salvation and potential rebirth are achieved through a leap of faith. In any case, the ambiguity in which the novel ends is evidence enough of Huysmans’s desire to restore some sort of functional practicality to art that Baudelairean aestheticism had previously stripped from art. Yet, unlike Lu Xun, Huysmans seems to believe more in the personal and psychological healing function of religious art rather than its capacity as a cure of societal ills, as Lu Xun posits. Although it remains unclear whether religious music ultimately succeeds in correcting des Esseintes’s decadent approach towards all art, the novel undoubtedly exposes the failures of Baudelairean aestheticism as an escape mechanism by associating art with divine truth and functionality. Normally, one reads the title “à rebours” (“backwards”) to be a celebration of des Esseintes’s departure from a more utilitarian view of art; in a sense, he is living “against the grain” of larger humanity in his extreme escapist project. However, this paper proposes that in light of the above analysis, perhaps the title could be read as a subversive attack on the very aestheticism that it purports to embrace.

IV. Conclusion and Comparative Analysis

In conclusion, through juxta-posing Huysmans’s À rebours with Lu Xun’s short stories and comparing their responses to Baudelairean aestheticism, one can reinvent the trans-continental conversation that might have taken place between the two men had they come into contact. At first glance, it seems as though nothing could be more contradictory and at odds with the other, for Lu Xun seemed to be clearly rooted in the anti-Baudelaire camp, whereas Huysmans seemed to embrace aestheticism wholeheartedly. Yet, while it might be tempting to accept the canonization of À rebours as the “Bible” of aesthetic decadence, closer analysis reveals that perhaps that which it “goes against” is not engaged art, but rather, disengaged art. In the most general terms, they both challenge Baudelaire’s disengaged approach to artistic production and consumption, but their critical apparatuses diverge with respect to their positions within and outside of the aesthetic system in question.  While Lu Xun operates largely “outside” the artistic system through directly wielding literature as a political, diagnostic weapon, Huysmans, moving away from Zolian naturalism and closer to aestheticism, resorts to an indirect subversion of the l’art pour l’art principle by working within it.

The literary circumstances of 1920s China and 1880s France are similar in that both epochs saw the emergence of a branch of aestheticism fueled in part by the writings of Baudelaire—the decadent literary movement in China and Decadence and Symbolism in France. The time gap between the two could be explained by the time it took translators to bring French works into the Chinese literary market, among other reasons. Faced with this obsessive surge with disengagement in a China steeped in war, poverty and political turmoil, Lu Xun bucked against this radical movement and sought to expose the doomed nature of aesthetic escapism. He dared to vocalize in nonfiction essays his disgust with Chinese decadent poets as well as the overemphasis placed on aesthetic beauty rather than literature’s ability to leverage political and social power. Huysmans similarly swam against the strong current of l’art pour l’art, but did so by employing aestheticism’s own arsenal against itself. Through using “aesthetic tools” such as highly stylized language and an emphasis on luxury and exoticism, Huysmans engineers a narrative in which both his protagonist and his readers believe that the novel is an ode to artifice and pure art as therapy for the soul. Only later is it revealed that the whole aesthetic theory expounded by the rest of the book is doomed to disintegration. The subversion that only completes itself at the end is indicative of Huysmans’s critical approach, which works within the framework of the aesthetic approach. With Lu Xun, it is clear from the beginning of both stories that the intellectuals’ escapist agenda is mocked or fatalistic. In “Happy Family,” the derisive tone used to describe the anonymous writer’s unrealistic project gives away Lu Xun’s hostile stance, and the use of the flashback structure in “In Memoriam”, a traditional tragic trope, reinforces the reader’s pity for and indignation with the naïveté of the unrealistic couple.

This comparison also shows us that while both authors reveal through plot the doomed nature of aestheticism as both the governing principle of artistic production and consumption, they also desire to reinstate “function-al utility” and interdependence in art, a very anti-Baudelairean move in itself. Huysmans wields the fate of his protagonist, des Esseintes, in order to affirm art’s—particularly religious art’s—function as a personal, psycho-logical cure that is predicated upon the building of a relationship with divine truth and with God. He does so by first functionalizing aestheticism itself, attempting and eventually failing to seek in it a source of spiritual therapy. Stylistically, it may still be very much in sync with Baudelairean aestheticism, but the fact that it leans towards religious art could be read as what Baudelaire would disgustedly call “enseignement” (“teaching”). On the other hand, Lu Xun’s major concern is the function of his artistic creation as a political cure and wake-up call to those trapped in the “iron house” of Chinese society. Diverging from Huysmans’s subversive imitation of a work governed by aestheticism, his writing itself is the type of art that he thinks art should be—a political alarm. Unconcerned with personal and spiritual salvation the way Huysmans is, Lu Xun toils for the betterment of the society rather than of the individual.

If Huysmans had lived long enough to travel to China in the 1920s, one could almost imagine him and Lu Xun establishing a Franco-Chinese anti-Baudelairean school of “Functional Art,” in which he would head the spiritual branch and Lu Xun the socio-political branch of the movement. In heaven, Baudelaire would sigh with grief and lament, “les années 20s m’ont physiquement désésthéthisé!” (“The 1920s have bodily de-aestheticized me!”) ■

French translations by Natasha Symons and Madeline Zimring.

Works Cited

Baudelaire, Charles. L’art romantique. Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1968. Print.

– – -. “A MONSIEUR ANCELLE.” Letter to Monsieur Ancelle. 5 Mar. 1852. TS. Wikisource.

Bien, Gloria. Baudelaire in China: A Study in Literary Reception. N.p.: U of Delaware P, 2013. Print.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Les Règles de l’art. Paris: Seuil, 1992. Print.

De Gourmont, Remy. La culture des idées. Mercure de France, 1900. Print.

鲁迅. “准风月谈” [“Essay Collection”]. 百万书库. Web. 27 Feb. 2016. http://www.my285.com/xdwx/luxun/zfyt/070.htm.

鲁迅. 彷徨. 香港: 三联出版社, 1999. Print.

The Holy Bible, King James Version. Cambridge Edition: 1769; King James Bible Online, 2016. http://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org.

Hsia, C. T. A History of Modern Chinese Fiction. New Haven: Yale UP, 1971. Print.

Huysmans, J.-K. À rebours. Gallimard, 1983. Print.

Kant, Immanuel, and J. H. Bernard, trans. Critique of Judgment. New York: Hafner Pub., 1951. Print.

Lu, Xun. “Preface to Call to Arms.” Marxists Internet Archive. Web. 27 Feb. 2016. http://www.marxists.org/archive/lu-xun/1922/12/03.htm.

Marquèze-pouey, Louis. Le mouvement décadent en France. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1986. Print.

McDougall, Bonnie S. The Literature of China in the Twentieth Century. London: Hurst and Company, 1997. Print.

Moréas, Jean. “LE SYMBOLISME” [“Symbolist Manifesto”]. Jean Moréas. Web. 27 Feb. 2016. http://www.uni-due.de/lyriktheorie/texte/1886_moreas.html.

Valéry, Paul. Variété III. Paris: Gallimard, 1936. Print.

Yang, Gladys, and Hsien-Yi Yang, trans. “Selected Stories of Lu Hsun.” Selected Stories from Lu Xun. Web. 27 Apr. 2016. http://www.coldbacon.com/writing/luxun-calltoarms.html#Happy.

[1] 文以载道

[2] 文所以载道也,轮辕饰而人弗庸, 徒饰也,况虚车乎

[3] 有富岳家,有闊太太,用陪嫁錢,作文學 資本

[4] 文人无行

[5] 假如一间铁屋子, 是绝无窗户而万难破毁的,里面有许多熟睡的人们,不久都要闷死了,然而是从昏睡入死灭,并不感到就死的悲哀。现在你大嚷起来,惊起了较为清醒的几个人,使这不幸的少数者来受无可挽救的临终的苦楚,你倒以为对得起他们么?然而几个人既然起来,你不能说决没有毁坏这铁屋的希望。

[6]  Modified translation by Yang and Hsien-Yi; Chinese original: “……做不做全由自己的便;那作品,像太阳的光一样,从无量的光源中涌出来,不像石火,用铁和石敲出来,这才是真艺术。那作者,也才是真的艺术家。——而我,……这算是什么?……”

[7]  Italics show the portion of the text that was originally in English.


I pledge my honor that I have not violated the honor code while writing this JP.

—Jin Yun Chow