IN trying to represent the man who wrote the extraordinary books grouped around A Rebours and En Route, I find myself carried back to the decline of the Latin world. I recall those restless Africans who were drawn into the vortex of decadent Rome, who absorbed its corruptions with all the barbaric fervour of their race, and then with a more natural impetus of that youthful fervour threw themselves into the young current of Christianity, yet retaining in their flesh the brand of an exotic culture. Tertullian, Augustine, and the rest gained much of their power, as well as their charm, because they incarnated a fantastic mingling of youth and age, of decayed Latinity, of tumultuously youthful Christianity. Huysmans, too, incarnates the old and the new, but with a curious, a very vital difference. Today the rôles are reversed; it is another culture that is now young, with its aspirations after human perfection and social solidarity, while Christianity has exchanged the robust beauty of youth for the subtler beauty of age. “The most perfect analogy to our time which I can find,” wrote Renan to his sister amid the tumults of Paris in 1848, a few weeks after Huysmans had been born in the same city, “is the moment when Christianity and paganism stood face to face.” Huysmans had wandered from ancestral haunts of mediaeval peace into the forefront of the struggles of our day, bringing the clear, refined perceptions of old culture to the intensest vision of the modern world yet attained, but never at rest, never once grasping except on the purely aesthetic side of the significance of the new age, always haunted by the memory of the past and perpetually feeling his way back to what seems to him the home of his soul. — The fervent seeker of those early days, indeed, but À rebours!
This is scarcely a mere impression; one might be tempted to say that it is strictly the formula of this complex and interesting personality. Coming on the maternal side from an ordinary Parisian bourgeois stock, though there chanced to be a sculptor even along this line, on the paternal side he belongs to an alien aristocracy of art. From father to son his ancestors were painters, of whom at least one, Cornelius Huysmans, still figures honourably in our public galleries, while the last of them left Breda to take up his domicile in Paris. Here his son, Joris Karl, has been the first of the race to use the pen instead of the brush, yet retaining precisely those characters of “veracity of imitation, jewel-like richness of colour, perfection of finish, emphasis of character,” which their historian finds in the painters of his land from the fourteenth century onwards. Where the Meuse approaches the Rhine valley we find the home of the men who, almost alone in the north, created painting and the arts that are grouped around painting, and evolved religious music. On the side of art the Church had found its chief builders in the men of these valleys, and even on the spiritual side also, for here is the northern home of mysticism. Their latest child has fixed his attention on the feverish activities of Paris with the concentrated gaze of a stranger in a strange land, held by a fascination which is more than half repulsion, always missing something, he scarcely knows what. He has ever been seeking the satisfaction he had missed, sometimes in the aesthetic vision of common things, sometimes in the refined Thebaïd of his own visions, at length more joyfully in the survivals of mediaeval mysticism. Yet as those early Africans still retained their acquired Roman instincts, and that fantastic style which could not be shaken off, so Huysmans will surely retain to the last the tincture of Parisian modernity.
Yet we can by no means altogether account for Huysmans by race and environment. Every man of genius is a stranger and a pilgrim on the earth, mirroring the world in his mind as in those concave or convex mirrors which elongate or abbreviate absurdly all who approach them. No one ever had a keener sense of the distressing absurdity of human affairs than M. Huysmans. The Trocadero is not a beautiful building, but to no one else probably has it appeared as an old hag lying on her back and elevating her spindle shanks towards the sky. Such images of men’s works and ways abound in Huysmans’ books, and they express his unaffected vision of life, his disgust for men and things, a shuddering disgust, yet patient, half-amused. I can well recall an evening spent some years ago in M. Huysmans’ company. His face, with the sensitive, luminous eyes, reminded one of Baudelaire’s portraits, the face of a resigned and benevolent Mephistopheles who has discovered the absurdity of the Divine order but has no wish to make any improper use of his discovery. He talked in low and even tones, never eagerly, without any emphasis or gesture, not addressing any special person; human imbecility was the burden of nearly all that he said, while a faint twinkle of amused wonderment lit up his eyes. And throughout all his books until almost the last “l’éternelle bêtise de l’humanité” is the ever-recurring refrain.
Always leading a retired life, and specially abhorring the society and conversation of the average literary man, M. Huysmans has for many years been a government servant — a model official, it is said — at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Here, like our own officials at Whitehall, he serves his country in dignified leisure — on the only occasion on which I have seen him in his large and pleasant bureau, he was gazing affectionately at Chéret’s latest affiche, which a lady of his acquaintance had just brought to show him — and such duties of routine, with the close contact with practical affairs they involve, must always be beneficial in preserving the sane equipoise of an imaginative temperament. In this matter Huysmans has been more fortunate than his intimate friend Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, who had wandered so far into the world of dreams that he lost touch with the external world and ceased to distinguish them clearly. One is at first a little surprised to hear of the patient tact and diplomacy which the author of A Rebours spent round the death-bed of the author of Contes Cruels to obtain the dying dreamer’s consent to a ceremony of marriage which would legitimate his child. But Huysmans’ sensitive nervous system and extravagant imagination have ever been under the control of a sane and forceful intellect; his very idealism has been nourished by the contemplation of a world which he has seen too vividly ever to ignore. We may read that in the reflective deliberation of his grave and courteous bearing, somewhat recalling, as more than one observer has noted, his own favourite animal, the cat, whose outward repose of Buddhistic contemplation envelops a highly-strung nervous system, while its capacity to enjoy the refinements of human civilization comports a large measure of spiritual freedom and ferocity. Like many another man of letters, Huysmans suffers from neuralgia and dyspepsia; but no novelist has described so persistently and so poignantly the pangs of toothache or the miseries of maux d’estomac, a curious proof of the peculiarly personal character of Huysmans’ work throughout. His sole preoccupation has been with his own impressions. He possessed no native genius for the novel. But with a very sound instinct he set himself, almost at the outset of his career, to describe intimately and faithfully the crudest things of life, the things most remote from his own esoteric tastes but at that time counted peculiarly “real”. There could be no better discipline for an idealist. Step by step he has left the region of vulgar actualities to attain his proper sphere, but the marvellous and slowly won power of expressing the spiritually impalpable in concrete imagery is the fruit of that laborious apprenticeship. He was influenced in his novels at first by Goncourt, afterwards a little by Zola, as he sought to reproduce his own vivid and personal vision of the world. This vision is like that of a man with an intense exaltation of the senses, especially the senses of sight and smell. Essentially Huysmans is less a novelist than a poet, with an instinct to use not verse but prose as his medium. Thus he early fell under the influence of Baudelaire’s prose-poems. His small and slight first volume, Le Drageoir à Epices, bears witness to this influence, while yet revealing a personality clearly distinct from Baudelaire’s. This personality is already wholly revealed in the quaint audacity of the little prose-poem entitled ’L’Extase.’ Here, at the very outset of Huysmans’ career, we catch an unconscious echo of mediaeval asceticism, the voice, it might be, of Odo of Cluny, who nearly a thousand years before had shrunk with horror from embracing a “sack of dung”; “quomodo ipsum stercoris saccum amplecti desideramus!” ’L’Extase’ describes how the lover lies in the wood clasping the hand of the beloved and bathed in a rapture of blissful emotion; “suddenly she rose, disengaged her hand, disappeared in the bushes, and I heard as it were the rustling of rain on the leaves”; at once the delicious dream fled and the lover awakes to the reality of commonplace human things. That is a parable of the high-strung idealism, having only contempt for whatever breaks in on its ideal, which has ever been the mark of Huysmans. Baudelaire was also such a hyperaesthetic idealist, but the human tenderness which vibrates beneath the surface of Baudelaire’s work has been the last quality to make itself more than casually felt in Huysmans. It is the defect which vitiated his early work in the novel, when he was still oscillating between the prose-poem and the novel, clearly conscious that while the first suited him best, only in the second could mastery be won. His early novels are sometimes portentously dull, with a lack of interest, or even attempt to interest, which itself almost makes them interesting, as frank ugliness is. They are realistic with a veracious and courageously abject realism, never like Zola’s, carefully calculated for its pictorial effectiveness, but dealing simply with the trivialest and sordidest human miseries. His first novel Marthe — which inaugurated the long series of novels devoted to state-regulated prostitution in those slaughterhouses of love, as Huysmans later described them, where Desire is slain at a single stroke, — sufficiently repulsive on the whole, is not without flashes of insight which reveal the future artist, and to some readers indeed make it more interesting than La Fille Elisa, which the Goncourts published shortly afterwards. Unlike the crude and awkward Marthe — though that book reveals the influence of the Goncourts — La Fille Elisa shows the hand of an accomplished artist, but it is also the work of a philanthropist writing with an avowed object, and of a fine gentleman ostentatiously anxious not to touch pitch with more than a finger-tip. The Preface to Marthe contains a declaration which remains true for the whole of Huysmans’ work: “I set down what I see, what I feel, what I have lived, writing it as well as I am able, et voila tout!” But it has ever been a dangerous task to set down what one sees and feels and has lived; for no obvious reason except the subject, Marthe was immediately suppressed by the police. This first novel remains the least personal of Huysmans’ books; in his next novel, Les Soeurs Vatard — a study of Parisian work-girls and their lovers — a more characteristic vision of the world begins to be revealed, and from that time forward there is a continuous though irregular development both in intellectual grip and artistic mastery. ’Sac au Dos’, which appeared in the Soirées de Médan, represents a notable stage in this development, for here, as he has since acknowledged, Huysmans’ hero is himself. It is the story of a young student who serves during the great war in the Garde Mobile of the Seine, and is invalided with dysentery before reaching the front. There is no story, no striking impression to record — nothing to compare with Guy de Maupassant’s incomparably more brilliant ’Boule-de-Suif’, also dealing with the fringe of war, which appears in the same volume — no opportunity for literary display, nothing but a record of individual feelings with which the writer seems satisfied because they are interesting to himself. It is, in fact, the germ of that method which Huysmans has since carried to so brilliant a climax in En Route. All the glamour of war and the enthusiasm of patriotism are here — long before Zola wrote his Débâcle — reduced to their simplest terms in the miseries of the individual soldier whose chief aspiration it becomes at last to return to a home where the necessities of nature may be satisfied in comfort and peace. At that time Huysmans’ lack of patriotic enthusiasm seemed almost scandalous; but when we bear in mind his racial affinities it is natural that he should, as he once remarked to an interviewer, “prefer a Leipzig man to a Marseilles man,” “the big phlegmatic, taciturn Germans” to the gesticulating and rhetorical people of the French south. In Là-Bas, at a later date, through the mouth of one of his characters, Huysmans goes so far as to regret the intervention of Joan of Arc in French history, for had it not been for Joan France and England would have been restored to their racial and prehistoric unity, consolidated into one great kingdom under Norman Plantagenets, instead of being given up to the southerners of Latin race who surrounded Charles VII.
The best of Huysmans’ early novels is undoubtedly En Ménage. It is the intimate history of a young literary man who, having married a wife whom he shortly afterwards finds unfaithful, leaves her, returns to his bachelor life, and inthe end becomes reconciled to her. This picture of a studious man who goes away with his books to fight over again the petty battles of bachelorhood with the bonne and the concierge and his own cravings for womanly love and companionship, reveals clearly for the first time Huysmans’ power of analyzing states of mind that are at once simple and subtle. Perhaps no writer surprises us more by his revealing insight into the commonplace experiences which all a novelist’s traditions lead him to idealize or ignore. As a whole, however, En Ménage is scarcely yet a master’s work, a little laboured, with labour which cannot yet achieve splendour of effect. Nor can a much slighter story, A Vau l’Eau, which appeared a little later, be said to mark a further stage in development, though it is a characteristic study, this sordid history of Folantin, the poor, lame, discontented, middle-aged clerk. Cheated and bullied on every side, falling a prey to the vulgar woman of the street who boisterously takes possession of him in the climax of the story, all the time feeling poignantly the whole absurdity of the situation, there is yet one spot where hope seems possible. He has no religious faith; “and yet,” he reflects, “yet mysticism alone could heal the wound that tortures me.” Thus Folantin, though like André in En Ménage he resigns himself to the inevitable stupidity of life, yet stretches out his hands towards the Durtal of Huysmans’ latest work.
In all these novels we feel that Huysmans has not attained to full self-expression. Intellectual mastery, indeed, he is attaining, but scarcely yet the expression of his own personal ideals. The poet in Huysmans, the painter enamoured of beauty and seeking it in unfamiliar places, has little scope in these detailed pictures of sordid or commonplace life. At this early period it is still in prose-poems, especially in Croquis Parisiens, that this craving finds satisfaction. Huysmans took up this form where Baudelaire and Mallarmé had left it, and sought to carry it yet further. In that he was scarcely successful. The excess of tension in the tortured language with which he elaborates his effects too often holds him back from the goal of perfection. We must yet value in Croquis Parisiens its highly wrought and individual effects of rhythm and colour and form. In France, at all events, Huysmans is held to inaugurate the poetic treatment of modern things — a characteristic already traceable in Les Soeurs Vatard — and this book deals with the aesthetic aspects of latter-day Paris, with the things that are “ugly and superb, outrageous and yet exquisite,” as a type of which he selects the Folies-Bergère, at that time the most characteristic of Parisian music-halls, and he was thus the first to discuss the aesthetic value of the variety stage which has been made cheaper since. For the most part, however, these Croquis are of the simplest and most commonplace things — the forlorn Bièvre district, the poor man’s café, the roast-chestnut seller — extracting the beauty or pathos or strangeness of all these things. “Thy garment is the palette of settings suns, the rust of old copper, the brown gilt of Cordovan leather, the sandal and saffron tints of the autumn foliage...When I contemplate thy coat of mail I think of Rembrandt’s pictures, I see again his superb heads, his sunny flesh, his gleaming jewels on black velvet. I see again his rays of light in the night, his trailing gold in the shade, the dawning of suns through dark arches.” The humble bloater has surely never before been sung in language which recalls the Beloved of the ’Song of Songs.’ Huysmans has carried to an even extravagent degree that re-evaluation of the world’s good in which genius has ever found its chief function. To abase the mighty and exalt the humble seems to man the divinest of prerogatives, for it is that which he himself exercises in his moments of finest inspiration. To find a new vision of the world, a new path to truth, is the instinct of the artist or the thinker. He changes the whole system of our organised perceptions. That is why he seems to us at first an incarnate paradox, a scoffer at our most sacred verities, making mountains of our mole-hills and counting as mere mole-hills our everlasting mountains, always keeping time to a music that clashes with ours, at our hilarity tristis, in tristitia hilaris.
In 1884 A Rebours appeared. Not perhaps his greatest achievement, it must ever remain the central work in which he has most powerfully concentrated his whole vision of life. It sums up the progress he had already made, foretells the progress he was afterwards to make, in a style that is always individual, always masterly in its individuality. Technically, it may be said that the power of A Rebours lies in the fact that here for the first time Huysmans has succeeded in uniting the two lines of his literary development: the austere analysis in the novels of commonplace things mostly alien to the writer, and the freer elaboration in the prose-poems of his own more intimate personal impressions. In their union the two streams attain a new power and a more intimately personal note. Des Esseintes, the hero of this book, may possibly have been at a few points suggested by a much less interesting real personage in contemporary Paris, the Comte de Montesquiou-Fezensac, but in the main he was certainly created by Huysmans’ own brain, as the representative of his author’s hyperaesthetic experience of the world and the mouthpiece of his most personal judgments. The victim of over-wrought nerves, of neuralgia and dyspepsia, Des Esseintes retires for a season from Paris to the solitude of his country house at Fontenay, which he has fitted up, on almost cloistral methods, to soothe his fantasy and to gratify his complex aesthetic sensations, his love of reading and contemplation. The finest pictures of Gustave Moreau hang on the walls, with the fantastic engravings of Luyken, and the strange visions of Odilon Redon. He has a tortoise curiously inlaid with precious stones; he delights in all those exotic plants which reveal Nature’s most unnatural freaks; he is a sensitive amateur of perfumes, and considers that the pleasures of smell are equal to those of sight or sound; he possesses a row of little barrels of liqueurs so arranged that he can blend in infinite variety the contents of this instrument, his “mouth-organ” he calls it, and produce harmonies which seem to him comparable to those yielded by a musical orchestra. But the solitary pleasures of this palace of art only increase the nervous strain he is suffering from; and at the urgent bidding of his doctor Des Esseintes returns to the society of his abhorred fellow-beings in Paris, himself opening the dyke that admitted the “waves of human mediocrity” to engulf his refuge. And this wonderful confession of aesthetic faith — with its long series of deliberately searching and decisive affirmations on life, religion, literature, art — ends with a sudden solemn invocation that is surprisingly tremulous: “Take pity, O Lord, on the Christian who doubts, on the skeptic who desires to believe, on the convict of life who embarks alone, in the night, beneath a sky no longer lit by the consoling beacons of ancient faith.”
“He who carries his own most intimate emotions to their highest point becomes the first in file of a long series of men”; that saying is peculiarly true of Huysmans. But to be a leader of men one must turn one’s back on men. Huysmans’ attitude towards his readers was somewhat like that of Thoreau, who spoke with lofty disdain of such writers as “would fain have one reader before they die.” As he has since remarked, Huysmans wrote A Rebours for a dozen persons, and was himself more surprised than any one at the wide interest it evoked. Yet that interest was no accident. Certain aesthetic ideals of the latter half of the nineteenth century are more quintessentially expressed in A Rebours than in any other book. Intensely personal, audaciously independent, it yet sums up a movement which has scarcely now worked itself out. We may read it and re-read, not only for the light which it casts on that movement, but upon every similar period of acute aesthetic perception in the past.
The aesthetic attitude towards art which A Rebours illuminates is that commonly called decadent. Decadence in art, though a fairly simple phenomenon, and world-wide as art itself, is still so ill understood that it may be worth while to discuss briefly its precise nature, more especially as manifested in literature.
Technically, a decadent style is only such in relation to a classic style. It is simply a further development of a classic style, a further specialization, the homogeneous, in Spencerian phraseology, having become heterogeneous. The first is beautiful because the parts are subordinated to the whole; the second is beautiful because the whole is subordinated to the parts. Among our own early prose-writers Sir Thomas Browne represents the type of decadence in style. Swift’s prose is classic, Pater’s decadent. Hume and Gibbon are classic, Emerson and Carlyle decadent. Roman architecture is classic, to become in its Byzantine developments completely decadent, and St. Mark’s is the perfected type of decadence in art; pure early Gothic is classic in the highest degree, while later Gothic, grown weary of the commonplaces of structure, is again decadent. In each case the earlier and classic manner — for the classic manner, being more closely related to the ends of utility, must always be earlier — subordinates the parts to the whole, and strives after those virtues which the whole may best express; the later manner depreciates the importance of the whole for the benefit of its parts, and strives after the virtues of individualism. All art is the rising and falling of the slopes of a rhythmic curve between these two classic and decadent extremes.
Decadence suggests to us going down, falling, decay. If we walk down a real hill we do not feel that we commit a more wicked act than when we walked up it. But if it is a figurative hill then we view Hell at the bottom. The word ’corruption’ — used in a precise and technical sense to indicate the breaking up of the whole for the benefit of its parts — serves also to indicate a period or manner of decadence in art. This makes confusion worse, for here the moralist feels that surely he is on safe ground. But as Nietzsche, with his usual acuteness in cutting at the root of vulgar prejudice, has well remarked (in Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft), even as regards what is called the period of ’corruption’ in the evolution of societies, we are apt to overlook the fact that the energy which in more primitive times marked the operations of the community as a whole has now simply been transferred to the individuals themselves, and this aggrandizement of the individual really produces an even greater amount of energy. The individual has gained more than the community has lost. An age of social decadence is not only the age of sinners and degenerates, but of saints and martyrs, and decadent Rome produced an Antoninus as well as a Heliogabalus. No doubt social ’corruption’ and literary ’corruption’ tend to go together; an age of individualism is usually an age of artistic decadence, and we may note that the chief literary artists of America — Poe, Hawthorne, Whitman — are for the most part in the technical sense decadents.
Rome supplies the first clear types of classic and decadent literature, and the small group of recent French writers to whom the term has been more specifically applied were for the most part peculiarly attracted by later Latin literature. So far as I can make out, it is to the profound and penetrating genius of Baudelaire that we owe the first clear apprehension of the legitimate part which decadence plays in literature. We may trace it, indeed, in his own style, clear, pure, and correct as that style always remains, as well as in his literary preferences. He was a good Latinist, and his favourite Latin authors were Apuleius, Juvenal, Petronius, St. Augustine, Tertullian, and other writers in prose and verse of the early Christian Church. He himself wrote a love-poem in rhymed Latin verse, adding to it a note concerning the late Latin decadence regarded as “the supreme sign of a vigorous person already transformed and prepared for the spiritual life...In this marvellous tongue,” he added, “solecism and barbarism seem to me to render the forced negligence of a passion which forgets itself and mocks at rules. Words taken in a new meaning reveal the charming awkwardness of the northern barbarian kneeling before the Roman beauty.” But the best early statement of the meaning of decadence in style — though doubtless inspired by Baudelaire — was furnished by Gautier in 1868 in the course of the essay on Baudelaire which is probably the most interesting piece of criticism he ever achieved. The passage is long, but so precise and accurate that it must here in part be quoted: “The poet of the Fleurs du Mal loved what is improperly called the style of decadence, and which is nothing else but art arrived at that point of extreme maturity yielded by the slanting suns of aged civilizations: an ingenious complicated style, full of shades and of research, constantly pushing back the boundaries of speech, borrowing from all the technical vocabularies, taking colour from all palettes and notes from all keyboards, struggling to render what is most inexpressible in thought, what is vague and most elusive in the outlines of form, listening to translate the subtle confidences of neurosis, the dying confessions of passion grown depraved, and the strange hallucinations of the obsession which is turning to madness. The style of decadence is the ultimate utterance of the Word, summoned to final expression and driven to its last hiding-place. One may recall in this connection the language of the later Roman Empire, already marbled with the greenness of decomposition, and, so to speak, gamy, and the complicated refinements of the Byzantine school, the last forms of Greek art falling into deliquescence. Such indeed is the necessary and inevitable idiom of peoples and civilisations in which factitious life has replaced natural life, and developed unknown wants in men. It is, besides, no easy thing, this style disdained of pedants, for it expresses new ideas in new forms, and in words which have not yet been heard. Unlike the classic style it admits shadow...One may well imagine that the fourteen hundred words of the Racinian vocabulary scarcely suffice the author who has undertaken the laborious task of rendering modern ideas and things in their infinite complexity and multiple colouration.”
Some fifteen years later, Bourget, again in an essay on Baudelaire (Essais de Psychologie Contemporaine), continued the exposition of the theory of decadence, elaborating the analogy to the social organism which enters the state of decadence as soon as the individual life of the parts is no longer subordinated to the whole. “A similar law governs the development and decadence of that other organism which we call language. A style of decadence is one in which the unity of the book is decomposed to give place to the independence of the page, in which the page is decomposed to give place to the independence of the phrase, and the phrase to give place to the independence of the word.” It was at this time (about 1884) that the term ’decadent’ seems first to have been applied by Barrès and others to the group of which Verlaine, Huysmans, Mallarmé were the most distinguished members, and in so far as it signified an ardent and elaborate search for perfection of detail beyond that attained by Parnassian classicality it was tolerated or accepted. Verlaine, indeed, was for the most part indifferent to labels, neither accepting nor rejecting them, and his work was not bound up with any theory. But Huysmans, with the intellectual passion of the pioneer in art, deliberate and relentless, has carried both the theory and the practice of decadence in style to the farthest point. In practice he goes beyond Baudelaire, who, however enamoured he may have been of what he called the phosphorescence of putrescence, always retained in his own style much of what is best in the classic manner. Huysmans’ vocabulary is vast, his images, whether remote or familiar, always daring — “dragged,” in the words of one critic, “by the hair or by the feet, down the worm-eaten staircase of terrified Syntax,” — but a heart-felt pulse of emotion is restrained beneath the sombre and extravagant magnificence of this style, and imparts at the best that modulated surge of life which only the great masters can control.
Des Esseintes’s predilections in literature are elaborated through several chapters, and without question he faithfully reflects his creator’s impressions. He was indifferent or contemptuous towards the writers of the Latin Augustan age; Virgil seemed to him thin and mechanical, Horace a detestable clown; the fat redundancy of Cicero, we are told, and the dry constipation of Caesar alike disgusted him; Sallust, Livy, Juvenal, even Tacitus and Plautus, though for these he had words of praise, seemed to him for the most part merely the delights of pseudoliterary readers. Latin only began to be interesting to Des Esseintes in Lucan, for here at least, in spite of the underlying hollowness, it became expressive and studded with brilliant jewels. The author whom above all he delighted in was Petronius — who reminded Des Esseintes of the modern French novelists he most admired — and several eloquent pages are devoted to that profound observer, delicate analyst, and marvellous painter who modelled his own vivid and precise style out of all the idioms and slang of his day. After Petronius there was a gap in his collection of Latin authors until the second century of our own era is reached with Apuleius and the sterner Christian contemporaries of that jovial pagan, Tertullian and the rest, in whose hands the tongue that in Petronius had reached supreme maturity now began to dissolve. For Tertullian he had little admiration, and none for Augustine, though sympathizing with his City of God and his general disgust for the world. But the special odour which the Christians had by the fourth century imparted to decomposing pagan Latin was delightful to him in such authors as Commodian of Gaza, whose tawny, sombre, and tortuous style he even preferred to Claudian’s sonorous blasts, in which the trumpet of paganism was last heard in the world. He was also able to maintain interest in Prudentius, Sedulius, and a host of unknown Christians who combined Catholic fervour with a Latinity which had become, as it were, completely putrid, leaving but a few shreds of torn flesh for the Christians to “marinate in the brine of their new tongue.” His shelves continued to show Latin books of the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries, among which he found special pleasure in the Anglo-Saxon writers, and only finally ceased at the beginning of the tenth century, when “the curiosity, the complicated naiveté” of the earlier tongue were finally lost in scholastic philosophy and mere cartalaries and chronicles. Then, with a formidable leap of ten centuries, his Latin books gave place to nineteenth century French books.
Des Esseintes is no admirer of Rabelais or Molière, of Voltaire or Rousseau. Among the older French writers he read only Villon, D’Aubigné, Bossuet, Bourdaloue, Nicole, and especially Pascal. Putting these aside, his French library began with Baudelaire, whose works he had printed in an edition of one copy, in episcopal letters, in large missal format, bound in flesh-coloured pig-skin; he found an unspeakable delight in reading this poet who, “in an age when verse only served to express the external aspects of things, had succeeded in expressing the inexpressible, by virtue of a muscular and sinewy speech which more than any other possessed the marvellous power of fixing with strange sanity of expression the most morbid, fleeting, tremulous states of weary brains and sorrowful souls.” After Baudelaire the few French books on Des Esseintes’s shelves fall into two groups, one religious, one secular. Most of the French clerical writers he disregarded, for they yield a pale flux of words which seemed to him to come from a schoolgirl in a convent. Lacordaire he regarded as an exception, for his language had been fused and moulded by ardent eloquence, but for the most part the Catholic writers he preferred were outside the Church. For Hello’s Homme, especially, he cherished profound admiration, and an inevitable sympathy for its author, who seemed to him “a cunning engineer of the soul, a skilful watchmaker of the brain, delighting to examine the mechanism of a passion and to explain the play of the wheel-work,” and yet united to this power of analysis all the fanaticism of a Biblical prophet, and the tortured ingenuity of a master of style — an ill-balanced, incoherent, yet subtle personality. But above all he delighted in Barbey d’Aurévilly, shut out from the Church as an unclean and pestiferous heretic, yet glorying to sing her praises, insinuating into that praise a note of almost sadistic sacrilege, a writer at once devout and impious, altogether after Des Esseintes’s own heart, so that a special copy of the Diaboliques, in episcopal violet and cardinal purple, printed on sanctified vellum with initials adorned by satanic tails, formed one of his most cherished possessions. In D’Aurévilly’s style alone he truly recognized the same gaminess, the speckled morbidity, the flavour as of a sleepy pear which he loved in decadent Latin and the monastic writers of old time. Of contemporary secular books he possessed not many; by force of passing them through the screw-press of his brain few were finally found solid enough to emerge intact and bear re-reading, and in this process he had accelerated “the incurable conflict which existed between his ideas and those of the world into which by chance he had been born.” Certain selected works of the three great French novelists of his time — Flaubert, Goncourt, and Zola — for in all three he found in various forms, that “nostalgie des au-delà” by which he was himself haunted; and with Baudelaire, these three were, in modern profane literature, the authors by whom he had chiefly been moulded. The scanty collection also included Verlaine, Mallarmé, Poe, and Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, whose firm fantastic style and poignantly ironic attitude towards the utilitarian modern world he found entirely to his taste. Finally, there only remained the little anthology of prose-poems. Des Esseintes thought it improbable that he would ever make any additions to his library; it seemed impossible to him that a decadent language — “struggling on its death-bed to repair all the omissions of joy and bequeath the subtlest memories of pain” — would ever go beyond Mallarmé. This brief summary of the three chapters, all full of keen if wayward critical insight, which describe Des Esseintes’s library, may serve at once both to indicate the chief moulding influences on Huysmans’ own style and to illustrate the precise nature of decadence in art and the fundamental part it plays.
We have to recognize that decadence is an aesthetic and not a moral conception. The power of words is great, but they need not befool us. The classic herring should suggest no moral superiority over the decadent bloater. We are not called upon to air our moral indignation over the bass end of the musical clef. All confusion of intellectual substances is foolish, and one may well sympathise with that fervid unknwon metaphysician to whom we owe the Athanasian creed when he went so far as to assert that it is damnable. It is not least so in the weak-headed decadent who falls into the moralist’s snare and complacently admits his own exceeding wickedness. We may well reserve our finest admiration for the classic in art, for therein are included the largest and most imposing works of human skill; but our admiration is of little worth if it is founded on incapacity to appreciate the decadent. Each has its virtues, each is equally right and necessary. One ignorant of plants might well say, on gazing at a seed-capsule with its seeds disposed in harmonious rows, that there was the eternally natural and wholesome order of things, and on seeing the same capsule wither and cast abroad its seeds to germinate at random in the earth, that here was an unwholesome and deplorable period of decay. But he would know little of the transmutations of life. And we have to recognize that those persons who bring the same crude notions into the field of art know as little of the life of the spirit.
For some years after the appearance of A Rebours Huysmans produced nothing of any magnitude. En Rade, his next novel, the experience of a Parisian married couple who, under the stress of temporary pecuniary difficulties, go into the country to stay at an uncle’s farm, dwells in the memory chiefly by virtue of two vividly naturalistic episodes, the birth of a calf and the death of a cat. More interesting, more intimately personal, are the two volumes of art criticism, L’Art Moderne and Certains, which Huysmans published at about this period. Degas, Rops, Raffaelli, Odilon Redon are among the artists of very various temperament whom Huysmans either discovered, or at all events first appreciated in their full significance, and when he writes of them it is not alone critical insight which he reveals, but his own personal vision of the world.
To Huysmans the world has ever been above all a vision; it was no accident that the art that appeals most purely to the eyes is that of which he has been the finest critic. One is tempted, indeed, to suggest that this aptitude is the outcome of heredity, of long generations devoted to laborious watchfulness of the desire of the eye in the external world, not indeed by actual accumulation of acquired qualities, but by the passing on of a nervous organism long found so apt for this task. He has ever been intensely preoccupied with the effort to express those visible aspects of things which the arts of design were made to express, which the art of speech can perhaps never express. The tortured elaboration of his style is chiefly due to this perpetual effort to squeeze tones and colours out of this foreign medium. The painter’s brain holds only a pen and cannot rest until it has wrung from it a brush’s work. But not only is the sense of vision marked in Huysmans. We are conscious of a general hyperaesthesia, an intense alertness to the inrush of sensations, which we might well term morbid if it were not so completely intellectualized and controlled. Hearing, indeed, appears to be less acutely sensitive than sight, the poet is subordinated to the painter, though that sense still makes itself felt, and the heavy multicoloured paragraphs often fall at the close into a melancholy and poignant rhythm laden with sighs. It is the sense of smell which Huysmans’ work would lead us to regard as most highly developed after that of sight. The serious way in which Des Esseintes treats perfumes is charactertistic, and one of the most curious and elaborate of the Croquis Parisiens is ’Le Gousset,’ in which the capacities of language are strained to define and differentiate the odours of feminine arm-pits. Again, earlier, in a preface written for Hannon’s Rimes de Joie, Huysmans points out that that writer — who failed to fulfil his early promise — alone of contemporary poets possessed “la curiosité des parfums,” and that his chief poem was written in honour of what Huysmans called “the libertine virtues of that glorious perfume,” opoponax. This sensitiveness to odour is less marked in Huysmans’ later work, but the dominance of vision remains.
The two volumes of essays on art incidentally serve to throw considerable light on Huysmans’ conception of life. For special illustration we may take his attitude towards women, whom in his novels he usually treats, from a rather conventionally sexual point of view, as a fact in man’s life rather than as a subject for independent analysis. In these essays we may trace the development of his own personal point of view, and in comparing the earlier with the later volume we find a change which is significant of the general evolution of Huysmans’ attitude towards life. He is at once the ultra-modern child of a refined civilization and the victim of nostalgia for an ascetic mediaevalism; his originality lies in the fact that in him these two tendencies are not opposed but harmonious, although the second has only of late reached full development. In a notable passage in En Rade, Jacques, the hero, confesses that he can see nothing really great or beautiful in a harvest field, with its anodyne toil, as compared with a workshop or a steamboat, “the horrible magnificence of machines, that one beauty which the modern world has been able to create.” It is so that Huysmans views women also; he is as indifferent to the feminine ideals of classic art as to its literary ideals. In L’Art Moderne, speaking with admiration of a study of the nude by Gauguin, he proceeds to lament that no one has painted the unclothed modern woman without falsification or premeditated arrangement, real, alive in her own intimate personality, with her own joys and pains incarnated in the curves of her flesh, and the lash of childbirth traceable on her flanks. We go to the Louvre to learn how to paint, he remarks, forgetting that “beauty is not uniform and invariable, but changes with the age and the climate, that the Venus of Milo, for instance, is now not more beautiful and interesting than those ancient statues of the New World, streaked and tattooed and adorned with feathers; that both are but diverse manifestations of the same ideal of beauty pursued by different races; that at the present date there can be no question of reaching the beautiful by Venetian, Greek, Dutch, or Flemish rites; but only by striving to disengage it from contemporary life, from the world that surrounds us.” “Un nu fatigué, délicat, affiné, vibrant” can alone conform to our own time; and he adds that no one has truly painted the nude since Rembrandt. It is instructive to turn from this essay to that on Degas, written some six years later. It may fairly be said that to Degas belongs the honour of taking up the study of the nude at the point where Rembrandt left it; and like Rembrandt, he has realized that the nude can only be rightly represented in those movements, postures, and avocations by which it is naturally and habitually exposed. It is scarcely surprising, therefore, that Huysmans at once grasped the full significance of the painter’s achievement. But he has nothing now to say of the beauty that lies beneath the confinement of modern garments, “the delicious charm of youth, grown languid, rendered as it were divine by the debilitating air of cities.” On the contrary, he emphasizes the vision which Degas presents of women at the bathtub revealing in every “frog-like and simian attitude” their pitiful homeliness, “the humid horror of a body which no washing can purify.” Such a glorified contempt of the flesh, he adds, has never been achieved since the Middle Ages. There we catch what had now become the dominant tone in Huysmans’ vision; the most modern things in art now suggest to him, they seem to merge into, the most mediaeval and ascetic. And if we turn to the essay of Félicien Rops in the same volume — the most masterly of his essays — we find the same point developed to the utmost. Rops in his own way is as modern and as daring an artist of the nude as Degas. But, as Huysmans perceives, in delineating the essentially modern he is scarcely a supreme artist, is even inferior to Forain, who in his own circumscribed region is insurpassable. Rops, as Huysmans points out, is the great artist of the symbolical rather than the naturalistic modern, a great artist who furnishes the counterpart to Memlinc and Fra Angelico. All art, Huysmans proceeds, “must gravitate, like humanity which has given birth to it and the earth which carries it, between the two poles of Purity and Wantonness, the Heaven and the Hell of art.” Rops has taken the latter pole, in no vulgar nymphomaniacal shapes, but “to divulge its causes, to summarize it Catholically, if one may say so, in ardent and sorrowful images”; he has drawn women who are “diabolical Theresas, satanized saints.” Following in the path initiated by Baudelaire and Barbey d’Aurévilly, Huysmans concludes, Rops has restored Wantonness to her ancient and Catholic dignity. Thus is Huysmans almost imperceptibly led back to the old standpoint from which woman and the Devil are one.
Certains was immediately followed by Là-Bas. This novel is mainly a study of Satanism, in which Huysmans interested himself long before it attracted the general attention it has since received in France. There are, however, three lines of interest in the book, the story of Gilles de Rais and his Sadism, the discussion of Satanism culminating in an extraordinary description of a modern celebration of the Black Mass, and the narration of Durtal’s liaison with Madame Chantelouve, wherein Huysmans reaches, by firm precision and triumphant audacity, the highest point he has attained in the analysis of the secrets of passion. But though full of excellent matter, the book loses in impressiveness from the multiplicity of these insufficiently compacted elements of interest.
While not among his finest achievements, however, it serves to mark the definite attainment of a new stage in both the spirit and the method of his work. Hitherto he had been a realist, in method if not in spirit, and had conquered the finest secrets of naturalistic art; by the help of En Ménage alone, as Hennequin, one of his earliest and best critics has said, “it will always be possible to restore the exact physiognomy of Paris today.” At the outset of Là-Bas there is a discussion concerning the naturalistic novel and its functions which makes plain the standpoint to which Huysmans had now attained. Pondering the matter, Durtal, the hero of the book, considers that we need, on the one hand, the veracity of document, the precision of detail, the nervous strength of language, which realism has supplied; but also, on the other hand, we must draw water from the wells of the soul. We cannot explain everything by sexuality and insanity; we need the soul and the body in their natural reactions, their conflict and their union. “We must, in short, follow the great highway so deeply dug out by Zola, but it is also necessary to trace a parallel path in the air, another road by which we may reach the Beyond and the Afterward, to achieve thus, in one word, a spiritualistic naturalism.” Dostoievsky comes nearest to this achievement, he remarks, and the real psychologist of the century is not Stendhal but Hello. In another form of art the early painters — Italian, German, especially Flemish — realized this ideal. Durtal sees a consummate revelation of such spiritual naturalism in Matthaeus Grünewald’s crucifixion at Cassel — the Christ who was at once a putrid and unaureoled corpse and yet a manifest god bathed in invisible light, the union of outrageous realism and outrageous idealism. “Thus from triumphal ordure Grünewald extracted the finest mints of dilection, the sharpest essences of tears.” One may say that the tendency Huysmans here so clearly asserts had ever been present in his work. But in his previous novels his own native impulse was always a little unduly oppressed by the naturalistic formulas of Goncourt and Zola. The methods of these great masters had laid a burden on his work, and although the work developed beneath, and because of, that burden, a sense of laborious pain and obscurity too often resulted. Henceforth this disappears. Huysmans retains his own complexity of style, but he has won a certain measure of simplicity and lucidity. It was a natural development, no doubt furthered also by the position which Huysmans had now won in the world of letters. A Rebours, which he had written for his own pleasure, had found an echo in thousands of readers, and the consciousness of an audience inspired a certain clarity of speech. From this time we miss the insults directed at the bêtise of humanity. These characteristics clearly mark Huysmans’ next and perhaps greatest book, in which the writer who had conquered all the secrets of decadent art now sets his face towards the ideals of classic art.
In En Route, indeed, these new qualities of simplicity, lucidity, humanity, and intensity of interest attain so high a degree that the book has reached a vast number of readers who could not realize the marvellous liberation from slavery to its material which the slow elaboration of art has here reached. In A Rebours Huysmans succeeded in taking up the prose-poem into his novel form, while at the same time certainly sacrificing something of the fine analysis of familiar things which he had developed in En Ménage. In En Route he takes the novel from the point he had reached in A Rebours, incorporates into it that power of analysis which has now reached incomparable simplicity and acuity, and thus wields the whole of the artistic means which he has acquired during a quarter of a century to one end, the presentation of a spiritual state which has become of absorbing personal interest to himself.
I well remember hearing M. Huysmans, many years ago, tell how a muddle-headed person had wished to commission him to paint a head of Christ. It seemed then a deliciously absurd request to make of the author of A Rebours, and his face wore the patient smile which the spectacle of human stupidity was wont to evoke, but I have since thought that that muddle-headed person was wiser than he knew. As we look back on Huysmans’ earlier work it is now easy to see how he has steadily progressed towards his present standpoint. En Route does not represent, as some might imagine, the reaction of an exhausted debauchee or even the self-deception of a disappointed man of the world. The temperament of Durtal is that of André and Folantin and Des Esseintes; from the first, in the Drageoir à Epices, Huysmans has been an idealist and a seeker, by no means an ascetic, rather a man whose inquisitive senses and restless imagination had led him to taste of every forbidden fruit, but never one to whom the vulgar pleasures of life could offer any abiding satisfaction. The more precise record of Des Esseintes’s early sexual life may help us here; while for the penultimate stage Durtal’s relations with Madame Chantelouve in Là-Bas, and the mingled attraction and repulsion which he felt for her, are certainly significant. In En Route Durtal magnifies his own wickedness, as Bunyan did in his Grace Abounding; the saints have always striven to magnify their wickedness, leaving to the sinners the congenial function of playing at righteousness. To trace the real permanence of Huysmans’ attitude towards religion it is enough to turn back to A Rebours. Des Esseintes had been educated by the Jesuits, and it sometimes seemed to him that that education had put into him some extra-terrestrial ferment which never after ceased to work, driving him in search of a new world and impossible ideals. He could find no earthly place of rest; he sought to build for himself a “refined Thebaïd” as a warm and comfortable ark wherein to find shelter from the flood of human imbecility. He was already drawn towards the Church by many bonds, by his predilection for early Christian Latinity, by the exquisite beauty of the ecclesiastical art of the Middle Ages, by his love for monastic mediaeval music, “that emaciated music which acted instinctively on his nerves” and seemed to him precious beyond all other. Just as Nietzsche was always haunted by the desire for a monastery for free-thinkers, so Des Esseintes dreamed of a hermitage, of the advantages of the cloistered life of convents, wherein men are persecuted by the world for meting out to it the just contempt of silence.
Des Esseintes, and even the Durtal of Là-Bas, always put aside these thoughts with the reflection that, after all, the Church is only an out-worn legend, a magnificent imposture. In En Route Durtal has taken a decisive step. He has undergone that psychological experience commonly called ’conversion.’ It is only of recent years that the phenomena of conversion have been seriously studied, but we know at all events that it is not intellectual, not even necessarily moral transformation, though it may react in either direction, but primarily an emotional phenomenon; and that it occurs especially in those who have undergone long and torturing disquietude, coming at last as the spontaneous resolution of all their doubts, the eruption of a soothing flood of peace, the silent explosion of inner light. The insight with which this state is described in En Route seems to testify to a real knowledge of it. No obvious moral or intellectual change is effected in Durtal, but he receives a new experience of reposeful faith, a conviction deeper than all argument. It is really the sudden emergence into consciousness of a very gradual process, and the concrete artistic temperament which had been subjected to the process reacts in its own way. A more abstract intelligence would have asked: “But, after all, is my faith true?” Durtal, in the presence of the growing structure of sensory and imaginative forms within him, which has become as it were a home, feels that the question of its truth has fallen into the background. Its perfect fitness has become the affirmation of its truth. Henceforth it is the task of his life to learn how best to adapt himself to what he recognizes as his eternal home. En Route represents a stage in this adaptation.
By a rare chance — a happier chance than befell Tolstoi under somewhat similar circumstances — a new development in artistic achievement has here run parallel, and in exquisite harmony, with the new spiritual development. The growing simplicity of Huysmans’ work has reached a point beyond which it could not perhaps be carried without injury to his vivid and concrete style. And the new simplicity of spirit, of which it is the reflection, marks the final retreat into the background of that unreasonable contempt for humanity which ran through nearly all the previous books, and now at last passes even into an ecstasy of adoration in the passages concerning old Simon, the monastery swine-herd. Huysmans has chiefly shown his art, however, by relying almost solely for the interest of his book on his now consummate power of analysis. This power, which we may perhaps first clearly trace in ’Sac au Dos,’ has developed in En Ménage into a wonderful skill to light up the unexplored corners of the soul and to lay bare those terrible thoughts which are, as he has somewhere said, the lamentable incarnation of “the unconscious ignominy of pure souls.” In his earlier masterpiece, A Rebours, however, it is little seen, having mostly passed into aesthetic criticism. The finest episode of emotional analysis here is the admirable chapter in which Des Esseintes’s attempt to visit London is narrated. All his life he had wished to see two countries, Holland and England. (And here we may recall that the former is Huysmans’ own ancestral land, and that his French critics find in his work a distinct flavour of English humour.) He had actually been to Holland, and with visions won from the pictures of Rembrandt, Steen, and Teniers he had returned disillusioned. Now he went to Galignani’s, bought an English Baedeker, entered the bodega in the Rue de Rivoli to drink of that port which the English love, and then proceeded to a tavern opposite the Gare St. Lazare to eat what he imagined to be a characteristic English meal, surrounded by English people, and haunted by memories of Dickens. And as time went by he continued to sit still, while all the sensations of England seemed to pass along his nerves, still sat until at last the London mail had started. “Why stir,” he asked himself, “when one can travel so magnificently in a chair?...Besides, what can one expect save fresh disillusionment, as in Holland?...And then I have experienced and seen what I wanted to experience and see. I have saturated myself with English life; it would be madness to lose by an awkward change of place these imperishable sensations...He called a cab and returned with his portmanteaux, parcels, valises, rugs, umbrellas, and sticks to Fontenay, feeling the physical and mental fatigue of a man who returns home after a long and perilous journey.” There could be no happier picture of the imaginative life of the artistic temperament. But in En Route analysis is the prime element of interest; from first to last there is nothing to hold us but this searching and poignant analysis of the fluctuations of Durtal’s soul through the small section which he here travels in the road towards spiritual peace. There could, for instance, be no better statement than this of one of the mystic’s secrets: “There are two ways of riddingourselves of a thing which burdens us, casting it away or letting it fall. To cast away requires an effort of which we may not be capable, to let fall imposes no labour, is simpler, without peril, within reach of all. To cast away, again, implies a certain interest, a certain animation, even a certain fear; to let fall is absolute indifference, absolute contempt; believe me, use this method, and Satan will flee.” How many forms of Satan there are in the world before which we may profitably meditate on these words! To strive or cry in the face of human stupidity is not the way to set it in flight; that is the lesson which Des Esseintes would never listen to, which Durtal has at last learnt.
En Route is the first of a trilogy, and the names of the succeeding volumes, LaCathédrale and L’Oblat, sufficiently indicate the end of the path on which Durtal, if not indeed his creator, has started. But however that may prove, whatever Huysmans’ own final stage may be, there can be little doubt that he is the greatest master of style, and within his own limits the subtlest thinker and the acutest psychologist who in France today uses the medium of the novel. Only Zola can be compared with him, and between them there can be no kind of rivalry. Zola, with his immense and exuberant temperament, his sanity and width of view, his robust and plebeian art, has his own place on the high-road of modern literature. Huysmans, an intellectual and aesthetic aristocrat, has followed with unflinching sincerity the by-path along which his own more high-strung and exceptional temperament has led him, and his place, if seemingly a smaller one, is at least as sure; wherever men occupy themselves with the literature of the late nineteenth century they will certainly sometimes talk about Zola, sometimes read Huysmans. Zola’s cyclopean architecture can only be seen as a whole when we have completed the weary task of investigating it in detail; in Huysmans we seek the expressiveness of the page, the sentence, the word. Strange as it may seem to some, it is the so-called realist who has given us the more idealized rendering of life; the concentrated vision of the idealist in his own smaller sphere has revealed not alone mysteries of the soul but even the exterior secrets of life. True it is that Huysmans has passed by with serene indifference, or else with contempt, the things which through the ages we have slowly learnt to count beautiful. But on the other hand, he has helped to enlarge the sphere of our delight by a new vision of beauty where before to our eyes there was no beauty, exercising the proper function of the artist who ever chooses the base and despised things of the world, even the things that are not, to put to nought the things that are. Therein the decadent has his justification. And while we may accept the pioneer’s new vision of beauty, we are not called upon to reject those old familiar visions for which he has no eyes, only because his gaze must be fixed upon that unfamiliar height towards which he is leading the men who come after.
Huysmans very exquisitely represents one aspect of the complex modern soul, that aspect which shrinks from the grosser forces of Nature, from the bare simplicity of the naked sky or the naked body, the “incessant deluge of human foolishness,” the eternal oppression of the commonplace, to find a sedative for its exasperated nerves in the contemplation of esoteric beauty and the difficult search for the mystic peace which passes all understanding. “Needs must I rejoice beyond the age,” runs the motto from the old Flemish mystic Ruysbroeck set on the front of A Rebours, “though the world has horror of my joy and its grossness cannot understand what I would say.” Such is decadence; such, indeed, is religion, in the wide and true sense of the word. Christianity itself, as we know it in the western church, sprang from the baptism of young barbarism into Latin decadence. Pagan art and its clear serenity, science, rationalism, the bright, rough vigour of the sun and the sea, the adorable mystery of common life and commonplace human love, are left to make up the spirit that in any age we call ’classic’.
Thus what we call classic corresponds on the spiritual side to the love of natural things, and what we call decadent to the research for the things which seem to lie beyond Nature. “Corporea pulchritudo in pelle solummodo constat. Nam si viderent homines hoc quod subtus pellem est, sicut lynces in Beotia cernere interiore dicuntur, mulieres videre nausearent. Iste decor in flegmate et sanguine et humore ac felle constitit.” That is St. Odo of Cluny’s acute analysis of woman, who for man is ever the symbol of Nature: beauty is skin-deep, drowned in excretions which we should scarcely care to touch with the finger’s tip. And for the classic vision of Nature, listen to that fantastic and gigantic Englishman, Sir Kenelm Digby, whose Memoirs, whose whole personality, embodied the final efflorescence of the pagan English Renaissance. He has been admitted by her maids to the bed-chamber of Venetia Stanley, the famous beauty who afterwards became his wife; she is still sleeping, and he cannot resist the temptation to undress and lie gently and reverently beside her, as half disturbed in her slumber she rolled on to her side from beneath the clothes; “and her smock was so twisted about her fair body that all her legs and best part of her thighs were naked, which lay so one over the other that they made a deep shadow where the never-satisfied eyes wished for the greatest light. A natural ruddiness did shine through the skin, as the sunbeams do through crystal or water, and ascertained him that it was flesh that he gazed upon, which yet he durst not touch for fear of melting it, so like snow it looked. Her belly was covered with her smock, which it raised up with a gentle swelling, and expressed the perfect figure of it through the folds of that discourteous veil. Her paps were like two globes — wherein the glories of the heaven and the earth were designed, and the azure veins seemed to divide constellations and kingdoms — between both which began the milky way which leadeth lovers to their Paradise, somewhat shadowed by the yielding downwards of the uppermost of them as she lay upon her side, and out of that darkness did glisten a few drops of sweat like diamond sparks, and a more fragrant odour than the violets or primroses, whose season was nearly passed, to give way to the warmer sun and the longest days.” They play with the same counters, you observe, these two, Odo and Digby, with skin, sweat, and so forth, each placing upon them his own values. Idealists both of them, the one idealizes along the line of death, the other along the line of life which the whole race has followed, and both on their own grounds are irrefutable, the logic of life and the logic of death, alike solidly founded in the very structure of the world, of which man is the measuring-rod.
The classic party of Nature seems, indeed, the stronger — in seeming only, and one recalls that, of the two witnesses just cited, the abbot of Cluny was the most venerated man of his age, while no one troubled even to publish Digby’s Memoirs until our own century — but it carries weakness in its very strength, the weakness of a great political party formed by coalition. It has not alone idealists on its side, but for the most part also the blind forces of robust vulgarity. So that the more fine-strung spirits are sometimes driven to a reaction against Nature and rationalism, like that of which Huysmans, from ’L’Extase’ onwards, has been the consistent representative. At the present moment such a reaction has attained a certain ascendancy.
Christianity once fitted nearly every person born into the European world; there must needs be some to whom, in no modern devitalized form but in its purest essence, it is still the one refuge possible. No doubt conditions have changed; the very world itself is not what it was to the mediaeval man. One has to recognise that the modern European differs in this from his medieval ancestor that now we know how largely the world is of our own making. The sense of interiority, as the psychologists say, is of much later development than the sense of exteriority. For the mediaeval man, — as still today for the child in the darkness, — his dreams and his fancies, every organic thrill in eye or ear, seemed to be flashed on him from a world of angels and demons without. In a sense which is scarcely true to-day the average man of those days — not the finer or the coarser natures, it may well be — might be said to be the victim of a species of madness, a paranoia, a sytematized persecutional delusion. He could not look serenely in the face of the stars or lie at rest among the fir-cones in the wood, for who knew what ambush of the Enemy might not lurk behind these things? Even in flowers, as St. Cyprian said, the Enemy lay hidden.
Nil jocundum, nil amoenum,
Nil salubre, nil serenum,
Nihil dulce, nihil plenum.
There was only one spot where men might huddle together in safety — the church. There the blessed sound of the bells, the contact of holy water, the smell of incense, the sight of the Divine Flesh, wove a spiritual coat of mail over every sensory avenue to the soul. The winds of hell might rave, the birds of night dash themselves against the leaden spires of that fortress whence alone the sky seemed blue with hope.
Huysmans, notwithstanding a very high degree of intellectual subtlety, is by virtue of his special aesthetic and imaginative temperament carried back to the more childlike attitude of this earlier age. The whole universe appears to him as a process of living images; he cannot reason in abstractions, cannot rationalize; that indeed is why he is inevitably an artist. Thus he is a born leader in a certain modern emotional movement.
That movement, as we know, is one of a group of movements now peculiarly active. We see them on every hand, occultism, theosophy, spiritualism, all those vague forms on the borderland of the unknown which call to tired men weary of too much living, or never strong enough to live at all, to hide their faces from the sun of nature and grope into cool, delicious darkness, soothing the fever of life. It is foolish to resent this tendency; it has its rightness; it suits some, who may well cling to their private dream if life itself is but a dream. At the worst we may remember that, however repugnant such movements may be, to let fall remains a better way of putting Satan to flight than to cast away. And at the best one should know that this is part of the vital process by which the spiritual world moves on its axis, alternating between darkness and light.
Therefore soak yourself in mysticism, follow every intoxicating path to every impossible Beyond, be drunken with mediaevalism, occultism, spiritualism, theosophy, and even, if you will, protestantism — the cup that cheers, possibly, but surely not inebriates — for the satisfaction that comes of all these is good while it lasts. Yet be sure that Nature is your home, and that from the farthest excursions you will return the more certainly to those fundamental instincts which are rooted in the zoological series at the summit of which we stand. For the whole spiritual cosmogony finally rests, not indeed on a tortoise, but on the emotional impulses of the mammal vertebrata which constitute us men.
Meanwhile we will not grieve because in the course of our pilgrimage on earth the sun sets. It has always risen again. We may lighten the darkness of the journey by admiring the beauty of night, plucking back the cowl if needs must we wear it. — Eia, fratres, pergamus.