other of black.
Hidden behind the cover, the black band rejoined the rose which rested like a touch of modern Japanese paint or like a lascivious adjutant against the antique white, against the candid carnation tint of the book, and enlaced it, united its sombre color with the light color into a light rosette. It insinuated a faint warning of that regret, a vague menace of that sadness which succeeds the ended transports and the calmed excitements of the senses.
Des Esseintes placed _l’Apres-midi du faune_ on the table and examined another little book he had printed, an anthology of prose poems, a tiny chapel, placed under the invocation of Baudelaire and opening on the parvise of his poems.
This anthology comprised a selection of _Gaspard de la nuit_ of that fantastic Aloysius Bertrand who had transferred the behavior of Leonard in prose and, with his metallic oxydes, painted little pictures whose vivid colors sparkle like those of clear enamels. To this, Des Esseintes had joined _le Vox populi_ of Villiers, a superb piece of work in a hammered, golden style after the manner of Leconte de Lisle and of Flaubert, and some selections from that delicate _livre de Jade_ whose exotic perfume of ginseng and of tea blends with the odorous freshness of water babbling along the book, under moonlight.
But in this collection had been gathered certain poems resurrected from defunct reviews: _le Demon de l’analogie_, _la Pipe_, _le Pauvre enfant pale_, _le Spectacle interrompu_, _le Phenomene futur_, and especially _Plaintes d’automne_ and _Frisson d’hiver_ which were Mallarme’s masterpieces and were also celebrated among the masterpieces of prose poems, for they united such a magnificently delicate language that they cradled, like a melancholy incantation or a maddening melody, thoughts of an irresistible suggestiveness, pulsations of the soul of a sensitive person whose excited nerves vibrate with a keenness which penetrates ravishingly and induces a sadness.
Of all the forms of literature, that of the prose poem was the form Des Esseintes preferred. Handled by an alchemist of genius, it contained in its slender volume the strength of the novel whose analytic developments and descriptive redundancies it suppressed. Quite often, Des Esseintes had meditated on that disquieting problem–to write a novel concentrated in a few phrases which should contain the essence of hundreds of pages always employed to establish the setting, to sketch the characters, and to pile up observations and minute details. Then the chosen words would be so unexchangeable that they would do duty for many others, the adjective placed in such an ingenious and definite fashion that it could not be displaced, opening such perspectives that the reader could dream for whole weeks on its sense at once precise and complex, could record the present, reconstruct the past, divine the future of the souls of the characters, revealed by the gleams of this unique epithet.
Thus conceived and condensed in a page or two, the novel could become a communion of thought between a magical writer and an ideal reader, a spiritual collaboration agreed to between ten superior persons scattered throughout the universe, a delight offered to the refined, and accessible to them alone.
To Des Esseintes, the prose poem represented the concrete juice of literature, the essential oil of art.
That succulence, developed and concentrated into a drop, already existed in Baudelaire and in those poems of Mallarme which he read with such deep joy.
When he had closed his anthology, Des Esseintes told himself that his books which had ended on this last book, would probably never have anything added to it.
In fact, the decadence of a literature, irreparably affected in its organism, enfeebled by old ideas, exhausted by excesses of syntax, sensitive only to the curiosities which make sick persons feverish, and yet intent upon expressing everything in its decline, eager to repair all the omissions of enjoyment, to bequeath the most subtle memories of grief in its death bed, was incarnate in Mallarme, in the most perfect exquisite manner imaginable.
Here were the quintessences of Baudelaire and of Poe; here were their fine and powerful substances distilled and disengaging new flavors and intoxications.
It was the agony of the old language which, after having become moldy from age to age, ended by dissolving, by reaching that deliquescence of the Latin language which expired in the mysterious concepts and the enigmatical expressions of Saint Boniface and Saint Adhelme.
The decomposition of the French language had been effected suddenly. In the Latin language, a long transition, a distance of four hundred years existed between the spotted and superb epithet of Claudian and Rutilius and the gamy epithet of the eighth century. In the French language, no lapse of time, no succession of ages had taken place; the stained and superb style of the de Goncourts and the gamy style of Verlaine and Mallarme jostled in Paris, living in the same period, epoch and century.
And Des Esseintes, gazing at one of the folios opened on his chapel desk, smiled at the thought that the moment would soon come when an erudite scholar would prepare for the decadence of the French language a glossary similar to that in which the savant, Du Cange, has noted the last murmurings, the last spasms, the last flashes of the Latin language dying of old age in the cloisters and sounding its death rattle.
Burning at first like a rick on fire, his enthusiasm for the digester as quickly died out. Torpid at first, his nervous dyspepsia reappeared, and then this hot essence induced such an irritation in his stomach that Des Esseintes was quickly compelled to stop using it.
The malady increased in strength; peculiar symptoms attended it. After the nightmares, hallucinations of smell, pains in the eye and deep coughing which recurred with clock-like regularity, after the pounding of his heart and arteries and the cold perspiration, arose illusions of hearing, those alterations which only reveal themselves in the last period of sickness.
Attacked by a strong fever, Des Esseintes suddenly heard murmurings of water; then those sounds united into one and resembled a roaring which increased and then slowly resolved itself into a silvery bell sound.
He felt his delirious brain whirling in musical waves, engulfed in the mystic whirlwinds of his infancy. The songs learned at the Jesuits reappeared, bringing with them pictures of the school and the chapel where they had resounded, driving their hallucinations to the olfactory and visual organs, veiling them with clouds of incense and the pallid light irradiating through the stained-glass windows, under the lofty arches.
At the Fathers, the religious ceremonies had been practiced with great pomp. An excellent organist and remarkable singing director made an artistic delight of these spiritual exercises that were conducive to worship. The organist was in love with the old masters and on holidays celebrated masses by Palestrina and Orlando Lasso, psalms by Marcello, oratorios by Handel, motets by Bach; he preferred to render the sweet and facile compilations of Father Lambillotte so much favored by priests, the “Laudi Spirituali” of the sixteenth century whose sacerdotal beauty had often bewitched Des Esseintes.
But he particularly extracted ineffable pleasures while listening to the plain-chant which the organist had preserved regardless of new ideas.
That form which was now considered a decrepit and Gothic form of Christian liturgy, an archaeological curiosity, a relic of ancient time, had been the voice of the early Church, the soul of the Middle Age. It was the eternal prayer that had been sung and modulated in harmony with the soul’s transports, the enduring hymn uplifted for centuries to the Almighty.
That traditional melody was the only one which, with its strong unison, its solemn and massive harmonies, like freestone, was not out of place with the old basilicas, making eloquent the Romanesque vaults, whose emanation and very spirit they seemed to be.
How often had Des Esseintes not thrilled under its spell, when the “Christus factus est” of the Gregorian chant rose from the nave whose pillars seemed to tremble among the rolling clouds from censers, or when the “De Profundis” was sung, sad and mournful as a suppressed sob, poignant as a despairing invocation of humanity bewailing its mortal destiny and imploring the tender forgiveness of its Savior!
All religious music seemed profane to him compared with that magnificent chant created by the genius of the Church, anonymous as the organ whose inventor is unknown. At bottom, in the works of Jomelli and Porpora, Carissimi and Durante, in the most wonderful compositions of Handel and Bach, there was never a hint of a renunciation of public success, or the sacrifice of an effect of art, or the abdication of human pride hearkening to its own prayer.
At the most, the religious style, august and solemn, had crystallized in Lesueur’s imposing masses celebrated at Saint-Roch, tending to approach the severe nudity and austere majesty of the old plain-chant.
Since then, absolutely revolted by these pretexts at _Stabat Maters_ devised by the Pergolesis and the Rossinis, by this intrusion of profane art in liturgic art, Des Esseintes had shunned those ambiguous works tolerated by the indulgent Church.
In addition, this weakness brought about by the desire for large congregations had quickly resulted in the adoption of songs borrowed from Italian operas, of low cavatinas and indecent quadrilles played in churches converted to boudoirs and surrendered to stage actors whose voices resounded aloft, their impurity tainting the tones of the holy organ.
For years he had obstinately refused to take part in these pious entertainments, contenting himself with his memories of childhood. He even regretted having heard the _Te Deum_ of the great masters, for he remembered that admirable plain-chant, that hymn so simple and solemn composed by some unknown saint, a Saint Ambrose or Hilary who, lacking the complicated resources of an orchestra and the musical mechanics of modern science, revealed an ardent faith, a delirious jubilation, uttered, from the soul of humanity, in the piercing and almost celestial accents of conviction.
Des Esseintes’ ideas on music were in flagrant contradiction with the theories he professed regarding the other arts. In religious music, he approved only of the monastic music of the Middle Ages, that emaciated music which instinctively reacted on his nerves like certain pages of the old Christian Latin. Then (he freely confessed it) he was incapable of understanding the tricks that the contemporary masters had introduced into Catholic art. And he had not studied music with that passion which had led him towards painting and letters. He played indifferently on the piano and after many painful attempts had succeeded in reading a score, but he was ignorant of harmony, of the technique needed really to understand a nuance, to appreciate a finesse, to savor a refinement with full comprehension.
In other respects, when not read in solitude, profane music is a promiscuous art. To enjoy music, one must become part of that public which fills the theatres where, in a vile atmosphere, one perceives a loutish-looking man butchering episodes from Wagner, to the huge delight of the ignorant mob.
He had always lacked the courage to plunge in this mob-bath so as to listen to Berlioz’ compositions, several fragments of which had bewitched him by their passionate exaltations and their vigorous fugues, and he was certain that there was not one single scene, not even a phrase of one of the operas of the amazing Wagner which could with impunity be detached from its whole.
The fragments, cut and served on the plate of a concert, lost all significance and remained senseless, since (like the chapters of a book, completing each other and moving to an inevitable conclusion) Wagner’s melodies were necessary to sketch the characters, to incarnate their thoughts and to express their apparent or secret motives. He knew that their ingenious and persistent returns were understood only by the auditors who followed the subject from the beginning and gradually beheld the characters in relief, in a setting from which they could not be removed without dying, like branches torn from a tree.
That was why he felt that, among the vulgar herd of melomaniacs enthusing each Sunday on benches, scarcely any knew the score that was being massacred, when the ushers consented to be silent and permit the orchestra to be heard.
Granted also that intelligent patriotism forbade a French theatre to give a Wagnerian opera, the only thing left to the curious who know nothing of musical arcana and either cannot or will not betake themselves to Bayreuth, is to remain at home. And that was precisely the course of conduct he had pursued.
The more public and facile music and the independent pieces of the old operas hardly interested him; the wretched trills of Auber and Boieldieu, of Adam and Flotow and the rhetorical commonplaces of Ambroise Thomas and the Bazins disgusted him as did the superannuated affectations and vulgar graces of Italians. That was why he had resolutely broken with musical art, and during the years of his abstention, he pleasurably recalled only certain programs of chamber music when he had heard Beethoven, and especially Schumann and Schubert which had affected his nerves in the same manner as had the more intimate and troubling poems of Edgar Allen Poe.
Some of Schubert’s parts for violoncello had positively left him panting, in the grip of hysteria. But it was particularly Schubert’s lieders that had immeasurably excited him, causing him to experience similar sensations as after a waste of nervous fluid, or a mystic dissipation of the soul.
This music penetrated and drove back an infinity of forgotten sufferings and spleen in his heart. He was astonished at being able to contain so many dim miseries and vague griefs. This desolate music, crying from the inmost depths, terrified while charming him. Never could he repeat the “Young Girl’s Lament” without a welling of tears in his eyes, for in this plaint resided something beyond a mere broken-hearted state; something in it clutched him, something like a romance ending in a gloomy landscape.
And always, when these exquisite, sad plaints returned to his lips, there was evoked for him a suburban, flinty and gloomy site where a succession of silent bent persons, harassed by life, filed past into the twilight, while, steeped in bitterness and overflowing with disgust, he felt himself solitary in this dejected landscape, struck by an inexpressibly melancholy and stubborn distress whose mysterious intensity excluded all consolation, pity and repose. Like a funeral-knell, this despairing chant haunted him, now that he was in bed, prostrated by fever and agitated by an anxiety so much the more inappeasable for the fact that he could not discover its cause. He ended by abandoning himself to the torrent of anguishes suddenly dammed by the chant of psalms slowly rising in his tortured head.
One morning, nevertheless, he felt more tranquil and requested the servant to bring a looking-glass. It fell from his hands. He hardly recognized himself. His face was a clay color, the lips bloated and dry, the tongue parched, the skin rough. His hair and beard, untended since his illness by the domestic, added to the horror of the sunken face and staring eyes burning with feverish intensity in this skeleton head that bristled with hair. More than his weakness, more than his vomitings which began with each attempt at taking nourishment, more than his emaciation, did his changed visage terrify him. He felt lost. Then, in the dejection which overcame him, a sudden energy forced him in a sitting posture. He had strength to write a letter to his Paris physician and to order the servant to depart instantly, seek and bring him back that very day.
He passed suddenly from complete depression into boundless hope. This physician was a celebrated specialist, a doctor renowned for his cures of nervous maladies “He must have cured many more dangerous cases than mine,” Des Esseintes reflected. “I shall certainly be on my feet in a few days.” Disenchantment succeeded his confidence. Learned and intuitive though they be, physicians know absolutely nothing of neurotic diseases, being ignorant of their origins. Like the others, this one would prescribe the eternal oxyde of zinc and quinine, bromide of potassium and valerian. He had recourse to another thought: “If these remedies have availed me little in the past, could it not be due to the fact that I have not taken the right quantities?”
In spite of everything, this expectation of being cured cheered him, but then a new fear entered. His servant might have failed to find the physician. Again he grew faint, passing instantly from the most unreasoning hopes to the most baseless fears, exaggerating the chances of a sudden recovery and his apprehensions of danger. The hours passed and the moment came when, in utter despair and convinced that the physician would not arrive, he angrily told himself that he certainly would have been saved, had he acted sooner. Then his rage against the servant and the physician whom he accused of permitting him to die, vanished, and he ended by reproaching himself for having waited so long before seeking aid, persuading himself that he would now be wholly cured had he that very last evening used the medicine.
Little by little, these alternations of hope and alarms jostling in his poor head, abated. The struggles ended by crushing him, and he relapsed into exhausted sleep interrupted by incoherent dreams, a sort of syncope pierced by awakenings in which he was barely conscious of anything. He had reached such a state where he lost all idea of desires and fears, and he was stupefied, experiencing neither astonishment or joy, when the physician suddenly arrived.
The doctor had doubtless been apprised by the servant of Des Esseintes’ mode of living and of the various symptoms observed since the day when the master of the house had been found near the window, overwhelmed by the violence of perfumes. He put very few questions to the patient whom he had known for many years. He felt his pulse and attentively studied the urine where certain white spots revealed one of the determining causes of nervousness. He wrote a prescription and left without saying more than that he would soon return.
This visit comforted Des Esseintes who none the less was frightened by the taciturnity observed; he adjured his servant not to conceal the truth from him any longer. But the servant declared that the doctor had exhibited no uneasiness, and despite his suspicions, Des Esseintes could seize upon no sign that might betray a shadow of a lie on the tranquil countenance of the old man.
Then his thoughts began to obsess him less; his suffering disappeared and to the exhaustion he had felt throughout his members was grafted a certain indescribable languor. He was astonished and satisfied not to be weighted with drugs and vials, and a faint smile played on his lips when the servant brought a nourishing injection of peptone and told him he was to take it three times every twenty-four hours.
The operation succeeded and Des Esseintes could not forbear to congratulate himself on this event which in a manner crowned the existence he had created. His penchant towards the artificial had now, though involuntarily, reached the supreme goal.
Farther one could not go. The nourishment thus absorbed was the ultimate deviation one could possibly commit.
“How delicious it would be” he reflected, “to continue this simple regime in complete health! What economy of time, what a pronounced deliverance from the aversion which food gives those who lack appetite! What a complete riddance from the disgust induced by food forcibly eaten! What an energetic protestation against the vile sin of gluttony, what a positive insult hurled at old nature whose monotonous demands would thus be avoided.”
And he continued, talking to himself half-aloud. One could easily stimulate desire for food by swallowing a strong aperitif. After the question, “what time is it getting to be? I am famished,” one would move to the table and place the instrument on the cloth, and then, in the time it takes to say grace, one could have suppressed the tiresome and vulgar demands of the body.
Several days afterwards, the servant presented an injection whose color and odor differed from the other.
“But it is not the same at all!” Des Esseintes cried, gazing with deep feeling at the liquid poured into the apparatus. As if in a restaurant, he asked for the card, and unfolding the physician’s prescription, read:
Cod Liver Oil . . . . . . . . 20 grammes Beef Tea . . . . . . . . . . 200 grammes Burgundy Wine . . . . . . . . 200 grammes Yolk of one egg.
He remained meditative. He who by reason of the weakened state of his stomach had never seriously preoccupied himself with the art of the cuisine, was surprised to find himself thinking of combinations to please an artificial epicure. Then a strange idea crossed his brain. Perhaps the physician had imagined that the strange palate of his patient was fatigued by the taste of the peptone; perhaps he had wished, like a clever chef, to vary the taste of foods and to prevent the monotony of dishes that might lead to want of appetite. Once in the wake of these reflections, Des Esseintes sketched new recipes, preparing vegetable dinners for Fridays, using the dose of cod liver oil and wine, dismissing the beef tea as a meat food specially prohibited by the Church. But he had no occasion longer to ruminate on these nourishing drinks, for the physician succeeded gradually in curing the vomiting attacks, and he was soon swallowing, in the normal manner, a syrup of punch containing a pulverized meat whose faint aroma of cacao pleased his palate.
Weeks passed before his stomach decided to function. The nausea returned at certain moments, but these attacks were disposed of by ginger ale and Rivieres’ antiemetic drink.
Finally the organs were restored. Meats were digested with the aid of pepsines. Recovering strength, he was able to stand up and attempt to walk, leaning on a cane and supporting himself on the furniture. Instead of being thankful over his success, he forgot his past pains, grew irritated at the length of time needed for convalescence and reproached the doctor for not effecting a more rapid cure.
At last the day came when he could remain standing for whole afternoons. Then his study irritated him. Certain blemishes it possessed, and which habit had accustomed him to overlook, now were apparent. The colors chosen to be seen by lamp-light seemed discordant in full day. He thought of changing them and for whole hours he combined rebellious harmonies of hues, hybrid pairings of cloth and leathers.
“I am certainly on the road to recovery,” he reflected, taking note of his old hobbies.
One morning, while contemplating his orange and blue walls, considering some ideal tapestries worked with stoles of the Greek Church, dreaming of Russian orphrey dalmaticas and brocaded copes flowered with Slavonic letters done in Ural stones and rows of pearls, the physician entered and, noticing the patient’s eyes, questioned him.
Des Esseintes spoke of his unrealizable longings. He commenced to contrive new color schemes, to talk of harmonies and discords of tones he meant to produce, when the doctor stunned him by peremptorily announcing that these projects would never be executed here.
And, without giving him time to catch breath, he informed Des Esseintes that he had done his utmost in re-establishing the digestive functions and that now it was necessary to attack the neurosis which was by no means cured and which would necessitate years of diet and care. He added that before attempting a cure, before commencing any hydrotherapic treatment, impossible of execution at Fontenay, Des Esseintes must quit that solitude, return to Paris, and live an ordinary mode of existence by amusing himself like others.
“But the pleasures of others will not amuse me,” Des Esseintes indignantly cried.
Without debating the matter, the doctor merely asserted that this radical change was, in his eyes, a question of life or death, a question of health or insanity possibly complicated in the near future by tuberculosis.
“So it is a choice between death and the hulks!” Des Esseintes exasperatedly exclaimed.
The doctor, who was imbued with all the prejudices of a man of the world, smiled and reached the door without saying a word.
Des Esseintes locked himself up in his bedroom, closing his ears to the sounds of hammers on packing cases. Each stroke rent his heart, drove a sorrow into his flesh. The physician’s order was being fulfilled; the fear of once more submitting to the pains he had endured, the fear of a frightful agony had acted more powerfully on Des Esseintes than the hatred of the detestable existence to which the medical order condemned him.
Yet he told himself there were people who live without conversing with anyone, absorbed far from the world in their own affairs, like recluses and trappists, and there is nothing to prove that these wretches and sages become madmen or consumptives. He had unsuccessfully cited these examples to the doctor; the latter had repeated, coldly and firmly, in a tone that admitted of no reply, that his verdict, (confirmed besides by consultation with all the experts on neurosis) was that distraction, amusement, pleasure alone might make an impression on this malady whose spiritual side eluded all remedy; and made impatient by the recriminations of his patient, he for the last time declared that he would refuse to continue treating him if he did not consent to a change of air, and live under new hygienic conditions.
Des Esseintes had instantly betaken himself to Paris, had consulted other specialists, had impartially put the case before them. All having unhesitatingly approved of the action of their colleague, he had rented an apartment in a new house, had returned to Fontenay and, white with rage, had given orders to have his trunks packed.
Sunk in his easy chair, he now ruminated upon that unyielding order which was wrecking his plans, breaking the strings of his present life and overturning his future plans. His beatitude was ended. He was compelled to abandon this sheltering haven and return at full speed into the stupidity which had once attacked him.
The physicians spoke of amusement and distraction. With whom, and with what did they wish him to distract and amuse himself?
Had he not banished himself from society? Did he know a single person whose existence would approximate his in seclusion and contemplation? Did he know a man capable of appreciating the fineness of a phrase, the subtlety of a painting, the quintessence of an idea,–a man whose soul was delicate and exquisite enough to understand Mallarme and love Verlaine?
Where and when must he search to discover a twin spirit, a soul detached from commonplaces, blessing silence as a benefit, ingratitude as a solace, contempt as a refuge and port?
In the world where he had dwelt before his departure for Fontenay? But most of the county squires he had associated with must since have stultified themselves near card tables or ended upon the lips of women; most by this time must have married; after having enjoyed, during their life, the spoils of cads, their spouses now possessed the remains of strumpets, for, master of first-fruits, the people alone waste nothing.
“A pretty change–this custom adopted by a prudish society!” Des Esseintes reflected.
The nobility had died, the aristocracy had marched to imbecility or ordure! It was extinguished in the corruption of its descendants whose faculties grew weaker with each generation and ended in the instincts of gorillas fermented in the brains of grooms and jockeys; or rather, as with the Choiseul-Praslins, Polignacs and Chevreuses, wallowed in the mud of lawsuits which made it equal the other classes in turpitude.
The mansions themselves, the secular escutcheons, the heraldic deportment of this antique caste had disappeared. The land no longer yielding anything was put up for sale, money being needed to procure the venereal witchcraft for the besotted descendants of the old races.
The less scrupulous and stupid threw aside all sense of shame. They weltered in the mire of fraud and deceit, behaved like cheap sharpers.
This eagerness for gain, this lust for lucre had even reacted on that other class which had constantly supported itself on the nobility–the clergy. Now one perceived, in newspapers, announcements of corn cures by priests. The monasteries had changed into apothecary or liqueur workrooms. They sold recipes or manufactured products: the Citeaux order, chocolate; the trappists, semolina; the Maristes Brothers, biphosphate of medicinal lime and arquebuse water; the jacobins, an anti-apoplectic elixir; the disciples of Saint Benoit, benedictine; the friars of Saint Bruno, chartreuse.
Business had invaded the cloisters where, in place of antiphonaries, heavy ledgers reposed on reading-desks. Like leprosy, the avidity of the age was ravaging the Church, weighing down the monks with inventories and invoices.
And yet, in spite of everything, it was only among the ecclesiastics that Des Esseintes could hope for pleasurable contract. In the society of well-bred and learned canons, he would have been compelled to share their faith, to refrain from floating between sceptical ideas and transports of conviction which rose from time to time on the water, sustained by recollections of childhood.
He would have had to muster identical opinions and never admit (he freely did in his ardent moments) a Catholicism charged with a soupcon of magic, as under Henry the Third, and with a dash of sadism, as at the end of the last century. This special clericalism, this depraved and artistically perverse mysticism towards which he wended could not even be discussed with a priest who would not have understood them or who would have banished them with horror.
For the twentieth time, this irresolvable problem troubled him. He would have desired an end to this irresolute state in which he floundered. Now that he was pursuing a changed life, he would have liked to possess faith, to incrust it as soon as seized, to screw it into his soul, to shield it finally from all those reflections which uprooted and agitated it. But the more he desired it and the less his emptiness of spirit was evident, the more Christ’s visitation receded. As his religious hunger augmented and he gazed eagerly at this faith visible but so far off that the distance terrified him, ideas pressed upon his active mind, driving back his will, rejecting, by common sense and mathematical proofs, the mysteries and dogmas. He sadly told himself that he would have to find a way to abstain from self-discussion. He would have to learn how to close his eyes and let himself be swept along by the current, forgetting those accursed discoveries which have destroyed the religious edifice, from top to bottom, since the last two centuries.
He sighed. It is neither the physiologists nor the infidels that demolish Catholicism, but the priests, whose stupid works could extirpate convictions the most steadfast.
A Dominican friar, Rouard de Card, had proved in a brochure entitled “On the Adulteration of Sacramental Substances” that most masses were not valid, because the elements used for worship had been adulterated by the manufacturers.
For years, the holy oils had been adulterated with chicken fat; wax, with burned bones; incense, with cheap resin and benzoin. But the thing that was worse was that the substances, indispensable to the holy sacrifice, the two substances without which no oblation is possible, had also been debased: the wine, by numerous dilutions and by illicit introductions of Pernambuco wood, danewort berries, alcohol and alum; the bread of the Eucharist that must be kneaded with the fine flour of wheat, by kidney beans, potash and pipe clay.
But they had gone even farther. They had dared suppress the wheat and shameless dealers were making almost all the Host with the fecula of potatoes.
Now, God refused to descend into the fecula. It was an undeniable fact and a certain one. In the second volume of his treatise on moral theology, Cardinal Gousset had dwelt at length on this question of the fraud practiced from the divine point of view. And, according to the incontestable authority of this master, one could not consecrate bread made of flour of oats, buckwheat or barley, and if the matter of using rye be less doubtful, no argument was possible in regard to the fecula which, according to the ecclesiastic expression, was in no way fit for sacramental purposes.
By means of the rapid manipulation of the fecula and the beautiful appearance presented by the unleavened breads created with this element, the shameless imposture had been so propagated that now the mystery of the transubstantiation hardly existed any longer and the priests and faithful were holding communion, without being aware of it, with neutral elements.
Ah! far off was the time when Radegonda, Queen of France, had with her own hands prepared the bread destined for the alters, or the time when, after the customs of Cluny, three priests or deacons, fasting and garbed in alb and amice, washed their faces and hands and then picked out the wheat, grain by grain, grinding it under millstone, kneading the paste in a cold and pure water and themselves baking it under a clear fire, while chanting psalms.
“All this matter of eternal dupery,” Des Esseintes reflected, “is not conducive to the steadying of my already weakened faith. And how admit that omnipotence which stops at such a trifle as a pinch of fecula or a soupcon of alcohol?”
These reflections all the more threw a gloom over the view of his future life and rendered his horizon more menacing and dark.
He was lost, utterly lost. What would become of him in this Paris where he had neither family nor friends? No bond united him to the Saint-Germain quarters now in its dotage, scaling into the dust of desuetude, buried in a new society like an empty husk. And what contact could exist between him and that bourgeois class which had gradually climbed up, profiting by all the disasters to grow rich, making use of all the catastrophes to impose respect on its crimes and thefts.
After the aristocracy of birth had come the aristocracy of money. Now one saw the reign of the caliphates of commerce, the despotism of the rue du Sentier, the tyranny of trade, bringing in its train venal narrow ideas, knavish and vain instincts.
Viler and more dishonest than the nobility despoiled and the decayed clergy, the bourgeoisie borrowed their frivolous ostentations, their braggadoccio, degrading these qualities by its lack of _savoir-vivre_; the bourgeoisie stole their faults and converted them into hypocritical vices. And, authoritative and sly, low and cowardly, it pitilessly attacked its eternal and necessary dupe, the populace, unmuzzled and placed in ambush so as to be in readiness to assault the old castes.
It was now an acknowledged fact. Its task once terminated, the proletariat had been bled, supposedly as a measure of hygiene. The bourgeoisie, reassured, strutted about in good humor, thanks to its wealth and the contagion of its stupidity. The result of its accession to power had been the destruction of all intelligence, the negation of all honesty, the death of all art, and, in fact, the debased artists had fallen on their knees, and they eagerly kissed the dirty feet of the eminent jobbers and low satraps whose alms permitted them to live.
In painting, one now beheld a deluge of silliness; in literature, an intemperate mixture of dull style and cowardly ideas, for they had to credit the business man with honesty, the buccaneer who purchased a dot for his son and refused to pay that of his daughter, with virtue; chaste love to the Voltairian agnostic who accused the clergy of rapes and then went hypocritically and stupidly to sniff, in the obscene chambers.
It was the great American hulks transported to our continent. It was the immense, the profound, the incommensurable peasantry of the financier and the parvenu, beaming, like a pitiful sun, upon the idolatrous town which wallowed on the ground the while it uttered impure psalms before the impious tabernacle of banks.
“Well, then, society, crash to ruin! Die, aged world!” cried Des Esseintes, angered by the ignominy of the spectacle he had evoked. This cry of hate broke the nightmare that oppressed him.
“Ah!” he exclaimed, “To think that all this is not a dream, to think that I am going to return into the cowardly and servile crowd of this century!” To console himself, he recalled the comforting maxims of Schopenhauer, and repeated to himself the sad axiom of Pascal: “The soul is pained by all things it thinks upon.” But the words resounded in his mind like sounds deprived of sense; his ennui disintegrated, lifting all significance from the words, all healing virtue, all effective and gentle vigor.
He came at last to perceive that the reasonings of pessimism availed little in comforting him, that impossible faith in a future life alone would pacify him.
An access of rage swept aside, like a hurricane, his attempts at resignation and indifference. He could no longer conceal the hideous truth–nothing was left, all was in ruins. The bourgeoisie were gormandizing on the solemn ruins of the Church which had become a place of rendez-vous, a mass of rubbish, soiled by petty puns and scandalous jests. Were the terrible God of Genesis and the Pale Christ of Golgotha not going to prove their existence by commanding the cataclysms of yore, by rekindling the flames that once consumed the sinful cities? Was this degradation to continue to flow and cover with its pestilence the old world planted with seeds of iniquities and shames?
The door was suddenly opened. Clean-shaved men appeared, bringing chests and carrying the furniture; then the door closed once more on the servant who was removing packages of books.
Des Esseintes sank into a chair.
“I shall be in Paris in two days. Well, all is finished. The waves of human mediocrity rise to the sky and they will engulf the refuge whose dams I open. Ah! courage leaves me, my heart breaks! O Lord, pity the Christian who doubts, the sceptic who would believe, the convict of life embarking alone in the night, under a sky no longer illumined by the consoling beacons of ancient faith.”