Out of a whim.


Hubert Duprat, Phrygane, c. 1994.

A little bit of fin-de-siècle decadence today, since, reading Umberto Eco’s History of Beauty last week, I came across a passage of Huysmans’s À Rebours (1884) that reminded me of the jewel-encrusted cockroach and French artist Hubert Duprat’s manipulated caddis fly larvae (more about them some time soon). Des Esseintes, Huysmans’s eccentric protagonist, buys a turtle, and to match it with an opulent carpet, he has its shell glazed over with gold and encrusted with gemstones in the shape of a flower.

Huysmans, À Rebours, turtle

Illustration by Arthur Zaidenberg.

This turtle was the result of a whim that had suddenly occurred to Des Esseintes a short while before his leaving Paris. Looking one day at an Oriental carpet with iridescent gleams of colour and following with his eyes the silvery glints that ran across the web of the wool, the colours of which were an opaque yellow and a plum violet, he had told himself: it would be a fine experiment to set on this carpet something that would move about and the deep tint of which would bring out and accentuate these tones.

Possessed by this idea, he had strolled at random through the streets; had arrived at the Palais-Royal, and in front of Chevet’s window had suddenly struck his forehead,–a huge turtle met his eyes there, in a tank. He had bought the creature; then, once it was left to itself on the carpet, he had sat down before it and gazed long at it, screwing up his eyes.

[…] he resolved to have his turtle’s back glazed over with gold.

Once back from the jeweller’s who had taken it in to board at his workshop, the beast blazed like a sun in splendour, throwing its flashing rays over the carpet, whose tones were weak and cold in comparison, looking for all the world like a Visigothic targe inlaid with shining scales, the handiwork of some Barbaric craftsman.

At first, Des Esseintes was enchanted with the effect; but he soon came to the conclusion that this gigantic jewel was only half finished, that it would not be really complete and perfect till it was incrusted with precious stones.


Des Esseintes stood gazing at the turtle where it lay huddled together in one corner of the dining-room, flashing fire in the dim half light.

He felt perfectly happy; his eyes were intoxicated with the splendours of these flowers flashing in jewelled flames against a golden background. Then, contrary to his use, he had an appetite and was dipping his slices of toast spread with super-excellent butter in a cup of tea, an impeccable blend of Si-a-Fayoun, Mo-you-tann and Khansky,–yellow teas, imported from China into Russia by special caravans.

Breton, in one of his many lists in which he constantly forms and reforms the surrealist canon, calls Huysmans a surrealist avant-la-lettre.

3 thoughts on “Out of a whim.

  1. Yeah, because the jewels make the cockroach so much more tolerable. I really dislike it when the public buys into cheap-marketing-stunts-disguised-as-art. But thank you for the post. It was informative, and I will have to check out Eco’s History of Beauty.

  2. Pingback: 21st-century decadence. « Mapping the Marvellous

  3. Is this perhaps where Walter Benjamin gets his, otherwise unreferenced, description of the flaneur parading the new arcades of Paris at the pace of a turtle on a lead?

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