a journal of modern society & culture

Moral Currents in Durkheim and Huysmans

Between science and art there is no longer a gulf, and one may pass from one to the other without any break in continuity. – Durkheim

If, as it has been said, photography is always real but never true, literature is always, if conversely unreal, nevertheless true.[i] I find it curious that sociology would forsake literature to the extent that it has. As Lewis Coser says, “Literature, though it may also be many other things, is social evidence and testimony. It is a continuous commentary on manners and morals.


Its great monuments, even as they address themselves to the eternal existential problems which are at the root of the perennial tensions between men and their society, preserve for us the precious record of modes of response to peculiar social and cultural conditions” (1972: xv). [ii] The lack of engagement is especially curious in light of the fervent efforts of key European writers to provide the public with an increasingly scientific view of the world, starting around the middle of the 19th century, that would even “have delighted an Emile Durkheim” (Lepenies 1988: 6). Perhaps we should devote more time to art – not necessarily in the spirit of Bildung (though, that is not a bad motive by any stretch) but in the quest for an enriched comprehension of the eruption of modernity and its trajectory.

A novel is not only an exquisite experimental construct but also an intersubjective sign world where the analyses of representations converge: “Just as science affects perceptual and cognitive transformations by changing our models of the world as a natural order, art similarly affects paradigm-induced expectations. Instead of taking science as the measure of all things – scientific realism – we argue that there is no fundamental difference in the way in which science and art empower us to articulate the world; this is the view of symbolic realism” (Brown 1977: 24).   The novel, etc., can also provide that which is impossible in a positive scientific analysis: a meta-perspective on a whole world, under development. D. H. Lawrence put it like this: “‘being a novelist, I consider myself superior to the saint, the scientist, the philosopher, and the poet, who are all great masters of different bits of man alive, but never get the whole hog’” (quoted in Lodge 1990: 20).[iii] On balance, I suspect works such as Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, Wilde’s Dorian Gray, Melville’s Moby Dick, or the works of Mark Twain, etc., offer greater sociological and social-psychological insights than the twaddle produced by our mainstream social science industry today. Following Durkheim’s own modus operandi, I will try, briefly, to extend his work on suicide by calling up a passage from Huysmans’ classic Against Nature to further elucidate the dynamic and dialectic nature of social forces as they operate in social reality, in Against Nature, and in Durkheim’s own theory of organizational dynamics and moral pathologies.[iv]

Durkheim’s theory of self-destruction in Suicide rests on a set of ontic and organizational assumptions regarding society as system of representations dynamically crystallizing and dissolving, forming and reforming atop an ‘ocean’ of protean moral energies relatively infinite in magnitude and just as ‘infinite’ in their forms of objectification. Most currents fail to materialize, flowing back into the ‘reservoir’ from whence they originate;[v] others harden into either transitory or persistent forms of obligatory conduct, feeling, and consciousness. Equilibrated (isonomic) conditions of solidarity and regulation, though ideal-typically central to Durkheim’s model of organization and social reality,[vi] are problematic in modern societies continuously buffeted by positive or negative crises of one form or another.[vii] As such, pathological disequilibrium or asymmetrical distortions tend to be the norm or even chronic in modern (and now ‘postmodern’ societies). Authoritative, systemic responses to these disturbances are sometimes excessive (overshooting their target) but often insufficient, lacking, with regard to the particular challenges at hand.[viii]

The literature built up around Durkheim’s Suicide is quite voluminous and one is hard pressed to imagine that anything remains to be said regarding the concepts of egoism, altruism, anomie, and fatalism.[ix] Nevertheless, two interrelated features dominate the decades-long sociological commentary on Durkheim’s famous four-cornered typology (Besnard 2005)[1] of self-destructiveness: first, these concepts are almost universally preserved in their ideal-typical purity in ways that Durkheim did not intend (as McCloskey noted as far back as 1976 – and it is still generally the case more than thirty years later) resulting in a stultification of theoretical insight; secondly, related to the previous point, not much attention has been paid to what Durkheim called the “composite varieties” of these concepts – the simultaneous “contradictory coexistence” of oppositional forces within one and the same society, institution, class, or self. In short, Durkheim’s thought is littered with references toward these contradictory fusions of countervailing forces (i.e., in what we might refer to as the ‘speculative identity’ of contraries) whether we are interested the furtive relationship between empiricism and mysticism (1982: 74); the masked egoism of the humble servant (1982: 37); the Stoic desire to dissolve into the abyss of the infinite; Epicurean sects, and so on. Durkheim’s various elaborations typically utilize literary and sometimes historical references to illustrate the concrete manifestations or what we might refer to as the personifications or perhaps impersonations[x] of these social forces ([1887] 1951: 277-94):

Egoism: Lamartine’s Raphaël (Stoic); Epicurus (Epicurean);

Altruism: Cato; Commander Beaurepaire (obligatory);

Anomie: Chateaubriand’s René; Goethe’s Werther and Faust; the poet Musset’s impression of Don Juan;

Fatalism: limited to vague notions regarding young husbands, prisoners, slaves, military references, etc.

What is crucial when it comes to Durkheim’s presentation is the recognition that his typology hinges not on static concepts functioning as diametric oppositions but as polarities.[xi]

Egoism, altruism, anomie, and fatalism are not merely independent or insulated forms or wholly separate ‘conditions’ whereby we may characterize a society or account for a sudden burst of self-destruction but coalesce into “mixed types” ([1897] 1951: 293), interpenetrating forces that function simultaneously as causes and effects, symptoms and remedies, and so on, combining in contradictory ways and, importantly, undergirded by a network of underground tunnels, trap doors, false bottoms, inverters, rectifiers, etc., that link these polarities together in varying dyadic and triadic formations.[xii]

The “mixed types” that Durkheim enumerates in Suicide (and elsewhere) are as follows: egoism and anomie combine to form what Durkheim calls the “disease of the infinite”; egoism and altruism combine to form (positively) the primitive cosmopolitanism of 19th century French Jews and (negatively) German authoritarianism (“will mania” or “hypertrophy of the will”) examined in his pamphlet Germany above All – Durkheim also indicates that Stoic suicides are characterized by this blending of egoism and altruism, roughly formulated; altruism and anomie (in its active-regressive form) combine, for us, as generalized fanaticism and manifest in phenomena such as jihad or suicide bombings where self-destruction is coordinated with the actual or attempted annihilation of the other; in his introduction to Division of Labor we find the fusion of egoism and fatalism as the “sociological monstrosity” – a society of atomized individuals held together by a police state or iron-fisted structural mechanisms; following the notion of a “disease of the infinite” (egoism combined with anomie) we might extend something similar to the premodern affinity for fatalism and altruism by referring to it as the “disease of finitude.”[xiii]

As exhaustive as Durkheim was I have not found in his own works an illustration or literary reference to an example of all four forces functioning simultaneously within a given system or self-system. Another work, however, goes further than anything I’ve seen in bringing all four currents together in a succinct and illuminating way that is directly relevant to the Durkheimian way of thinking: Huysmans’ Against Nature, where the author captures the neurotic misery of an deregulated[xiv] egoist, Des Esseintes, attempting (and failing miserably) to construct a solitary world of his own, free from the corruption and influence of society.[xv]

After finally disintegrating into a near-fatal physiological state the protagonist’s doctor orders Des Esseintes back to Paris and its vibrant social life of frivolity and distractions. After consulting with multiple doctors, Des Esseintes faces the unavoidable fact of returning and drowning in bourgeois insipidness. Facing the inevitability of the situation closing around him he explodes furiously, propelling his self into an identification with the anachronistic object of bourgeois scorn: the Church. Literally every element we could wish for is tightly compressed into a compact denouement:


‘May you crumble into dust, Society; old world, may you expire!’ exclaimed Des Esseintes, filled with indignation at the ignominious spectacle he was conjuring up; his protest shattered the nightmare that oppressed him. ‘Ah!’ he said; ‘to think that all this is not a dream! To think that I shall be rejoining the depraved and servile rabble of this age!’ He turned for help and comfort to Schopenhauer’s consoling precepts; he repeated to himself the painful axiom of Pascal’s: ‘The soul sees nothing that, upon reflection, it does not find distressing,’ but these words echoed in his mind like meaningless noise; his ennui broke them up, stripping them of all significance, all consolatory power, all gentle, effective potency.

He finally realized that the arguments of pessimism were incapable of giving him comfort, that only the impossible belief in a future life would give him peace.

A fit of rage, like a fierce gale, swept away his efforts at resignation, his attempts at indifference. He could no longer deceive himself, there was nothing, nothing left, everything had been brought down; the bourgeoisie sat about on the ground, as though on a Sunday outing, stuffing themselves from paper bags, amid the majestic ruins of the Church which had become a place of assignation, a pile of debris, defiled by contemptible gibes and infamous jokes. Surely, in order to prove their existence beyond any doubt, surely the terrible God of Genesis and the pale Crucified Christ would revive the cataclysms of the past, reignite the rain of fire that once consumed those cities of the damned, those abodes of death of long ago? Was it possible that this filth would continue to flow and with its pestilence swamp this old world in which nothing now grew save seeds of iniquity and harvests of shame?

…. Exhausted, Des Esseintes collapsed into a chair. ‘In two days’ time I shall be in Paris,’ he exclaimed; ‘it really is all over; the waters of human mediocrity, like a tidal wave, are rising up to the sky and will engulf this haven whose sea-walls I have with my own hands most unwillingly breached. Ah! My courage fails me and I am sick at heart! Lord, take pity on the Christian who doubts, on the unbeliever who longs to believe, on the galley-slave of life who is setting sail alone, at night, under a sky no longer lit, now, by the consoling beacons of the ancient hope!’ ([1884] 1998: 180-81).

His hitherto dimly perceived bond of sympathy and perverse fascination with the Church and otherworldly asceticism is revealed, in a flash, under the pressure of a fated re-emersion into the stupidity of Parisian life; this egoist is literally transported to the doorstep of institutionalized discipline and self-abandonment. The ‘progressive’ anomie of a wealthy Stoic lifestyle mixed with hedonism, or, really, sybaritic indulgence slowly degenerates into a ‘regressive’ draining of resources and a physiological breakdown. It is the being cornered, caught between a rock and a hard place, that triggers the rage (what Durkheim identifies with “active” and “regressive” phases of anomie) that will metamorphose Des Esseintes into his polar opposite form and make possible his transposition into a world of discipline and self-renunciation.[xvi]

Societies and selves tend to oscillate, sometimes quickly and violently, from one form of existence to a polar opposite. Today’s revolution is tomorrow’s restoration; fellow travelers whipsaw into rabid anti-communists; Trotskyists in the spring, Nixonites in the fall; one generation of conservatives produces the next generation’s progressives; yesteryear’s communist regime is today’s capitalist hothouse.

The dismantling of the Glass-Steagall Act during the 80s and 90s led to massive deregulation of finance and, in combination with other pressures such as wage stagnation, debt explosions, de-industrialization, ignominious and fruitless wars, and so forth, have set the US on an interesting course that, if dialectical theory offers any insight at all, may swerve in a completely unforeseen direction when least expected. Empire and ego, macrocosm and microcosm, may at any moment appear to be a lost cause, tumbling headlong into a cataclysmic abyss, but every constellation and social pathology contains the germs of their own transformation. Intervention, not even on a grand scale, but only mild intercession with an eye toward ‘facts’ may be all that is required to effect a dramatic and sudden reversal or inversion. Or, if virtue carried to excess is a vice, then perhaps vice, pushed even further into unreality, is an underground tunnel into another polar reality. Either way, Huysmans has crafted the line for our epoch as well: “May you crumble into dust, Society; old world, may you expire!” To help it along its way, sociology must metamorphose by reengaging with philosophy (its collective consciousness according to Durkheim) and also, crucially, undertake a theoretical renewal by ‘going down’ as Nietzsche would say into new, neglected, or unexplored currents of human life.



[1] The four-cornered typology no longer gets the job done in my estimation. I have since moved to viewing the problem in terms of the “social octahedron” which I have begun to elaborate in Worrell (2014).

[i] In a work of fiction we see things that have not really occurred just like that but just like that we recognize in them a reality beyond a mere story. I am tempted to go all the way and claim that the novel is true and real but also excessively true and real in a way that makes for an ideal sociological engagement. How can a ‘fiction’ be true and real? Marx’s phenomenology of value formations in volume one of Capital offers insight into the truth and reality of not only accidental commodity exchange but the reality of something like a novel: “The universal equivalent form comes and goes with the momentary social contacts which call it into existence” ([1867] 1976: 183). Few would deny the reality, truth, and facticity of that great delusion, exchange-value. A network of fantasies supports every society and even the methods of interpretive sociology (where science is synonymous with precision concept construction, conceptual model building, theory formation, the refinement of problems, and historical-comparative analysis) are largely fictions that are simultaneously real and true.

[ii] Of course, like Coser, I am not referring to a ‘sociology of literature’ but, instead, to a ‘literary sociology.’ Such an enterprise was not so outlandish to some of our important predecessors and some works of sociological import are so exalted in their execution that they compare more favorably with art than academia – consider Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. If sociology continues to unfold in its current trajectory (anti-theoretical, methodically bloated, and with a money-grubbing eye on corporate synergy) it will be relegated to nothing more than a ‘career opportunity’ for intelligent dunces in the post-secondary educational industry.

[iii] “‘…God knows the world, because He conceived it in His mind, as if from the outside, before it was created, and we do not know its rule, because we live inside it, having found it already made.’ ‘So one can know things by looking at them from the outside!’ ‘The creations of art, because we retrace in our minds the operations of the artificer, Not the creations of nature, because they are not the world of our minds’” (Eco 1983: 247-48)

[iv] If we had more space an alternative exploration of the same problems could be conducted more profitably via Maupassant’s A Life. In my estimation few books pair as well with Suicide, though A Life sets out from an entirely different quadrant and the denouement is entirely different. The special virtue of Against Nature, however, is the extraordinary and compact conclusion.

[v] A reservoir of energy created by repression and obligatory sacrifice.

[vi] See Bearman (1991) for more on the relationship between the types of suicide and the organizational structure of self-destruction.

[vii] Equilibrium, within the context of Durkheim’s concept of homo duplex, posits a kind of multidimensional reality where individuals prosper due to a harmonization of social functions with private existence. The fatalistic and altruistic premodern world represents a kind of ‘over-real’ condition of segmentation and communal member-ship whereby the collective type largely eclipses the undeveloped self. Modern capitalist society represents a dramatic slippage off the ‘bubble’ of equilibrium and, consequently, a de-sublimated swerve into the ‘unreality’ of the anomic world and the aimless movement (what Hegel referred to somewhere as ‘pure axial rotation’) toward infinity.

[viii] Witness the pitifully weak efforts to ‘regulate’ Wall Street in the last couple of years that virtually guarantee further dramatic shocks in the domains of speculative finance as well as any number of unforeseen consequences.

[ix] Egoism is literally self-ism, excessive individualism, over-individuation, or the insufficient presence of society in the individual – Durkheim also refers to egoism as the “infinity of dreams”; altruism, the opposite of egoism, is literally ‘otherness’ or the excessive presence of society within the individual, too-rudimentary an individuation; anomie is not Merton’s “normlessness” (see Hilbert 1986) but deregulation and the “infinity of desires”; and, its opposite, fatalism, is over-regulation or “moral despotism” (Durkheim [1897] 1951). For Durkheim, fatalism was primarily a religious and premodern category and had, as such, fallen out of relevance for the modern world (2004: 159, 164). Weber’s Protestant Ethic is the perfect companion piece to Suicide for exploring the fatalistic nature of predestinationism and the fatalistic qualities of capitalism

[x] ‘Impersonation’ has an older meaning as ‘personification’ (but also quite literally ‘in’ + ‘person’) that is quite an interesting on various levels if we are interested in the ways in which forces work through and operate through individuals – Lacan comes to mind but also the tradition of Absolute idealism (von Hardenberg’s ‘magical idealism’ especially) and semiotics (Eco provides a good example).

[xi] Durkheim’s ‘sociological realism’ or what we might call his ‘constructionism’ is a third way between nominalism/crude empiricism on the one hand, and, and the crypto-theology of Realism/rationalism on the other. His reliance on conceptual polarities represents a bid toward a dialectical comprehension of social forces in motion. Proceeding as such, Durkheim’s sociology (regardless of how he may or may not have comprehended his own practice) represents a powerful extension and transformation of the tradition of absolute idealism, broadly conceived, at the point where the ‘Absolute’ was reconstituted as, essentially, collective consciousness and its crystallizations imperfectly worked out by his philosophical predecessors: Hölderlin, Hardenberg (Novalis), Schlegel, Schelling and, finally, Hegel (see Beiser 2002). Polarity, as opposed to simple diametric or logical opposition, insists on a fluid continuum between contraries and their capacities for emergent syntheses. ‘Polarity’ retains fidelity to social dialectics. “Dogmatic empiricism and dogmatic rationalism both end in failure,” says Cassirer, “because they cannot do justice to this actuality, this pure process-character of knowledge. They negate the process by denying polarity, which is the true driving force of knowledge, the very principle of its movement. This polarity is destroyed if, instead of relating the opposing factors to one another and connecting them intellectually, we seek to reduce the one to the other. Empiricism does this by dissolving the constructive concepts in the given; rationalism, conversely, does it by reducing every datum to the form of its conceptual determination. But in both cases we have a leveling of the fundamental oppositions whose clash truly builds up the objective world of physical knowledge” (1957: 414). Compare, especially, Schelling’s concept of the “indifference point” and Durkheim’s notion of equilibrium (see Pinkard 2002: 183).

[xii] In the pre-Hegelian forms of Absolute Idealism (i.e., Novalis, Schlegel, Schelling, etc.) we find conceptual oppositions that “stand in a continuum where they are in inverse ratio to one another. The more we proceed in one direction, the further removed we are from the other. The middle point, where the two poles are perfectly balanced with one another, Schlegel calls by the neutral term ‘reality’” (Beiser 2002: 458). Nielsen emphasizes this aspect of polarity and synthesis with respect to Durkheim: “When seen as a matrix of categories, which define the horizons of experience, they take on a very different quality than when they are treated separately as causes” (1998: 94).

[xiii] Unlike his exploration of the composite varieties of egoism and altruism, Durkheim does not dwell on the nature of anomie and its blending with fatalism – we may recall that Durkheim relegates fatalism to a mere footnote and as mostly irrelevant for the modern world. However, it is interesting to note that while anomie (and its blending with egoism) is the dominant characteristic of capitalist modernity for Durkheim, Weber emphasized the opposite form, fatalism, as the dominant feature of modern society – and, of course, its blending with pessimistic egoism and the ‘identity’ of anomie and fatalism: “The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so…. fate decreed that the cloak [of materialism] should become an iron cage” ([1930] 2001: 123). In Weber’s sense, we see that it is our anomic devotion to material goods is our fatalism; the more we consume the more we enslave ourselves. One of the few discussions of this blending of fatalism and anomie is to be found in Miller (1996: 114-16). We might simply identify the dyadic fusion of anomie and fatalism as various moments in the post-Fordist regime of magical-capital accumulation (see Worrell 2009 for more on this form of spectacle) or perhaps simply ‘eco-nomic monstrosity.’

[xiv] ‘Antinomian’ but in a purely secular sense; the protagonist alternates between an active and indulgent (+) hedonism and a passive deprivational (-) Stoic languor through most of the book. Only at the end do we see a cataclysmic dialectical transformation of the self.

[xv] Tester notices some vague connection between Huysmans and Durkheim’s work on suicide but he swerves erratically through the subject and, since he believes that Durkheim “can see the world only in terms of perennially apart oppositions” (1993: 73) he fails to appreciate the truly dynamic nature of Durkheim’s theory of social forces and organization.

[xvi] See Durkheim’s early philosophy lectures for his sense of the different forms of egoism, especially the Stoic and Epicurean (2004). Stoic and hedonistic currents are enabled by the centrifugal effects of wealth but the route into altruistic self-abandonment of this kind of person is activated by the inversion of ‘progressive’ anomie into its ‘regressive’ and active form that are enmeshed with Epicurean tendencies. To avoid physical death Des Esseintes commits a moral sacrifice of the unhinged self, delivering it to the doorstep of institutional control. Key to the Epicurean form is its sectarian nature and affinity for a high degree of regulation (Durkheim 2004: 233-34).



Bearman, Peter S. 1991. “The Social Structure of Suicide.” Sociological Forum 6(3): 501-24.

Beiser, Fredrick. 2002. German Idealism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Besnard, Philippe. 2005. “Durkheim’s Squares: Types of Social Pathology and Types of Suicide.” Pp. 70-79 in The Cambridge Companion to Durkheim, edited by Jeffery C. Alexander et al. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Brown, Richard Harvey. 1977. A Poetic for Sociology. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Cassirer, Ernst. 1957. The philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Vol. 3: The Phenomenology of Knowledge. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Coser, Lewis (ed.). 1972. Sociology through Literature, second edition. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.

Dangler, Jamie and Mark P. Worrell. 2009. “Café Narcissism.” Fast Capitalism 5.1

Durkheim, Emile. [1893] 1984. The Division of Labor in Society, translated by W. D. Halls. New York: The Free Press.

——. [1897] 1951. Suicide, translated by John A. Spaulding and George Simpson. New York: The Free Press.

——. 1915. Germany Above All. Paris: Librairie Armand Colin.

——. 1982. The Rules of Sociological Method, edited by Steven Lukes and translated by W. D. Halls. New York: Free Press.

——. 2004. Durkheim’s Philosophy Lectures, edited and translated by Neil Gross and Robert Alun Jones. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Eco, Umberto. 1983. The Name of the Rose, translated by William Weaver. New York: Everyman’s Library.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang. 1989. The Sorrows of Young Werther, translated by Michael Hulse. New York: Penguin.

Hegel, G. W. F. [1807] 1977. Phenomenology of Spirit, translated by A. V. Miller. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hilbert, Richard A. 1986. “Anomie and the Moral Regulation of Reality: The Durkheimian Tradition in Modern Relief.” Sociological Theory 4(1): 1-19.

Huysmans, Joris-Karl. [1884] 1998. Against Nature, translated by Margaret Mauldon. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lepenies, Wolf. 1988. Between Literature and Science: The Rise of Sociology, translated by R. J. Hollingdale. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lodge, David. 1990. After Bakhtin. London: Routledge

Marx, Karl. [1867] 1976. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 1, translated by Ben Fowkes. New York: Penguin.

Maupassant, Guy de. [1883] 1999. A Life, translated by Roger Pearson. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McCloskey, David. 1976. “On Durkheim, Anomie, and the Modern Crisis.” The American Journal of Sociology 81(6): 1481-88.

Miller, W. Watts. 1996. Durkheim, Morals, and Modernity. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Melville, Herman. [1851] 1988. Moby-Dick. New York: Everyman’s Library.

Nielsen, Donald A. 1998. Three Faces of God: Society, Religion, and the Categories of Totality in the Philosophy of Emile Durkheim. Albany: SUNY Press.

Pinkard, Terry. 2002. German Philosophy, 1760-1860: The Legacy of Idealism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tester, Keith. 1993. The Life and Times of Post-Modernity. London: Routledge.

Weber, Max. [1930] 2001. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, translated by Talcott Parsons. London: Routledge.

Wilde, Oscar. [1890] 1995. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Köln: Könemann.

Worrell, Mark P. 2009. “The Cult of Exchange Value and the Critical Theory of Spectacle.” Fast Capitalism 5.2 (www.fastcapitalism.org).

——. 2014. “The Commodity as the Ultimate Monstrosity.” Fast Capitalism 11.1 (http://www.uta.edu/huma/agger/fastcapitalism/11_1/worrell11_1.html).