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 poured.
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 by 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 himself.
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 excursion!”
“Well!” he exclaimed, consulting his watch, “it is now time to return home.”
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 purchased them.
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 ordinarily penetrating.
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 itself.
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 women.
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 taste.
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 Christian.’
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 audacious.
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 years.
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 clerical literature.
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 a saint.
But the true temperament of the writer was betrayed in the two brochures which appeared in 1848 and 1880, the latter entitled _l’Unite nationale_.
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 sarcasms.
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 doctrines.
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 of memory.
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 prophet.
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 more relentlessly.
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 ultramontaine stables.
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 reveries.
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 heavy air.
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 and deafening.
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 his cellar.
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 paper weight.
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 enchanted him.
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 the table.
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 affection.
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 undefinable.
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 to analyze.
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 _Assommoir_.
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 him so.
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 his own.
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 satiety.
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 complex needs.
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 put away.
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 refractory.
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 bras,
Dirent alors des mots si specieux tout bas,
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 of
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 never wavered.
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 Esseintes.
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 first-comer.
“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 single glance.
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 a spell.
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 gelee
Que de fois, et pendant les heures, desolee
Des songes et cherchant mes souvenirs qui sont
Comme des feuilles sous ta glace au trou profond,
Je m’apparus en toi comme une ombre lointaine!
Mais, horreur! des soirs, dans ta severe fontaine,
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 tropes.
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 lumiere,
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