Part 3 out of 4
the flavor of a cow-shed which this fine, pale beer exhaled.
His hunger persisted. He lingered over a piece of blue Stilton cheese,
made quick work of a rhubarb tart, and to vary his drinking, quenched
his thirst with porter, that dark beer which smells of Spanish
licorice but which does not have its sugary taste.
He breathed deeply. Not for years had he eaten and drunk so much. This
change of habit, this choice of unexpected and solid food had awakened
his stomach from its long sleep. He leaned back in his chair, lit a
cigarette and prepared to sip his coffee into which gin had been
The rain continued to fall. He heard it patter on the panes which
formed a ceiling at the end of the room; it fell in cascades down the
spouts. No one was stirring in the room. Everybody, utterly weary, was
indulging himself in front of his wine glass.
Tongues were now wagging freely. As almost all the English men and
women raised their eyes as they spoke, Des Esseintes concluded that
they were talking of the bad weather; not one of them laughed. He
threw a delighted glance on their suits whose color and cut did not
perceivably differ from that of others, and he experienced a sense of
contentment in not being out of tune in this environment, of being, in
some way, though superficially, a naturalized London citizen. Then he
suddenly started. "And what about the train?" he asked himself. He
glanced at his watch: ten minutes to eight. "I still have nearly a
half-hour to remain here." Once more, he began to muse upon the plan
he had conceived.
In his sedentary life, only two countries had ever attracted him:
Holland and England.
He had satisfied the first of his desires. Unable to keep away, one
fine day he had left Paris and visited the towns of the Low Lands, one
In short, nothing but cruel disillusions had resulted from this trip.
He had fancied a Holland after the works of Teniers and Steen, of
Rembrandt and Ostade, in his usual way imagining rich, unique and
incomparable Ghettos, had thought of amazing kermesses, continual
debauches in the country sides, intent for a view of that patriarchal
simplicity, that jovial lusty spirit celebrated by the old masters.
Certainly, Haarlem and Amsterdam had enraptured him. The unwashed
people, seen in their country farms, really resembled those types
painted by Van Ostade, with their uncouth children and their old fat
women, embossed with huge breasts and enormous bellies. But of the
unrestrained joys, the drunken family carousals, not a whit. He had to
admit that the Dutch paintings at the Louvre had misled him. They had
simply served as a springing board for his dreams. He had rushed
forward on a false track and had wandered into capricious visions,
unable to discover in the land itself, anything of that real and
magical country which he had hoped to behold, seeing nothing at all,
on the plots of ground strewn with barrels, of the dances of
petticoated and stockinged peasants crying for very joy, stamping
their feet out of sheer happiness and laughing loudly.
Decidedly nothing of all this was visible. Holland was a country just
like any other country, and what was more, a country in no wise
primitive, not at all simple, for the Protestant religion with its
formal hypocricies and solemn rigidness held sway here.
The memory of that disenchantment returned to him. Once more he
glanced at his watch: ten minutes still separated him from the train's
departure. "It is about time to ask for the bill and leave," he told
He felt an extreme heaviness in his stomach and through his body.
"Come!" he addressed himself, "let us drink and screw up our courage."
He filled a glass of brandy, while asking for the reckoning. An
individual in black suit and with a napkin under one arm, a sort of
majordomo with a bald and sharp head, a greying beard without
moustaches, came forward. A pencil rested behind his ear and he
assumed an attitude like a singer, one foot in front of the other; he
drew a note book from his pocket, and without glancing at his paper,
his eyes fixed on the ceiling, near a chandelier, wrote while
counting. "There you are!" he said, tearing the sheet from his note
book and giving it to Des Esseintes who looked at him with curiosity,
as though he were a rare animal. What a surprising John Bull, he
thought, contemplating this phlegmatic person who had, because of his
shaved mouth, the appearance of a wheelsman of an American ship.
At this moment, the tavern door opened. Several persons entered
bringing with them an odor of wet dog to which was blent the smell of
coal wafted by the wind through the opened door. Des Esseintes was
incapable of moving a limb. A soft warm languor prevented him from
even stretching out his hand to light a cigar. He told himself: "Come
now, let us get up, we must take ourselves off." Immediate objections
thwarted his orders. What is the use of moving, when one can travel on
a chair so magnificently? Was he not even now in London, whose aromas
and atmosphere and inhabitants, whose food and utensils surrounded
him? For what could he hope, if not new disillusionments, as had
happened to him in Holland?
He had but sufficient time to race to the station. An overwhelming
aversion for the trip, an imperious need of remaining tranquil, seized
him with a more and more obvious and stubborn strength. Pensively, he
let the minutes pass, thus cutting off all retreat, and he said to
himself, "Now it would be necessary to rush to the gate and crowd into
the baggage room! What ennui! What a bore that would be!" Then he
repeated to himself once more, "In fine, I have experienced and seen
all I wished to experience and see. I have been filled with English
life since my departure. I would be mad indeed to go and, by an
awkward trip, lose those imperishable sensations. How stupid of me to
have sought to disown my old ideas, to have doubted the efficacy of
the docile phantasmagories of my brain, like a very fool to have
thought of the necessity, of the curiosity, of the interest of an
"Well!" he exclaimed, consulting his watch, "it is now time to return
This time, he arose and left, ordered the driver to bring him back to
the Sceaux station, and returned with his trunks, packages, valises,
rugs, umbrellas and canes, to Fontenay, feeling the physical
stimulation and the moral fatigue of a man coming back to his home
after a long and dangerous voyage.
During the days following his return, Des Esseintes contemplated his
books and experienced, at the thought that he might have been
separated from them for a long period, a satisfaction as complete as
that which comes after a protracted absence. Under the touch of this
sentiment, these objects possessed a renewed novelty to his mind, and
he perceived in them beauties forgotten since the time he had
Everything there, books, bric-a-brac and furniture, had an individual
charm for him. His bed seemed the softer by comparison with the hard
bed he would have occupied in London. The silent, discreet
ministrations of his servants charmed him, exhausted as he was at the
thought of the loud loquacity of hotel attendants. The methodical
organization of his life made him feel that it was especially to be
envied since the possibility of traveling had become imminent.
He steeped himself in this bath of habitude, to which artificial
regrets insinuated a tonic quality.
But his books chiefly preoccupied him. He examined them, re-arranged
them on the shelves, anxious to learn if the hot weather and the rains
had damaged the bindings and injured the rare paper.
He began by moving all his Latin books; then he arranged in a new
order the special works of Archelaus, Albert le Grand, Lully and
Arnaud de Villanova treating of cabbala and the occult sciences;
finally he examined his modern books, one by one, and was happy to
perceive that all had remained intact.
This collection had cost him a considerable sum of money. He would not
suffer, in his library, the books he loved to resemble other similar
volumes, printed on cotton paper with the watermarks of _Auvergne_.
Formerly in Paris he had ordered made, for himself alone, certain
volumes which specially engaged mechanics printed from hand presses.
Sometimes, he applied to Perrin of Lyons, whose graceful, clear type
was suitable for archaic reprints of old books. At other times he
dispatched orders to England or to America for the execution of modern
literature and the works of the present century. Still again, he
applied to a house in Lille, which for centuries had possessed a
complete set of Gothic characters; he also would send requisitions to
the old Enschede printing house of Haarlem whose foundry still has the
stamps and dies of certain antique letters.
He had followed the same method in selecting his papers. Finally
growing weary of the snowy Chinese and the nacreous and gilded
Japanese papers, the white Whatmans, the brown Hollands, the
buff-colored Turkeys and Seychal Mills, and equally disgusted with all
mechanically manufactured sheets, he had ordered special laid paper in
the mould, from the old plants of Vire which still employ the pestles
once in use to grind hemp. To introduce a certain variety into his
collection, he had repeatedly brought from London prepared stuffs,
paper interwoven with hairs, and as a mark of his disdain for
bibliophiles, he had a Lubeck merchant prepare for him an improved
candle paper of bottle-blue tint, clear and somewhat brittle, in the
pulp of which the straw was replaced by golden spangles resembling
those which dot Danzig brandy.
Under these circumstances he had succeeded in procuring unique books,
adopting obsolete formats which he had bound by Lortic, by
Trautz-Bauzonnet or Chambolle, by the successors of Cape, in
irreproachable covers of old silk, stamped cow hide, Cape goat skin,
in full bindings with compartments and in mosaic designs, protected by
tabby or moire watered silk, ecclesiastically ornamented with clasps
and corners, and sometimes even enamelled by Gruel Engelmann with
silver oxide and clear enamels.
Thus, with the marvelous episcopal lettering used in the old house of
Le Clere, he had Baudelaire's works printed in a large format
recalling that of ancient missals, on a very light and spongy Japan
paper, soft as elder pith and imperceptibly tinted with a light rose
hue through its milky white. This edition, limited to one copy,
printed with a velvety black Chinese ink, had been covered outside and
then recovered within with a wonderful genuine sow skin, chosen among
a thousand, the color of flesh, its surface spotted where the hairs
had been and adorned with black silk stamped in cold iron in
miraculous designs by a great artist.
That day, Des Esseintes took this incomparable book from his shelves
and handled it devotedly, once more reading certain pieces which
seemed to him, in this simple but inestimable frame, more than
His admiration for this writer was unqualified. According to him,
until Baudelaire's advent in literature, writers had limited
themselves to exploring the surfaces of the soul or to penetrating
into the accessible and illuminated caverns, restoring here and there
the layers of capital sins, studying their veins, their growths, and
noting, like Balzac for example, the layers of strata in the soul
possessed by the monomania of a passion, by ambition, by avarice, by
paternal stupidity, or by senile love.
What had been treated heretofore was the abundant health of virtues
and of vices, the tranquil functioning of commonplace brains, and the
practical reality of contemporary ideas, without any ideal of sickly
depravation or of any beyond. In short, the discoveries of those
analysts had stopped at the speculations of good or evil classified by
the Church. It was the simple investigation, the conventional
examination of a botanist minutely observing the anticipated
development of normal efflorescence abounding in the natural earth.
Baudelaire had gone farther. He had descended to the very bowels of
the inexhaustible mine, had involved his mind in abandoned and
unfamiliar levels, and come to those districts of the soul where
monstrous vegetations of thought extend their branches.
There, near those confines, the haunt of aberrations and of sickness,
of the mystic lockjaw, the warm fever of lust, and the typhoids and
vomits of crime, he had found, brooding under the gloomy clock of
Ennui, the terrifying spectre of the age of sentiments and ideas.
He had revealed the morbid psychology of the mind which has attained
the October of its sensations, recounted the symptoms of souls
summoned by grief and licensed by spleen, and shown the increasing
decay of impressions while the enthusiasms and beliefs of youth are
enfeebled and the only thing remaining is the arid memory of miseries
borne, intolerances endured and affronts suffered by intelligences
oppressed by a ridiculous destiny.
He had pursued all the phases of that lamentable autumn, studying the
human creature, quick to exasperation, ingenious in deceiving himself,
compelling his thoughts to cheat each other so as to suffer the more
keenly, and frustrating in advance all possible joy by his faculty of
analysis and observation.
Then, in this vexed sensibility of the soul, in this ferocity of
reflection that repels the restless ardor of devotions and the
well-meaning outrages of charity, he gradually saw arising the horror
of those senile passions, those ripe loves, where one person yields
while the other is still suspicious, where lassitude denies such
couples the filial caresses whose apparent youthfulness seems new, and
the maternal candors whose gentleness and comfort impart, in a sense,
the engaging remorse of a vague incest.
In magnificent pages he exposed his hybrid loves who were exasperated
by the impotence in which they were overwhelmed, the hazardous deceits
of narcotics and poisons invoked to aid in calming suffering and
conquering ennui. At an epoch when literature attributed unhappiness
of life almost exclusively to the mischances of unrequited love or to
the jealousies that attend adulterous love, he disregarded such
puerile maladies and probed into those wounds which are more fatal,
more keen and deep, which arise from satiety, disillusion and scorn in
ruined souls whom the present tortures, the past fills with loathing
and the future frightens and menaces with despair.
And the more Des Esseintes read Baudelaire, the more he felt the
ineffable charm of this writer who, in an age when verse served only
to portray the external semblance of beings and things, had succeeded
in expressing the inexpressible in a muscular and brawny language;
who, more than any other writer possessed a marvelous power to define
with a strange robustness of expression, the most fugitive and
tentative morbidities of exhausted minds and sad souls.
After Baudelaire's works, the number of French books given place in
his shelves was strictly limited. He was completely indifferent to
those works which it is fashionable to praise. "The broad laugh of
Rabelais," and "the deep comedy of Moliere," did not succeed in
diverting him, and the antipathy he felt against these farces was so
great that he did not hesitate to liken them, in the point of art, to
the capers of circus clowns.
As for old poetry, he read hardly anything except Villon, whose
melancholy ballads touched him, and, here and there, certain fragments
from d'Aubigne, which stimulated his blood with the incredible
vehemence of their apostrophes and curses.
In prose, he cared little for Voltaire and Rousseau, and was unmoved
even by Diderot, whose so greatly praised _Salons_ he found strangely
saturated with moralizing twaddle and futility; in his hatred toward
all this balderdash, he limited himself almost exclusively to the
reading of Christian eloquence, to the books of Bourdaloue and Bossuet
whose sonorously embellished periods were imposing; but, still more,
he relished suggestive ideas condensed into severe and strong phrases,
such as those created by Nicole in his reflections, and especially
Pascal, whose austere pessimism and attrition deeply touched him.
Apart from such books as these, French literature began in his library
with the nineteenth century.
This section was divided into two groups, one of which included the
ordinary, secular literature, and the other the Catholic literature, a
special but little known literature published by large publishing
houses and circulated to the four corners of the earth.
He had had the hardihood to explore such crypts as these, just as in
the secular art he had discovered, under an enormous mass of insipid
writings, a few books written by true masters.
The distinctive character of this literature was the constant
immutability of its ideas and language. Just as the Church perpetuated
the primitive form of holy objects, so she has preserved the relics of
her dogmas, piously retaining, as the frame that encloses them, the
oratorical language of the celebrated century. As one of the Church's
own writers, Ozanam, has put it, the Christian style needed only to
make use of the dialect employed by Bourdaloue and by Bossuet to the
exclusion of all else.
In spite of this statement, the Church, more indulgent, closed its
eyes to certain expressions, certain turns of style borrowed from the
secular language of the same century, and the Catholic idiom had
slightly purified itself of its heavy and massive phrases, especially
cleaning itself, in Bossuet, of its prolixity and the painful rallying
of its pronouns; but here ended the concessions, and others would
doubtless have been purposeless for the prose sufficed without this
ballast for the limited range of subjects to which the Church confined
Incapable of grappling with contemporary life, of rendering the most
simple aspects of things and persons visible and palpable, unqualified
to explain the complicated wiles of intellects indifferent to the
benefits of salvation, this language was nevertheless excellent when
it treated of abstract subjects. It proved valuable in the argument of
controversy, in the demonstration of a theory, in the obscurity of a
commentary and, more than any other style, had the necessary authority
to affirm, without any discussion, the intent of a doctrine.
Unfortunately, here as everywhere, the sanctuary had been invaded by a
numerous army of pedants who smirched by their ignorance and lack of
talent the Church's noble and austere attire. Further to profane it,
devout women had interfered, and stupid sacristans and foolish
_salons_ had acclaimed as works of genius the wretched prattle of such
Among such works, Des Esseintes had had the curiosity to read those of
Madame Swetchine, the Russian, whose house in Paris was the rendezvous
of the most fervent Catholics. Her writings had filled him with
insufferably horrible boredom; they were more than merely wretched:
they were wretched in every way, resembling the echoes of a tiny
chapel where the solemn worshippers mumble their prayers, asking news
of one another in low voices, while they repeat with a deeply
mysterious air the common gossip of politics, weather forecasts and
the state of the weather.
But there was even worse: a female laureate licensed by the Institute,
Madame Augustus Craven, author of _Recit d'une soeur_, of _Eliane_ and
_Fleaurange_, puffed into reputation by the whole apostolic press.
Never, no, never, had Des Esseintes imagined that any person could
write such ridiculous nonsense. In the point of conception, these
books were so absurd, and were written in such a disgusting style,
that by these tokens they became almost remarkable and rare.
It was not at all among the works of women that Des Esseintes, whose
soul was completely jaded and whose nature was not inclined to
sentimentality, could come upon a literary retreat suited to his
Yet he strove, with a diligence that no impatience could overcome, to
enjoy the works of a certain girl of genius, the blue-stocking pucelle
of the group, but his efforts miscarried. He did not take to the
_Journal_ and the _Lettres_ in which Eugenie de Guerin celebrates,
without discretion, the amazing talent of a brother who rhymed, with
such cleverness and grace that one must go to the works of de Jouy and
Ecouchard Lebrun to find anything so novel and daring.
He had also unavailingly attempted to comprehend the delights of those
works in which one may find such things as these:
This morning I hung on papa's bed a cross which a little
girl had given him yesterday.
Mimi and I are invited by Monsieur Roquiers to attend the
consecration of a bell tomorrow. This does not displease
me at all.
Or wherein we find such important events as these:
On my neck I have hung a medal of the Holy Virgin which
Louise had brought me, as an amulet against cholera.
Or poetry of this sort:
O the lovely moonbeam which fell on the Bible I was reading!
And, finally, such fine and penetrating observations as these:
When I see a man pass before a crucifix, lift his hat and
make the sign of the Cross, I say to myself, 'There goes a
And she continued in this fashion, without pause, until after Maurice
de Guerin had died, after which his sister bewailed him in other
pages, written in a watery prose strewn here and there with bits of
poems whose humiliating poverty ended by moving Des Esseintes to pity.
Ah! it was hardly worth mentioning, but the Catholic party was not at
all particular in the choice of its proteges and not at all artistic.
Without exception, all these writers wrote in the pallid white prose
of pensioners of a monastery, in a flowing movement of phrase which no
astringent could counterbalance.
So Des Esseintes, horror-stricken at such insipidities, entirely
forsook this literature. But neither did he find atonement for his
disappointments among the modern masters of the clergy. These latter
were one-sided divines or impeccably correct controversialists, but
the Christian language in their orations and books had ended by
becoming impersonal and congealing into a rhetoric whose every
movement and pause was anticipated, in a sequence of periods
constructed after a single model. And, in fact, Des Esseintes
discovered that all the ecclesiastics wrote in the same manner, with a
little more or a little less abandon or emphasis, and there was seldom
any variations between the bodiless patterns traded by Dupanloup or
Landriot, La Bouillerie or Gaume, by Dom Gueranger or Ratisbonne, by
Freppel or Perraud, by Ravignan or Gratry, by Olivain or Dosithee, by
Didon or Chocarne.
Des Esseintes had often pondered upon this matter. A really authentic
talent, a supremely profound originality, a well-anchored conviction,
he thought, was needed to animate this formal style which was too
frail to support any thought that was unforseen or any thesis that was
Yet, despite all this, there were several writers whose burning
eloquence fused and shaped this language, notably Lacordaire, who was
one of the few really great writers the Church had produced for many
Immured, like his colleagues, in the narrow circle of orthodox
speculations, likewise obliged to dissipate his energies in the
exclusive consideration of those theories which had been expressed and
consecrated by the Fathers of the Church and developed by the masters
of the pulpit, he succeeded in inbuing them with novelty and in
rejuvenating, almost in modifying them, by clothing them in a more
personal and stimulating form. Here and there in his _Conferences de
Notre-Dame_, were treasures of expression, audacious usages of words,
accents of love, rapid movements, cries of joy and distracted
effusions. Then, to his position as a brilliant and gentle monk whose
ingenuity and labors had been exhausted in the impossible task of
conciliating the liberal doctrines of society with the authoritarian
dogmas of the Church, he added a temperament of fierce love and suave
diplomatic tenderness. In his letters to young men may be found the
caressing inflections of a father exhorting his sons with smiling
reprimands, the well-meaning advice and the indulgent forgiveness.
Some of these Des Esseintes found charming, confessing as they did the
monk's yearning for affection, while others were even imposing when
they sought to sustain courage and dissipate doubts by the inimitable
certainties of Faith. In fine, this sentiment of paternity, which gave
his pen a delicately feminine quality, lent to his prose a
characteristically individual accent discernible among all the
After Lacordaire, ecclesiastics and monks possessing any individuality
were extremely rare. At the very most, a few pages of his pupil, the
Abbe Peyreyve, merited reading. He left sympathetic biographies of his
master, wrote a few loveable letters, composed treatises in the
sonorous language of formal discourse, and delivered panegyrics in
which the declamatory tone was too broadly stressed. Certainly the
Abbe Peyreyve had neither the emotion nor the ardor of Lacordaire. He
was too much a priest and too little a man. Yet, here and there in the
rhetoric of his sermons, flashed interesting effects of large and
solid phrasing or touches of nobility that were almost venerable.
But to find writers of prose whose works justify close study, one was
obliged to seek those who had not submitted to Ordination; to the
secular writers whom the interests of Catholicism engaged and devoted
to its cause.
With the Comte de Falloux, the episcopal style, so stupidly handled by
the prelates, recruited new strength and in a manner recovered its
masculine vigor. Under his guise of moderation, this academician
exuded gall. The discourse which he delivered to Parliament in 1848
was diffuse and abject, but his articles, first printed in the
_Correspondant_ and since collected into books, were mordant and
discerning under the exaggerated politeness of their form. Conceived
as harangues, they contained a certain strong muscular energy and were
astonishing in the intolerance of their convictions.
A dangerous polemist because of his ambuscades, a shrewd logician,
executing flanking movements and attacking unexpectedly, the Comte de
Falloux had also written striking, penetrating pages on the death of
Madame Swetchine, whose tracts he had collected and whom he revered as
But the true temperament of the writer was betrayed in the two
brochures which appeared in 1848 and 1880, the latter entitled
Moved by a cold rage, the implacable legitimist this time fought
openly, contrary to his custom, and hurled against the infidels, in
the form of a peroration, such fulminating invectives as these:
"And you, systematic Utopians, who make an abstraction of human
nature, fomentors of atheism, fed on chimerae and hatreds,
emancipators of woman, destroyers of the family, genealogists of the
simian race, you whose name was but lately an outrage, be satisfied:
you shall have been the prophets, and your disciples will be the
high-priests of an abominable future!"
The other brochure bore the title _le Parti catholique_ and was
directed against the despotism of the _Univers_ and against Veuillot
whose name he refused to mention. Here the sinuous attacks were
resumed, venom filtered beneath each line, when the gentleman, clad in
blue answered the sharp physical blows of the fighter with scornful
These contestants represented the two parties of the Church, the two
factions whose differences were resolved into virulent hatreds. De
Falloux, the more haughty and cunning, belonged to the liberal camp
which already claimed Montalembert and Cochin, Lacordaire and De
Broglie. He subscribed to the principles of the _Correspondant_, a
review which attempted to cover the imperious theories of the Church
with a varnish of tolerance. Veuillot, franker and more open, scorned
such masks, unhesitatingly admitted the tyranny of the ultramontaine
doctrines and confessed, with a certain compunction, the pitiless yoke
of the Church's dogma.
For the conduct of this verbal warfare, Veuillot had made himself
master of a special style, partly borrowed from La Bruyere and Du
Gros-Caillou. This half-solemn, half-slang style, had the force of a
tomahawk in the hands of this vehement personality. Strangely
headstrong and brave, he had overwhelmed both free thinkers and
bishops with this terrible weapon, charging at his enemies like a
bull, regardless of the party to which they belonged. Distrusted by
the Church, which would tolerate neither his contraband style nor his
fortified theories, he had nevertheless overawed everybody by his
powerful talent, incurring the attack of the entire press which he
effectively thrashed in his _Odeurs de Paris_, coping with every
assault, freeing himself with a kick of the foot of all the wretched
hack-writers who had presumed to attack him.
Unfortunately, this undisputed talent only existed in pugilism. At
peace, Veuillot was no more than a mediocre writer. His poetry and
novels were pitiful. His language was vapid, when it was not engaged
in a striking controversy. In repose, he changed, uttering banal
litanies and mumbling childish hymns.
More formal, more constrained and more serious was the beloved
apologist of the Church, Ozanam, the inquisitor of the Christian
language. Although he was very difficult to understand, Des Esseintes
never failed to be astonished by the insouciance of this writer, who
spoke confidently of God's impenetrable designs, although he felt
obliged to establish proof of the improbable assertions he advanced.
With the utmost self-confidence, he deformed events, contradicted,
with greater impudence even than the panegyrists of other parties, the
known facts of history, averred that the Church had never concealed
the esteem it had for science, called heresies impure miasmas, and
treated Buddhism and other religions with such contempt that he
apologized for even soiling his Catholic prose by onslaught on their
At times, religious passion breathed a certain ardor into his
oratorical language, under the ice of which seethed a violent current;
in his numerous writings on Dante, on Saint Francis, on the author of
_Stabat Mater_, on the Franciscan poets, on socialism, on commercial
law and every imaginable subject, this man pleaded for the defense of
the Vatican which he held indefectible, and judged causes and opinions
according to their harmony or discord with those that he advanced.
This manner of viewing questions from a single viewpoint was also the
method of that literary scamp, Nettement, whom some people would have
made the other's rival. The latter was less bigoted than the master,
affected less arrogance and admitted more worldly pretentions. He
repeatedly left the literary cloister in which Ozanam had imprisoned
himself, and had read secular works so as to be able to judge of them.
This province he entered gropingly, like a child in a vault, seeing
nothing but shadow around him, perceiving in this gloom only the gleam
of the candle which illumed the place a few paces before him.
In this gloom, uncertain of his bearings, he stumbled at every turn,
speaking of Murger who had "the care of a chiselled and carefully
finished style"; of Hugo who sought the noisome and unclean and to
whom he dared compare De Laprade; of Paul Delacroix who scorned the
rules; of Paul Delaroche and of the poet Reboul, whom he praised
because of their apparent faith.
Des Esseintes could not restrain a shrug of the shoulders before these
stupid opinions, covered by a borrowed prose whose already worn
texture clung or became torn at each phrase.
In a different way, the works of Poujoulat and Genoude, Montalembert,
Nicolas and Carne failed to inspire him with any definite interest.
His taste for history was not pronounced, even when treated with the
scholarly fidelity and harmonious style of the Duc de Broglie, nor was
his penchant for the social and religious questions, even when
broached by Henry Cochin, who revealed his true self in a letter where
he gave a stirring account of the taking of the veil at the
Sacre-Coeur. He had not touched these books for a long time, and the
period was already remote when he had thrown with his waste paper the
puerile lucubrations of the gloomy Pontmartin and the pitiful Feval;
and long since he had given to his servants, for a certain vulgar
usage, the short stories of Aubineau and Lasserre, in which are
recorded wretched hagiographies of miracles effected by Dupont of
Tours and by the Virgin.
In no way did Des Esseintes derive even a fugitive distraction from
his boredom from this literature. The mass of books which he had once
studied he had thrown into dim corners of his library shelves when he
left the Fathers' school. "I should have left them in Paris," he told
himself, as he turned out some books which were particularly
insufferable: those of the Abbe Lamennais and that impervious
sectarian so magisterially, so pompously dull and empty, the Comte
Joseph de Maistre.
A single volume remained on a shelf, within reach of his hand. It was
the _Homme_ of Ernest Hello. This writer was the absolute opposite of
his religious confederates. Almost isolated among the pious group
terrified by his conduct, Ernest Hello had ended by abandoning the
open road that led from earth to heaven. Probably disgusted by the
dullness of the journey and the noisy mob of those pilgrims of letters
who for centuries followed one after the other upon the same highway,
marching in each other's steps, stopping at the same places to
exchange the same commonplace remarks on religion, on the Church
Fathers, on their similar beliefs, on their common masters, he had
departed through the byways to wander in the gloomy glade of Pascal,
where he tarried long to recover his breath before continuing on his
way and going even farther in the regions of human thought than the
Jansenist, whom he derided.
Tortuous and precious, doctoral and complex, Hello, by the piercing
cunning of his analysis, recalled to Des Esseintes the sharp, probing
investigations of some of the infidel psychologists of the preceding
and present century. In him was a sort of Catholic Duranty, but more
dogmatic and penetrating, an experienced manipulation of the
magnifying glass, a sophisticated engineer of the soul, a skillful
watchmaker of the brain, delighting to examine the mechanism of a
passion and elucidate it by details of the wheel work.
In this oddly formed mind existed unsurmised relationships of
thoughts, harmonies and oppositions; furthermore, he affected a wholly
novel manner of action which used the etymology of words as a
spring-board for ideas whose associations sometimes became tenuous,
but which almost constantly remained ingenious and sparkling.
Thus, despite the awkwardness of his structure, he dissected with a
singular perspicacity, the _Avare_, "the ordinary man," and "the
passion of unhappiness," revealing meanwhile interesting comparisons
which could be constructed between the operations of photography and
But such skill in handling this perfected instrument of analysis,
stolen from the enemies of the Church, represented only one of the
temperamental phases of this man.
Still another existed. This mind divided itself in two parts and
revealed, besides the writer, the religious fanatic and Biblical
Like Hugo, whom he now and again recalled in distortions of phrases
and words, Ernest Hello had delighted in imitating Saint John of
Patmos. He pontificated and vaticinated from his retreat in the rue
Saint-Sulpice, haranguing the reader with an apocalyptic language
partaking in spots of the bitterness of an Isaiah.
He affected inordinate pretentions of profundity. There were some
fawning and complacent people who pretended to consider him a great
man, the reservoir of learning, the encyclopedic giant of the age.
Perhaps he was a well, but one at whose bottom one often could not
find a drop of water.
In his volume _Paroles de Dieu_, he paraphrased the Holy Scriptures,
endeavoring to complicate their ordinarily obvious sense. In his other
book _Homme_, and in his brochure _le Jour du Seigneur_, written in a
biblical style, rugged and obscure, he sought to appear like a
vengeful apostle, prideful and tormented with spleen, but showed
himself a deacon touched with a mystic epilepsy, or like a talented
Maistre, a surly and bitter sectarian.
But, thought Des Esseintes, this sickly shamelessness often obstructed
the inventive sallies of the casuist. With more intolerance than even
Ozanam, he resolutely denied all that pertained to his clan,
proclaimed the most disconcerting axioms, maintained with a
disconcerting authority that "geology is returning toward Moses," and
that natural history, like chemistry and every contemporary science,
verifies the scientific truth of the Bible. The proposition on each
page was of the unique truth and the superhuman knowledge of the
Church, and everywhere were interspersed more than perilous aphorisms
and raging curses cast at the art of the last century.
To this strange mixture was added the love of sanctimonious delights,
such as a translation of the _Visions_ by Angele de Foligno, a book of
an unparalleled fluid stupidity, with selected works of Jean Rusbrock
l'Admirable, a mystic of the thirteenth century whose prose offered an
incomprehensible but alluring combination of dusky exaltations,
caressing effusions, and poignant transports.
The whole attitude of this presumptuous pontiff, Hello, had leaped
from a preface written for this book. He himself remarked that
"extraordinary things can only be stammered," and he stammered in good
truth, declaring that "the holy gloom where Rusbrock extends his eagle
wings is his ocean, his prey, his glory, and for such as him the far
horizons would be a too narrow garment."
However this might be, Des Esseintes felt himself intrigued toward
this ill-balanced but subtile mind. No fusion had been effected
between the skilful psychologist and the pious pedant, and the very
jolts and incoherencies constituted the personality of the man.
With him was recruited the little group of writers who fought on the
front battle line of the clerical camp. They did not belong to the
regular army, but were more properly the scouts of a religion which
distrusted men of such talent as Veuillot and Hello, because they did
not seem sufficiently submissive and shallow. What the Church really
desires is soldiers who do not reason, files of such blind combatants
and such mediocrities as Hello describes with the rage of one who has
submitted to their yoke. Thus it was that Catholicism had lost no time
in driving away one of its partisans, an enraged pamphleteer who wrote
in a style at once rare and exasperated, the savage Leon Bloy; and
caused to be cast from the doors of its bookshops, as it would a
plague or a filthy vagrant, another writer who had made himself hoarse
with celebrating its praises, Barbey d'Aurevilly.
It is true that the latter was too prone to compromise and not
sufficiently docile. Others bent their heads under rebukes and
returned to the ranks; but he was the _enfant terrible_, and was
unrecognized by the party. In a literary way, he pursued women whom he
dragged into the sanctuary. Nay, even that vast disdain was invoked,
with which Catholicism enshrouds talent to prevent excommunication
from putting beyond the pale of the law a perplexing servant who,
under pretext of honoring his masters, broke the window panes of the
chapel, juggled with the holy pyxes and executed eccentric dances
around the tabernacle.
Two works of Barbey d'Aurevilly specially attracted Des Esseintes, the
_Pretre marie_ and the _Diaboliques_. Others, such as the _Ensorcele_,
the _Chevalier des touches_ and _Une Vieille Maitresse_, were
certainly more comprehensive and more finely balanced, but they left
Des Esseintes untouched, for he was really interested only in
unhealthy works which were consumed and irritated by fever.
In these all but healthy volumes, Barbey d'Aurevilly constantly
hesitated between those two pits which the Catholic religion succeeds
in reconciling: mysticism and sadism.
In these two books which Des Esseintes was thumbing, Barbey had lost
all prudence, given full rein to his steed, and galloped at full speed
over roads to their farthest limits.
All the mysterious horror of the Middle Ages hovered over that
improbable book, the _Pretre marie_; magic blended with religion,
black magic with prayer and, more pitiless and savage than the Devil
himself, the God of Original Sin incessantly tortured the innocent
Calixte, His reprobate, as once He had caused one of his angels to
mark the houses of unbelievers whom he wished to slay.
Conceived by a fasting monk in the grip of delirium, these scenes were
unfolded in the uneven style of a tortured soul. Unfortunately, among
those disordered creatures that were like galvanized Coppelias of
Hoffmann, some, like Neel de Nehou, seemed to have been imagined in
moments of exhaustion following convulsions, and were discordant notes
in this harmony of sombre madness, where they were as comical and
ridiculous as a tiny zinc figure playing on a horn on a timepiece.
After these mystic divagations, the writer had experienced a period of
calm. Then a terrible relapse followed.
This belief that man is a Buridanesque donkey, a being balanced
between two forces of equal attraction which successively remain
victorious and vanquished, this conviction that human life is only an
uncertain combat waged between hell and heaven, this faith in two
opposite beings, Satan and Christ, was fatally certain to engender
such inner discords of the soul, exalted by incessant struggle,
excited at once by promises and menaces, and ending by abandoning
itself to whichever of the two forces persisted in the pursuit the
In the _Pretre marie_, Barbey d'Aurevilly sang the praises of Christ,
who had prevailed against temptations; in the _Diaboliques_, the
author succumbed to the Devil, whom he celebrated; then appeared
sadism, that bastard of Catholicism, which through the centuries
religion has relentlessly pursued with its exorcisms and stakes.
This condition, at once fascinating and ambiguous, can not arise in
the soul of an unbeliever. It does not merely consist in sinking
oneself in the excesses of the flesh, excited by outrageous
blasphemies, for in such a case it would be no more than a case of
satyriasis that had reached its climax. Before all, it consists in
sacrilegious practice, in moral rebellion, in spiritual debauchery, in
a wholly ideal aberration, and in this it is exemplarily Christian. It
also is founded upon a joy tempered by fear, a joy analogous to the
satisfaction of children who disobey their parents and play with
forbidden things, for no reason other than that they had been
forbidden to do so.
In fact, if it did not admit of sacrilege, sadism would have no reason
for existence. Besides, the sacrilege proceeding from the very
existence of a religion, can only be intentionally and pertinently
performed by a believer, for no one would take pleasure in profaning a
faith that was indifferent or unknown to him.
The power of sadism and the attraction it presents, lies entirely then
in the prohibited enjoyment of transferring to Satan the praises and
prayers due to God; it lies in the non-observance of Catholic precepts
which one really follows unwillingly, by committing in deeper scorn of
Christ, those sins which the Church has especially cursed, such as
pollution of worship and carnal orgy.
In its elements, this phenomenon to which the Marquis de Sade has
bequeathed his name is as old as the Church. It had reared its head in
the eighteenth century, recalling, to go back no farther, by a simple
phenomenon of atavism the impious practices of the Sabbath, the
witches' revels of the Middle Ages.
By having consulted the _Malleus maleficorum_, that terrible code of
Jacob Sprenger which permits the Church wholesale burnings of
necromancers and sorcerers, Des Esseintes recognized in the witches'
Sabbath, all the obscene practices and all the blasphemies of sadism.
In addition to the unclean scenes beloved by Malin, the nights
successively and lawfully consecrated to excessive sensual orgies and
devoted to the bestialities of passion, he once more discovered the
parody of the processions, the insults and eternal threats levelled at
God and the devotion bestowed upon His rival, while amid cursing of
the wine and the bread, the black mass was being celebrated on the
back of a woman on all fours, whose stained bare thighs served as the
altar from which the congregation received the communion from a black
goblet stamped with an image of a goat.
This profusion of impure mockeries and foul shames were marked in the
career of the Marquis de Sade, who garnished his terrible pleasures
with outrageous sacrileges.
He cried out to the sky, invoked Lucifer, shouted his contempt of God,
calling Him rogue and imbecile, spat upon the communion, endeavored to
contaminate with vile ordures a Divinity who he prayed might damn him,
the while he declared, to defy Him the more, that He did not exist.
Barbey d'Aurevilly approached this psychic state. If he did not
presume as far as De Sade in uttering atrocious curses against the
Saviour; if, more prudent or more timid, he claimed ever to honor the
Church, he none the less addressed his suit to the Devil as was done
in medieval times and he, too, in order to brave God, fell into
demoniac nymphomania, inventing sensual monstrosities, even borrowing
from bedroom philosophy a certain episode which he seasoned with new
condiments when he wrote the story _le Diner d'un athee_.
This extravagant book pleased Des Esseintes. He had caused to be
printed, in violet ink and in a frame of cardinal purple, on a genuine
parchment which the judges of the Rota had blessed, a copy of the
_Diaboliques_, with characters whose quaint quavers and flourishes in
turned up tails and claws affected a satanic form.
After certain pieces of Baudelaire that, in imitation of the clamorous
songs of nocturnal revels, celebrated infernal litanies, this volume
alone of all the works of contemporary apostolic literature testified
to this state of mind, at once impious and devout, toward which
Catholicism often thrust Des Esseintes.
With Barbey d'Aurevilly ended the line of religious writers; and in
truth, that pariah belonged more, from every point of view, to secular
literature than to the other with which he demanded a place that was
denied him. His language was the language of disheveled romanticism,
full of involved expressions, unfamiliar turns of speech, delighted
with extravagant comparisons and with whip strokes and phrases which
exploded, like the clangor of noisy bells, along the text. In short,
d'Aurevilly was like a stallion among the geldings of the
Des Esseintes reflected in this wise while re-reading, here and there,
several passages of the book and, comparing its nervous and changing
style with the fixed manner of other Church writers, he thought of the
evolution of language which Darwin has so truly revealed.
Compelled to live in a secular atmosphere, raised in the heart of the
romantic school, constantly being in the current of modern literature
and accustomed to reading contemporary publications, Barbey
d'Aurevilly had acquired a dialect which although it had sustained
numerous and profound changes since the Great Age, had nevertheless
renewed itself in his works.
The ecclesiastical writers, on the contrary, confined within specific
limitations, restricted to ancient Church literature, knowing nothing
of the literary progress of the centuries and determined if need be to
blind their eyes the more surely not to see, necessarily were
constrained to the use of an inflexible language, like that of the
eighteenth century which descendants of the French who settled in
Canada still speak and write today, without change of phrasing or
words, having succeeded in preserving their original idiom by
isolation in certain metropolitan centres, despite the fact that they
are enveloped upon every side by English-speaking peoples.
Meanwhile the silvery sound of a clock that tolled the angelus
announced breakfast time to Des Esseintes. He abandoned his books,
pressed his brow and went to the dining room, saying to himself that,
among all the volumes he had just arranged, the works of Barbey
d'Aurevilly were the only ones whose ideas and style offered the
gaminess he so loved to savor in the Latin and decadent, monastic
writers of past ages.
As the season advanced, the weather, far from improving, grew worse.
Everything seemed to go wrong that year. After the squalls and mists,
the sky was covered with a white expanse of heat, like plates of sheet
iron. In two days, without transition, a torrid heat, an atmosphere of
frightful heaviness, succeeded the damp cold of foggy days and the
streaming of the rains. As though stirred by furious pokers, the sun
showed like a kiln-hole, darting a light almost white-hot, burning
one's face. A hot dust rose from the roads, scorching the dry trees,
and the yellowed lawns became a deep brown. A temperature like that of
a foundry hung over the dwelling of Des Esseintes.
Half naked, he opened a window and received the air like a furnace
blast in his face. The dining room, to which he fled, was fiery, and
the rarefied air simmered. Utterly distressed, he sat down, for the
stimulation that had seized him had ended since the close of his
Like all people tormented by nervousness, heat distracted him. And his
anaemia, checked by cold weather, again became pronounced, weakening
his body which had been debilitated by copious perspiration.
The back of his shirt was saturated, his perinaeum was damp, his feet
and arms moist, his brow overflowing with sweat that ran down his
cheeks. Des Esseintes reclined, annihilated, on a chair.
The sight of the meat placed on the table at that moment caused his
stomach to rise. He ordered the food removed, asked for boiled eggs,
and tried to swallow some bread soaked in eggs, but his stomach would
have none of it. A fit of nausea overcame him. He drank a few drops of
wine that pricked his stomach like points of fire. He wet his face;
the perspiration, alternately warm and cold, coursed along his
temples. He began to suck some pieces of ice to overcome his troubled
heart--but in vain.
So weak was he that he leaned against the table. He rose, feeling the
need of air, but the bread had slowly risen in his gullet and remained
there. Never had he felt so distressed, so shattered, so ill at ease.
To add to his discomfort, his eyes distressed him and he saw objects
in double. Soon he lost his sense of distance, and his glass seemed to
be a league away. He told himself that he was the play-thing of
sensorial illusions and that he was incapable of reacting. He
stretched out on a couch, but instantly he was cradled as by the
tossing of a moving ship, and the affection of his heart increased. He
rose to his feet, determined to rid himself, by means of a digestive,
of the food which was choking him.
He again reached the dining room and sadly compared himself, in this
cabin, to passengers seized with sea-sickness. Stumbling, he made his
way to the closet, examined the mouth organ without opening any of the
stops, but instead took from a high shelf a bottle of benedictine
which he kept because of its form which to him seemed suggestive of
thoughts that were at once gently wanton and vaguely mystic.
But at this moment he remained indifferent, gazing with lack-lustre,
staring eyes at this squat, dark-green bottle which, at other times,
had brought before him images of the medieval priories by its
old-fashioned monkish paunch, its head and neck covered with a
parchment hood, its red wax stamp quartered with three silver mitres
against a field of azure and fastened at the neck, like a papal bull,
with bands of lead, its label inscribed in sonorous Latin, on paper
that seemed to have yellowed with age: _Liquor Monachorum
Benedictinorum Abbatiae Fiscannensis_.
Under this thoroughly abbatial robe, signed with a cross and the
ecclesiastic initials 'D.O.M.', pressed in between its parchments and
ligatures, slept an exquisitely fine saffron-colored liquid. It
breathed an aroma that seemed the quintessence of angelica and hyssop
blended with sea-weeds and of iodines and bromes hidden in sweet
essences, and it stimulated the palate with a spiritous ardor
concealed under a virginal daintiness, and charmed the sense of smell
by a pungency enveloped in a caress innocent and devout.
This deceit which resulted from the extraordinary disharmony between
contents and container, between the liturgic form of the flask and its
so feminine and modern soul, had formerly stimulated Des Esseintes to
revery and, facing the bottle, he was inclined to think at great
length of the monks who sold it, the Benedictines of the Abbey of
Fecamp who, belonging to the brotherhood of Saint-Maur which had been
celebrated for its controversial works under the rule of Saint Benoit,
followed neither the observances of the white monks of Citeaux nor of
the black monks of Cluny. He could not but think of them as being like
their brethren of the Middle Ages, cultivating simples, heating
retorts and distilling faultless panaceas and prescriptions.
He tasted a drop of this liquor and, for a few moments, had relief.
But soon the fire, which the dash of wine had lit in his bowels,
revived. He threw down his napkin, returned to his study, and paced
the floor. He felt as if he were under a pneumatic clock, and a
numbing weakness stole from his brain through his limbs. Unable to
endure it longer, he betook himself to the garden. It was the first
time he had done this since his arrival at Fontenay. There he found
shelter beneath a tree which radiated a circle of shadow. Seated on
the lawn, he looked around with a besotted air at the square beds of
vegetables planted by the servants. He gazed, but it was only at the
end of an hour that he really saw them, for a greenish film floated
before his eyes, permitting him only to see, as in the depths of
water, flickering images of shifting tones.
But when he recovered his balance, he clearly distinguished the onions
and cabbages, a garden bed of lettuce further off, and, in the
distance along the hedge, a row of white lillies recumbent in the
A smile played on his lips, for he suddenly recalled the strange
comparison of old Nicandre, who likened, in the point of form, the
pistils of lillies to the genital organs of a donkey; and he recalled
also a passage from Albert le Grand, in which that thaumaturgist
describes a strange way of discovering whether a girl is still a
virgin, by means of a lettuce.
These remembrances distracted him somewhat. He examined the garden,
interesting himself in the plants withered by the heat, and in the hot
ground whose vapors rose into the dusty air. Then, above the hedge
which separated the garden below from the embankment leading to the
fort, he watched the urchins struggling and tumbling on the ground.
He was concentrating his attention upon them when another younger,
sorry little specimen appeared. He had hair like seaweed covered with
sand, two green bubbles beneath his nose, and disgusting lips
surrounded by a dirty white frame formed by a slice of bread smeared
with cheese and filled with pieces of scallions.
Des Esseintes inhaled the air. A perverse appetite seized him. This
dirty slice made his mouth water. It seemed to him that his stomach,
refusing all other nourishment, could digest this shocking food, and
that his palate would enjoy it as though it were a feast.
He leaped up, ran to the kitchen and ordered a loaf, white cheese and
green onions to be brought from the village, emphasizing his desire
for a slice exactly like the one being eaten by the child. Then he
returned to sit beneath the tree.
The little chaps were fighting with one another. They struggled for
bits of bread which they shoved into their cheeks, meanwhile sucking
their fingers. Kicks and blows rained freely, and the weakest,
trampled upon, cried out.
At this sight, Des Esseintes recovered his animation. The interest he
took in this fight distracted his thoughts from his illness.
Contemplating the blind fury of these urchins, he thought of the cruel
and abominable law of the struggle of existence; and, although these
children were mean, he could not help being interested in their
futures, yet could not but believe that it had been better for them
had their mothers never given them birth.
In fact, all they could expect of life was rash, colic, fever, and
measles in their earliest years; slaps in the face and degrading
drudgeries up to thirteen years; deceptions by women, sicknesses and
infidelity during manhood and, toward the last, infirmities and
agonies in a poorhouse or asylum.
And the future was the same for every one, and none in his good senses
could envy his neighbor. The rich had the same passions, the same
anxieties, the same pains and the same illnesses, but in a different
environment; the same mediocre enjoyments, whether alcoholic, literary
or carnal. There was even a vague compensation in evils, a sort of
justice which re-established the balance of misfortune between the
classes, permitting the poor to bear physical suffering more easily,
and making it difficult for the unresisting, weaker bodies of the rich
to withstand it.
How vain, silly and mad it is to beget brats! And Des Esseintes
thought of those ecclesiastics who had taken vows of sterility, yet
were so inconsistent as to canonize Saint Vincent de Paul, because he
brought vain tortures to innocent creatures.
By means of his hateful precautions, Vincent de Paul had deferred for
years the death of unintelligent and insensate beings, in such a way
that when they later became almost intelligent and sentient to grief,
they were able to anticipate the future, to await and fear that death
of whose very name they had of late been ignorant, some of them going
as far to invoke it, in hatred of that sentence of life which the monk
inflicted upon them by an absurd theological code.
And since this old man's death, his ideas had prevailed. Abandoned
children were sheltered instead of being killed and yet their lives
daily became increasingly rigorous and barren! Then, under pretext of
liberty and progress, Society had discovered another means of
increasing man's miseries by tearing him from his home, forcing him to
don a ridiculous uniform and carry weapons, by brutalizing him in a
slavery in every respect like that from which he had compassionately
freed the negro, and all to enable him to slaughter his neighbor
without risking the scaffold like ordinary murderers who operate
single-handed, without uniforms and with weapons that are less swift
Des Esseintes wondered if there had ever been such a time as ours. Our
age invokes the causes of humanity, endeavors to perfect anaesthesia
to suppress physical suffering. Yet at the same time it prepares these
very stimulants to increase moral wretchedness.
Ah! if ever this useless procreation should be abolished, it were now.
But here, again, the laws enacted by men like Portalis and Homais
appeared strange and cruel.
In the matter of generation, Justice finds the agencies for deception
to be quite natural. It is a recognized and acknowledged fact. There
is scarcely a home of any station that does not confide its children
to the drain pipes, or that does not employ contrivances that are
freely sold, and which it would enter no person's mind to prohibit.
And yet, if these subterfuges proved insufficient, if the attempt
miscarried and if, to remedy matters, one had recourse to more
efficacious measures, ah! then there were not prisons enough, not
municipal jails enough to confine those who, in good faith, were
condemned by other individuals who had that very evening, on the
conjugal bed, done their utmost to avoid giving birth to children.
The deceit itself was not a crime, it seemed. The crime lay in the
justification of the deceit.
What Society considered a crime was the act of killing a being endowed
with life; and yet, in expelling a foetus, one destroyed an animal
that was less formed and living and certainly less intelligent and
more ugly than a dog or a cat, although it is permissible to strangle
these creatures as soon as they are born.
It is only right to add, for the sake of fairness, thought Des
Esseintes, that it is not the awkward man, who generally loses no time
in disappearing, but rather the woman, the victim of his stupidity,
who expiates the crime of having saved an innocent life.
Yet was it right that the world should be filled with such prejudice
as to wish to repress manoeuvres so natural that primitive man, the
Polynesian savage, for instance, instinctively practices them?
The servant interrupted the charitable reflections of Des Esseintes,
who received the slice of bread on a plate of vermeil. Pains shot
through his heart. He did not have the courage to eat this bread, for
the unhealthy excitement of his stomach had ceased. A sensation of
frightful decay swept upon him. He was compelled to rise. The sun
turned, and slowly fell upon the place that he had lately occupied.
The heat became more heavy and fierce.
"Throw this slice of bread to those children who are murdering each
other on the road," he ordered his servant. "Let the weakest be
crippled, be denied share in the prize, and be soundly thrashed into
the bargain, as they will be when they return to their homes with torn
trousers and bruised eyes. This will give them an idea of the life
that awaits them!"
And he entered the house and sank into his armchair.
"But I must try to eat something," he said. And he attempted to soak a
biscuit in old Constantia wine, several bottles of which remained in
That wine, the color of slightly burned onions, partaking of Malaga
and Port, but with a specially luscious flavor, and an after-taste of
grapes dried by fiery suns, had often comforted him, given a new
energy to his stomach weakened by the fasts which he was forced to
undergo. But this cordial, usually so efficacious, now failed. Then he
thought that an emollient might perhaps counteract the fiery pains
which were consuming him, and he took out the Nalifka, a Russian
liqueur, contained in a bottle frosted with unpolished glass. This
unctuous raspberry-flavored syrup also failed. Alas! the time was far
off when, enjoying good health, Des Esseintes had ridden to his house
in the hot summer days in a sleigh, and there, covered with furs
wrapped about his chest, forced himself to shiver, saying, as he
listened attentively to the chattering of his teeth: "Ah, how biting
this wind is! It is freezing!" Thus he had almost succeeded in
convincing himself that it was cold.
Unfortunately, such remedies as these had failed of their purpose ever
since his sickness became vital.
With all this, he was unable to make use of laudanum: instead of
allaying the pain, this sedative irritated him even to the degree of
depriving him of rest. At one time he had endeavored to procure
visions through opium and hashish, but these two substances had led to
vomitings and intense nervous disturbances. He had instantly been
forced to give up the idea of taking them, and without the aid of
these coarse stimulants, demand of his brain alone to transport him
into the land of dreams, far, far from life.
"What a day!" he said to himself, sponging his neck, feeling every
ounce of his strength dissolve in perspiration; a feverish agitation
still prevented him from remaining in one spot; once more he walked up
and down, trying every chair in the room in turn. Wearied of the
struggle, at last he fell against his bureau and leaning mechanically
against the table, without thinking of anything, he touched an
astrolabe which rested on a mass of books and notes and served as a
He had purchased this engraved and gilded copper instrument (it had
come from Germany and dated from the seventeenth century) of a
second-hand Paris dealer, after a visit to the Cluny Museum, where he
had stood for a long while in ecstatic admiration before a marvelous
astrolabe made of chiseled ivory, whose cabalistic appearance
This paper weight evoked many reminiscences within him. Aroused and
actuated by the appearance of this trinket, his thoughts rushed from
Fontenay to Paris, to the curio shop where he had purchased it, then
returned to the Museum, and he mentally beheld the ivory astrolabe,
while his unseeing eyes continued to gaze upon the copper astrolabe on
Then he left the Museum and, without quitting the town, strolled down
the streets, wandered through the rue du Sommerard and the boulevard
Saint-Michel, branched off into the neighboring streets, and paused
before certain shops whose quite extraordinary appearance and
profusion had often attracted him.
Beginning with an astrolabe, this spiritual jaunt ended in the cafes
of the Latin Quarter.
He remembered how these places were crowded in the rue
Monsieur-le-Prince and at the end of the rue de Vaugirard, touching
the Odeon; sometimes they followed one another like the old _riddecks_
of the Canal-aux-Harengs, at Antwerp, each of which revealed a front,
the counterpart of its neighbor.
Through the half-opened doors and the windows dimmed with colored
panes or curtains, he had often seen women who walked about like
geese; others, on benches, rested their elbows on the marble tables,
humming, their temples resting between their hands; still others
strutted and posed in front of mirrors, playing with their false hair
pomaded by hair-dressers; others, again, took money from their purses
and methodically sorted the different denominations in little heaps.
Most of them had heavy features, hoarse voices, flabby necks and
painted eyes; and all of them, like automatons, moved simultaneously
upon the same impulse, flung the same enticements with the same tone
and uttered the identical queer words, the same odd inflections and
the same smile.
Certain ideas associated themselves in the mind of Des Esseintes,
whose reveries came to an end, now that he recalled this collection of
coffee-houses and streets.
He understood the significance of those cafes which reflected the
state of soul of an entire generation, and from it he discovered the
synthesis of the period.
And, in fact, the symptoms were certain and obvious. The houses of
prostitution disappeared, and as soon as one of them closed, a cafe
began to operate.
This restriction of prostitution which proved profitable to
clandestine loves, evidently arose from the incomprehensible illusions
of men in the matter of carnal life.
Monstrous as it may appear, these haunts satisfied an ideal.
Although the utilitarian tendencies transmitted by heredity and
developed by the precocious rudeness and constant brutalities of the
colleges had made the youth of the day strangely crude and as
strangely positive and cold, it had none the less preserved, in the
back of their heads, an old blue flower, an old ideal of a vague, sour
Today, when the blood clamored, youths could not bring themselves to
go through the formality of entering, ending, paying and leaving; in
their eyes, this was bestiality, the action of a dog attacking a bitch
without much ado. Then, too, vanity fled unsatisfied from these houses
where there was no semblance of resistance; there was no victory, no
hoped for preference, nor even largess obtained from the tradeswoman
who measured her caresses according to the price. On the contrary, the
courting of a girl of the cafes stimulated all the susceptibilities of
love, all the refinements of sentiment. One disputed with the others
for such a girl, and those to whom she granted a rendezvous, in
consideration of much money, were sincere in imagining that they had
won her from a rival, and in so thinking they were the objects of
honorary distinction and favor.
Yet this domesticity was as stupid, as selfish, as vile as that of
houses of ill-fame. Its creatures drank without being thirsty, laughed
without reason, were charmed by the caresses of a slut, quarrelled and
fought for no reason whatever, despite everything. The Parisian youth
had not been able to see that these girls were, from the point of
plastic beauty, graceful attitudes and necessary attire, quite
inferior to the women in the bawdy houses! "My God," Des Esseintes
exclaimed, "what ninnies are these fellows who flutter around the
cafes; for, over and above their silly illusions, they forget the
danger of degraded, suspicious allurements, and they are unaware of
the sums of money given for affairs priced in advance by the mistress,
of the time lost in waiting for an assignation deferred so as to
increase its value and cost, delays which are repeated to provide more
tips for the waiters."
This imbecile sentimentality, combined with a ferociously practical
sense, represented the dominant motive of the age. These very persons
who would have gouged their neighbors' eyes to gain ten _sous_, lost
all presence of mind and discrimination before suspicious looking
girls in restaurants who pitilessly harassed and relentlessly fleeced
them. Fathers devoted their lives to their businesses and labors,
families devoured one another on the pretext of trade, only to be
robbed by their sons who, in turn, allowed themselves to be fleeced by
women who posed as sweethearts to obtain their money.
In all Paris, from east to west and from north to south, there existed
an unbroken chain of female tricksters, a system of organized theft,
and all because, instead of satisfying men at once, these women were
skilled in the subterfuges of delay.
At bottom, one might say that human wisdom consisted in the
protraction of all things, in saying "no" before saying "yes," for one
could manage people only by trifling with them.
"Ah! if the same were but true of the stomach," sighed Des Esseintes,
racked by a cramp which instantly and sharply brought back his mind,
that had roved far off, to Fontenay.
Several days slowly passed thanks to certain measures which succeeded
in tricking the stomach, but one morning Des Esseintes could endure
food no longer, and he asked himself anxiously whether his already
serious weakness would not grow worse and force him to take to bed. A
sudden gleam of light relieved his distress; he remembered that one of
his friends, quite ill at one time, had made use of a Papin's digester
to overcome his anaemia and preserve what little strength he had.
He dispatched his servant to Paris for this precious utensil, and
following the directions contained in the prospectus which the
manufacturer had enclosed, he himself instructed the cook how to cut
the roast beef into bits, put it into the pewter pot, with a slice of
leek and carrot, and screw on the cover to let it boil for four hours.
At the end of this time the meat fibres were strained. He drank a
spoonful of the thick salty juice deposited at the bottom of the pot.
Then he felt a warmth, like a smooth caress, descend upon him.
This nourishment relieved his pain and nausea, and even strengthened
his stomach which did not refuse to accept these few drops of soup.
Thanks to this digester, his neurosis was arrested and Des Esseintes
said to himself: "Well, it is so much gained; perhaps the temperature
will change, the sky will throw some ashes upon this abominable sun
which exhausts me, and I shall hold out without accident till the
first fogs and frosts of winter."
In the torpor and listless ennui in which he was sunk, the disorder of
his library, whose arrangement had never been completed, irritated
him. Helpless in his armchair, he had constantly in sight the books
set awry on the shelves propped against each other or lying flat on
their sides, like a tumbled pack of cards. This disorder offended him
the more when he contrasted it with the perfect order of his religious
works, carefully placed on parade along the walls.
He tried to clear up the confusion, but after ten minutes of work,
perspiration covered him; the effort weakened him. He stretched
himself on a couch and rang for his servant.
Following his directions, the old man continued the task, bringing
each book in turn to Des Esseintes who examined it and directed where
it was to be placed.
This task did not last long, for Des Esseintes' library contained but
a very limited number of contemporary, secular works.
They were drawn through his brain as bands of metal are drawn through
a steel-plate from which they issue thin, light, and reduced to almost
imperceptible wires; and he had ended by possessing only those books
which could submit to such treatment and which were so solidly
tempered as to withstand the rolling-mill of each new reading. In his
desire to refine, he had restrained and almost sterilized his
enjoyment, ever accentuating the irremediable conflict existing
between his ideas and those of the world in which he had happened to
be born. He had now reached such a pass that he could no longer
discover any writings to content his secret longings. And his
admiration even weaned itself from those volumes which had certainly
contributed to sharpen his mind, making it so suspicious and subtle.
In art, his ideas had sprung from a simple point of view. For him
schools did not exist, and only the temperament of the writer
mattered, only the working of his brain interested him, regardless of
the subject. Unfortunately, this verity of appreciation, worthy of
Palisse, was scarcely applicable, for the simple reason that, even
while desiring to be free of prejudices and passion, each person
naturally goes to the works which most intimately correspond with his
own temperament, and ends by relegating all others to the rear.
This work of selection had slowly acted within him; not long ago he
had adored the great Balzac, but as his body weakened and his nerves
became troublesome, his tastes modified and his admirations changed.
Very soon, and despite the fact that he was aware of his injustice to
the amazing author of the _Comedie humaine_, Des Esseintes had reached
a point where he no longer opened Balzac's books; their healthy spirit
jarred on him. Other aspirations now stirred in him, somehow becoming
Yet when he probed himself he understood that to attract, a work must
have that character of strangeness demanded by Edgar Allen Poe; but he
ventured even further on this path and called for Byzantine flora of
brain and complicated deliquescences of language. He desired a
troubled indecision on which he might brood until he could shape it at
will to a more vague or determinate form, according to the momentary
state of his soul. In short, he desired a work of art both for what it
was in itself and for what it permitted him to endow it. He wished to
pass by means of it into a sphere of sublimated sensation which would
arouse in him new commotions whose cause he might long and vainly seek
In short, since leaving Paris, Des Esseintes was removing himself
further and further from reality, especially from the contemporary
world which he held in an ever growing detestation. This hatred had
inevitably reacted on his literary and artistic tastes, and he would
have as little as possible to do with paintings and books whose
limited subjects dealt with modern life.
Thus, losing the faculty of admiring beauty indiscriminately under
whatever form it was presented, he preferred Flaubert's _Tentation de
saint Antoine_ to his _Education sentimentale_; Goncourt's _Faustin_
to his _Germinie Lacerteux_; Zola's _Faute de l'abbe Mouret_ to his
This point of view seemed logical to him; these works less immediate,
but just as vibrant and human, enabled him to penetrate farther into
the depths of the temperaments of these masters who revealed in them
the most mysterious transports of their being with a more sincere
abandon; and they lifted him far above this trivial life which wearied
In them he entered into a perfect communion of ideas with their
authors who had written them when their state of soul was analogous to
In fact, when the period in which a man of talent is obliged to live
is dull and stupid, the artist, though unconsciously, is haunted by a
nostalgia of some past century.
Finding himself unable to harmonize, save at rare intervals, with the
environment in which he lives and not discovering sufficient
distraction in the pleasures of observation and analysis, in the
examination of the environment and its people, he feels in himself the
dawning of strange ideas. Confused desires for other lands awake and
are clarified by reflection and study. Instincts, sensations and
thoughts bequeathed by heredity, awake, grow fixed, assert themselves
with an imperious assurance. He recalls memories of beings and things
he has never really known and a time comes when he escapes from the
penitentiary of his age and roves, in full liberty, into another epoch
with which, through a last illusion, he seems more in harmony.
With some, it is a return to vanished ages, to extinct civilizations,
to dead epochs; with others, it is an urge towards a fantastic future,
to a more or less intense vision of a period about to dawn, whose
image, by an effect of atavism of which he is unaware, is a
reproduction of some past age.
In Flaubert this nostalgia is expressed in solemn and majestic
pictures of magnificent splendors, in whose gorgeous, barbaric frames
move palpitating and delicate creatures, mysterious and haughty--women
gifted, in the perfection of their beauty, with souls capable of
suffering and in whose depths he discerned frightful derangements, mad
aspirations, grieved as they were by the haunting premonition of the
dissillusionments their follies held in store.
The temperament of this great artist is fully revealed in the
incomparable pages of the _Tentation de saint Antoine_ and _Salammbo_
where, far from our sorry life, he evokes the splendors of old Asia,
the age of fervent prayer and mystic depression, of languorous
passions and excesses induced by the unbearable ennui resulting from
opulence and prayer.
In de Goncourt, it was the nostalgia of the preceding century, a
return to the elegances of a society forever lost. The stupendous
setting of seas beating against jetties, of deserts stretching under
torrid skies to distant horizons, did not exist in his nostalgic work
which confined itself to a boudoir, near an aulic park, scented with
the voluptuous fragrance of a woman with a tired smile, a perverse
little pout and unresigned, pensive eyes. The soul with which he
animated his characters was not that breathed by Flaubert into his
creatures, no longer the soul early thrown in revolt by the inexorable
certainty that no new happiness is possible; it was a soul that had
too late revolted, after the experience, against all the useless
attempts to invent new spiritual liaisons and to heighten the
enjoyment of lovers, which from immemorial times has always ended in
Although she lived in, and partook of the life of our time, Faustin,
by her ancestral influences, was a creature of the past century whose
cerebral lassitude and sensual excesses she possessed.
This book of Edmond de Goncourt was one of the volumes which Des
Esseintes loved best, and the suggestion of revery which he demanded
lived in this work where, under each written line, another line was
etched, visible to the spirit alone, indicated by a hint which
revealed passion, by a reticence permitting one to divine subtle
states of soul which no idiom could express. And it was no longer
Flaubert's language in its inimitable magnificence, but a morbid,
perspicacious style, nervous and twisted, keen to note the impalpable
impression that strikes the senses, a style expert in modulating the
complicated nuances of an epoch which in itself was singularly
complex. In short, it was the epithet indispensable to decrepit
civilizations, no matter how old they be, which must have words with
new meanings and forms, innovations in phrases and words for their
At Rome, the dying paganism had modified its prosody and transmuted
its language with Ausonius, with Claudian and Rutilius whose
attentive, scrupulous, sonorous and powerful style presented, in its
descriptive parts especially, reflections, hints and nuances bearing
an affinity with the style of de Goncourt.
At Paris, a fact unique in literary history had been consummated. That
moribund society of the eighteenth century, which possessed painters,
musicians and architects imbued with its tastes and doctrines, had not
been able to produce a writer who could truly depict its dying
elegances, the quintessence of its joys so cruelly expiated. It had
been necessary to await the arrival of de Goncourt (whose temperament
was formed of memories and regrets made more poignant by the sad
spectacle of the intellectual poverty and the pitiful aspirations of
his own time) to resuscitate, not only in his historical works, but
even more in _Faustin_, the very soul of that period; incarnating its
nervous refinements in this actress who tortured her mind and her
senses so as to savor to exhaustion the grievous revulsives of love
and of art.
With Zola, the nostalgia of the far-away was different. In him was no
longing for vanished ages, no aspiring toward worlds lost in the night
of time. His strong and solid temperament, dazzled with the luxuriance
of life, its sanguine forces and moral health, diverted him from the
artificial graces and painted chloroses of the past century, as well
as from the hierarchic solemnity, the brutal ferocity and misty,
effeminate dreams of the old orient. When he, too, had become obsessed
by this nostalgia, by this need, which is nothing less than poetry
itself, of shunning the contemporary world he was studying, he had
rushed into an ideal and fruitful country, had dreamed of fantastic
passions of skies, of long raptures of earth, and of fecund rains of
pollen falling into panting organs of flowers. He had ended in a
gigantic pantheism, had created, unwittingly perhaps, with this
Edenesque environment in which he placed his Adam and Eve, a marvelous
Hindoo poem, singing, in a style whose broad, crude strokes had
something of the bizarre brilliance of an Indian painting, the song of
the flesh, of animated living matter revealing, to the human creature,
by its passion for reproduction the forbidden fruits of love, its
suffocations, its instinctive caresses and natural attitudes.
With Baudelaire, these three masters had most affected Des Esseintes
in modern, French, secular literature. But he had read them so often,
had saturated himself in them so completely, that in order to absorb
them he had been compelled to lay them aside and let them remain
unread on his shelves.
Even now when the servant was arranging them for him, he did not care
to open them, and contented himself merely with indicating the place
they were to occupy and seeing that they were properly classified and
The servant brought him a new series of books. These oppressed him
more. They were books toward which his taste had gradually veered,
books which diverted him by their very faults from the perfection of
more vigorous writers. Here, too, Des Esseintes had reached the point
where he sought, among these troubled pages, only phrases which
discharged a sort of electricity that made him tremble; they
transmitted their fluid through a medium which at first sight seemed
Their imperfections pleased him, provided they were neither parasitic
nor servile, and perhaps there was a grain of truth in his theory that
the inferior and decadent writer, who is more subjective, though
unfinished, distills a more irritating aperient and acid balm than the
artist of the same period who is truly great. In his opinion, it was
in their turbulent sketches that one perceived the exaltations of the
most excitable sensibilities, the caprices of the most morbid
psychological states, the most extravagant depravities of language
charged, in spite of its rebelliousness, with the difficult task of
containing the effervescent salts of sensations and ideas.
Thus, after the masters, he betook himself to a few writers who
attracted him all the more because of the disdain in which they were
held by the public incapable of understanding them.
One of them was Paul Verlaine who had begun with a volume of verse,
the _Poemes Saturniens_, a rather ineffectual book where imitations of
Leconte de Lisle jostled with exercises in romantic rhetoric, but
through which already filtered the real personality of the poet in
such poems as the sonnet _Reve Familier_.
In searching for his antecedents, Des Esseintes discovered, under the
hesitant strokes of the sketches, a talent already deeply affected by
Baudelaire, whose influence had been accentuated later on, acquiesced
in by the peerless master; but the imitation was never flagrant.
And in some of his books, _Bonne Chanson_, _Fetes Galantes_, _Romances
sans paroles_, and his last volume, _Sagesse_, were poems where he
himself was revealed as an original and outstanding figure.
With rhymes obtained from verb tenses, sometimes even from long
adverbs preceded by a monosyllable from which they fell as from a rock
into a heavy cascade of water, his verses, divided by improbable
caesuras, often became strangely obscure with their audacious ellipses
and strange inaccuracies which none the less did not lack grace.
With his unrivalled ability to handle metre, he had sought to
rejuvenate the fixed poetic forms. He turned the tail of the sonnet
into the air, like those Japanese fish of polychrome clay which rest
on stands, their heads straight down, their tails on top. Sometimes he
corrupted it by using only masculine rhymes to which he seemed
partial. He had often employed a bizarre form--a stanza of three lines
whose middle verse was unrhymed, and a tiercet with but one rhyme,
followed by a single line, an echoing refrain like "Dansons la Gigue"
in _Streets_. He had employed other rhymes whose dim echoes are
repeated in remote stanzas, like faint reverberations of a bell.
But his personality expressed itself most of all in vague and
delicious confidences breathed in hushed accents, in the twilight. He
alone had been able to reveal the troubled Ultima Thules of the soul;
low whisperings of thoughts, avowals so haltingly and murmuringly
confessed that the ear which hears them remains hesitant, passing on
to the soul languors quickened by the mystery of this suggestion which
is divined rather than felt. Everything characteristic of Verlaine was
expressed in these adorable verses of the _Fetes Galantes_:
Le soir tombait, un soir equivoque
Les belles se pendant reveuses a nos
Dirent alors des mots si specieux tout
Que notre ame depuis ce temps
tremble et s'etonne
It was no longer the immense horizon opened by the unforgettable
portals of Baudelaire; it was a crevice in the moonlight, opening on a
field which was more intimate and more restrained, peculiar to
Verlaine who had formulated his poetic system in those lines of which
Des Esseintes was so fond:
Car nous voulons la nuance encore,
Pas la couleur, rien que la nuance.
Et tout le reste est litterature.
Des Esseintes had followed him with delight in his most diversified
works. After his _Romances sans paroles_ which had appeared in a
journal, Verlaine had preserved a long silence, reappearing later in
those charming verses, hauntingly suggestive of the gentle and cold
accents of Villon, singing of the Virgin, "removed from our days of
carnal thought and weary flesh." Des Esseintes often re-read _Sagesse_
whose poems provoked him to secret reveries, a fanciful love for a
Byzantine Madonna who, at a certain moment, changed into a distracted
modern Cydalise so mysterious and troubling that one could not know
whether she aspired toward depravities so monstrous that they became
irresistible, or whether she moved in an immaculate dream where the
adoration of the soul floated around her ever unavowed and ever pure.
There were other poets, too, who induced him to confide himself to
them: Tristan Corbiere who, in 1873, in the midst of the general
apathy had issued a most eccentric volume entitled: _Les Amours
jaunes_. Des Esseintes who, in his hatred of the banal and
commonplace, would gladly have accepted the most affected folly and
the most singular extravagance, spent many enjoyable hours with this
work where drollery mingled with a disordered energy, and where
disconcerting lines blazed out of poems so absolutely obscure as the
litanies of _Sommeil_, that they qualified their author for the name
Obscene confesseur des devotes mort-nees.
The style was hardly French. The author wrote in the negro dialect,
was telegraphic in form, suppressed verbs, affected a teasing
phraseology, revelled in the impossible puns of a travelling salesman;
then out of this jumble, laughable conceits and sly affectations
emerged, and suddenly a cry of keen anguish rang out, like the
snapping string of a violoncello. And with all this, in his hard
rugged style, bristling with obsolescent words and unexpected
neologisms, flashed perfect originalities, treasures of expression and
superbly nomadic lines amputated of rhyme. Finally, over and above his
_Poemes Parisiens_, where Des Esseintes had discovered this profound
definition of woman:
Eternel feminin de l'eternel jocrisse
Tristan Corbiere had celebrated in a powerfully concise style, the Sea
of Brittany, mermaids and the Pardon of Saint Anne. And he had even
risen to an eloquence of hate in the insults he hurled, apropos of the
Conlie camp, at the individuals whom he designated under the name of
"foreigners of the Fourth of September."
The raciness of which he was so fond, which Corbiere offered him in
his sharp epithets, his beauties which ever remained a trifle suspect,
Des Esseintes found again in another poet, Theodore Hannon, a disciple
of Baudelaire and Gautier, moved by a very unusual sense of the
exquisite and the artificial.
Unlike Verlaine whose work was directly influenced by Baudelaire,
especially on the psychological side, in his insidious nuances of
thought and skilful quintessence of sentiment, Theodore Hannon
especially descended from the master on the plastic side, by the
external vision of persons and things.
His charming corruption fatally corresponded to the tendencies of Des
Esseintes who, on misty or rainy days, enclosed himself in the retreat
fancied by the poet and intoxicated his eyes with the rustlings of his
fabrics, with the incandescence of his stones, with his exclusively
material sumptuousness which ministered to cerebral reactions, and
rose like a cantharides powder in a cloud of fragrant incense toward a
Brussel idol with painted face and belly stained by the perfumes.
With the exception of the works of these poets and of Stephane
Mallarme, which his servant was told to place to one side so that he
might classify them separately, Des Esseintes was but slightly
attracted towards the poets.
Notwithstanding the majestic form and the imposing quality of his
verse which struck such a brilliant note that even the hexameters of
Hugo seemed pale in comparison, Leconte de Lisle could no longer
satisfy him. The antiquity so marvelously restored by Flaubert
remained cold and immobile in his hands. Nothing palpitated in his
verses, which lacked depth and which, most often, contained no idea.
Nothing moved in those gloomy, waste poems whose impassive mythologies
ended by finally leaving him cold. Too, after having long delighted in
Gautier, Des Esseintes reached the point where he no longer cared for
him. The admiration he felt for this man's incomparable painting had
gradually dissolved; now he was more astonished than ravished by his
descriptions. Objects impressed themselves upon Gautier's perceptive
eyes but they went no further, they never penetrated deeper into his
brain and flesh. Like a giant mirror, this writer constantly limited
himself to reflecting surrounding objects with impersonal clearness.
Certainly, Des Esseintes still loved the works of these two poets, as
he loved rare stones and precious objects, but none of the variations
of these perfect instrumentalists could hold him longer, neither being
evocative of revery, neither opening for him, at least, broad roads of
escape to beguile the tedium of dragging hours.
These two books left him unsatisfied. And it was the same with Hugo;
the oriental and patriarchal side was too conventional and barren to
detain him. And his manners, at once childish and that of a
grandfather, exasperated him. He had to go to the _Chansons des rues
et des bois_ to enjoy the perfect acrobatics of his metrics. But how
gladly, after all, would he not have exchanged all this _tour de
force_ for a new work by Baudelaire which might equal the others, for
he, decidedly, was almost the only one whose verses, under their
splendid form, contained a healing and nutritive substance. In passing
from one extreme to the other, from form deprived of ideas to ideas
deprived of form, Des Esseintes remained no less circumspect and cold.
The psychological labyrinths of Stendhal, the analytical detours of
Duranty seduced him, but their administrative, colorless and arid
language, their static prose, fit at best for the wretched industry of
the theatre, repelled him. Then their interesting works and their
astute analyses applied to brains agitated by passions in which he was
no longer interested. He was not at all concerned with general
affections or points of view, with associations of common ideas, now
that the reserve of his mind was more keenly developed and that he no
longer admitted aught but superfine sensations and catholic or sensual
torments. To enjoy a work which should combine, according to his
wishes, incisive style with penetrating and feline analysis, he had to
go to the master of induction, the profound and strange Edgar Allen
Poe, for whom, since the time when he re-read him, his preference had
More than any other, perhaps, he approached, by his intimate affinity,
Des Esseintes' meditative cast of mind.
If Baudelaire, in the hieroglyphics of the soul, had deciphered the
return of the age of sentiment and ideas, Poe, in the field of morbid
psychology had more especially investigated the domain of the soul.
Under the emblematic title, _The Demon of Perversity_, he had been the
first in literature to pry into the irresistible, unconscious impulses
of the will which mental pathology now explains more scientifically.
He had also been the first to divulge, if not to signal the impressive
influence of fear which acts on the will like an anaesthetic,
paralyzing sensibility and like the curare, stupefying the nerves. It
was on the problem of the lethargy of the will, that Poe had centered
his studies, analyzing the effects of this moral poison, indicating
the symptoms of its progress, the troubles commencing with anxiety,
continuing through anguish, ending finally in the terror which deadens
the will without intelligence succumbing, though sorely disturbed.
Death, which the dramatists had so much abused, he had in some manner
changed and made more poignant, by introducing an algebraic and
superhuman element; but in truth, it was less the real agony of the
dying person which he described and more the moral agony of the
survivor, haunted at the death bed by monstrous hallucinations
engendered by grief and fatigue. With a frightful fascination, he
dwelt on acts of terror, on the snapping of the will, coldly reasoning
about them, little by little making the reader gasp, suffocated and
panting before these feverish mechanically contrived nightmares.
Convulsed by hereditary neurosis, maddened by a moral St. Vitus dance,
Poe's creatures lived only through their nerves; his women, the
Morellas and Ligeias, possessed an immense erudition. They were
steeped in the mists of German philosophy and the cabalistic mysteries
of the old Orient; and all had the boyish and inert breasts of angels,
all were sexless.
Baudelaire and Poe, these two men who had often been compared because
of their common poetic strain and predilection for the examination of
mental maladies, differed radically in the affective conceptions which
held such a large place in their works; Baudelaire with his iniquitous
and debased loves--cruel loves which made one think of the reprisals
of an inquisition; Poe with his chaste, aerial loves, in which the
senses played no part, where only the mind functioned without
corresponding to organs which, if they existed, remained forever
frozen and virgin. This cerebral clinic where, vivisecting in a
stifling atmosphere, that spiritual surgeon became, as soon as his
attention flagged, a prey to an imagination which evoked, like
delicious miasmas, somnambulistic and angelic apparitions, was to Des
Esseintes a source of unwearying conjecture. But now that his nervous
disorders were augmented, days came when his readings broke his spirit
and when, hands trembling, body alert, like the desolate Usher he was
haunted by an unreasoning fear and a secret terror.
Thus he was compelled to moderate his desires, and he rarely touched
these fearful elixirs, in the same way that he could no longer with
impunity visit his red corridor and grow ecstatic at the sight of the
gloomy Odilon Redon prints and the Jan Luyken horrors. And yet, when
he felt inclined to read, all literature seemed to him dull after
these terrible American imported philtres. Then he betook himself to
Villiers de L'Isle Adam in whose scattered works he noted seditious
observations and spasmodic vibrations, but which no longer gave one,
with the exception of his Claire Lenoir, such troubling horror.
This Claire Lenoir which appeared in 1867 in the _Revue des lettres et
des arts_, opened a series of tales comprised under the title of
_Histoires Moroses_ where against a background of obscure speculations
borrowed from old Hegel, dislocated creatures stirred, Dr. Tribulat
Bonhomet, solemn and childish, a Claire Lenoir, farcical and sinister,
with blue spectacles, round and large as franc pieces, which covered
her almost dead eyes.
This story centered about a simple adultery and ended with an
inexpressible terror when Bonhomet, opening Claire's eyelids, as she
lies in her death bed, and penetrating them with monstrous plummets,
distinctively perceives the reflection of the husband brandishing the
lover's decapitated head, while shouting a war song, like a Kanaka.
Based on this more or less just observation that the eyes of certain
animals, cows for instance, preserve even to decomposition, like
photographic plates, the image of the beings and things their eyes
behold at the moment they expire, this story evidently derived from
Poe, from whom he appropriated the terrifying and elaborate technique.
This also applied to the _Intersigne_, which had later been joined to
the _Contes cruels_, a collection of indisputable talent in which was
found _Vera_, which Des Esseintes considered a little masterpiece.
Here, the hallucination was marked with an exquisite tenderness; no
longer was it the dark mirages of the American author, but the fluid,
warm, almost celestial vision; it was in an identical genre, the
reverse of the Beatrices and Legeias, those gloomy and dark phantoms
engendered by the inexorable nightmare of opium.
This story also put in play the operations of the will, but it no
longer treated of its defeats and helplessness under the effects of
fear; on the contrary, it studied the exaltations of the will under
the impulse of a fixed idea; it demonstrated its power which often
succeeded in saturating the atmosphere and in imposing its qualities
on surrounding objects.
Another book by Villiers de L'Isle Adam, _Isis_, seemed to him curious
in other respects. The philosophic medley of Clair Lenoir was evident
in this work which offered an unbelievable jumble of verbal and
troubled observations, souvenirs of old melodramas, poniards and rope
ladders--all the romanticism which Villiers de L'Isle Adam could never
rejuvenate in his _Elen_ and _Morgane_, forgotten pieces published by
an obscure man, Sieur Francisque Guyon.
The heroine of this book, Marquise Tullia Fabriana, reputed to have
assimilated the Chaldean science of the women of Edgar Allen Poe, and
the diplomatic sagacities of Stendhal, had the enigmatic countenance
of Bradamante abused by an antique Circe. These insoluble mixtures
developed a fuliginous vapor across which philosophic and literary
influences jostled, without being able to be regulated in the author's
brain when he wrote the prolegomenae of this work which could not have
embraced less than seven volumes.
But there was another side to Villiers' temperament. It was piercing
and acute in an altogether different sense--a side of forbidding
pleasantry and fierce raillery. No longer was it the paradoxical
mystifications of Poe, but a scoffing that had in it the lugubrious
and savage comedy which Swift possessed. A series of sketches, _les
Demoiselles de Bienfilatre_, _l'Affichage celeste_, _la Machine a
gloire_, and _le Plus beau diner du monde_, betrayed a singularly
inventive and keenly bantering mind. The whole order of contemporary
and utilitarian ideas, the whole commercialized baseness of the age
were glorified in stories whose poignant irony transported Des
No other French book had been written in this serious and bitter
style. At the most, a tale by Charles Cros, _La science de l'amour_,
printed long ago in the _Revue du Monde-Nouveau_, could astonish by
reason of its chemical whims, by its affected humor and by its coldly
facetious observations. But the pleasure to be extracted from the
story was merely relative, since its execution was a dismal failure.
The firm, colored and often original style of Villiers had disappeared
to give way to a mixture scraped on the literary bench of the
"Heavens! heavens! how few books are really worth re-reading," sighed
Des Esseintes, gazing at the servant who left the stool on which he
had been perched, to permit Des Esseintes to survey his books with a
Des Esseintes nodded his head. But two small books remained on the
table. With a sigh, he dismissed the old man, and turned over the
leaves of a volume bound in onager skin which had been glazed by a
hydraulic press and speckled with silver clouds. It was held together
by fly-leaves of old silk damask whose faint patterns held that charm
of faded things celebrated by Mallarme in an exquisite poem.
These pages, numbering nine, had been extracted from copies of the two
first Parnassian books; it was printed on parchment paper and preceded
by this title: _Quelques vers de Mallarme_, designed in a surprising
calligraphy in uncial letters, illuminated and relieved with gold, as
in old manuscripts.
Among the eleven poems brought together in these covers, several
invited him: _Les fenetres_, _l'epilogue_ and _Azur_; but one among
them all, a fragment of the _Herodiade_, held him at certain hours in
How often, beneath the lamp that threw a low light on the silent
chamber, had he not felt himself haunted by this Herodiade who, in the
work of Gustave Moreau, was now plunged in gloom revealing but a dim
white statue in a brazier extinguished by stones.
The darkness concealed the blood, the reflections and the golds, hid
the temple's farther sides, drowned the supernumeraries of the crime
enshrouded in their dead colors, and, only sparing the aquerelle
whites, revealed the woman's jewels and heightened her nudity.
At such times he was forced to gaze upon her unforgotten outlines; and
she lived for him, her lips articulating those bizarre and delicate
lines which Mallarme makes her utter:
Eau froide par l'ennui dans ton cadre
Que de fois, et pendant les heures,
Des songes et cherchant mes souvenirs
Comme des feuilles sous ta glace au
Je m'apparus en toi comme une ombre
Mais, horreur! des soirs, dans ta
J'ai de mon reve epars connu la nudite!
These lines he loved, as he loved the works of this poet who, in an
age of democracy devoted to lucre, lived his solitary and literary
life sheltered by his disdain from the encompassing stupidity,
delighting, far from society, in the surprises of the intellect, in
cerebral visions, refining on subtle ideas, grafting Byzantine
delicacies upon them, perpetuating them in suggestions lightly
connected by an almost imperceptible thread.
These twisted and precious ideas were bound together with an adhesive
and secret language full of phrase contractions, ellipses and bold
Perceiving the remotest analogies, with a single term which by an
effect of similitude at once gave the form, the perfume, the color and
the quality, he described the object or being to which otherwise he
would have been compelled to place numerous and different epithets so
as to disengage all their facets and nuances, had he simply contented
himself with indicating the technical name. Thus he succeeded in
dispensing with the comparison, which formed in the reader's mind by
analogy as soon as the symbol was understood. Neither was the
attention of the reader diverted by the enumeration of the qualities
which the juxtaposition of adjectives would have induced.
Concentrating upon a single word, he produced, as for a picture, the
ensemble, a unique and complete aspect.
It became a concentrated literature, an essential unity, a sublimate
of art. This style was at first employed with restraint in his earlier
works, but Mallarme had boldly proclaimed it in a verse on Theophile
Gautier and in _l'Apres-midi du faune_, an eclogue where the
subtleties of sensual joys are described in mysterious and caressing
verses suddenly pierced by this wild, rending faun cry:
Alors m'eveillerai-je a la ferveur
Droit et seul sous un flot antique de
Lys! et l'un de vous tous pour
That line with the monosyllable _lys_ like a sprig, evoked the image
of something rigid, slender and white; it rhymed with the substantive
_ingenuite_, allegorically expressing, by a single term, the passion,
the effervescence, the fugitive mood of a virgin faun amorously
distracted by the sight of nymphs.
In this extraordinary poem, surprising and unthought of images leaped
up at the end of each line, when the poet described the elations and
regrets of the faun contemplating, at the edge of a fen, the tufts of
reeds still preserving, in its transitory mould, the form made by the
naiades who had occupied it.
Then, Des Esseintes also experienced insidious delights in touching
this diminutive book whose cover of Japan vellum, as white as curdled
milk, were held together by two silk bands, one of Chinese rose, the