Bureaucratic Modernity: Huysmans as “rond-de-cuir”

By bringing together Joris-Karl Huysmans’s novella À vau-l’eau, his short story “La Retraite de Monsieur Bougran” (1888), and his personal writing, I argue that bureaucratic labor produces an affective atmosphere of ennui and disgust that defines both Huysmans’s œuvre and how he and his contemporaries understand and represent modernity. As Huysmans’s work suggests, the repetition and perceived meaninglessness of bureaucratic writing produces emotional and physical effects on the body of the bureaucrat by delimiting the patterns of his daily life. In representing the feelings of ennui and disgust that emerge from these effects on his literary bureaucrats, and himself, Huysmans reveals a larger cultural anxiety over the role of bureaucracy in modern life and its implications for non-bureaucratic writing in the modern age. In particular, these anxieties play out in the rampant anti-fonctionnarisme and broader affective crisis, the shared pessimisme, at the end of the nineteenth century.

Michaela Telfer
University of California, Los Angeles