J. K. HUYSMANS
A strange being was Huysmans. A lashing critic, with a tongue like a two-edged sword even after his conversion, a man who had plumbed the depths of iniquity and who afterwards aimed at the peaks of sanctity, who consorted with demons and then with mystics, and at last biting the dust in penitence gave his body a willing victim to the most excruciating pain — no wonder this most individual man, even apart from his literary genius, is still regarded as an enigma. One can understand how the disciples of the world regard his life as a puzzle; it is hard, however, to see how Catholics, many of them, still look on him as suspect. For to study the man is to come face to face with sincerity if ever there was such a thing. One of Huysmans’ biographers says that the Church has not failed to make a great racket about his conversion. Not such a racket as might have been made, as should have been made; for Huysmans, strange apologist though he is, is nevertheless one of the greatest of modern apologists. Full of faults he is, with many a line in his apologetics that might well have been eliminated; but there is no use complaining about that, you must take Huysmans as he is. A petty critic he is at times; your convert is very apt to be hypercritical. These are but flimsy clouds before the sun. And underneath all one finds the burning heart of the great penitent who with Augustine could cry out — “Too late have I loved Thee, O Beauty, so ancient and so new.”
George Joris Karl Huysmans — he dropped the name George at the publication of his first book and afterwards was known merely as J. K Huysmans — was born at Paris, February 5, 1848. The Huysmans were a family of artists. Everybody in the family, said Huysmans, from father to son, painted. We find at least four of these Flemish painters of the name in Antwerp in the seventeenth century. The most noted of these ancestors was Cornelius, some of whose pictures are in the Louvre, a very facile painter whose canvases were widely scattered. One of J. K.’s uncles was for a time professor at the academies of Breda and of Tilburg. The artist blood thinned out the nearer it came to J.K., for his father, Gotfried, who came from Breda in Holland to Paris, was but an illuminator of missals, and the like small work. Still, if J. K. did not inherit the ancestral technique he was at heart an artist. There never was a better critic, a more honest critic. And as has been often said, if he did not paint pictures he was at least one of the greatest word-painters in all literature. The inherited artistry was but manifested in another way. One thing he did inherit from his father was a generous supply of bile. Gotfried was discontented with his lot in life; it explains somewhat the pessimistic strain in his son. There was another ancestral strain which in due time had its influence upon him. Strange to say, it was the stain of piety. Gotfried’s sisters were nuns in Holland. When Huysmans came to try to explain his conversion he did not omit reference to ancestral piety which was somehow in the blood even during the long years that he regarded religion as a poor, foolish thing.
Whatever borrowed glory there was on the paternal side, there was none of the maternal. His mother, whose name was Badin, belonged to the bourgeoisie, a self-reliant woman who after the death of her husband in 1856, when J. K. was eight years old, supported herself by sewing and soon had a workshop of her own.
The youth of Huysmans was not that of the precocious literary genius. Neither at the Hortus, the boarding school to which he first went, nor later at the St. Louis Lyceum, did he amaze his professors with his talent. He was far from being a brilliant scholar — just enough to get his B.A. in his graduation from the Lyceum in 1866 at the age of eighteen.
Even then Huysmans did not know what he wanted to do in life. He enroled himself in the Law School, and passed the examinations. But that did not appeal to him, and he gave up the law to enter the ministry of the Interior; but he cared little for that and only constrained himself to take up the work on the principle that of two evils one should choose the less. So Huysmans himself described his entrance into the ministry of the Interior, led thither by the advice of his maternal grandfather who was cashier there. He was then much of the dilettante frequenting the Latin Quarter, reading a great deal, wondering what his life should be, leading a hermit’s life and having his fling at the pleasures of the world. There was nothing to keep the youth straight; he had been brought up with no religion whatever and, as he says later in the preface to A Rebours, it seemed entirely natural to him to satisfy the senses. The Latin Quarter of those days besides its moral dangers had its political ones, too. There were gathered the young political firebrands who conspired for the overthrow of the Empire. But these had little appeal for J. K.; in fact he was always indifferent to politics, considering that government the best which harmed nobody.
Huysmans had been working in the ministry two years when the Franco-Prussian war broke out. He joined the Sixth Battalion of guards of the Seine, but did not serve long. He was taken sick and sent to Evreux where he remained for a time convalescing, and where he resigned as a soldier. He returned to the ministry of the Interior at the time of the Commune at Versailles, and returned with it to Paris in 1871. The only thing he got out of his service as a soldier was a bad stomach to which may be ascribed some of the pessimism of the future critic. Huysmans never liked the work in the ministy, but, strange to say — and it is a tribute to the man’s capacity for application and hard work — he remained at the work for thirty years and was always regarded as a model employee; so much so that when in 1893 he was given the Cross of the Legion of Honor the mark of respect was more for his work as an employee of the government than for his great literary renown. It was he, too, who had conceived the justice of admitting to the Legion the faithful old employees of the government. Huysmans was at heart a traditionalist, though it may seem hard to make that statement agree with many of the things in his books. That he was nevertheless, and it helps, apart from the great explanation — the grace of God — to explain the steps of his conversion. One example of his traditionalism is seen in his love for the left side of the Seine. He would live no place else in Paris. He called the right side the demoniacal side where resided all that he hated; the men of prey, the theatrical crew, the feverish life, expense and luxury. A queer criticism coming from the naturalist Huysmans.
Committed to this quasi-hermit existence — marriage never had any appeal for him even in the flush of youth — he sought enjoyment in writing. He loved the poetry of Villon best of all and spent his leisure making verses in imitation of his. He had no abmition then to be a writer; or if he did it was in the far distance. At any rate he learned how to use his tools before he sought to exhibit his handiwork to the public. If any man ever wrote for the love of writing it was Huysmans, especially in the beginning. The hours of practise finally led to the production of some poems in prose which he collected uner the title of Le Drageoir à Epices — The Box of Spices. He submitted the manuscript to the publisher Hetzel, with whom his mother had business relations, but Hetzel was disgusted with the work and refused to publish it, sarcastically asking Huysmans if he was trying to arouse a rebellion against the French language and start another Commune. Evidently the vivid word painting, of which Huysmans even then showed himself the master, was lost on Hetzel.
Nothing daunted by this rejection, Huysmans thought of going to Belgium and submitting the book to publishers there, but chafing under that delay which seems interminable to the author with his first book he brought it out at his own expense in Paris in 1874. The little masterpiece was well received; for masterpiece it was, something new in the French perfection of literature, a perfection ready to become decadent. Theodore de Banville called the book “a jewel of a master goldsmith, chiselled with a hand firm and light”.
The success spurred him to further effort. In 1876 he went to Brussels and remained there a month seeking a publisher for his first novel, Marthe, Histoire d’une fille. He succeeded in having it published there, but later republished it in Paris in 1879, where it was suppressed by the police. By this book the comparatively unknmown writer entered the school of the naturalists, Balzac, Flaubert, Zola. Zola was not then the chief of that school — he was to become so with L’Assomoir. Huysmans, indeed, in those days, outdid Zola in realism, even though he may be called the first disciple of Zola. One thing about Huysmans in distinction from Zola is that in all his naturalistic writings he never insulted the Church; one other reason, no doubt, why he was able to submit to that same Church. But through many books he was the staunch naturalist. When in 1879 appeared his Les Soeurs Vatard it was dedicated to Zola, and being condemned by many of the anti-naturalists Zola rushed to its defence, a defence which was one for Huysmans and two for himself. The defence was necessary, for Zola was being eclipsed by Baudeliare who was already exercising a great influence upon Huysmans. In fact, Baudelaire became the idol of Huysmans and he was never done talking his praises. One can explain Huysmans’ bent to naturalism by the fact that he was naturally an insurgent. He must be original or nothing, even though, explain it as you will, he was fundamentally a traditionalist. He was, anyway, in letters an insurgent. The classics, like Corneille, Racine, Moliè, had no appeal for him; he could not, would not read them. So he continued his realism. In 1880 appeared the Soirée de Medan, a collection of young writers, as DeMaupassant, Henrique and Paul Alexis, all under the patronage of Zola, To the series Huysmans gave his Sac au Dos which had laready been published in a Belgian review, reminiscences of his short military career which added nothing to his literary reputation.
Love of art was strong in Huysmans. A master now of French prose, he could give expression to his ideas as to what great art should be, and as a result he published Les Croquis Parisiens — Parisian Sketches — a critique of the pictures exhibited in the salons of 1870, 1880, 1881, 1882. At once he was recognized as a great art critic, an honest critic, who was no cringing adorer of the past, a critic who did not hesitate to praise the unknown artist, and who took delight in coming to the defence of the painters who had been unjustly set aside. These critiques established Huysmans as one of the great masters of French prose.
The year 1881 was a prolific one for Huysmans. He published Nana, Pot-Bouille, and finally En Menage. En Menage was a glorification of naturalism at a time when naturalism, or as it might be called, nakedness, nakedness physical and moral, was the pursuit of so many writers. Huysmans in 1885 could call this his chosen book — which would show how far from the thought of conversion to God he was then. During those years there was nothing worth while to him but naturalism. In 1882 he published at Brussels A Vau-l’Eau which is called his chef d’oeuvre of naturalism. It is Huysmans in his most pessimistic strain. He sought therein to show life as unredeemably bad, the thesis being that “the life of man oscillates as a pendulum between pain and ennui.” The hero, Folantin is a type, the Huysmans type which goes through all the subsequent books of the author, whether as the Des Esseintes of A Rebours of the Durtal of La Bas and En Route.
A Rebours appeared in 1884. The conversion of Huysmans did not take place till some eight years after that. But it is not too far fetched to find the beginnings of the retrun to God in this book which marks his break with naturalism and the school of Zola. Baudelaire was having a subtle influence on Huysmans the naturalist. After having reached the summit of naturalism, or rather the depths, in A Vau-l’Eau he discovered, as he says, that naturalism ends in a cul-de-sac. He was saturated with realism. He was sick of it. The dilettante Des Esseintes in A Rebours tried everything under the sun. He had come to the limits of physical and moral degeneracy. It was the same old theme of pessimism, the heart seeking its solace in sin and finding it not. Huysmans looked for something besides this naturalism. He did not know what he wanted. He knew only that he had gone into the blind alley and wanted to turn around and come to liberty. At any rate he was done with naturalism — in literature; not in his own life of the satisfaction of the passions. Zola was displeased at losing his pupil. “You strike a terrible blow at naturalism,” he said bitterly. It was evident in A Rebours that Huysmans was seeking something. What it was even he did not know. At that time Jules LeMaître wrote: “After the ’Fleurs du Mal’ I said to Baudelaire, ’There is left for you now logically nothing but the mouth of a pistol or the foot of the Cross.’ Baudeliare chose the foot of the Cross; but the author of A Rebours, will he choose it?”
Huysmans, too, chose the foot of the Cross, but eight years passed before he made his final decision. A Rebours had ended in pessimism, almost. But the final words were the heart cry of one who prayed to be delivered from the total despair which seemed ready to engulf him. “Lord,” cried out Des Esseintes, “have pity on the Christian who doubts, on the unbelieving who would believe, on the galley slave who embarks alone in the night under a firmament which the consoling beacons of old hope no longer brighten.”
In the preface to a later edition of this book Huysmans seeks to explain this religious appeal on the lips of one who scarcely knew what it meant. “I was not brought up in the religious schools,” he writes, “but in a lyceum. I was not pious in youth, and that side of the remembrance of youth, of first Communion, of the education which so often holds a large place in a conversion, held none in mine. And what complicates the difficulty more, and disconcerts all analysis, is that when I wrote A Rebours I had not put a foot in a church, I knew not a practical Catholic, or any priest. I did not experience any divine touch inciting me to direct me to the Church; I lived in my trough, tranquil. It seemed to me entirely natural to satisfy the senses, and the thought did not even come to me that this kind of tournament was forbidden. A Rebours appeared in 1884 and I went to be converted at La Trappe in 1892 — nearly eight years passed before the seeds of this book had risen; let us place two years, three even, of a work of grace, heavy, stubborn, sometimes sensible; there remain less than five years during which I do not remember to have felt any Catholic inclination, any regret of the life I led, any desire to reform it. Why then have I in a night been goaded on to a road that had been lost for me? I am absolutely powerless to say; nothing, unless the prayers of nunneries and cloisters, prayers of the fervent Holland family which I otherwise scarcely knew, will explain the perfect unconsciousness of the last cry, the religious appeal of the last page of A Rebours.”
En Rade appeared in 1887, a book that need not be considered in the soul study of its author.
It is only in 1891 that we can begin to trace the real conversion of Huysmans. And strange to say it begins whith that truly terrible book La Bas. Interesting as a study of the depths to which man can descend — if one need such a study — and explanatory of much of the psychology of Huysmans — the world would be none the poorer if he had never written it. For one thing, even while it is not autobiographical in the strict sense of the word, it gives a hint of what the private life of Huysmans was during those years of darkness. Huysmans was Parisian to the core and he intended to enjoy all the pleasures that Paris could give him.
He did enjoy them, for he tells us that his conversion let him escape from “a filthy time.” Perhaps it is necessary to stress that point — of the animal existence of the man for so many years — in order to understand the long, hard way he had to travel when the grace of God came to him and set his face in the direction of home. La Bas still stands badly in need of expurgation. Yet this horrible book, this study in Satanism, by convincing him of the existence of spirits superior to man, was, strange to say, his first step to God. That book of 1891 was but the prelude to the conversion of 1892.
How describe that conversion? It is quite impossible to put in words the psychology of it, for Huysmans himself could not do so even in regard to his own soul and with his analytical mind. “Providence was merciful to me, and the Virgin was good,” he wrote. “I was content not to oppose them when they declared their intentions. I have simply obeyed. I have been led by what is called ’extraordinary ways’.”
Yet even from the human point of view it was too great an experience for the realist not to make a book out of it. Thus in 1895 was given to the world that truly remarkable book, En Route, in which Huysmans traces the steps of his conversion to God in the character of Durtal who had figured so ignominiously in La Bas. There is no doubt that Huysmans wished to have himself regarded as described in the character of Durtal even though it is not wholly autobiographical, especially in the scenes of La Bas.
During the octave of All Souls Durtal, who, with no religion to keep him back, had plumbed the depths of iniquity, entered the church of St. Sulpice while the office of the dead was being chanted. The plain-chant took possession of his soul. “That which seemed to him superior to the most vaunted works of theatrical or worldy music was the old plain-chant, that melody plain and naked, at the same time aerial and of the tomb.” No one has written so beautifully of the music of the Church as Huysmans. The art to which the church has given birth made an appeal to his soul. “Ah,” he cries out, “the true proof of Catholicism is this art which it has founded, this art which nothing has ever surpassed. In painting and sculpture it was the Primitives; the mystics in poetry and the sequences; in music the plain-chant; in architecture, the Roman and the Gothic.”
The sermon ended, Durtal was brought back to earth again. “I should have tried to pray,” he said; “that would have been of more avail than to be lost there in my chair of empty reveries; but pray? I have no desire for it. I am haunted by Catholicism, intoxicated with its atmosphere of incense and wax. I roam around it, touched to tears by its prayers, impressed to the very marrows by its psalmody and its chants. I am very weary of my life, very tired of myself, but it is another thing to lead another existence. And then — if I am disturbed in the churches, I become unmoved and dry as soon as I come out. At the bottom I have a heart hardened and burned by sensual indulgence. I am good for nothing.”
And this irreligious sensualist suddenly became a believer.
How? Durtal asked himself. And he answered: “I do not know; all that I know is that after having been for years an unbeliever, suddenly I believe.” “I have heard,” he continued, “of the sudden and violent upheaval of soul, of the clap of thunder, of the Faith making at the end an explosion in the ground which is slowly and learnedly mined. It is very evident that conversions can be effected according to one or other of these two methods, for God acts as seems good to Him, but there should be a third method which is doubtless the most ordinary, that which the Saviour used for me. And that consists in I know not what; it is somewhat analogous to the digestion of the stomach which works without one being sensible of it. There has been no Damascus road, no events which determined a crisis; nothing supervened, yet one fine morning one wakes and without knowing how or why the thing is done...The only thing which seems sure to me is that there was in my case divine premotion — grace. I seek in vain to trace my steps by which I have gone; doubtless I can discover on the route gone over some marking posts here and there; love of art, heredity, disgust with life; I can even recall forgotten sensations of childhood, little underground paths of ideas resurrected by my visits to the churches; but what I cannot do is bind together these threads to group them in a bundle; what I cannot understand is the sudden and silent explosion of light which has taken place in me. When I try to explain to myself how, an unbeliever in the evening, I have become without knowing it a believer in one night, I can indeed discover nothing, for the heavenly action has disappeared without leaving any traces.”
“It is very certain,” he says again, “that it is the Virgin who acts in these cases on us; it is She who kneads you and puts you into the Hands of Her Son; but her fingers are so light, so soft, so caressing, that the soul which they have refreshed has felt nothing.”
Nevertheless Durtal can find certain motives, or inclinations to a revival of faith. Piety was in the blood, it was ancestral; there were nuns in the family. It will be recalled that the sisters of his father were nuns in Holland.
The second motive was the disgust with life, driving him to look for solace he knew not where, but knowing that irreligion and lust had brought no satisfaction. The third motive was the passion for art, for music, architecture, for all those beauties which the Church has cherished in her worship.
The faith had come, but the struggle with sin had not ceased. Durtal believed, but Durtal’s morals were the morals of La Bas and A Rebours. He relapsed into sin again and again. He was disgusted with himself after the sin, but he seemed powerless to resist the attractions of the old life. It was impossible for him to be continent! How reminiscent it is of the beginnings of the conversion of another great penitent — St. Augustine.
Durtal had confided his secrets of soul to the Abbé Gévresin, who is none other than the real Abbé Mugnier, a curate at the church of St. Thomas d’Aquin, who was his dear firend and director. The abbé finally succeeded in prevailing upon Durtal, not without hard work, to make a retreat in a Trappist monastery. It was so that Huysmans, on the advice of Abbé Mugnier, went to little Trappe of Notre Dame d’Igny. It is a touching avowal which Durtal makes to his God before setting out for his retreat. “My soul is a bad place; it is sordid and of bad character; up to now it has loved only perversion; it has exacted of my miserable body the tithe of illicit deights and undue joys; it is not worth much, it is worth nothing; and yet, down there near You, if You will help me, I know well that I will make something of it; but my body, if it is sick I cannot force it to obey me! that is worse than all, that! I am helpless if You do not come to my aid.”
But God did come to the aid of the penitent who was so distrustful of his own weakness. Anyway, decided Durtal, “There are many who go to Barè or to Vichy to cure their bodies, why should not I go cure my soul in a Trappist monastery?”
The description of the state of soul of Durtal puring that retreat, his struggle with himself, with the powers of darkness, with old memories, the awful agony of his general confession, make a soul study that cannot be surpassed. It is realism at its height. No résumé of En Route can be given; one might as well try to give a synopsis of the Imitation. Durtal made his confession and found peace for his soul. In the same way Huysmans made his confession and found peace. Confession always was to him one of the most opportune and beneficial institutions. Somewhere in En Route he says: “Confession is an admirable Godsend, for it is the most sensible touchstone there could be for souls, the most intolerable act which the Church has imposed on the vanity of man.” Once a friend of his, a man of letters who was obsessed by certain scruples before he submitted to the faith, came to him with his difficulties. “You believe,” said Huysmans, “that the priest before whom you kneel to tell your sins holds the place of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and that he will pardo you in his Name? You also believe that in the Mass the priest immolates Jesus Christ and that the Host with which he communicates you is Jesus Christ Himself?” “Yes,” answered the other, “I believe that.” “Very well, then,” said Huysmans, “go to confession and Communion and all will arrange itself.”
Huysmans had taken the great step. He had humbled his soul and thus had found that his only strength was in God. “If anyone,” he once said, “could have the certitude of the nothingness he would be without the aid of God, it would be I.” That lesson of his own nothingness he had learned in his sojourn at the monastery. The monks made a great impression upon him and he might have become one had his health permitted. But GOd had other work for him to do.
Huysmans was forty-four years of age at the time of his conversion. Up to then his life had been spent far from God. It had been a wasted, criminal life. Not only had he befouled his own soul with immoralities, but in describing them in his shockingly naturalistic books he had brought harm to other souls. He could not cast aside now the talent which he had misued; he must use it for the good of souls and seek to undo some of the harm he had done. He must redeem the time.
Leaving his retreat and returning to Paris he placed himself under the direction of Abbé Feret of St. Sulpice, to who La Cathédrale is dedicated. Under his guidance Huysmans undertook to retrace the steps of his conversion in the epoch-making En Route. The book appeared in 1895. No book ever caused greater discussion. It was bitterly attacked and as bitterly defended. Frankly, it had scandalized many Catholics. It was too free in its criticisms, hypercritical criticisms many of them; it was too harsh, and too free in its dealing with sacred things. Huysmans could not get rid of naturalism, even though in his converted state the realism was spiritualized. It was declared by Catholics as well as by the freethinkers who sought to make light of the great conversion that Huysmans was still the grand poser, that he was not sincere in his return to religion but had merely turned to mysticism because he had exhausted every other subject. In plain words it was said that he was a hypocrite, the worst kind of hypocrite, he who pretends to religion to make capital of it. He was even compared to Leo Taxil with the miserable Diana Vaughan hoax. All this deeply pained the heart of the convert, for if any man ever was sincere it was Huysmans. The pain was all the greater as he realized that some of the most violent attacks came from the Catholics whom he sought to serve. The Abbé Belleville went so far as to write a book — Le Conversion de M. Huysmans — in which he made bold to express his doubts as to the sincere conversion of the writer, his argument being that if he had been sincere he would have destroyed his former scandalous books instead of continuing to make money out of them. Another argument was that Huysmans dealt with sacred things in a repugnant manner. The argument was not without foundation. It is going too far, however, to accuse Huysmans of making money out of his evil books. That never entered his mind. Perhaps is was quite an impossible task to correct the books that were so widespread. Rest assured that Huysmans had given the matter serious consideration and only after viewing it from every angle had decided to let things as they were.
A certain ecclesiastic, a friend of his — Huysmans had many sincere friends among the priests — suggested to him that certain passages in En Route should be eliminated. “Perhaps today,” answered Huysmans, “I would hesitate to write them. But I must avow it would be a mistake to eliminate them. They testify to the truth of the book. It is because it is true that it has a religious influence on souls.” It was an action different from that of another great convert, Paul Féval, who had burned or corrected the books of his unregenerate life. Huysmans, in a word, left his untouched as a history of his state of soul. It goes without saying that En Route made many conversions, still makes them. It was the realization of this that cleared the mind of the Abbé Feret. He heard so many attacks made on the book, by good men even, that he, too, great as was his confidence in Huysmans, began to doubt. One day, however, a sinner came to him to confession. It was a striking conversion, and the Abbé asked what had led the man back to God. The answer was that conversion had come after reading En Route. This with other cases of conversion effected by reading of the soul struggles of the great realist, convinced the Abbé that in spite of some evident shortcomings the “confessions” of Huysmans were designed to do in modern times what the confessions of St. Augustine had been doing for many centuries.
Today we know that there should have been no suspicion of his conversion. He was not a merely literary convert, merely drawn to religion as to an unexplored field. He had become a practical Catholic, living the Christian life with ever new zeal, delighting to visit the churches of Paris, praying in the old shrines of the faith so wonderful to him, reading the mystics, listening to the plain chant of the Church as to the music of Heaven, visiting the monasteries which he loved so much that he would have wished to become a monk had be not been advised by his spiritual directors that he should serve God with his pen. What his life was in those days is seen in a letter of his to Gustave Coquiot, one of his biographers. Coquiot had written to him in 1896 asking him to express his views on literature and society. Huysmans answered: “My joys of the present — to follow the canonical hours in a cloister, to ignore that which passes at Paris, to read books on liturgy and mysticism, iconography and symbolism. To see as little as possible of men of letters and as much as possible of monks...I feel myself removed from active life, and my book appear to me now as those of others — vain.”
Huysmans, the convert, showed the literary world that in leaving the world of fleshy naturalism he had lost none of his wonderful talent; indeed, his genius is more evident in the books he made after he had seen the light of faith. It was said that he had discovered that he had the whole of Heaven to plumb. Nothing now appealed to him but that same Heaven. The three years following the publication of En Route were spent in putting together the documents he had gathered abou;t the Cathedral of Chartres. It was a true labor of love. He never thought that the book would find many readers. But when La Cathédrale appeared in 1898 it found as many readers as En Route. In the same way, too, it was attacked and defended. Even then the doubts as to his conversion persisted. Lucien Descaves, who has written so sympathetically of his firend, relates that many people asked him, knwoing that he was one of the few who had the entr&eacte;e to the home of the popular writer, if Huysmans was really sincere or if his conversion was not just a caprice of art. It was hard to kill the old slander. Descaves was indignant. He called the suspicion a gratuitous affront done to an honest man, to a man the least capable of deception he had ever known. His loyalty, said Descaves, actually shone. Today at any rate La Cathédrale, this example of naturalism spiritualized, has its sure place as a classic. If Huysmans had done nothing but this he would deserve the lasting gratitude of his fellow Catholics.
In the same year Huysmans received a pension from the government on account of his services in the ministry. This removed many of his financial worries and gave him more time to devote to his religious books. He was now particularly interested in the study of liturgy which was to be the basis of the last book of a trilogy. En Route had dealt with mysticism, La Cathédrale with symbolism. To allow himself to become saturated with liturgy he decided to make his residence in the vicinity of the abbey of Liguge near Vienne. With some firends of his he bought a lot of land there and had a house built after his own designs, which he called Maison Notre Dame. Once established there he set about getting ready to make his profession as Oblate. His literary work consisted in the preparation of the life of St. Lydwine and he made a short trip to Schiedam to get the locale of his story and to make certain investigations. But it was not all literary work. His chief work in those days was to sanctify his soul. The cloister appealed to him, and again he would have sought to be admitted, but the necessity that would follow of being obliged to submit his writing to censure deterred him; he felt he would be able to do greater good as a free lance in literature. Every morning he assisted at the High Mass, no matter how great the heat or the cold, and prayed there full of faith, lost in deep meditation, so earnest and simple in his religion that the religious as well as the peasants were edified by him. He would leave the church only when the monks left. He mingled with the monks a great deal, not letting a day pass without seeing them, learning all that he could from them, especially in the matter of liturgy which now greatly occupied his attention. Descaves who visited him there tells of watching him across the fields, his head bowed, his prayer book under his arm, the bells of the old abbey calling him away from the literary work which was interrupted only by the need of assisting at the offices. After Mass he would return to the house and talk with his friends of other things than those which really interested him. Descaves says that the spirit of proselytism was seen only in his books, not in his conversation with his firends.
It seemed to be an ideal life for Huysmans, but at last he tired of it. He was homesick for Paris, for he was Parisian to the core always and it was hard for him to live elsewhere. He never liked the country, he had a kind of inbred aversion for the peasants. He was never a lover of nature, and even the sun exasperated him, due no doubt to the growing affection of his eyes.
In Febrary, 1901, he published Sainte Lydwine de Schiedam. That, too, was a labor of love for his heart had been touched by the life of this woman who for thirty-eight years had lain on her bed of pain, with scarcely any nourishment but that of Holy Communion, scarcely any sleep. She was a victim for others, a victim of expiation. The idea of expiation had appealed to Huysmans even in the days when he was writing En route. This book on Sainte Lydwine is a compelling one. It is Huysmans’ epic on suffering. His way of the Cross henceforth was to be that of patient suffering. How beautifully he writes of it. “The truth is that Jesus commences by making one suffer and that He explains afterwards. The important thing then is to submit in the beginning and to stop complaining instnatly. He is the greatest Mendicant that the heavens and the earth have ever had, the terrible Mendicant of Love. The wounds of His hands are the purses always empty, and He holds them out for each one to fill them with the little money of his sufferings and griefs. There is then only one thing to do — to give to Him. Consolation, peace of soul, the means to use and transmite at length his torments into joys can be obtained only at this price. The receipt for this Divine alchemy of sorrow is abnegation and sacrifice. After the period of necessary incubation the great work is accomplished; out of the brazier of the soul comes the gold, that is to say, Love which consumes the sorrows and tears; the true philosopher’s stone is there.”
Huysmans afterwards called his sojourn at Liguge the most beautiful time of his life. Homesick though he was at times, it is very likely that he would have remained there were it not for the exile of the Congregation. The law of Associations had taken away the parish church from the monks and had placed a secular priest in charge. At the end of september of that year the monks went to live in Belgium. Huysmans who was deeply afflicted by the dispersion had no longer any reason to remain there after them, and immediately he came back to Paris, happy no doubt to be home again.
But he did not relax his pious practices. He was a familiar figure in the churches, assisting at the offices, his favorite place being the foot of Our Lady’s altar, for he had a wonderful, childlike devotion to the Mother of God. He still felt an attraction to the monasteries and went to make his dwelling with the Benedictines of the Blessed Sacrament. He remained there, however, only a year and then took apartments. Huysmans was not too easy to get along with; he was too individual to be happy in community life. He could live anywhere so long as he was lost in literary work, but once the book was finished he began to be restless again. The story of his sojourn at Liguge is told in L’Oblat which appeared at this time. It was the end of the trilogy which he had set out to write, and was received with as much acclaim as En Route and La Cathédrale. From a literary standpoint Huysmans had lost nothing by his conversion. His books sold, even though financial success had little appeal to him. But one must live, and his resources had never been any too great. Those resources had been helped a great deal when in 1900 he was made president of the Academie Goncourt of which he had been one of the founders. It gave him the necessary leisure for his subsequent books. In 1903 in company with his firend Abbé Mugnier he visited different cities, and he described the journey in Trois Primitifs which appeared in 1905. In the following year, 1906, he published Les Foules de Lourdes, a tribute to her to whom he had such great devotion, an answer as it was to the iniquitous book on the same subject by his former master, Zola.
Huysmans was coming near the end of his literary work. But his life is not entirely seen in his books. He would have been a great man, worthy of study as a Christian, even if he had never published a line. He was a great penitent, an atoner by suffering. Shortly after the publication of Les Foules de Lourdes began the trouble with his throat which was at last to cause his death. The affliction was cancer of the palate. He began to decline, reduced to nothing but skin and bone by months of torture. His whole body, indeed, was a prey to suffering. His teeth gave him constant pain, he suffered from neuralgia, from pains in the chest, and from dyspepsia. Added to that was an affection of the eyes, so great that the light became unbearable to him and it was finally necessary to sew his eyelds shut and compel him to pass months in darkness. Through it all he never complained; religion gave him courage. At length, by what he believed to be a miracle, his sight was restored. But the other ills from which he suffered continued. He did not repine — he who once had been such a victim of ennui. His only comment was, “The good God sends me this sickness for the good of my soul.” It was not merely resignation; it was joyful conformity, a delight in being asked to suffer. He had hoped to be cured by Easter, but not with any great longing, and he was not disappointed when Easter passed and left him still in pain.
“I ask neither to be cured nor to die,” he said; “God is the Master. Suffering has its work to do in my soul. When that is finished death will have only to come.”
There was little else to write about — there were no more subjects — but there was always his soul to sanctify, It was Huysmans humbled. He loved the humble. He made money, but he hated it; he would touch only what was necessary for his few wants. The soul of Huysmans was, when all is said, a humble one. Not that he disdained praise; he knew his own talents, knew all that was said about him, and wanted to know, even when the criticisms were far from being palatable. He had no ill will for anybody. He was simple of soul, childlike especially in his faith. He had tried the wisdom of the world and had discovered its real folly. Learning as an aid to religion he did not value much. It ws vain, said he, to seek to make converts by philosophical discussion. “It is the humbling of our intelligence before God which is necessary for us.”
He humbled himself. Like Baudelaire he chose the foot of the Cross. That was the only thing in life worth while. He had known sin; he knew how to sympathize with others who were struggling against it. There is nothing more truly sympathetic than his defence of the relapsing Paul Verlaine in the preface he wrote for the collection of the poet’s religious verses. He was hard on nobody but himself. As to himself he felt that he deserved all the suffering that could be heaped on his head. His was the motto of St. Terea — “to suffer or to die.” “It was necessary that I should suffer like this,” he said to a friend a few days before his death, “in order that those who read my works might know that I had not only made literature; it was necessary that I should suffer my work.” His friends admired his strength of soul. “He lives,” said they, “his most beautiful pages on suffering.” Suffering was his penance for sin. It was why the penitential orders appealed to him; he calls them somewhere the lightning-conductors of the world. “Hospitals,” said he, “are necessary things in life.” And again, “one must rejoice in having the chance to expiate one’s sins.”
The conversion of Huysmans had made a special appeal to that other great convert, François Coppée. He devotes several pages in La Bonne Souffrance to him apropos of La Cathédrale, which he calls a book “infinitely interesting” and “profoundly sincere.” “If as the proverb says,” he writes, “a proverbn which finds here its just application, all roads lead to Rome, Huysmans has certainly taken the longest. Some years ago an unhealthy attraction brought him to studfy the mysterious abominations of Satanism; and to read one after the other, La Bas and En Route, one could believe — if one did not know that the first of these two stories is quite imaginary — why Durtal, that is to say, Huysmans, ran to take refuge at La Trappe on coming forth from a black Mass. That which is true is that this scornful and incorrigible man, so hard to satisfy in all things, in matters of style as in cooking, came one day to be disgusted with himself. This sentiment which hen has often expressed with the most energetic frankness had to take finally in a scrupulous conscience the form of repenance. Whoever repents finds the need of being pardoned; and, there is only one tribunal where indulgence is infinite and absolution perfect, the confessional. Durtal then rushed upon penance; you will find in En Route, on this crisis of soul, pages of a singular and penetrating emotion — and he was henceforth a Christian.”
“Where Huysmans moves me,” contines Coppée, “is when he is human; it is when newly converted, having lived to a ripe age almost entirely according to the senses, and having employed his thought scarcely for anything but the painful but amusing gymnastics of letters, he suffers in having so much difficulty to create in himself an interior life; it is when he deplores, with accents of poignant sincerity, the little ardor of his piety and the dryness of his heart in prayer. I recall then the frightful words, ’God vomits the tepid.’ For I know like sufferings, the just punishment of those who are not frightened till late at the emptiness of their soul, and seek then with anguish to collect with care some ruins of faith and hope. Alas! from the first hour we have been separated from the Cross; during the heat of the day we have lived far from it, and it is only towards evening that its shadow lengthens and touches us. The moment, no doubt, is propitious, for all else is going to fail us. We return towards the protecting Cross, we embrace it with a gesture of distress, and we try to pray. But not with impunity have we passed long years in indifference to eternal things, and it seems to us that the sweet prayers of our infancy wither in passing our impure lips. Courage, however...Let us pray then without doubting His inexhaustible mercy. Let our prayers be as dry as they may, they have nevertheless their virtue. Are not we already rid of much of our baseness and the temptations which obsessed us? Do we not feel less unjust, more resigned, more humble, and especially more charitable?” Yes, Huysmans might have answered. Penance had done its work in his soul. Religion was easy to him now. “Everything,” said he, “becomes easy when one has once said Fiat from his heart. It is no merit to me to believe in the supernatural. Ever since the day of my conversion I have touched it, felt it.”
The end was nearing. The sufferings increased, but so great a value did he set on their purifying influence that he would not let himself be robbed of any of them. They wanted to give him morphine to lessen the pain, but he refused it. He knew that the day of death was not far off. He made his will, burned his worthless papers, forbade the publishing of his letters and unedited manuscripts, so great a horror did he have of “confidences” and “souvenirs,” and made arrangements for the publication fo Trois Eglises, his last work, one that was deeply religious. There was no sentiment about the end; it was all religiously businesslike. One April day, a few weeks before his death, he was standing on a ladder in his library when his friend de Caldain entered. “What are you doing?” he was asked. “I am looking for the Pontifical,” answered Huysmans’ “I’m waiting for the priest to give me Extreme Unction.”
At last the suffering body was worn out. Huysmans died May 12 1907. He had asked to be buried in the robe of a Benedictine monk, and his friend the master of novices at Liguge, Father Dom Besse, who afterwards pronounced at Brussels a beautiful eulogy of the Oblate, sent him the habit, and thus he lay in death in the tunic and scapular, the hood on his head, the crucifx and relics on his breast. His hands were joined as in prayer, those hands which had written so much for which he had to do penance, but hands, too, that had written great apologies for faith and repentance.
Crowds came to see the great writer dead. Men of letters, people of the world, priests, religious, all entered the room which Dom Besse describes as the dwelling of “a man of the Middle Ages wandered into our times.”
So passed one of the great figures of his day, one whom Havelock Ellis in his Affirmations calls “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.” It is not, however, of Huysmans as a great writer that we love to think, but of Huysmans the sinner who had cleansed his soul by the tears of suffering and penance.