A Rebours, En Route, and Very Much On Target: J-K Huysmans and the Apostolate of the Outsiders
(The Angelus, January-February, 2020.)
A Rebours is the name of a novel written in 1884 by Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848-1907). Its anti-hero, Jean des Esseintes, namely Huysmans in disguise, is disgusted with the dominant, arrogant, mid to late nineteenth century “positivist” vision, which insisted that only empirical, scientifically verifiable data could reveal the character of “nature”. His reaction is to abandon the spirit of the times, to go “against nature”---the English translation of the title---and to indulge in a decadent, self-indulgent, and ultimately cynical aestheticism, totally alien to the practical “blood and iron” concerns of the mainstream positivist world.
The author of Against Nature and the so-called Decadent Movement in literature he was central to creating, both traced their initial anti-Establishment inspiration to Les Fleurs du Mal (1857) of Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867). But Baudelaire, a deep admirer of the counterrevolutionary thinker Joseph de Maistre, was ultimately encouraging more than simple decadence to counter the modern conception of progress. Hence, Huysmans, like others in the movement, soon realized that the fanciful excesses of the voluntary “outsider” des Esseintes, while an understandable response to the flatness of the “insiders’” Zeitgeist, were not sufficient to deal with modernity’s sickness unto death. In fact, it was his own reflection upon des Esseintes’ weaknesses thus actually helped most to convert the very author who had created this anti-hero to Catholicism.
Huysmans traces his gradual rejection of an “outsider’s” childish, decadent, and nihilistic decision to live “against nature” as falsely presented by the positivists with a life guided by a proper understanding of the natural world as taught by the Incarnate Word in four further novels: Là-bas (The Damned, 1891), En Route (1895), La Cathédrale (1898), and L’Oblat (The Oblate, 1903). Here, the main character, another autobiographical figure named Durtal, flees the dangerous flirtation with demonic forces to which his decadence has led him. He goes en route to a Catholicism whose full effect on nature is symbolized by the cathedral of Chartres, which inspires him to become an oblate in a Benedictine monastery. Durtal-Huysmans has come to realize that he lives in a good natural world flawed by sin where the believer has to accept the need for suffering and expiation on his way to eternal glory.
A man like Huysmans was always an outsider from the standpoint of many Catholics who did not grasp the different kind of path that people who started with Baudelaire and moved through Decadence and the subsequent Symbolist Movement had taken to arrive at the fullness of the Faith. Huysmans’ truly “insider’s” sense of the importance of orthodox belief and the dangers to which the dominant mentality exposed someone seeking to find and maintain it, can be seen in the alarmed warning regarding theological Modernism he sounded in The Oblate, which was published the year of St. Pius X’s election to the See of Peter.
Biographies such as Huysmans’ and his fellow Decadent-to-Symbolist-to Catholic literary colleagues are of great interest to me for two reasons, the first of which is that they contribute to an understanding of something very important in the history of the Church: the Apostolate of the Outsiders. This Apostolate has repeatedly proven to be an incomparable blessing to the Mystical Body of Christ, whose “insiders”, clergy, religious, and laity alike, can often lose their way, if not in terms of “officially” rejecting the Faith and destroying the sacraments, certainly in the sense of neglecting, obscuring, and giving public scandal to them. It is at such moments that those who are “outsiders”, whether through their lack of any power to correct what has gone badly wrong or their sincere longing for deeper knowledge of the substance of the Way, the Truth, and Life---and not its disfigured image--- have repeatedly entered onto the scene to fulfill their role. This outsider call to “jump start” a failing engine has the occupational hazard of being misunderstood and maltreated by the insiders who are not doing their own job properly. All one has to do is to look at the accusations of schismatic and heretical behavior hurled at the monks of Cluny in the tenth century and the initial reformers of the Renaissance and Catholic Reformation era to verify this fact.
By now, it will be clear to all of my readers that the specific and incomparably important Apostolate of the Outsiders that concerns me here is the one that has been exercised for fifty years by the Society of St. Pius X. Founded by a man who never dreamed that the term “insider” could possibly be denied him, this Apostolate has unashamedly dedicated itself to teaching and doing nothing other than what Archbishop Lefebvre had had the highest official approval for preaching and promoting throughout his entire previous vocational career. Moreover, it has courageously maintained this commitment while being publically reviled for crimes the injustice of which only its predecessors in cleaning the ecclesiastical Augean Stables in previous periods of mainstream collapse could fully appreciate.
Other contributors to this issue will outline the many particular accomplishments of the Society in very detailed ways, being much more competent to do so as day-to-day laborers in its multiple fields of endeavor. It was only after reflecting on what it was that I might possibly offer in this regard that the “outsider” Huysmans came to mind, and the second reason why meditation upon his experience and that of so many others either following seemingly “untraditional” paths to the Faith or rediscovering its fullness in times of confusion and despair is important: the truth Christian charity demands that they be taken seriously and nurtured. It is the Society of St. Pius X’s remarkable apostolate to so many other Catholics or would-be Catholics “on the outside looking in” in the gravest time of crisis in the history of the Church---an Apostolate of an Outsider to the Outsiders---that I felt capable of recording for posterity. For there are many who are “of” the Society even though not “in” it.
This truth is driven home to me over and over again on the many occasions I attend mass St. Nicolas du Chardonnet in Paris. There are men and women in that congregation, very easily identified by their manner of dress and their failure to socialize with anyone after mass is over, who are not SSPX “insiders”. Nevertheless, this parish is obviously their home; I recognize their faces from year to year, and they come because St. Nicolas is where they see the fullness of the faith. They are indeed “in” this community of believers even if they are officially not “of it”; no one has turned them away, and it must be the case that this has kept them sane amidst the rubble of the Catholic Church and Catholic Christendom. The Apostolate of the Outsiders exercised by the SSPX has been exercised to and for them as well; there are concentric circles of outsiders for whom this exercise has been crucial whether the leadership and members of the Society are aware of it or not. Although no historical record is likely ever to associate this community with the force responsible for keeping it spiritually alive, I can at least offer one bit of evidence for its existence: myself.
It must be a peculiar sensation to feel like an “insider” in one’s own particular narrow time and place, but that is certainly not a feeling that I have ever experienced. Although I had good parents, a happy home, a wonderful childhood, and a fruitful educational experience, I can remember very much always thinking of myself as something of an outsider peering at a scene that was just not quite right. What, exactly, was wrong with the picture was very unclear to my immature mind, but as my entrance into high school in the dreadful Year of Modernity called 1965 led to graduation in the still more ominous one of 1969 it was obvious that the disconnect between my own life and what “nature” as my time and place was offering me was becoming more and more pronounced. And the most distressing aspect of that disconnect was the fact that nothing in my personal makeup particularly disposed me to want to be or to enjoy being “on the outside looking in”.
Developments portending a still more thoroughgoing exile from the world around me were soon to follow. In the spring of 1970, my first years as an undergraduate, I was introduced by one of my history professors to the entire counterrevolutionary critique of modern civilization as a whole. Three years later came entry into Oxford and membership in an international fraternity of exiles from modernity determined to make our experience at that venerable institution an outsiders’ defiance of a Zeitgeist that looked as though it had the full backing of the clueless powers that-be, administrative and student. This was followed at the end of the decade by the beginning of my own university career, whose lack of connection with any current-day “insider” existence can be read by anyone with the stomach to do so in the novel posted on my Internet site entitled---appropriately enough---Periphery. Caveat emptor! It is the bitter, sardonic, product of an outsider engaged in a total war against the distorted nature of my times; someone at that point still regularly and intensely tempted to become another---but probably much more mediocre version of---des Esseintes.
Thankfully, this pull to take the path là-bas was not uncontested. From the very outset of my university experiences, there were forces that where putting me en route. And a constant companion along the highway towards the true understanding of the meaning of nature and how to use it properly to reach eternal life in Christ, a fellow-traveller that has helped mightily to pick me up when too weary to go on or turn me around when ready to go astray has always been that Apostle to the Outsiders called the Society of St. Pius X.
For an outsider I always have been. I only learned of Archbishop Lefebvre through Dietrich von Hildebrand and the Roman Forum, having been introduced to their own countercultural fight against heresy and the Novus ordo missae in 1970 by the same university professor who acquainted me with the secular counterrevolutionary critique. I merely watched the opening of the seminary at Econe on a television screen from Oxford. It was simply as a representative of the Roman Forum that I was sent to meet and interview Msgr. Ducaud Bourget soon after the takeover of St. Nicolas and have my one and only glimpse of the Archbishop himself. It was curiosity alone that brought me to Ridgefield, Connecticut, immediately following its opening in 1979, to find out what the seminary training there was like. I was never a member of a Society parish and I am not one now.
Somehow this has never stopped the Society from always welcoming and encouraging me. In fact, it literally saved me from my most serious des Esseintes relapse, which took place between 1985 and 1987, when my revolt against an ever more wretched natural world led me entirely to abandon both my secular counterrevolutionary and traditionalist Roman Forum commitments. It did so by pressing me to come to lecture for it regularly on Church History and the problem of Americanism and reawakening my desire to get back en route. And it has continued to do so with an openness which I credit more than anything else for maintaining my sense of self respect and the value of my historical discipline; keeping me, more than thirty years hence, from falling once again prey to the temptations of là-bas.
Openness to outsiders, according to the Society’s enemies, is not a quality that it possesses. But openness is a virtue, as I believe Chesterton said, only when, like a mouth, it chomps down on something solid. At least in my experience the Society has demonstrated precisely this kind of openness encouraging valuable influences that it might not have considered part of its mission at the outset, and has gained strength in the process. Dare I suggest, in proof of this fact, that St. Mary’s Kansas today is a quite different phenomenon, academically and culturally, than it was some decades ago? It has benefited from this proper openness, just as the Catholic world of the turn of the twentieth century benefited from Huysmans and other outsiders like him.
But once again, these outside influences have proven their value in union with a Society committed to the unum necessarium: handing down the Tradition full and intact that was handed down to us, something which the mainstream Church is, to say the least, very confused about doing. Reveling in being outside and avant garde for their own sake, is, as Huysmans was well aware, a very dangerous game to play, with some of the would-be Catholics whom he knew who continued to indulge that narrow sport feeding the Modernist Movement he vigorously condemned. Outsiders have been a blessing for the Church only as a force working to enrich and strengthen the Tradition, ultimately from the inside.
Let us hope that it will not take another fifty years en route for an event to take place that so many of us “of” but not “in” the Society fervently pray to be able to see: the day when the mission of Archbishop Lefebvre is vindicated, and the errors of a an ecclesiastical Zeitgeist which has truly gone a rebours are targeted and chastised with what Dietrich von Hildebrand labeled “the glorious and liberating words—anathema sit!
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