Part 1 out of 4
Produced by Harrison Ainsworth
AGAINST THE GRAIN
Translated by John Howard
The Floressas Des Esseintes, to judge by the various portraits
preserved in the Chateau de Lourps, had originally been a family of
stalwart troopers and stern cavalry men. Closely arrayed, side by
side, in the old frames which their broad shoulders filled, they
startled one with the fixed gaze of their eyes, their fierce
moustaches and the chests whose deep curves filled the enormous shells
of their cuirasses.
These were the ancestors. There were no portraits of their descendants
and a wide breach existed in the series of the faces of this race.
Only one painting served as a link to connect the past and present--a
crafty, mysterious head with haggard and gaunt features, cheekbones
punctuated with a comma of paint, the hair overspread with pearls, a
painted neck rising stiffly from the fluted ruff.
In this representation of one of the most intimate friends of the Duc
d'Epernon and the Marquis d'O, the ravages of a sluggish and
impoverished constitution were already noticeable.
It was obvious that the decadence of this family had followed an
unvarying course. The effemination of the males had continued with
quickened tempo. As if to conclude the work of long years, the Des
Esseintes had intermarried for two centuries, using up, in such
consanguineous unions, such strength as remained.
There was only one living scion of this family which had once been so
numerous that it had occupied all the territories of the Ile-de-France
and La Brie. The Duc Jean was a slender, nervous young man of thirty,
with hollow cheeks, cold, steel-blue eyes, a straight, thin nose and
By a singular, atavistic reversion, the last descendant resembled the
old grandsire, from whom he had inherited the pointed, remarkably fair
beard and an ambiguous expression, at once weary and cunning.
His childhood had been an unhappy one. Menaced with scrofula and
afflicted with relentless fevers, he yet succeeded in crossing the
breakers of adolescence, thanks to fresh air and careful attention. He
grew stronger, overcame the languors of chlorosis and reached his full
His mother, a tall, pale, taciturn woman, died of anaemia, and his
father of some uncertain malady. Des Esseintes was then seventeen
years of age.
He retained but a vague memory of his parents and felt neither
affection nor gratitude for them. He hardly knew his father, who
usually resided in Paris. He recalled his mother as she lay motionless
in a dim room of the Chateau de Lourps. The husband and wife would
meet on rare occasions, and he remembered those lifeless interviews
when his parents sat face to face in front of a round table faintly
lit by a lamp with a wide, low-hanging shade, for the _duchesse_ could
not endure light or sound without being seized with a fit of
nervousness. A few, halting words would be exchanged between them in
the gloom and then the indifferent _duc_ would depart to meet the
first train back to Paris.
Jean's life at the Jesuit school, where he was sent to study, was more
pleasant. At first the Fathers pampered the lad whose intelligence
astonished them. But despite their efforts, they could not induce him
to concentrate on studies requiring discipline. He nibbled at various
books and was precociously brilliant in Latin. On the contrary, he was
absolutely incapable of construing two Greek words, showed no aptitude
for living languages and promptly proved himself a dunce when obliged
to master the elements of the sciences.
His family gave him little heed. Sometimes his father visited him at
school. "How are you . . . be good . . . study hard . . . "--and he
was gone. The lad passed the summer vacations at the Chateau de
Lourps, but his presence could not seduce his mother from her
reveries. She scarcely noticed him; when she did, her gaze would rest
on him for a moment with a sad smile--and that was all. The moment
after she would again become absorbed in the artificial night with
which the heavily curtained windows enshrouded the room.
The servants were old and dull. Left to himself, the boy delved into
books on rainy days and roamed about the countryside on pleasant
It was his supreme delight to wander down the little valley to
Jutigny, a village planted at the foot of the hills, a tiny heap of
cottages capped with thatch strewn with tufts of sengreen and clumps
of moss. In the open fields, under the shadow of high ricks, he would
lie, listening to the hollow splashing of the mills and inhaling the
fresh breeze from Voulzie. Sometimes he went as far as the peat-bogs,
to the green and black hamlet of Longueville, or climbed wind-swept
hillsides affording magnificent views. There, below to one side, as
far as the eye could reach, lay the Seine valley, blending in the
distance with the blue sky; high up, near the horizon, on the other
side, rose the churches and tower of Provins which seemed to tremble
in the golden dust of the air.
Immersed in solitude, he would dream or read far into the night. By
protracted contemplation of the same thoughts, his mind grew sharp,
his vague, undeveloped ideas took on form. After each vacation, Jean
returned to his masters more reflective and headstrong. These changes
did not escape them. Subtle and observant, accustomed by their
profession to plumb souls to their depths, they were fully aware of
his unresponsiveness to their teachings. They knew that this student
would never contribute to the glory of their order, and as his family
was rich and apparently careless of his future, they soon renounced
the idea of having him take up any of the professions their school
offered. Although he willingly discussed with them those theological
doctrines which intrigued his fancy by their subtleties and
hair-splittings, they did not even think of training him for the
religious orders, since, in spite of their efforts, his faith remained
languid. As a last resort, through prudence and fear of the harm he
might effect, they permitted him to pursue whatever studies pleased
him and to neglect the others, being loath to antagonize this bold and
independent spirit by the quibblings of the lay school assistants.
Thus he lived in perfect contentment, scarcely feeling the parental
yoke of the priests. He continued his Latin and French studies when
the whim seized him and, although theology did not figure in his
schedule, he finished his apprenticeship in this science, begun at the
Chateau de Lourps, in the library bequeathed by his grand-uncle, Dom
Prosper, the old prior of the regular canons of Saint-Ruf.
But soon the time came when he must quit the Jesuit institution. He
attained his majority and became master of his fortune. The Comte de
Montchevrel, his cousin and guardian, placed in his hands the title to
his wealth. There was no intimacy between them, for there was no
possible point of contact between these two men, the one young, the
other old. Impelled by curiosity, idleness or politeness, Des
Esseintes sometimes visited the Montchevrel family and spent some dull
evenings in their Rue de la Chaise mansion where the ladies, old as
antiquity itself, would gossip of quarterings of the noble arms,
heraldic moons and anachronistic ceremonies.
The men, gathered around whist tables, proved even more shallow and
insignificant than the dowagers; these descendants of ancient,
courageous knights, these last branches of feudal races, appeared to
Des Esseintes as catarrhal, crazy, old men repeating inanities and
time-worn phrases. A _fleur de lis_ seemed the sole imprint on the
soft pap of their brains.
The youth felt an unutterable pity for these mummies buried in their
elaborate hypogeums of wainscoting and grotto work, for these tedious
triflers whose eyes were forever turned towards a hazy Canaan, an
After a few visits with such relatives, he resolved never again to set
foot in their homes, regardless of invitations or reproaches.
Then he began to seek out the young men of his own age and set.
One group, educated like himself in religious institutions, preserved
the special marks of this training. They attended religious services,
received the sacrament on Easter, frequented the Catholic circles and
concealed as criminal their amorous escapades. For the most part, they
were unintelligent, acquiescent fops, stupid bores who had tried the
patience of their professors. Yet these professors were pleased to
have bestowed such docile, pious creatures upon society.
The other group, educated in the state colleges or in the _lycees_,
were less hypocritical and much more courageous, but they were neither
more interesting nor less bigoted. Gay young men dazzled by operettas
and races, they played lansquenet and baccarat, staked large fortunes
on horses and cards, and cultivated all the pleasures enchanting to
brainless fools. After a year's experience, Des Esseintes felt an
overpowering weariness of this company whose debaucheries seemed to
him so unrefined, facile and indiscriminate without any ardent
reactions or excitement of nerves and blood.
He gradually forsook them to make the acquaintance of literary men, in
whom he thought he might find more interest and feel more at ease.
This, too, proved disappointing; he was revolted by their rancorous
and petty judgments, their conversation as obvious as a church door,
their dreary discussions in which they judged the value of a book by
the number of editions it had passed and by the profits acquired. At
the same time, he noticed that the free thinkers, the doctrinaires of
the bourgeoisie, people who claimed every liberty that they might
stifle the opinions of others, were greedy and shameless puritans
whom, in education, he esteemed inferior to the corner shoemaker.
His contempt for humanity deepened. He reached the conclusion that the
world, for the most part, was composed of scoundrels and imbeciles.
Certainly, he could not hope to discover in others aspirations and
aversions similar to his own, could not expect companionship with an
intelligence exulting in a studious decrepitude, nor anticipate
meeting a mind as keen as his among the writers and scholars.
Irritated, ill at ease and offended by the poverty of ideas given and
received, he became like those people described by Nicole--those who
are always melancholy. He would fly into a rage when he read the
patriotic and social balderdash retailed daily in the newspapers, and
would exaggerate the significance of the plaudits which a sovereign
public always reserves for works deficient in ideas and style.
Already, he was dreaming of a refined solitude, a comfortable desert,
a motionless ark in which to seek refuge from the unending deluge of
A single passion, woman, might have curbed his contempt, but that,
too, had palled on him. He had taken to carnal repasts with the
eagerness of a crotchety man affected with a depraved appetite and
given to sudden hungers, whose taste is quickly dulled and surfeited.
Associating with country squires, he had taken part in their lavish
suppers where, at dessert, tipsy women would unfasten their clothing
and strike their heads against the tables; he had haunted the green
rooms, loved actresses and singers, endured, in addition to the
natural stupidity he had come to expect of women, the maddening vanity
of female strolling players. Finally, satiated and weary of this
monotonous extravagance and the sameness of their caresses, he had
plunged into the foul depths, hoping by the contrast of squalid misery
to revive his desires and stimulate his deadened senses.
Whatever he attempted proved vain; an unconquerable ennui oppressed
him. Yet he persisted in his excesses and returned to the perilous
embraces of accomplished mistresses. But his health failed, his
nervous system collapsed, the back of his neck grew sensitive, his
hand, still firm when it seized a heavy object, trembled when it held
a tiny glass.
The physicians whom he consulted frightened him. It was high time to
check his excesses and renounce those pursuits which were dissipating
his reserve of strength! For a while he was at peace, but his brain
soon became over-excited. Like those young girls who, in the grip of
puberty, crave coarse and vile foods, he dreamed of and practiced
perverse loves and pleasures. This was the end! As though satisfied
with having exhausted everything, as though completely surrendering to
fatigue, his senses fell into a lethargy and impotence threatened him.
He recovered, but he was lonely, tired, sobered, imploring an end to
his life which the cowardice of his flesh prevented him from
Once more he was toying with the idea of becoming a recluse, of living
in some hushed retreat where the turmoil of life would be muffled--as
in those streets covered with straw to prevent any sound from reaching
It was time to make up his mind. The condition of his finances
terrified him. He had spent, in acts of folly and in drinking bouts,
the greater part of his patrimony, and the remainder, invested in
land, produced a ridiculously small income.
He decided to sell the Chateau de Lourps, which he no longer visited
and where he left no memory or regret behind. He liquidated his other
holdings, bought government bonds and in this way drew an annual
interest of fifty thousand francs; in addition, he reserved a sum of
money which he meant to use in buying and furnishing the house where
he proposed to enjoy a perfect repose.
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.
He put masons to work on the house he had acquired. Then, one day,
informing no one of his plans, he quickly disposed of his old
furniture, dismissed his servants, and left without giving the
concierge any address.
More than two months passed before Des Esseintes could bury himself in
the silent repose of his Fontenay abode. He was obliged to go to Paris
again, to comb the city in his search for the things he wanted to buy.
What care he took, what meditations he surrendered himself to, before
turning over his house to the upholsterers!
He had long been a connoisseur in the sincerities and evasions of
color-tones. In the days when he had entertained women at his home, he
had created a boudoir where, amid daintily carved furniture of pale,
Japanese camphor-wood, under a sort of pavillion of Indian rose-tinted
satin, the flesh would color delicately in the borrowed lights of the
This room, each of whose sides was lined with mirrors that echoed each
other all along the walls, reflecting, as far as the eye could reach,
whole series of rose boudoirs, had been celebrated among the women who
loved to immerse their nudity in this bath of warm carnation, made
fragrant with the odor of mint emanating from the exotic wood of the
Aside from the sensual delights for which he had designed this
chamber, this painted atmosphere which gave new color to faces grown
dull and withered by the use of ceruse and by nights of dissipation,
there were other, more personal and perverse pleasures which he
enjoyed in these languorous surroundings,--pleasures which in some way
stimulated memories of his past pains and dead ennuis.
As a souvenir of the hated days of his childhood, he had suspended
from the ceiling a small silver-wired cage where a captive cricket
sang as if in the ashes of the chimneys of the Chateau de Lourps.
Listening to the sound he had so often heard before, he lived over
again the silent evenings spent near his mother, the wretchedness of
his suffering, repressed youth. And then, while he yielded to the
voluptuousness of the woman he mechanically caressed, whose words or
laughter tore him from his revery and rudely recalled him to the
moment, to the boudoir, to reality, a tumult arose in his soul, a need
of avenging the sad years he had endured, a mad wish to sully the
recollections of his family by shameful action, a furious desire to
pant on cushions of flesh, to drain to their last dregs the most
violent of carnal vices.
On rainy autumnal days when melancholy oppressed him, when a hatred of
his home, the muddy yellow skies, the macadam clouds assailed him, he
took refuge in this retreat, set the cage lightly in motion and
watched it endlessly reflected in the play of the mirrors, until it
seemed to his dazed eyes that the cage no longer stirred, but that the
boudoir reeled and turned, filling the house with a rose-colored
In the days when he had deemed it necessary to affect singularity, Des
Esseintes had designed marvelously strange furnishings, dividing his
salon into a series of alcoves hung with varied tapestries to relate
by a subtle analogy, by a vague harmony of joyous or sombre, delicate
or barbaric colors to the character of the Latin or French books he
loved. And he would seclude himself in turn in the particular recess
whose _decor_ seemed best to correspond with the very essence of the
work his caprice of the moment induced him to read.
He had constructed, too, a lofty high room intended for the reception
of his tradesmen. Here they were ushered in and seated alongside each
other in church pews, while from a pulpit he preached to them a sermon
on dandyism, adjuring his bootmakers and tailors implicitly to obey
his briefs in the matter of style, threatening them with pecuniary
excommunication if they failed to follow to the letter the
instructions contained in his monitories and bulls.
He acquired the reputation of an eccentric, which he enhanced by
wearing costumes of white velvet, and gold-embroidered waistcoats, by
inserting, in place of a cravat, a Parma bouquet in the opening of his
shirt, by giving famous dinners to men of letters, one of which, a
revival of the eighteenth century, celebrating the most futile of his
misadventures, was a funeral repast.
In the dining room, hung in black and opening on the transformed
garden with its ash-powdered walks, its little pool now bordered with
basalt and filled with ink, its clumps of cypresses and pines, the
dinner had been served on a table draped in black, adorned with
baskets of violets and scabiouses, lit by candelabra from which green
flames blazed, and by chandeliers from which wax tapers flared.
To the sound of funeral marches played by a concealed orchestra, nude
negresses, wearing slippers and stockings of silver cloth with
patterns of tears, served the guests.
Out of black-edged plates they had drunk turtle soup and eaten Russian
rye bread, ripe Turkish olives, caviar, smoked Frankfort black
pudding, game with sauces that were the color of licorice and
blacking, truffle gravy, chocolate cream, puddings, nectarines, grape
preserves, mulberries and black-heart cherries; they had sipped, out
of dark glasses, wines from Limagne, Roussillon, Tenedos, Val de Penas
and Porto, and after the coffee and walnut brandy had partaken of kvas
and porter and stout.
The farewell dinner to a temporarily dead virility--this was what he
had written on invitation cards designed like bereavement notices.
But he was done with those extravagances in which he had once gloried.
Today, he was filled with a contempt for those juvenile displays, the
singular apparel, the appointments of his bizarre chambers. He
contented himself with planning, for his own pleasure, and no longer
for the astonishment of others, an interior that should be comfortable
although embellished in a rare style; with building a curious, calm
retreat to serve the needs of his future solitude.
When the Fontenay house was in readiness, fitted up by an architect
according to his plans, when all that remained was to determine the
color scheme, he again devoted himself to long speculations.
He desired colors whose expressiveness would be displayed in the
artificial light of lamps. To him it mattered not at all if they were
lifeless or crude in daylight, for it was at night that he lived,
feeling more completely alone then, feeling that only under the
protective covering of darkness did the mind grow really animated and
active. He also experienced a peculiar pleasure in being in a richly
illuminated room, the only patch of light amid the shadow-haunted,
sleeping houses. This was a form of enjoyment in which perhaps entered
an element of vanity, that peculiar pleasure known to late workers
when, drawing aside the window curtains, they perceive that everything
about them is extinguished, silent, dead.
Slowly, one by one, he selected the colors.
Blue inclines to a false green by candle light: if it is dark, like
cobalt or indigo, it turns black; if it is bright, it turns grey; if
it is soft, like turquoise, it grows feeble and faded.
There could be no question of making it the dominant note of a room
unless it were blended with some other color.
Iron grey always frowns and is heavy; pearl grey loses its blue and
changes to a muddy white; brown is lifeless and cold; as for deep
green, such as emperor or myrtle, it has the same properties as blue
and merges into black. There remained, then, the paler greens, such as
peacock, cinnabar or lacquer, but the light banishes their blues and
brings out their yellows in tones that have a false and undecided
No need to waste thought on the salmon, the maize and rose colors
whose feminine associations oppose all ideas of isolation! No need to
consider the violet which is completely neutralized at night; only the
red in it holds its ground--and what a red! a viscous red like the
lees of wine. Besides, it seemed useless to employ this color, for by
using a certain amount of santonin, he could get an effect of violet
on his hangings.
These colors disposed of, only three remained: red, orange, yellow.
Of these, he preferred orange, thus by his own example confirming the
truth of a theory which he declared had almost mathematical
correctness--the theory that a harmony exists between the sensual
nature of a truly artistic individual and the color which most vividly
Disregarding entirely the generality of men whose gross retinas are
capable of perceiving neither the cadence peculiar to each color nor
the mysterious charm of their nuances of light and shade; ignoring the
bourgeoisie, whose eyes are insensible to the pomp and splendor of
strong, vibrant tones; and devoting himself only to people with
sensitive pupils, refined by literature and art, he was convinced that
the eyes of those among them who dream of the ideal and demand
illusions are generally caressed by blue and its derivatives, mauve,
lilac and pearl grey, provided always that these colors remain soft
and do not overstep the bounds where they lose their personalities by
being transformed into pure violets and frank greys.
Those persons, on the contrary, who are energetic and incisive, the
plethoric, red-blooded, strong males who fling themselves unthinkingly
into the affair of the moment, generally delight in the bold gleams of
yellows and reds, the clashing cymbals of vermilions and chromes that
blind and intoxicate them.
But the eyes of enfeebled and nervous persons whose sensual appetites
crave highly seasoned foods, the eyes of hectic and over-excited
creatures have a predilection toward that irritating and morbid color
with its fictitious splendors, its acid fevers--orange.
Thus, there could be no question about Des Esseintes' choice, but
unquestionable difficulties still arose. If red and yellow are
heightened by light, the same does not always hold true of their
compound, orange, which often seems to ignite and turns to nasturtium,
to a flaming red.
He studied all their nuances by candlelight, discovering a shade
which, it seemed to him, would not lose its dominant tone, but would
stand every test required of it. These preliminaries completed, he
sought to refrain from using, for his study at least, oriental stuffs
and rugs which have become cheapened and ordinary, now that rich
merchants can easily pick them up at auctions and shops.
He finally decided to bind his walls, like books, with coarse-grained
morocco, with Cape skin, polished by strong steel plates under a
When the wainscoting was finished, he had the moulding and high
plinths painted in indigo, a lacquered indigo like that which
coachmakers employ for carriage panels. The ceiling, slightly rounded,
was also lined with morocco. In the center was a wide opening
resembling an immense bull's eye encased in orange skin--a circle of
the firmament worked out on a background of king blue silk on which
were woven silver seraphim with out-stretched wings. This material had
long before been embroidered by the Cologne guild of weavers for an
The setting was complete. At night the room subsided into a restful,
soothing harmony. The wainscoting preserved its blue which seemed
sustained and warmed by the orange. And the orange remained pure,
strengthened and fanned as it was by the insistent breath of the
Des Esseintes was not deeply concerned about the furniture itself. The
only luxuries in the room were books and rare flowers. He limited
himself to these things, intending later on to hang a few drawings or
paintings on the panels which remained bare; to place shelves and book
racks of ebony around the walls; to spread the pelts of wild beasts
and the skins of blue fox on the floor; to install, near a massive
fifteenth century counting-table, deep armchairs and an old chapel
reading-desk of forged iron, one of those old lecterns on which the
deacon formerly placed the antiphonary and which now supported one of
the heavy folios of Du Cange's _Glossarium mediae et infimae
The windows whose blue fissured panes, stippled with fragments of
gold-edged bottles, intercepted the view of the country and only
permitted a faint light to enter, were draped with curtains cut from
old stoles of dark and reddish gold neutralized by an almost dead
russet woven in the pattern.
The mantel shelf was sumptuously draped with the remnant of a
Florentine dalmatica. Between two gilded copper monstrances of
Byzantine style, originally brought from the old Abbaye-au-Bois de
Bievre, stood a marvelous church canon divided into three separate
compartments delicately wrought like lace work. It contained, under
its glass frame, three works of Baudelaire copied on real vellum, with
wonderful missal letters and splendid coloring: to the right and left,
the sonnets bearing the titles of _La Mort des Amants_ and _L'Ennemi_;
in the center, the prose poem entitled, _Anywhere Out of the
World--n'importe ou, hors du monde_.
After selling his effects, Des Esseintes retained the two old
domestics who had tended his mother and filled the offices of steward
and house porter at the Chateau de Lourps, which had remained deserted
and uninhabited until its disposal.
These servants he brought to Fontenay. They were accustomed to the
regular life of hospital attendants hourly serving the patients their
stipulated food and drink, to the rigid silence of cloistral monks who
live behind barred doors and windows, having no communication with the
The man was assigned the task of keeping the house in order and of
procuring provisions, the woman that of preparing the food. He
surrendered the second story to them, forced them to wear heavy felt
coverings over their shoes, put sound mufflers along the well-oiled
doors and covered their floor with heavy rugs so that he would never
hear their footsteps overhead.
He devised an elaborate signal code of bells whereby his wants were
made known. He pointed out the exact spot on his bureau where they
were to place the account book each month while he slept. In short,
matters were arranged in such wise that he would not be obliged to see
or to converse with them very often.
Nevertheless, since the woman had occasion to walk past the house so
as to reach the woodshed, he wished to make sure that her shadow, as
she passed his windows, would not offend him. He had designed for her
a costume of Flemish silk with a white bonnet and large, black,
lowered hood, such as is still worn by the nuns of Ghent. The shadow
of this headdress, in the twilight, gave him the sensation of being in
a cloister, brought back memories of silent, holy villages, dead
quarters enclosed and buried in some quiet corner of a bustling town.
The hours of eating were also regulated. His instructions in this
regard were short and explicit, for the weakened state of his stomach
no longer permitted him to absorb heavy or varied foods.
In winter, at five o'clock in the afternoon, when the day was drawing
to a close, he breakfasted on two boiled eggs, toast and tea. At
eleven o'clock he dined. During the night he drank coffee, and
sometimes tea and wine, and at five o'clock in the morning, before
retiring, he supped again lightly.
His meals, which were planned and ordered once for all at the
beginning of each season, were served him on a table in the middle of
a small room separated from his study by a padded corridor,
hermetically sealed so as to permit neither sound nor odor to filter
into either of the two rooms it joined.
With its vaulted ceiling fitted with beams in a half circle, its
bulkheads and floor of pine, and the little window in the wainscoting
that looked like a porthole, the dining room resembled the cabin of a
Like those Japanese boxes which fit into each other, this room was
inserted in a larger apartment--the real dining room constructed by
It was pierced by two windows. One of them was invisible, hidden by a
partition which could, however, be lowered by a spring so as to permit
fresh air to circulate around this pinewood box and to penetrate into
it. The other was visible, placed directly opposite the porthole built
in the wainscoting, but it was blocked up. For a long aquarium
occupied the entire space between the porthole and the genuine window
placed in the outer wall. Thus the light, in order to brighten the
room, traversed the window, whose panes had been replaced by a plate
glass, the water, and, lastly, the window of the porthole.
In autumn, at sunset, when the steam rose from the samovar on the
table, the water of the aquarium, wan and glassy all during the
morning, reddened like blazing gleams of embers and lapped restlessly
against the light-colored wood.
Sometimes, when it chanced that Des Esseintes was awake in the
afternoon, he operated the stops of the pipes and conduits which
emptied the aquarium, replacing it with pure water. Into this, he
poured drops of colored liquids that made it green or brackish,
opaline or silvery--tones similar to those of rivers which reflect the
color of the sky, the intensity of the sun, the menace of rain--which
reflect, in a word, the state of the season and atmosphere.
When he did this, he imagined himself on a brig, between decks, and
curiously he contemplated the marvelous, mechanical fish, wound like
clocks, which passed before the porthole or clung to the artificial
sea-weed. While he inhaled the odor of tar, introduced into the room
shortly before his arrival, he examined colored engravings, hung on
the walls, which represented, just as at Lloyd's office and the
steamship agencies, steamers bound for Valparaiso and La Platte, and
looked at framed pictures on which were inscribed the itineraries of
the Royal Mail Steam Packet, the Lopez and the Valery Companies, the
freight and port calls of the Atlantic mail boats.
If he tired of consulting these guides, he could rest his eyes by
gazing at the chronometers and sea compasses, the sextants, field
glasses and cards strewn on a table on which stood a single volume,
bound in sealskin. The book was "The Adventures of Arthur Gordon Pym",
specially printed for him on laid paper, each sheet carefully
selected, with a sea-gull watermark.
Or, he could look at fishing rods, tan-colored nets, rolls of russet
sail, a tiny, black-painted cork anchor--all thrown in a heap near the
door communicating with the kitchen by a passage furnished with
cappadine silk which reabsorbed, just as in the corridor which
connected the dining room with his study, every odor and sound.
Thus, without stirring, he enjoyed the rapid motions of a long sea
voyage. The pleasure of travel, which only exists as a matter of fact
in retrospect and seldom in the present, at the instant when it is
being experienced, he could fully relish at his ease, without the
necessity of fatigue or confusion, here in this cabin whose studied
disorder, whose transitory appearance and whose seemingly temporary
furnishings corresponded so well with the briefness of the time he
spent there on his meals, and contrasted so perfectly with his study,
a well-arranged, well-furnished room where everything betokened a
retired, orderly existence.
Movement, after all, seemed futile to him. He felt that imagination
could easily be substituted for the vulgar realities of things. It was
possible, in his opinion, to gratify the most extravagant, absurd
desires by a subtle subterfuge, by a slight modification of the object
of one's wishes. Every epicure nowadays enjoys, in restaurants
celebrated for the excellence of their cellars, wines of capital taste
manufactured from inferior brands treated by Pasteur's method. For
they have the same aroma, the same color, the same bouquet as the rare
wines of which they are an imitation, and consequently the pleasure
experienced in sipping them is identical. The originals, moreover, are
usually unprocurable, for love or money.
Transposing this insidious deviation, this adroit deceit into the
realm of the intellect, there was not the shadow of a doubt that
fanciful delights resembling the true in every detail, could be
enjoyed. One could revel, for instance, in long explorations while
near one's own fireside, stimulating the restive or sluggish mind, if
need be, by reading some suggestive narrative of travel in distant
lands. One could enjoy the beneficent results of a sea bath, too, even
in Paris. All that is necessary is to visit the Vigier baths situated
in a boat on the Seine, far from the shore.
There, the illusion of the sea is undeniable, imperious, positive. It
is achieved by salting the water of the bath; by mixing, according to
the Codex formula, sulphate of soda, hydrochlorate of magnesia and
lime; by extracting from a box, carefully closed by means of a screw,
a ball of thread or a very small piece of cable which had been
specially procured from one of those great rope-making establishments
whose vast warehouses and basements are heavy with odors of the sea
and the port; by inhaling these perfumes held by the ball or the cable
end; by consulting an exact photograph of the casino; by eagerly
reading the Joanne guide describing the beauties of the seashore where
one would wish to be; by being rocked on the waves, made by the eddy
of fly boats lapping against the pontoon of baths; by listening to the
plaint of the wind under the arches, or to the hollow murmur of the
omnibuses passing above on the Port Royal, two steps away.
The secret lies in knowing how to proceed, how to concentrate deeply
enough to produce the hallucination and succeed in substituting the
dream reality for the reality itself.
Artifice, besides, seemed to Des Esseintes the final distinctive mark
of man's genius.
Nature had had her day, as he put it. By the disgusting sameness of
her landscapes and skies, she had once for all wearied the considerate
patience of aesthetes. Really, what dullness! the dullness of the
specialist confined to his narrow work. What manners! the manners of
the tradesman offering one particular ware to the exclusion of all
others. What a monotonous storehouse of fields and trees! What a banal
agency of mountains and seas!
There is not one of her inventions, no matter how subtle or imposing
it may be, which human genius cannot create; no Fontainebleau forest,
no moonlight which a scenic setting flooded with electricity cannot
produce; no waterfall which hydraulics cannot imitate to perfection;
no rock which pasteboard cannot be made to resemble; no flower which
taffetas and delicately painted papers cannot simulate.
There can be no doubt about it: this eternal, driveling, old woman is
no longer admired by true artists, and the moment has come to replace
her by artifice.
Closely observe that work of hers which is considered the most
exquisite, that creation of hers whose beauty is everywhere conceded
the most perfect and original--woman. Has not man made, for his own
use, an animated and artificial being which easily equals woman, from
the point of view of plastic beauty? Is there a woman, whose form is
more dazzling, more splendid than the two locomotives that pass over
the Northern Railroad lines?
One, the Crampton, is an adorable, shrill-voiced blonde, a trim,
gilded blonde, with a large, fragile body imprisoned in a glittering
corset of copper, and having the long, sinewy lines of a cat. Her
extraordinary grace is frightening, as, with the sweat of her hot
sides rising upwards and her steel muscles stiffening, she puts in
motion the immense rose-window of her fine wheels and darts forward,
mettlesome, along rapids and floods.
The other, the Engerth, is a nobly proportioned dusky brunette
emitting raucous, muffled cries. Her heavy loins are strangled in a
cast-iron breast-plate. A monstrous beast with a disheveled mane of
black smoke and with six low, coupled wheels! What irresistible power
she has when, causing the earth to tremble, she slowly and heavily
drags the unwieldy queue of her merchandise!
Unquestionably, there is not one among the frail blondes and majestic
brunettes of the flesh that can vie with their delicate grace and
Such were Des Esseintes' reflections when the breeze brought him the
faint whistle of the toy railroad winding playfully, like a spinning
top, between Paris and Sceaux. His house was situated at a twenty
minutes' walk from the Fontenay station, but the height on which it
was perched, its isolation, made it immune to the clatter of the noisy
rabble which the vicinity of a railway station invariably attracts on
As for the village itself, he hardly knew it. One night he had gazed
through his window at the silent landscape which slowly unfolded, as
it dipped to the foot of a slope, on whose summit the batteries of the
Verrieres woods were trained.
In the darkness, to left and right, these masses, dim and confused,
rose tier on tier, dominated far off by other batteries and forts
whose high embankments seemed, in the moonlight, bathed in silver
against the sombre sky.
Where the plain did not fall under the shadow of the hills, it seemed
powdered with starch and smeared with white cold cream. In the warm
air that fanned the faded grasses and exhaled a spicy perfume, the
trees, chalky white under the moon, shook their pale leaves, and
seemed to divide their trunks, whose shadows formed bars of black on
the plaster-like ground where pebbles scintillated like glittering
Because of its enameled look and its artificial air, the landscape did
not displease Des Esseintes. But since that afternoon spent at
Fontenay in search of a house, he had never ventured along its roads
in daylight. The verdure of this region inspired him with no interest
whatever, for it did not have the delicate and doleful charm of the
sickly and pathetic vegetation which forces its way painfully through
the rubbish heaps of the mounds which had once served as the ramparts
of Paris. That day, in the village, he had perceived corpulent,
bewhiskered _bourgeois_ citizens and moustached uniformed men with
heads of magistrates and soldiers, which they held as stiffly as
monstrances in churches. And ever since that encounter, his
detestation of the human face had been augmented.
During the last month of his stay in Paris, when he was weary of
everything, afflicted with hypochondria, the prey of melancholia, when
his nerves had become so sensitive that the sight of an unpleasant
object or person impressed itself deeply on his brain--so deeply that
several days were required before the impression could be effaced--the
touch of a human body brushing against him in the street had been an
The very sight of certain faces made him suffer. He considered the
crabbed expressions of some, insulting. He felt a desire to slap the
fellow who walked, eyes closed, with such a learned air; the one who
minced along, smiling at his image in the window panes; and the one
who seemed stimulated by a whole world of thought while devouring,
with contracted brow, the tedious contents of a newspaper.
Such an inveterate stupidity, such a scorn for literature and art,
such a hatred for all the ideas he worshipped, were implanted and
anchored in these merchant minds, exclusively preoccupied with the
business of swindling and money-making, and accessible only to ideas
of politics--that base distraction of mediocrities--that he returned
enraged to his home and locked himself in with his books.
He hated the new generation with all the energy in him. They were
frightful clodhoppers who seemed to find it necessary to talk and
laugh boisterously in restaurants and cafes. They jostled you on
sidewalks without begging pardon. They pushed the wheels of their
perambulators against your legs, without even apologizing.
A portion of the shelves which lined the walls of his orange and blue
study was devoted exclusively to those Latin works assigned to the
generic period of "The Decadence" by those whose minds have absorbed
the deplorable teachings of the Sorbonne.
The Latin written in that era which professors still persist in
calling the Great Age, hardly stimulated Des Esseintes. With its
carefully premeditated style, its sameness, its stripping of supple
syntax, its poverty of color and nuance, this language, pruned of all
the rugged and often rich expressions of the preceding ages, was
confined to the enunciation of the majestic banalities, the empty
commonplaces tiresomely reiterated by the rhetoricians and poets; but
it betrayed such a lack of curiosity and such a humdrum tediousness,
such a drabness, feebleness and jaded solemnity that to find its
equal, it was necessary, in linguistic studies, to go to the French
style of the period of Louis XIV.
The gentle Vergil, whom instructors call the Mantuan swan, perhaps
because he was not born in that city, he considered one of the most
terrible pedants ever produced by antiquity. Des Esseintes was
exasperated by his immaculate and bedizened shepherds, his Orpheus
whom he compares to a weeping nightingale, his Aristaeus who simpers
about bees, his Aeneas, that weak-willed, irresolute person who walks
with wooden gestures through the length of the poem. Des Esseintes
would gladly have accepted the tedious nonsense which those
marionettes exchange with each other off-stage; or even the poet's
impudent borrowings from Homer, Theocritus, Ennius and Lucretius; the
plain theft, revealed to us by Macrobius, of the second song of the
_Aeneid_, copied almost word for word from one of Pisander's poems; in
fine, all the unutterable emptiness of this heap of verses. The thing
he could not forgive, however, and which infuriated him most, was the
workmanship of the hexameters, beating like empty tin cans and
extending their syllabic quantities measured according to the
unchanging rule of a pedantic and dull prosody. He disliked the
texture of those stiff verses, in their official garb, their abject
reverence for grammar, their mechanical division by imperturbable
caesuras, always plugged at the end in the same way by the impact of a
dactyl against a spondee.
Borrowed from the perfected forge of Catullus, this unvarying
versification, lacking imagination, lacking pity, padded with useless
words and refuse, with pegs of identical and anticipated assonances,
this ceaseless wretchedness of Homeric epithet which designates
nothing whatever and permits nothing to be seen, all this impoverished
vocabulary of muffled, lifeless tones bored him beyond measure.
It is no more than just to add that, if his admiration for Vergil was
quite restrained, and his attraction for Ovid's lucid outpourings even
more circumspect, there was no limit to his disgust at the elephantine
graces of Horace, at the prattle of this hopeless lout who smirkingly
utters the broad, crude jests of an old clown.
Neither was he pleased, in prose, with the verbosities, the redundant
metaphors, the ludicrous digressions of Cicero. There was nothing to
beguile him in the boasting of his apostrophes, in the flow of his
patriotic nonsense, in the emphasis of his harangues, in the
ponderousness of his style, fleshy but ropy and lacking in marrow and
bone, in the insupportable dross of his long adverbs with which he
introduces phrases, in the unalterable formula of his adipose periods
badly sewed together with the thread of conjunctions and, finally, in
his wearisome habits of tautology. Nor was his enthusiasm wakened for
Caesar, celebrated for his laconic style. Here, on the contrary, was
disclosed a surprising aridity, a sterility of recollection, an
incredibly undue constipation.
He found pasture neither among them nor among those writers who are
peculiarly the delight of the spuriously literate: Sallust, who is
less colorless than the others; sentimental and pompous Titus Livius;
turgid and lurid Seneca; watery and larval Suetonius; Tacitus who, in
his studied conciseness, is the keenest, most wiry and muscular of
them all. In poetry, he was untouched by Juvenal, despite some
roughshod verses, and by Persius, despite his mysterious insinuations.
In neglecting Tibullus and Propertius, Quintilian and the Plinies,
Statius, Martial, even Terence and Plautus whose jargon full of
neologisms, compound words and diminutives, could please him, but
whose low comedy and gross humor he loathed, Des Esseintes only began
to be interested in the Latin language with Lucan. Here it was
liberated, already more expressive and less dull. This careful armor,
these verses plated with enamel and studded with jewels, captivated
him, but the exclusive preoccupation with form, the sonorities of
tone, the clangor of metals, did not entirely conceal from him the
emptiness of the thought, the turgidity of those blisters which emboss
the skin of the _Pharsale_.
Petronius was the author whom he truly loved and who caused him
forever to abandon the sonorous ingenuities of Lucan, for he was a
keen observer, a delicate analyst, a marvelous painter. Tranquilly,
without prejudice or hate, he described Rome's daily life, recounting
the customs of his epoch in the sprightly little chapters of the
Observing the facts of life, stating them in clear, definite form, he
revealed the petty existence of the people, their happenings, their
bestialities, their passions.
One glimpses the inspector of furnished lodgings who has inquired
after the newly arrived travellers; bawdy houses where men prowl
around nude women, while through the half-open doors of the rooms
couples can be seen in dalliance; the society of the time, in villas
of an insolent luxury, a revel of richness and magnificence, or in the
poor quarters with their rumpled, bug-ridden folding-beds; impure
sharpers, like Ascylte and Eumolpe in search of a rich windfall; old
incubi with tucked-up dresses and plastered cheeks of white lead and
red acacia; plump, curled, depraved little girls of sixteen; women who
are the prey of hysterical attacks; hunters of heritages offering
their sons and daughters to debauched testators. All pass across the
pages. They debate in the streets, rub elbows in the baths, beat each
other unmercifully as in a pantomime.
And all this recounted in a style of strange freshness and precise
color, drawing from all dialects, borrowing expressions from all the
languages that were drifting into Rome, extending all the limits,
removing all the handicaps of the so-called Great Age. He made each
person speak his own idiom: the uneducated freedmen, the vulgar Latin
argot of the streets; the strangers, their barbarous patois, the
corrupt speech of the African, Syrian and Greek; imbecile pedants,
like the Agamemnon of the book, a rhetoric of artificial words. These
people are depicted with swift strokes, wallowing around tables,
exchanging stupid, drunken speech, uttering senile maxims and inept
This realistic novel, this slice of Roman life, without any
preoccupation, whatever one may say of it, with reform and satire,
without the need of any studied end, or of morality; this story
without intrigue or action, portraying the adventures of evil persons,
analyzing with a calm finesse the joys and sorrows of these lovers and
couples, depicting life in a splendidly wrought language without
surrendering himself to any commentary, without approving or cursing
the acts and thoughts of his characters, the vices of a decrepit
civilization, of an empire that cracks, struck Des Esseintes. In the
keenness of the observation, in the firmness of the method, he found
singular comparisons, curious analogies with the few modern French
novels he could endure.
Certainly, he bitterly regretted the _Eustion_ and the _Albutiae_,
those two works by Petronius mentioned by Planciade Fulgence which are
forever lost. But the bibliophile in him consoled the student, when he
touched with worshipful hands the superb edition of the _Satyricon_
which he possessed, the octavo bearing the date 1585 and the name of
J. Dousa of Leyden.
Leaving Petronius, his Latin collection entered into the second
century of the Christian era, passed over Fronto, the declaimer, with
his antiquated terms; skipped the _Attic Nights_ of Aulus Gellius, his
disciple and friend,--a clever, ferreting mind, but a writer entangled
in a glutinous vase; and halted at Apuleius, of whose works he owned
the first edition printed at Rome in 1469.
This African delighted him. The Latin language was at its richest in
the _Metamorphoses_; it contained ooze and rubbish-strewn water
rushing from all the provinces, and the refuse mingled and was
confused in a bizarre, exotic, almost new color. Mannerisms, new
details of Latin society found themselves shaped into neologisms
specially created for the needs of conversation, in a Roman corner of
Africa. He was amused by the southern exuberance and joviality of a
doubtlessly corpulent man. He seemed a salacious, gay crony compared
with the Christian apologists who lived in the same century--the
soporific Minucius Felix, a pseudo-classicist, pouring forth the still
thick emulsions of Cicero into his _Octavius_; nay, even
Tertullian--whom he perhaps preserved for his Aldine edition, more
than for the work itself.
Although he was sufficiently versed in theology, the disputes of the
Montanists against the Catholic Church, the polemics against the
gnostics, left him cold. Despite Tertullian's curious, concise style
full of ambiguous terms, resting on participles, clashing with
oppositions, bristling with puns and witticisms, dappled with vocables
culled from the juridical science and the language of the Fathers of
the Greek Church, he now hardly ever opened the _Apologetica_ and the
_Treatise on Patience_. At the most, he read several pages of _De
culta feminarum_, where Tertullian counsels women not to bedeck
themselves with jewels and precious stuffs, forbidding them the use of
cosmetics, because these attempt to correct and improve nature.
These ideas, diametrically opposed to his own, made him smile. Then
the role played by Tertullian, in his Carthage bishopric, seemed to
him suggestive in pleasant reveries. More even than his works did the
man attract him.
He had, in fact, lived in stormy times, agitated by frightful
disorders, under Caracalla, under Macrinus, under the astonishing High
Priest of Emesa, Elagabalus, and he tranquilly prepared his sermons,
his dogmatic writings, his pleadings, his homelies, while the Roman
Empire shook on its foundations, while the follies of Asia, while the
ordures of paganism were full to the brim. With the utmost sang-froid,
he recommended carnal abstinence, frugality in food, sobriety in
dress, while, walking in silver powder and golden sand, a tiara on his
head, his garb figured with precious stones, Elagabalus worked, amid
his eunuchs, at womanish labor, calling himself the Empress and
changing, every night, his Emperor, whom he preferably chose among
barbers, scullions and circus drivers.
This antithesis delighted him. Then the Latin language, arrived at its
supreme maturity under Petronius, commenced to decay; the Christian
literature replaced it, bringing new words with new ideas, unemployed
constructions, strange verbs, adjectives with subtle meanings,
abstract words until then rare in the Roman language and whose usage
Tertullian had been one of the first to adopt.
But there was no attraction in this dissolution, continued after
Tertullian's death by his pupil, Saint Cyprian, by Arnobius and by
Lactantius. There was something lacking; it made clumsy returns to
Ciceronian magniloquence, but had not yet acquired that special flavor
which in the fourth century, and particularly during the centuries
following, the odor of Christianity would give the pagan tongue,
decomposed like old venison, crumbling at the same time that the old
world civilization collapsed, and the Empires, putrefied by the sanies
of the centuries, succumbed to the thrusts of the barbarians.
Only one Christian poet, Commodianus, represented the third century in
his library. The _Carmen apologeticum_, written in 259, is a
collection of instructions, twisted into acrostics, in popular
hexameters, with caesuras introduced according to the heroic verse
style, composed without regard to quantity or hiatus and often
accompanied by such rhymes as the Church Latin would later supply in
These sombre, tortuous, gamy verses, crammed with terms of ordinary
speech, with words diverted from their primitive meaning, claimed and
interested him even more than the soft and already green style of the
historians, Ammianus Marcellinus and Aurelius Victorus, Symmachus the
letter writer, and Macrobius the grammarian and compiler. Them he even
preferred to the genuinely scanned lines, the spotted and superb
language of Claudian, Rutilius and Ausonius.
They were then the masters of art. They filled the dying Empire with
their cries; the Christian Ausonius with his _Centon Nuptial_, and his
exuberant, embellished _Mosella_; Rutilius, with his hymns to the
glory of Rome, his anathemas against the Jews and the monks, his
journey from Italy into Gaul and the impressions recorded along the
way, the intervals of landscape reflected in the water, the mirage of
vapors and the movement of mists that enveloped the mountains.
Claudian, a sort of avatar of Lucan, dominates the fourth century with
the terrible clarion of his verses: a poet forging a loud and sonorous
hexameter, striking the epithet with a sharp blow amid sheaves of
sparks, achieving a certain grandeur which fills his work with a
powerful breath. In the Occidental Empire tottering more and more in
the perpetual menace of the Barbarians now pressing in hordes at the
Empire's yielding gates, he revives antiquity, sings of the abduction
of Proserpine, lays on his vibrant colors and passes with all his
torches alight, into the obscurity that was then engulfing his world.
Paganism again lives in his verse, sounding its last fanfare, lifting
its last great poet above the Christianity which was soon entirely to
submerge the language, and which would forever be sole master of art.
The new Christian spirit arose with Paulinus, disciple of Ausonius;
Juvencus, who paraphrases the gospels in verse; Victorinus, author of
the _Maccabees_; Sanctus Burdigalensis who, in an eclogue imitated
from Vergil, makes his shepherds Egon and Buculus lament the maladies
of their flock; and all the saints: Hilaire of Poitiers, defender of
the Nicean faith, the Athanasius of the Occident, as he has been
called; Ambrosius, author of the indigestible homelies, the wearisome
Christian Cicero; Damasus, maker of lapidary epigrams; Jerome,
translator of the Vulgate, and his adversary Vigilantius, who attacks
the cult of saints and the abuse of miracles and fastings, and already
preaches, with arguments which future ages were to repeat, against the
monastic vows and celibacy of the priests.
Finally, in the fifth century came Augustine, bishop of Hippo. Des
Esseintes knew him only too well, for he was the Church's most reputed
writer, founder of Christian orthodoxy, considered an oracle and
sovereign master by Catholics. He no longer opened the pages of this
holy man's works, although he had sung his disgust of the earth in the
_Confessions_, and although his lamenting piety had essayed, in the
_City of God_, to mitigate the frightful distress of the times by
sedative promises of a rosier future. When Des Esseintes had studied
theology, he was already sick and weary of the old monk's preachings
and jeremiads, his theories on predestination and grace, his combats
against the schisms.
He preferred to thumb the _Psychomachia_ of Prudentius, that first
type of the allegorical poem which was later, in the Middle Ages, to
be used continually, and the works of Sidonius Apollinaris whose
correspondence interlarded with flashes of wit, pungencies, archaisms
and enigmas, allured him. He willingly re-read the panegyrics in which
this bishop invokes pagan deities in substantiation of his
vainglorious eulogies; and, in spite of everything, he confessed a
weakness for the affectations of these verses, fabricated, as it were,
by an ingenious mechanician who operates his machine, oils his wheels
and invents intricate and useless parts.
After Sidonius, he sought Merobaudes, the panegyrist; Sedulius, author
of the rhymed poems and abecedarian hymns, certain passages of which
the Church has appropriated for its services; Marius Victorius, whose
gloomy treatise on the _Pervesity of the Times_ is illumed, here and
there, with verses that gleam with phosphorescence; Paulinus of Pella,
poet of the shivering _Eucharisticon_; and Orientius, bishop of Auch,
who, in the distichs of his _Monitories_, inveighs against the
licentiousness of women whose faces, he claims, corrupt the people.
The interest which Des Esseintes felt for the Latin language did not
pause at this period which found it drooping, thoroughly putrid,
losing its members and dropping its pus, and barely preserving through
all the corruption of its body, those still firm elements which the
Christians detached to marinate in the brine of their new language.
The second half of the fifth century had arrived, the horrible epoch
when frightful motions convulsed the earth. The Barbarians sacked
Gaul. Paralyzed Rome, pillaged by the Visigoths, felt its life grow
feeble, perceived its extremities, the occident and the orient, writhe
in blood and grow more exhausted from day to day.
In this general dissolution, in the successive assassination of the
Caesars, in the turmoil of carnage from one end of Europe to another,
there resounded a terrible shout of triumph, stifling all clamors,
silencing all voices. On the banks of the Danube, thousands of men
astride on small horses, clad in rat-skin coats, monstrous Tartars
with enormous heads, flat noses, chins gullied with scars and gashes,
and jaundiced faces bare of hair, rushed at full speed to envelop the
territories of the Lower Empire like a whirlwind.
Everything disappeared in the dust of their gallopings, in the smoke
of the conflagrations. Darkness fell, and the amazed people trembled,
as they heard the fearful tornado which passed with thunder crashes.
The hordes of Huns razed Europe, rushed toward Gaul, overran the
plains of Chalons where Aetius pillaged it in an awful charge. The
plains, gorged with blood, foamed like a purple sea. Two hundred
thousand corpses barred the way, broke the movement of this avalanche
which, swerving, fell with mighty thunderclaps, against Italy whose
exterminated towns flamed like burning bricks.
The Occidental Empire crumbled beneath the shock; the moribund life
which it was pursuing to imbecility and foulness, was extinguished.
For another reason, the end of the universe seemed near; such cities
as had been forgotten by Attila were decimated by famine and plague.
The Latin language in its turn, seemed to sink under the world's
Years hastened on. The Barbarian idioms began to be modulated, to
leave their vein-stones and form real languages. Latin, saved in the
debacle by the cloisters, was confined in its usage to the convents
Here and there some poets gleamed, dully and coldly: the African
Dracontius with his _Hexameron_, Claudius Memertius, with his
liturgical poetry; Avitus of Vienne; then, the biographers like
Ennodius, who narrates the prodigies of that perspicacious and
venerated diplomat, Saint Epiphanius, the upright and vigilant pastor;
or like Eugippus, who tells of the life of Saint Severin, that
mysterious hermit and humble ascetic who appeared like an angel of
grace to the distressed people, mad with suffering and fear; writers
like Veranius of Gevaudan who prepared a little treatise on
continence; like Aurelianus and Ferreolus who compiled the
ecclesiastical canons; historians like Rotherius, famous for a lost
history of the Huns.
Des Esseintes' library did not contain many works of the centuries
immediately succeeding. Notwithstanding this deficiency, the sixth
century was represented by Fortunatus, bishop of Poitiers, whose hymns
and _Vexila regis_, carved out of the old carrion of the Latin
language and spiced with the aromatics of the Church, haunted him on
certain days; by Boethius, Gregory of Tours, and Jornandez. In the
seventh and eighth centuries since, in addition to the low Latin of
the Chroniclers, the Fredegaires and Paul Diacres, and the poems
contained in the Bangor antiphonary which he sometimes read for the
alphabetical and mono-rhymed hymn sung in honor of Saint Comgill, the
literature limited itself almost exclusively to biographies of saints,
to the legend of Saint Columban, written by the monk, Jonas, and to
that of the blessed Cuthbert, written by the Venerable Bede from the
notes of an anonymous monk of Lindisfarn, he contented himself with
glancing over, in his moments of tedium, the works of these
hagiographers and in again reading several extracts from the lives of
Saint Rusticula and Saint Radegonda, related, the one by Defensorius,
the other by the modest and ingenious Baudonivia, a nun of Poitiers.
But the singular works of Latin and Anglo-Saxon literature allured him
still further. They included the whole series of riddles by Adhelme,
Tatwine and Eusebius, who were descendants of Symphosius, and
especially the enigmas composed by Saint Boniface, in acrostic
strophes whose solution could be found in the initial letters of the
His interest diminished with the end of those two centuries. Hardly
pleased with the cumbersome mass of Carlovingian Latinists, the
Alcuins and the Eginhards, he contented himself, as a specimen of the
language of the ninth century, with the chronicles of Saint Gall,
Freculfe and Reginon; with the poem of the siege of Paris written by
Abbo le Courbe; with the didactic _Hortulus_, of the Benedictine
Walafrid Strabo, whose chapter consecrated to the glory of the gourd
as a symbol of fruitfulness, enlivened him; with the poem in which
Ermold the Dark, celebrating the exploits of Louis the Debonair, a
poem written in regular hexameters, in an austere, almost forbidding
style and in a Latin of iron dipped in monastic waters with straws of
sentiment, here and there, in the unpliant metal; with the _De viribus
herbarum_, the poem of Macer Floridus, who particularly delighted him
because of his poetic recipes and the very strange virtues which he
ascribes to certain plants and flowers; to the aristolochia, for
example, which, mixed with the flesh of a cow and placed on the lower
part of a pregnant woman's abdomen, insures the birth of a male child;
or to the borage which, when brewed into an infusion in a dining room,
diverts guests; or to the peony whose powdered roots cure epilepsy; or
to the fennel which, if placed on a woman's breasts, clears her water
and stimulates the indolence of her periods.
Apart from several special, unclassified volumes, modern or dateless,
certain works on the Cabbala, medicine and botany, certain odd tomes
containing undiscoverable Christian poetry, and the anthology of the
minor Latin poets of Wernsdorf; apart from _Meursius_, the manual of
classical erotology of Forberg, and the diaconals used by confessors,
which he dusted at rare intervals, his Latin library ended at the
beginning of the tenth century.
And, in fact, the curiosity, the complicated naivete of the Christian
language had also foundered. The balderdash of philosophers and
scholars, the logomachy of the Middle Ages, thenceforth held absolute
sway. The sooty mass of chronicles and historical books and
cartularies accumulated, and the stammering grace, the often exquisite
awkwardness of the monks, placing the poetic remains of antiquity in a
ragout, were dead. The fabrications of verbs and purified essences, of
substantives breathing of incense, of bizarre adjectives, coarsely
carved from gold, with the barbarous and charming taste of Gothic
jewels, were destroyed. The old editions, beloved by Des Esseintes,
here ended; and with a formidable leap of centuries, the books on his
shelves went straight to the French language of the present century.
The afternoon was drawing to its close when a carriage halted in front
of the Fontenay house. Since Des Esseintes received no visitors, and
since the postman never even ventured into these uninhabited parts,
having no occasion to deliver any papers, magazines or letters, the
servants hesitated before opening the door. Then, as the bell was rung
furiously again, they peered through the peep-hole cut into the wall,
and perceived a man, concealed, from neck to waist, behind an immense
They informed their master, who was breakfasting.
"Ask him in," he said, for he recalled having given his address to a
lapidary for the delivery of a purchase.
The man bowed and deposited the buckler on the pinewood floor of the
dining room. It oscillated and wavered, revealing the serpentine head
of a tortoise which, suddenly terrified, retreated into its shell.
This tortoise was a fancy which had seized Des Esseintes some time
before his departure from Paris. Examining an Oriental rug, one day,
in reflected light, and following the silver gleams which fell on its
web of plum violet and alladin yellow, it suddenly occurred to him how
much it would be improved if he could place on it some object whose
deep color might enhance the vividness of its tints.
Possessed by this idea, he had been strolling aimlessly along the
streets, when suddenly he found himself gazing at the very object of
his wishes. There, in a shop window on the Palais Royal, lay a huge
tortoise in a large basin. He had purchased it. Then he had sat a long
time, with eyes half-shut, studying the effect.
Decidedly, the Ethiopic black, the harsh Sienna tone of this shell
dulled the rug's reflections without adding to it. The dominant silver
gleams in it barely sparkled, crawling with lack-lustre tones of dead
zinc against the edges of the hard, tarnished shell.
He bit his nails while he studied a method of removing these discords
and reconciling the determined opposition of the tones. He finally
discovered that his first inspiration, which was to animate the fire
of the weave by setting it off against some dark object, was
erroneous. In fact, this rug was too new, too petulant and gaudy. The
colors were not sufficiently subdued. He must reverse the process,
dull the tones, and extinguish them by the contrast of a striking
object, which would eclipse all else and cast a golden light on the
pale silver. Thus stated, the problem was easier to solve. He
therefore decided to glaze the shell of the tortoise with gold.
The tortoise, just returned by the lapidary, shone brilliantly,
softening the tones of the rug and casting on it a gorgeous reflection
which resembled the irradiations from the scales of a barbaric
At first Des Esseintes was enchanted with this effect. Then he
reflected that this gigantic jewel was only in outline, that it would
not really be complete until it had been incrusted with rare stones.
From a Japanese collection he chose a design representing a cluster of
flowers emanating spindle-like, from a slender stalk. Taking it to a
jeweler, he sketched a border to enclose this bouquet in an oval
frame, and informed the amazed lapidary that every petal and every
leaf was to be designed with jewels and mounted on the scales of the
The choice of stones made him pause. The diamond has become
notoriously common since every tradesman has taken to wearing it on
his little finger. The oriental emeralds and rubies are less
vulgarized and cast brilliant, rutilant flames, but they remind one of
the green and red antennae of certain omnibuses which carry signal
lights of these colors. As for topazes, whether sparkling or dim, they
are cheap stones, precious only to women of the middle class who like
to have jewel cases on their dressing-tables. And then, although the
Church has preserved for the amethyst a sacerdotal character which is
at once unctuous and solemn, this stone, too, is abused on the
blood-red ears and veined hands of butchers' wives who love to adorn
themselves inexpensively with real and heavy jewels. Only the
sapphire, among all these stones, has kept its fires undefiled by any
taint of commercialism. Its sparks, crackling in its limpid, cold
depths have in some way protected its shy and proud nobility from
pollution. Unfortunately, its fresh fire does not sparkle in
artificial light: the blue retreats and seems to fall asleep, only
awakening to shine at daybreak.
None of these satisfied Des Esseintes at all. They were too civilized
and familiar. He let trickle through his fingers still more
astonishing and bizarre stones, and finally selected a number of real
and artificial ones which, used together, should produce a fascinating
and disconcerting harmony.
This is how he composed his bouquet of flowers: the leaves were set
with jewels of a pronounced, distinct green; the chrysoberyls of
asparagus green; the chrysolites of leek green; the olivines of olive
green. They hung from branches of almandine and _ouwarovite_ of a
violet red, darting spangles of a hard brilliance like tartar micas
gleaming through forest depths.
For the flowers, separated from the stalk and removed from the bottom
of the sheaf, he used blue cinder. But he formally waived that
oriental turquoise used for brooches and rings which, like the banal
pearl and the odious coral, serves to delight people of no importance.
He chose occidental turquoises exclusively, stones which, properly
speaking, are only a fossil ivory impregnated with coppery substances
whose sea blue is choked, opaque, sulphurous, as though yellowed by
This done, he could now set the petals of his flowers with transparent
stones which had morbid and vitreous sparks, feverish and sharp
He composed them entirely with Ceylon snap-dragons, cymophanes and
These three stones darted mysterious and perverse scintillations,
painfully torn from the frozen depths of their troubled waters.
The snap-dragon of a greenish grey, streaked with concentric veins
which seem to stir and change constantly, according to the
dispositions of light.
The cymophane, whose azure waves float over the milky tint swimming in
The blue chalcedony which kindles with bluish phosphorescent fires
against a dead brown, chocolate background.
The lapidary made a note of the places where the stones were to be
inlaid. "And the border of the shell?" he asked Des Esseintes.
At first he had thought of some opals and hydrophanes; but these
stones, interesting for their hesitating colors, for the evasions of
their flames, are too refractory and faithless; the opal has a quite
rheumatic sensitiveness; the play of its rays alters according to the
humidity, the warmth or cold; as for the hydrophane, it only burns in
water and only consents to kindle its embers when moistened.
He finally decided on minerals whose reflections vary; for the
Compostelle hyacinth, mahogany red; the beryl, glaucous green; the
balas ruby, vinegar rose; the Sudermanian ruby, pale slate. Their
feeble sparklings sufficed to light the darkness of the shell and
preserved the values of the flowering stones which they encircled with
a slender garland of vague fires.
Des Esseintes now watched the tortoise squatting in a corner of the
dining room, shining in the shadow.
He was perfectly happy. His eyes gleamed with pleasure at the
resplendencies of the flaming corrollae against the gold background.
Then, he grew hungry--a thing that rarely if ever happened to him--and
dipped his toast, spread with a special butter, in a cup of tea, a
flawless blend of Siafayoune, Moyoutann and Khansky--yellow teas which
had come from China to Russia by special caravans.
This liquid perfume he drank in those Chinese porcelains called
egg-shell, so light and diaphanous they are. And, as an accompaniment
to these adorable cups, he used a service of solid silver, slightly
gilded; the silver showed faintly under the fatigued layer of gold,
which gave it an aged, quite exhausted and moribund tint.
After he had finished his tea, he returned to his study and had the
servant carry in the tortoise which stubbornly refused to budge.
The snow was falling. By the lamp light, he saw the icy patterns on
the bluish windows, and the hoar-frost, like melted sugar,
scintillating in the stumps of bottles spotted with gold.
A deep silence enveloped the cottage drooping in shadow.
Des Esseintes fell into revery. The fireplace piled with logs gave
forth a smell of burning wood. He opened the window slightly.
Like a high tapestry of black ermine, the sky rose before him, black
flecked with white.
An icy wind swept past, accelerated the crazy flight of the snow, and
reversed the color order.
The heraldic tapestry of heaven returned, became a true ermine, a
white flecked with black, in its turn, by the specks of darkness
dispersed among the flakes.
He closed the window. This abrupt transition from torrid warmth to
cold winter affected him. He crouched near the fire and it occurred to
him that he needed a cordial to revive his flagging spirits.
He went to the dining room where, built in one of the panels, was a
closet containing a number of tiny casks, ranged side by side, and
resting on small stands of sandal wood.
This collection of barrels he called his mouth organ.
A stem could connect all the spigots and control them by a single
movement, so that once attached, he had only to press a button
concealed in the woodwork to turn on all the taps at the same time and
fill the mugs placed underneath.
The organ was now open. The stops labelled flute, horn, celestial
voice, were pulled out, ready to be placed. Des Esseintes sipped here
and there, enjoying the inner symphonies, succeeded in procuring
sensations in his throat analogous to those which music gives to the
Moreover, each liquor corresponded, according to his thinking, to the
sound of some instrument. Dry curacoa, for example, to the clarinet
whose tone is sourish and velvety; _kummel_ to the oboe whose sonorous
notes snuffle; mint and anisette to the flute, at once sugary and
peppery, puling and sweet; while, to complete the orchestra,
_kirschwasser_ has the furious ring of the trumpet; gin and whiskey
burn the palate with their strident crashings of trombones and
cornets; brandy storms with the deafening hubbub of tubas; while the
thunder-claps of the cymbals and the furiously beaten drum roll in the
mouth by means of the _rakis de Chio_.
He also thought that the comparison could be continued, that quartets
of string instruments could play under the palate, with the violin
simulated by old brandy, fumous and fine, piercing and frail; the
tenor violin by rum, louder and more sonorous; the cello by the
lacerating and lingering ratafia, melancholy and caressing; with the
double-bass, full-bodied, solid and dark as the old bitters. If one
wished to form a quintet, one could even add a fifth instrument with
the vibrant taste, the silvery detached and shrill note of dry cumin
imitating the harp.
The comparison was further prolonged. Tone relationships existed in
the music of liquors; to cite but one note, benedictine represents, so
to speak, the minor key of that major key of alcohols which are
designated in commercial scores, under the name of green Chartreuse.
These principles once admitted, he succeeded, after numerous
experiments, in enjoying silent melodies on his tongue, mute funeral
marches, in hearing, in his mouth, solos of mint, duos of ratafia and
He was even able to transfer to his palate real pieces of music,
following the composer step by step, rendering his thought, his
effects, his nuances, by combinations or contrasts of liquors, by
approximative and skilled mixtures.
At other times, he himself composed melodies, executed pastorals with
mild black-currant which evoked, in his throat, the trillings of
nightingales; with the tender chouva cocoa which sang saccharine songs
like "The romance of Estelle" and the "Ah! Shall I tell you, mama," of
But on this evening Des Esseintes was not inclined to listen to this
music. He confined himself to sounding one note on the keyboard of his
organ, by swallowing a little glass of genuine Irish whiskey.
He sank into his easy chair and slowly inhaled this fermented juice of
oats and barley: a pronounced taste of creosote was in his mouth.
Gradually, as he drank, his thought followed the now revived
sensitiveness of his palate, fitted its progress to the flavor of the
whiskey, re-awakened, by a fatal exactitude of odors, memories effaced
This carbolic tartness forcibly recalled to him the same taste he had
had on his tongue in the days when dentists worked on his gums.
Once abandoned on this track, his revery, at first dispersed among all
the dentists he had known, concentrated and converged on one of them
who was more firmly engraved in his memory.
It had happened three years ago. Seized, in the middle of the night,
with an abominable toothache, he put his hand to his cheek, stumbled
against the furniture, pacing up and down the room like a demented
It was a molar which had already been filled; no remedy was possible.
Only a dentist could alleviate the pain. He feverishly waited for the
day, resolved to bear the most atrocious operation provided it would
only ease his sufferings.
Holding a hand to his jaw, he asked himself what should be done. The
dentists who treated him were rich merchants whom one could not see at
any time; one had to make an appointment. He told himself that this
would never do, that he could not endure it. He decided to patronize
the first one he could find, to hasten to a popular tooth-extractor,
one of those iron-fisted men who, if they are ignorant of the useless
art of dressing decaying teeth and of filling holes, know how to pull
the stubbornest stump with an unequalled rapidity. There, the office
is opened early in the morning and one is not required to wait. Seven
o'clock struck at last. He hurried out, and recollecting the name of a
mechanic who called himself a dentist and dwelt in the corner of a
quay, he rushed through the streets, holding his cheek with his hands
repressing the tears.
Arrived in front of the house, recognizable by an immense wooden
signboard where the name of "Gatonax" sprawled in enormous
pumpkin-colored letters, and by two little glass cases where false
teeth were carefully set in rose-colored wax, he gasped for breath. He
perspired profusely. A horrible fear shook him, a trembling crept
under his skin; suddenly a calm ensued, the suffering ceased, the
tooth stopped paining.
He remained, stupefied, on the sidewalk; finally, he stiffened against
the anguish, mounted the dim stairway, running up four steps at a time
to the fourth story. He found himself in front of a door where an
enamel plate repeated, inscribed in sky-blue lettering, the name on
the signboard. He rang the bell and then, terrified by the great red
spittles which he noticed on the steps, he faced about, resolved to
endure his toothache all his life. At that moment an excruciating cry
pierced the partitions, filled the cage of the doorway and glued him
to the spot with horror, at the same time that a door was opened and
an old woman invited him to enter.
His feeling of shame quickly changed to fear. He was ushered into a
dining room. Another door creaked and in entered a terrible grenadier
dressed in a frock-coat and black trousers. Des Esseintes followed him
to another room.
From this instant, his sensations were confused. He vaguely remembered
having sunk into a chair opposite a window, having murmured, as he put
a finger to his tooth: "It has already been filled and I am afraid
nothing more can be done with it."
The man immediately suppressed these explanations by introducing an
enormous index finger into his mouth. Muttering beneath his waxed
fang-like moustaches, he took an instrument from the table.
Then the play began. Clinging to the arms of his seat, Des Esseintes
felt a cold sensation in his cheek, and began to suffer unheard
agonies. Then he beheld stars. He stamped his feet frantically and
bleated like a sheep about to be slaughtered.
A snapping sound was heard, the molar had broken while being
extracted. It seemed that his head was being shattered, that his skull
was being smashed; he lost his senses, howled as loudly as he could,
furiously defending himself from the man who rushed at him anew as if
he wished to implant his whole arm in the depths of his bowels,
brusquely recoiled a step and, lifting the tooth attached to the jaw,
brutally let him fall back into the chair. Breathing heavily, his form
filling the window, he brandished at one end of his forceps, a blue
tooth with blood at one end.
Faint and prostrate, Des Esseintes spat blood into a basin, refused
with a gesture, the tooth which the old woman was about to wrap in a
piece of paper and fled, after paying two francs. Expectorating blood,
in his turn, down the steps, he at length found himself in the street,
joyous, feeling ten years younger, interested in every little
"Phew!" he exclaimed, saddened by the assault of these memories. He
rose to dissipate the horrible spell of this vision and, returning to
reality, began to be concerned with the tortoise.
It did not budge at all and he tapped it. The animal was dead.
Doubtless accustomed to a sedentary existence, to a humble life spent
underneath its poor shell, it had been unable to support the dazzling
luxury imposed on it, the rutilant cope with which it had been
covered, the jewels with which its back had been paved, like a pyx.
With the sharpening of his desire to withdraw from a hated age, he
felt a despotic urge to shun pictures representing humanity striving
in little holes or running to and fro in quest of money.
With his growing indifference to contemporary life he had resolved not
to introduce into his cell any of the ghosts of distastes or regrets,
but had desired to procure subtle and exquisite paintings, steeped in
ancient dreams or antique corruptions, far removed from the manner of
our present day.
For the delight of his spirit and the joy of his eyes, he had desired
a few suggestive creations that cast him into an unknown world,
revealing to him the contours of new conjectures, agitating the
nervous system by the violent deliriums, complicated nightmares,
nonchalant or atrocious chimerae they induced.
Among these were some executed by an artist whose genius allured and
entranced him: Gustave Moreau.
Des Esseintes had acquired his two masterpieces and, at night, used to
sink into revery before one of them--a representation of Salome,
conceived in this fashion:
A throne, resembling the high altar of a cathedral, reared itself
beneath innumerable vaults leaping from heavy Romanesque pillars,
studded with polychromatic bricks, set with mosaics, incrusted with
lapis lazuli and sardonyx, in a palace that, like a basilica, was at
once Mohammedan and Byzantine in design.
In the center of the tabernacle, surmounting an altar approached by
semi-circular steps, sat Herod the Tetrarch, a tiara upon his head,
his legs pressed closely together, his hands resting upon his knees.
His face was the color of yellow parchment; it was furrowed with
wrinkles, ravaged with age. His long beard floated like a white cloud
upon the star-like clusters of jewels constellating the orphrey robe
fitting tightly over his breast.
Around this form, frozen into the immobile, sacerdotal, hieratic pose
of a Hindoo god, burned perfumes wafting aloft clouds of incense which
were perforated, like phosphorescent eyes of beasts, by the fiery rays
of the stones set in the throne. Then the vapor rolled up, diffusing
itself beneath arcades where the blue smoke mingled with the gold
powder of the long sunbeams falling from the domes.
In the perverse odor of the perfumes, in the overheated atmosphere of
the temple, Salome, her left arm outstretched in a gesture of command,
her right arm drawn back and holding a large lotus on a level with her
face, slowly advances on her toes, to the rhythm of a stringed
instrument played by a woman seated on the ground.
Her face is meditative, solemn, almost august, as she commences the
lascivious dance that will awaken the slumbering senses of old Herod.
Diamonds scintillate against her glistening skin. Her bracelets, her
girdles, her rings flash. On her triumphal robe, seamed with pearls,
flowered with silver and laminated with gold, the breastplate of
jewels, each link of which is a precious stone, flashes serpents of
fire against the pallid flesh, delicate as a tea-rose: its jewels like
splendid insects with dazzling elytra, veined with carmine, dotted
with yellow gold, diapered with blue steel, speckled with peacock
With a tense concentration, with the fixed gaze of a somnambulist, she
beholds neither the trembling Tetrarch, nor her mother, the fierce
Herodias who watches her, nor the hermaphrodite, nor the eunuch who
sits, sword in hand, at the foot of the throne--a terrible figure,
veiled to his eyes, whose breasts droop like gourds under his
This conception of Salome, so haunting to artists and poets, had
obsessed Des Esseintes for years. How often had he read in the old
Bible of Pierre Variquet, translated by the theological doctors of the
University of Louvain, the Gospel of Saint Matthew who, in brief and
ingenuous phrases, recounts the beheading of the Baptist! How often
had he fallen into revery, as he read these lines:
But when Herod's birthday was kept, the
daughter of Herodias danced before them, and
Whereupon he promised with an oath to give
her whatsoever she would ask.
And she, being before instructed of her
mother, said: Give me here John Baptist's
head in a charger.
And the king was sorry: nevertheless, for
the oath's sake, and them which sat with him
at meat, he commanded it to be given her.
And he sent, and beheaded John in the prison.
And his head was brought in a charger, and
given to the damsel: and she brought it to
But neither Saint Matthew, nor Saint Mark, nor Saint Luke, nor the
other Evangelists had emphasized the maddening charms and depravities
of the dancer. She remained vague and hidden, mysterious and swooning
in the far-off mist of the centuries, not to be grasped by vulgar and
materialistic minds, accessible only to disordered and volcanic
intellects made visionaries by their neuroticism; rebellious to
painters of the flesh, to Rubens who disguised her as a butcher's wife
of Flanders; a mystery to all the writers who had never succeeded in
portraying the disquieting exaltation of this dancer, the refined
grandeur of this murderess.
In Gustave Moreau's work, conceived independently of the Testament
themes, Des Esseintes as last saw realized the superhuman and exotic
Salome of his dreams. She was no longer the mere performer who wrests
a cry of desire and of passion from an old man by a perverted twisting
of her loins; who destroys the energy and breaks the will of a king by
trembling breasts and quivering belly. She became, in a sense, the
symbolic deity of indestructible lust, the goddess of immortal
Hysteria, of accursed Beauty, distinguished from all others by the
catalepsy which stiffens her flesh and hardens her muscles; the
monstrous Beast, indifferent, irresponsible, insensible, baneful, like
the Helen of antiquity, fatal to all who approach her, all who behold
her, all whom she touches.
Thus understood, she was associated with the theogonies of the Far
East. She no longer sprang from biblical traditions, could no longer
even be assimilated with the living image of Babylon, the royal
Prostitute of the Apocalypse, garbed like her in jewels and purple,
and painted like her; for she was not hurled by a fatidical power, by
a supreme force, into the alluring vileness of debauchery.
The painter, moreover, seems to have wished to affirm his desire of
remaining outside the centuries, scorning to designate the origin,
nation and epoch, by placing his Salome in this extraordinary palace
with its confused and imposing style, in clothing her with sumptuous
and chimerical robes, in crowning her with a fantastic mitre shaped
like a Phoenician tower, such as Salammbo bore, and placing in her
hand the sceptre of Isis, the tall lotus, sacred flower of Egypt and
Des Esseintes sought the sense of this emblem. Had it that phallic
significance which the primitive cults of India gave it? Did it
enunciate an oblation of virginity to the senile Herod, an exchange of
blood, an impure and voluntary wound, offered under the express
stipulation of a monstrous sin? Or did it represent the allegory of
fecundity, the Hindoo myth of life, an existence held between the
hands of woman, distorted and trampled by the palpitant hands of man
whom a fit of madness seizes, seduced by a convulsion of the flesh?
Perhaps, too, in arming his enigmatic goddess with the venerated
lotus, the painter had dreamed of the dancer, the mortal woman with
the polluted Vase, from whom spring all sins and crimes. Perhaps he
had recalled the rites of ancient Egypt, the sepulchral ceremonies of
the embalming when, after stretching the corpse on a bench of jasper,
extracting the brain with curved needles through the chambers of the
nose, the chemists and the priests, before gilding the nails and teeth
and coating the body with bitumens and essences, inserted the chaste
petals of the divine flower in the sexual parts, to purify them.
However this may be, an irresistible fascination emanated from this
painting; but the water-color entitled _The Apparition_ was perhaps
even more disturbing.
There, the palace of Herod arose like an Alhambra on slender,
iridescent columns with moorish tile, joined with silver beton and
gold cement. Arabesques proceeded from lozenges of lapis lazuli, wove
their patterns on the cupolas where, on nacreous marquetry, crept
rainbow gleams and prismatic flames.
The murder was accomplished. The executioner stood impassive, his
hands on the hilt of his long, blood-stained sword.
The severed head of the saint stared lividly on the charger resting on
the slabs; the mouth was discolored and open, the neck crimson, and
tears fell from the eyes. The face was encircled by an aureole worked
in mosaic, which shot rays of light under the porticos and illuminated
the horrible ascension of the head, brightening the glassy orbs of the
contracted eyes which were fixed with a ghastly stare upon the dancer.
With a gesture of terror, Salome thrusts from her the horrible vision
which transfixes her, motionless, to the ground. Her eyes dilate, her
hands clasp her neck in a convulsive clutch.
She is almost nude. In the ardor of the dance, her veils had become
loosened. She is garbed only in gold-wrought stuffs and limpid stones;
a neck-piece clasps her as a corselet does the body and, like a superb
buckle, a marvelous jewel sparkles on the hollow between her breasts.
A girdle encircles her hips, concealing the upper part of her thighs,
against which beats a gigantic pendant streaming with carbuncles and
All the facets of the jewels kindle under the ardent shafts of light
escaping from the head of the Baptist. The stones grow warm, outlining
the woman's body with incandescent rays, striking her neck, feet and
arms with tongues of fire,--vermilions like coals, violets like jets
of gas, blues like flames of alcohol, and whites like star light.
The horrible head blazes, bleeding constantly, clots of sombre purple
on the ends of the beard and hair. Visible for Salome alone, it does
not, with its fixed gaze, attract Herodias, musing on her finally
consummated revenge, nor the Tetrarch who, bent slightly forward, his
hands on his knees, still pants, maddened by the nudity of the woman
saturated with animal odors, steeped in balms, exuding incense and
Like the old king, Des Esseintes remained dumbfounded, overwhelmed and
seized with giddiness, in the presence of this dancer who was less
majestic, less haughty but more disquieting than the Salome of the oil
In this insensate and pitiless image, in this innocent and dangerous
idol, the eroticism and terror of mankind were depicted. The tall
lotus had disappeared, the goddess had vanished; a frightful nightmare
now stifled the woman, dizzied by the whirlwind of the dance,
hypnotized and petrified by terror.
It was here that she was indeed Woman, for here she gave rein to her
ardent and cruel temperament. She was living, more refined and savage,
more execrable and exquisite. She more energetically awakened the
dulled senses of man, more surely bewitched and subdued his power of
will, with the charm of a tall venereal flower, cultivated in
sacrilegious beds, in impious hothouses.
Des Esseintes thought that never before had a water color attained
such magnificent coloring; never before had the poverty of colors been
able to force jeweled corruscations from paper, gleams like stained
glass windows touched by rays of sunlight, splendors of tissue and
flesh so fabulous and dazzling. Lost in contemplation, he sought to
discover the origins of this great artist and mystic pagan, this
visionary who succeeded in removing himself from the world
sufficiently to behold, here in Paris, the splendor of these cruel
visions and the enchanting sublimation of past ages.
Des Esseintes could not trace the genesis of this artist. Here and
there were vague suggestions of Mantegna and of Jacopo de Barbari;
here and there were confused hints of Vinci and of the feverish colors
of Delacroix. But the influences of such masters remained negligible.
The fact was that Gustave Moreau derived from no one else. He remained
unique in contemporary art, without ancestors and without possible
descendants. He went to ethnographic sources, to the origins of myths,
and he compared and elucidated their intricate enigmas. He reunited
the legends of the Far East into a whole, the myths which had been
altered by the superstitions of other peoples; thus justifying his
architectonic fusions, his luxurious and outlandish fabrics, his
hieratic and sinister allegories sharpened by the restless perceptions
of a pruriently modern neurosis. And he remained saddened, haunted by
the symbols of perversities and superhuman loves, of divine
stuprations brought to end without abandonment and without hope.
His depressing and erudite productions possessed a strange
enchantment, an incantation that stirred one to the depths, just as do
certain poems of Baudelaire, caused one to pause disconcerted, amazed,
brooding on the spell of an art which leaped beyond the confines of
painting, borrowing its most subtle effects from the art of writing,
its most marvelous stokes from the art of Limosin, its most exquisite
refinements from the art of the lapidary and the engraver. These two
pictures of Salome, for which Des Esseintes' admiration was boundless,
he had hung on the walls of his study on special panels between the
bookshelves, so that they might live under his eyes.
But these were not the only pictures he had acquired to divert his
Although he had surrendered to his servants the second story of his
house, which he himself never used at all, the ground floor had
required a number of pictures to fit the walls.
It was thus arranged:
A dressing room, communicating with the bedroom, occupied one of the
corners of the house. One passed from the bedroom to the library, and
from the library into the dining room, which formed the other corner.
These rooms, whose windows looked out on the Aunay Valley, composed
one of the sides of the dwelling.
The other side of the house had four rooms arranged in the same order.
Thus, the kitchen formed an angle, and corresponded with the dining
room; a long corridor, which served as the entrance, with the library;
a small dressing room, with the bedroom; and the toilet, forming a
second angle, with the dressing room.
These rooms received the light from the side opposite the Aunay Valley
and faced the Towers of Croy and Chatillon.
As for the staircase, it was built outside, against one of the sides
of the house, and the footsteps of his servants in ascending or
descending thus reached Des Esseintes less distinctly.
The dressing room was tapestried in deep red. On the walls, in ebony
frames, hung the prints of Jan Luyken, an old Dutch engraver almost
unknown in France.
He possessed of the work of this artist, who was fantastic and
melancholy, vehement and wild, the series of his _Religious
Persecutions_, horrible prints depicting all the agonies invented by
the madness of religions: prints pregnant with human sufferings,
showing bodies roasting on fires, skulls slit open with swords,
trepaned with nails and gashed with saws, intestines separated from
the abdomen and twisted on spools, finger nails slowly extracted with
pincers, eyes gouged, limbs dislocated and deliberately broken, and
bones bared of flesh and agonizingly scraped by sheets of metal.
These works filled with abominable imaginings, offensive with their
odors of burning, oozing with blood and clamorous with cries of horror
and maledictions, gave Des Esseintes, who was held fascinated in this
red room, the creeping sensations of goose-flesh.
But in addition to the tremblings they occasioned, beyond the terrible
skill of this man, the extraordinary life which animates his
characters, one discovered, among his astonishing, swarming
throngs--among his mobs of people delineated with a dexterity which
recalled Callot, but which had a strength never possessed by that
amusing dauber--curious reconstructions of bygone ages. The
architecture, costumes and customs during the time of the Maccabeans,
of Rome under the Christian persecutions, of Spain under the
Inquisition, of France during the Middle Ages, at the time of Saint
Bartholomew and the Dragonnades, were studied with a meticulous care
and noted with scientific accuracy.
These prints were veritable treasures of learning. One could gaze at
them for hours without experiencing any sense of weariness. Profoundly
suggestive in reflections, they assisted Des Esseintes in passing many
a day when his books failed to charm him.
Luyken's life, too, fascinated him, by explaining the hallucination of
his work. A fervent Calvinist, a stubborn sectarian, unbalanced by
prayers and hymns, he wrote religious poetry which he illustrated,
paraphrased the psalms in verse, lost himself in the reading of the
Bible from which he emerged haggard and frenzied, his brain haunted by
monstrous subjects, his mouth twisted by the maledictions of the
Reformation and by its songs of terror and hate.
And he scorned the world, surrendering his wealth to the poor and
subsisting on a slice of bread. He ended his life in travelling, with
an equally fanatical servant, going where chance led his boat,
preaching the Gospel far and wide, endeavoring to forego nourishment,
and eventually becoming almost demented and violent.
Other bizarre sketches were hung in the larger, adjoining room, as
well as in the corridor, both of which had woodwork of red cedar.
There was Bresdin's _Comedy of Death_ in which, in the fantastic
landscape bristling with trees, brushwood and tufts of grass
resembling phantom, demon forms, teeming with rat-headed, pod-tailed
birds, on earth covered with ribs, skulls and bones, gnarled and
cracked willows rear their trunks, surmounted by agitated skeletons
whose arms beat the air while they intone a song of victory. A Christ
speeds across a clouded sky; a hermit in the depths of a cave
meditates, holding his head in his hands; one wretch dies, exhausted
by long privation and enfeebled by hunger, lying on his back, his legs
outstretched in front of a pond.
The _Good Samaritan_, by the same artist, is a large engraving on
stone: an incongruous medley of palms, sorbs and oaks grown together,
heedless of seasons and climates, peopled with monkeys and owls,
covered with old stumps as misshapen as the roots of the mandrake;
then a magical forest, cut in the center near a glade through which a
stream can be seen far away, behind a camel and the Samaritan group;
then an elfin town appearing on the horizon of an exotic sky dotted
with birds and covered with masses of fleecy clouds.
It could be called the design of an uncertain, primitive Durer with an
opium-steeped brain. But although he liked the finesse of the detail
and the imposing appearance of this print, Des Esseintes had a special
weakness for the other frames adorning the room.
They were signed: Odilon Redon.
They enclosed inconceivable apparitions in their rough, gold-striped
pear-tree wood. A head of a Merovingian style, resting against a bowl,
a bearded man, at once resembling a Buddhist priest and an orator at a
public reunion, touching the ball of a gigantic cannon with his
fingers; a frightful spider revealing a human face in its body. The
charcoal drawings went even farther into dream terrors. Here, an
enormous die in which a sad eye winked; there, dry and arid
landscapes, dusty plains, shifting ground, volcanic upheavals catching
rebellious clouds, stagnant and livid skies. Sometimes the subjects
even seemed to have borrowed from the cacodemons of science, reverting
to prehistoric times. A monstrous plant on the rocks, queer blocks
everywhere, glacial mud, figures whose simian shapes, heavy jaws,
beetling eyebrows, retreating foreheads and flat skulls, recalled the
ancestral heads of the first quaternary periods, when inarticulate man
still devoured fruits and seeds, and was still contemporaneous with
the mammoth, the rhinoceros and the big bear. These designs were
beyond anything imaginable; they leaped, for the most part, beyond the
limits of painting and introduced a fantasy that was unique, the
fantasy of a diseased and delirious mind.