The artist's position in industrialized society produces inherent tensions in many ways. The main character in Joris-Karl Huysmans's "Ancestry, youth, and education of Duc Jean Des Esseintes" is no exception as he struggles to find a social role that does not bore him or otherwise offend his tastes and sensibilities. The narrator describes the protagonist's associates variously as dull, uninterested, bigoted, and brainless. It is within his own mind and solitude, removed from society, that he finds intellectual stimulation and inspiration:
Exploring the suburbs of the capital, he found a place for sale at the top of Fontenay-aux-Roses, in a secluded section near the fort, far from any neighbors. His dream was realized! In this country place so little violated by Parisians, he could be certain of seclusion. The difficulty of reaching the place, due to an unreliable railroad passing by at the end of the town, and to the little street cars which came and went at irregular intervals, reassured him. He could picture himself alone on the bluff, sufficiently far away to prevent the Parisian throngs from reaching him, and yet near enough to the capital to confirm him in his solitude. And he felt that in not entirely closing the way, there was a chance that he would not be assailed by a wish to return to society, seeing that it is only the impossible, the unachievable that arouses desire.
The seclusion of the duc's environment links it to Tennyson's allegory in "The Palace of Art," as the protagonist in each initially seeks out solitude and an internal world in which to develop intellect and art. The interesting subtlety central to the situations is the necessary position of the places of solitude on the margins of society but not entirely out of reach of it, "near enough to the capital to confirm him in his solitude." This nearness to society acknowledges that a artist can hardly survive without society, because it provides subjects, viewers, patrons and a body of accumulated knowledge and experience to refer to.
As natural as it is for the artist to remove himself from society — as the actual artist of the work (in this case Huysmans's or Tennyson) distances himself from the subject by using a narrator to speak of the duc or the soul — the artist inevitably abandons solitude to interact with society. So, too, do Huysmans and Tennyson inevitably reflect on their own positions as artists while exploring the artist's role through the literature they produce.
1. The narrator describes a group of youths who are educated in the Catholic church and schools and are quite dull and complacent. How might this group reflect or oppose the social role of the PRB and its opposition to conventional artistic teaching while also using religious imagery heavily?
2. The protagonist's family is almost entirely absent from his life. Do the details used to describe the circumstance imply this is a detriment to his development, or is the independence and solitude a benefit?
3. Does the life of Duc Jean Des Esseintes reflect that of Joris-Karl Huysmans's?
4. At the very end of Chapter 1, Des Esseintes "quickly disposed of his old furniture, dismissed his servants, and left without giving the concierge any address." Is such spontaneity essential to the character of an artist as portrayed in these works? Why or why not?
Last modified 14 April 2009