JORIS KARL HUYSMANS
A FIGURE which stands out even amongst the complex and elusive personalities of contemporary literature, a thinker of the most intense originality, one of those rare literary artists destined to reveal to future ages, the subtlety, the sadness, and the strange sense of homelessness which breathe through the fast waning years of our century.
I love to picture his work as I might picture one of those old gardens full of surprises, designed with all the studied magnificence of some architect of the Latin decadence. Perspectives cunningly planned for the pleasure of the eyes, labyrinths of costly strange-flowering trees disclosing here and there some hidden and seductive retreat, fairy palaces where the senses may hold high festival, dark temples haunted by shadowy terrors, grottos adorned with gloomy splendour, fantastic colonnades, sparkling with jewels and illumined by jets of artificial light, faint odours wafted from poisonous blossoms, undreamt-of harmonies of colour, all the bewildering unending spectacle of a protean-like reality, moulding itself into shapes of rare and exquisite complexity. From alluring loveliness to utter vileness, from ideal abstraction to depths of baseness, all that the wildest dreams of a disordered imagination can summon to bring peace to a highly trained hyper-sensitive, and rapidly pulsating organization. And the result a region of terror and a region of enchantment, where beauty but shines in deformity, where the normal and simple can have no place, where nature contracts her features into a grimace, where poor humanity is only seen through the broken lights of a prism, now clothed in a glow of magic colour, and now exaggerating its natural ugliness by its mean and unsightly contortions.
To cross the threshold of this garden is to receive an immediate impression of mental bewilderment. Too many diverse images, all equally vivid, strike at once upon the retina, and the result, in spite of their definiteness, nay, perhaps because of their definiteness, is mist and confusion, for each affects the sense of vision with precisely equal force. Such a state of nervous, tension imperatively demands repose. Reaction sets in but slowly, and then, but not till then, can the spectator, once more master of himself, begin to appreciate the work at its true value, estimating the true relation and proportion of the parts, and divining the secret of the whole. The profusion of detail, which was at first a source of trouble, now but serves to heighten that sense of studied richness and luxuriance inherent in the general scheme. Where once he seemed to see only incoherent disorder and mere literary artifice, he now sees the effort of an original and strongly individual temperament after self-expression. Is he still at fault as to the true drift of those general ideas which give form to the chaos? He will not have long to wait, and even at this early stage he can admire the writer’s wealth of imagination, his extraordinary creative gifts, his abnormal keenness of perception, hyper-sensitive to the verge of physical pain, the overwhelming strangeness of his style, his entirely new way of noting sense impressions; in a word the actual working of a mind assuredly one of the most singular to be found in our literature.
In two words, the drama, which runs through the novelist’s whole work, and constitutes the object of my study, is the evolution of a soul. What could be more appealing, what more poignant, seeing that no doubt can be for one second entertained as to the writer’s moral value, I mean as to his innermost sincerity; for it is of more moment, perhaps, than might be supposed to stand face to face in such a case with no mere literary machine, but with a real human personality. The race of book-makers numbers nowadays too many men skilled in the art of adapting themselves to the exigencies of the moment, and ready for the sake of suceess to trample under foot all creeds and convictions. The man who, even in the written work which he gives to the public, has the courage to remain what the eighteenth century, with its wide-minded clearness, called "an honest man," cannot but command our reverence. Now, if there is one thing which must in all fairness be allowed to M. Huysmans’ books, it is sincerity. He is sincere here, there, and everywhere, always and all times, even in his most assailable paradoxes, his prejudices, his sudden flights of imagination, for he is ever an extremist, a perpetual irreconcilable.
The evolution of a soul — I wrote the words just now as a summary of Huysmans’ work, viewed as a whole, but I should have done better if I had called it the history of a conversion. I want to show how by slow stages the aggressive naturalism of the writer’s earlier books devoloped and at last expanded into the new birth of Christian spiritualism, pure faith — nay, mysticism, let us say the word right out.
Naturalist at the outset, M. Huysmans assuredly showed himself, and it must be added that he embraced the creed with ardour, not as a matter of fashion nor because he was carried away, nor as a means of winning success, but at a time when to declare for naturalism was to do a deed of daring, not without its possible dangers. He did it, I firmly believe, because this particular view of art — the Realistic view — corresponded more closely than any other to his nature and temperament. What is there surprising in that? Doubtless his hereditary Dutch tendencies impelled him that way; in his veins flowed the rich red blood of those strong races, instinct with the joy of life, which, people the Low Countries, and hidden away in a crevice of his brain there lingered some inconsequent memory of those clamorous Kermesses, and of the full free life and quickly gratified appetites and instincts of his peaceable deep-drinking ancestors. And in very truth his descriptive tendencies, the minute care which he bestows upon the portrayal of objects both animate and inanimate, his passion for visual impressions, dominate his books, just as those very qualities dominate the canvases of the Dutch and Flemish Masters. There are certain modes of phrasing in his vocabulary, particular verbal touches, fixing an image by a gesture, which recall the manner of a Teniers, a Steen, an Ostade. He is just as scrupulous as these painters in giving an impression of reality which shall be as definite and complete and, at the same time, as personal as possible. His acuteness of vision comes in here and serves his purpose to a miracle. He makes us note form, colour, the subtlest play of light and shade, with a resource, a clearness, an accuracy, which are really prodigious. For him there is nothing too mean or too repellent to be described; he approaches the task with confidence, but, it must be owned, with none of the good-humoured joyousness of the Dutch and Flemish painters. On the contrary he is filled with bitterness and cruelty. His pictures are faithful enough, but carried out in a scheme of black, and forced sometimes to the point of caricature. There is in him something of a Hogarth; he paints life undoubtedly, and life as it is, but he paints it in a spirit of ferocious jealousy. Its ugliness, its ignorance, its shame, its abjectness, attract him; he may scourge them, but he loves them; though his lips curl with disgust, he takes a pleasure in making the picture. He is the victim of a strange malady. He longs to evade the grasp of the realities which press upon him; he would gladly escape from all the uglinesses which modern life, with its artificial agglomerations and all the abnormalities of civilization, heaps and multiplies around him; but he clings to his own obsessions just as a neuropath clings to his nevrosity. He needs the mighty effort of an irresistible will, the hard-won conquest for himself of another ideal, years of struggle, the slow and painful elaboration within him of an entirely new individuality to purify and deliver him from all that went before.
Take his description of the window of a little Parisian restaurant, a "little eating-shop," as he does not shrink from calling it:
"A rice-pudding with one portion taken out was crumbling away in an iron dish; some wine-coloured eggs filled a flowered salad-bowl; a rabbit, lying cut open on a dish with its four feet sticking up, was letting the violet liquid of its liver ooze out over its pale vermilion-coloured carcase. A rampart of cups, with intertwined handles, and a tower of blue-edged saucers, were piled up behind, and in front of them, close to the shop window, stood an old, short-necked bottle, meant for prunes preserved in brandy, and filled with water, where some swordgrass that had seen better days still shook its trembling heads."
And further on: -
"This establishment was something between a country inn and a creamery in the poorer parts of Paris. The proprietor, in his shirt-sleeves, with a stomach protruding like a hump, and a nose like a proboscis, stood lounging, napkin on arm, slowly drawing his carpet slippers, with their pattern of cards and dominoes, through the muddy mixture made by sand and spittle."-(En Ménage.)
The same book contains an impression of nightfall, which will give an idea of the novelist’s delicate art:-
"He went and sat down in the arm-chair before the casement, and looked at the room, where the scattered rays of the lamp were melting away and losing their orange lustre in the darkness of the corners; then he yawned, stretched his arms, and gazed at the window, still in shadow, but cutting a great pale square out of the falling night; through the white flowers of the little curtains the sky, muslin veiled, looked purplish and motionless, but streaked behind the glass by the blind cord, which oscillated in the wind like a pendulum."
Words could not more precisely reproduce the charm of such a moment.
As one sees, M. Huysmans’ realism is extraordinarily supple. The book belonging to this part of his career, which affords the best opportunity of studying his conception of realism, is indubitably Les Soeurs Vatard. It tells us more than any other as to M. Huysmans’ connection with the Médan School and as to his manner of adopting the formulae of the naturalist aesthetics, whilst evolving and expressing a distinct personality. There is a very marked difference between him, and the disciples of M. Emile Zola. His view of reality has a special character of its own, his pessimism is not shared in common with others; it springs from a disgust far above any generally received conception of truth. One recalls Gustave Flaubert’s mot to George Sand: "Sketching the modern French bourgeois stinks strangely in my nostrils." The phrase could be applied to M. Huysmans’ art. In Zola a great compassion illumines the pages and gives them a deep and poignant sense of human emotion, glorifying and softening the purely physical and material misery of the masses; in Huysmans, on the contrary, there is a sovereign contempt for inferior types and the environments which give birth to them, a repugnance to the contemporary habit of gesticulation, a sort of hatred of real life, which is the very first characteristic of his special kind of art. He laughs at his heroes, a gloomy, sinister, pitiless laugh, which sometimes strikes terror; he takes pleasure in ridiculing them and making them grotesque; he only analyses their sentiments and sensations, or depicts their attitudes, the better to reveal their meanness and their insignificance.
May I here quote a few characteristic examples? First, a street in the rain, as seen out of the window by one of the personages in Les Soeurs Vatard:
Vatard began to enjoy himself enormously. He watched a few passers-by running as hard as they could, women with dripping hair glued tight to their foreheads, and hats flapping like wings; men with heels catching the seat of the spine as they ran at full speed, shaking out their stiff wooden trousers and the greatcoats which clung to their thighs, struggling to protect hats dripping with gum. Later, when all these poor wretches had disappeared, and the street was deserted, Vatard amused himself by listening to the plaintive melody of a water-spout, and the cheering song of a pipe badly joined to its neighbour."
The novelist seems really to delight in presenting his characters under so unfavourable an aspect that the image retained in the mind and on the retina can only be that of a coarse or vulgar attitude. "She ended in tears, which rolled like silver pills right down her mouth." And the general impression which Les Soeurs Vatard leaves upon the mind is one of acute moral anguish, of wretchedness and contemptible vice; an impression still further heightened by refinement of style, subtlety of expression, laborious richness of phrasing, piercing keenness of analysis.
A Rebours, which dates from 1884, saw an expansion of M. Huysmans’ art; it explored other domains and conquered new territories. His talent shone out with unquestionable brilliance, his personality asserted itself, he abandoned the naturalist vein and turned to his spiritual horizon. A Rebours is the record of frenzied spiritualism, spiritualism far overstepping the bounds of sanity, the fullest and most terrible monograph on the crowning disease of these fin de siècle days, the poem of nevrosity. It is a dangerous and seductive book, a book that might be deseribed as a complete course of intellectual voluptuousness, a treatise on cerebral sadism. Here we shall find no faithful picture of reality, no study of characters so indefinite as to be almost nonentities, mere creatures of instinct living a purely material life, no reproduction of plebeian interiors crawling with vermin, no sketches of the workshops, the poorer districts, the suburbs, the workmen’s quarters, all the mean little corners of modern Paris with which A vau, l’eau, Un Dilemme, En Ménage, and Les Soeurs Vatard have made us familiar. Des Esseintes, Duke John Floressas des Esseintes, the hero of A Rebours, is little more than the type of a mind eager for unreal pleasures, a soul in torment seeking alleviation, a sick sensibility straining after the ideal, a bundle of nerves thirsting for new, original, unique, supreme sources of vibration. All that he knows of life sickens, revolts, and torments him; life is too brutal, too coarse, he must take refuge in an artificial world; he must carve out for himself alone a selfish existence of luxurious refinement and subtle splendour. Alas! poor soul, perpetually oscillating from one pole to the other of human torment and ecstasy, caught between the hideousness of real life and the impossibility, for all his efforts, of finally and completely shaking off its yoke, exhausting himself in an effort to surround senses too complex, too worn out, too blasés to be capable of reaction, with an atmosphere of worked-up frenzy, false ecstasy and superficial gladness, himself too lacking in faith to find in religion the satisfaction of his upward yearnings.
"By creating an ideal above the common in this soul baptized by her, and already perhaps predisposed towards her by a hereditary instinct dating from the reign of Henry III., religion had also succeeded in undermining the illegitimate ideal of the voluptuary; sensual and mystical obsessions haunted his brain confusedly, and he was impelled by an obstinate desire to escape from the vulgarities of the world, far away from all time-honoured customs, and to plunge into wholly new ecstasies, crises of celestial or infernal exaltation, equally overwhelming in the loss of vital energy which they inevitably entailed."
Both in literature and art, and in nature, Des Esseintes only prizes what bears the mark of the most perfect refinement:-
"He gradually drew more and more away from reality, especially from the world of to-day, which inspired him with growing horror. This hatred had powerfully moulded his literary and artistic tastes, and he turned his back as much as possible upon books and pictures, the subjects of which tended to confine them to the limits of modern life."
Amongst the poets of autiquity, for example, he preferred Apuleius, Petronius, Claudian, and Ausonius to Virgil, Ovid, and Horace; amongst modern books he placed Flaubert’s Tentation de St. Antoine above his Education Sentimentale, De Goncourt’s La Faustin above Germinie Lacerteux, Zola’s Faute de l’Abbé Mouret above l’Assommoir. The most intensely concentrated work of Baudelaire, Verlaine, Edgar Poe, Barbey d’Aurevilly, Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, and Mallarmé, work of a strange and fastastic character, charmed him far more than Balzac, Leconte de Lisle, Théophile Gautier and Hugo.
In the region of art he took special delight in certain suggestive works, which plunged him into an unknown world, by revealing traces of new and conjectural possibilities, and thrilling his nervous system with recondite hysterical fancies, complicated nightmares, atrocious and irresponsible visions. The rare splendour of Gustave Moreau with its magnificent appeal, the Persécutions Religieuses of the Dutch engraver, Jan Luyken, "full of abominable imaginations," "the fantasy of disease and grief" of Odilon Redon, the Caprices et Proverbes of Goya with their "horror of death" (horreur si macabre) — in fact, all that is visionary, overstrained, and exaggerated in art, all that transfigures or deforms reality enchanted Des Esseintes.
Let it not be forgotten that he has brought a subtle eccentricity to bear upon the arrangement of the house to which he has withdrawn, that the particular tones of every room, have been chosen with scrupulous care, and with a view to their appearance by candle-light, for he lives by preference at night, because "the mind is never really excited or thrilled except by contact with shadow." For the decoration of his study "he decides to have his walls bound like books, with morocco, the colour of crushed berries, or calf-skin polished by strong steel plates under powerful presses." His dining-room is arranged like the cabin of a ship, and the light of day can only illumine it through a casement whose panes have been replaced by unsilvered glass, through the water of an aquarium, which runs round the room, or through the port-holes. His bedroom affects the style of a monastic cell. He possesses "a mouth-organ. It is a cupboard containing a series of little round-bellied casks standing in a row, pierced low down by silver spigots. . . . All these, spigots could he joined by a wand and reached by one single movement, so that when the apparatus is once fixed, the pressing of a button hidden in the wood-work suffices to turn on all the taps at once, and to fill the imperceptible goblets placed below them." He could also play symphonies inside himself, and succeeded in producing sensations in his throat like those which music lets fall upon the ear. To the refinements of taste succeed those of smell and sight — Des Esseintes contrives to "lull himself with harmonies of scents"; he has a tortoise’s shell cased in gold and set with precious stones; he makes collection "of real flowers in imitation of artificial ones. . . Nothing seems to him real; woven stuffs, paper, porcelain, metal, had apparently been lent by man to nature to enable her to create monsiters."
It will be seen that we have got far enough away from the scrupulous regard for actual experience which characterized the writer’s earlier books. The manners and gesticulations, the commonplace interests, the vulgar sentiments and sufferings of the work-girls in the book-stitching shop of the Soeurs Vatard, or of Cyprien Tibaille and André Jayant in En Ménage, or again the melancholy moods of the old bachelor bureaucrat, M. Folantin, in Un Dilemme, interest the novelist no longer. He is here concerned with preoccupations of a higher order, with things spiritual and intellectual, although the senses still make themselves heard above all other voices.
It will soon be seen why I have dwelt at length upon A Rebours. In the course of the acutest nervous crisis which Des Esseintes undergoes as the result of his excesses in the world of abnormal sensations, he is haunted by certain memories of his innocent childhood. He recalls all the pomp and splendour of the religious rites celebrated by the Jesuit Fathers with whom he was educated, the rhythm of the plain song and the hymns of the church echo in his memory. Be it remembered that he had shown a marked preference for all objects of bygone religious art, that he had a profound knowledge of the writings, both ancient and modern, of the fathers of the Church and the Catholic controversialists of this century. Even during the very first days of his installation at Fontenay some sort of impulse towards the faith had stirred Des Esseintes’ soul, and now when his nerves are shattered by over-stimulation, and when the mad, frenzied excitement which he has deliberately sought in a vain effort to solace his sick longing for the ideal fails him at last, he addresses a cry of hope to God from the depths of his moral wretchedness, from the depths even of his doubt. He has cast up the balance sheet of the world and all that is in it. "The arguments of pessimism were powerless to relieve him; the impossible belief in a future life could alone bring peace of mind." And the book ends with this cry uttered by Des Esseintes as he leaves his retreat and re-enters life: "Lord, have pity on a Christian torn with doubt, on an unbeliever who would fain believe, on one of life’s galley slaves who is setting sail, solitary and in darkness, under a sky no longer illumined by the comforting beacon of the ancient hope!"
In this wise Huysmans’ pessimism and naturalism issue in an act of faith, fearful indeed as yet, timid and uncertain, but full of promise of a more effective and definite conversion; in any case marking the second stage of his thought.
En Rade, which followed A Rebours, is certainly an interesting piece of work, but, with the exception of a few pages of dreams and visions, it belongs to the novelist’s earlier manner. Nevertheless, it does not show any real retrogression; on the contrary I should presume that En Rade ought to be placed between En Ménage and A Rebours as regards date of production, although not of publication. The true successor to A Rebours is Là-Bas, which throws the strongest light possible upon M. Huysmans’ evolution. He formulates his new gospel of aesthetics on the very first page by the mouth of the novelist Durtal; who is the hero of the book.
"What I object to in naturalism," says Durtal, "is not the dull, heavy, stone-coloured effect of its clumsy style, but the filthiness of its ideas; I accuse it of having made materialism incarnate in literature and glorified the democracy of art!" (Times have changed since that first number of the Revue Indépendante of May, 1884, when M. Huysmans set his name to a profession of materialism drawn up with the object of fixing the aims of the Review, signing side by side with author — whom I shall not further particularise, and certainly shall not name — of the Manuel d’Instruction laïque, a collection of disgraceful indecencies worthy of the atheism of a commercial traveller.) It may safely be asserted that M. Huysmans has been effectually converted both as regards his literary and philosophic creeds. Here is the continuation of Durtal’s dream, I had almost said of M. Huysmans’:-
"We must," he says, "retain the fidelity of the document, the accurate detail and the concise and nervous phrasing of realism, but we must also become psychical well-diggers, and not try to ascribe every mystery to a disease, of the senses. Every novel ought, if possible, to fall naturally into two divisions, which must none the less be welded together, or rather interfused — the history of the soul and the history of the body. It must concern itself with their action and re-action, the conflicts between them and their mutual understanding. In short, we must follow the high road traced for us with a master-hand by Zola, but we must also trace another and a parallel road through the air leading to the worlds before and after; we must, in fact, frame a spiritualistic naturalism which will have a pride, a completeness, and a strength all its own!"
I lay stress designedly on these two words, "spiritualistic naturalism" they embody M. Huysmans’ new ideal. We shall next see how far he succeeds in realising it.
Durtal, the chief personage in Là-Bas, and the chief personage also in En Route and in La Cath&ecute;drale, M. Huysmans’ forthcoming work, might be said to be the embodiment of the restless spirit, the insatiable curiosity, and the subtle nervous sensibility of the writer himself, who appends his name to the books. Impelled at first by the mere curiosity of a novelist and a seeker after strange doctrines towards mediaeval occultism, and attracted by the complex, remarkable and fiendish figure of the Blue Beard of legendary fame, the terrible Marshal Gilles de Rais, whose history he undertakes to write, Durtal is soon drawn away by the dangerous and seductive bait of magic séances. The study of the past leads by an easy transition to that of the present; he is gliding down a fatal slope, drawn on by lurid glow rising from the abyss of witchcraft; he bends over the flaming gulf, whence come cries of sacrilege and arrogance, uttered by those who have penetrated its secret places, and have dared to draw back the veil which hides the eternal mysteries of life and death.
Hence the action of Là-Bas has one foot in the sixteenth century and one in the nineteenth; it is the history of mediaeval Satanism persisting on into modern days. Gilles de Rais rubs elbows with the mean and vile sacrilegious priest, the deacon Docre, and with the no less infamous Mme. Chantelouve, Durtal’s initiator, the wretched Virgil who leads this Dante, forsaken by Beatrice, through the circles of incantations, black masses, and all the odious rites of Black Magic. With the exception of Carhaix, the bell-ringer of Saint-Sulpice, and his wife, simple, naïve, pure-minded folk, who live in one of the towers of the church, the personages who flit through the pages of the book are almost all demoniacal figures, lit up by the leaping flames of the Inferno. Every form of madness or strange aberration, which can be induced in the human brain by a wild desire to penetrate the supernatural, to learn at all costs the secret of the invisible, are here set out at length, and the impression left on the mind, when the last page is turned, is an impression of hallucination. It is like escaping from a nightmare of a clear and coherent kind, every detail of which can be recalled with dreadful distinctness.
In his description of these fantastic scenes, so fantastic, that for all his accuracy they read like scenes evolved out of his own imagination, the writer does not give his style any of the vague dream-like character which would allow the reader’s imaginative fancies full play. On the contrary, he expresses himself with an incomparable clearness and accuracy, and succeeds in conveying an indelible impression of gestures, scenes, thoughts, attitudes, and physiognomies. Hence a swarm of different impressions of extraordinary vividness remain in the reader’s consciousness.
Here is a sketch of the bell-tower of Saint-Sulpice:-
"By bending over the precipice Durtal could make out, far beneath his feet, the mighty bells, suspended from oaken beams sheathed in iron, bells cast in dark metal, bells of brass, with a greasy, shining surface, looking as if they had been oiled, and absorbing the rays of daylight without refracting them. . . .Nothing moved, but the wind rattled amongst the bars of the sounding-boards, rushed through the wooden cages, howled in the spiral staircase, and lost itself in the upturned hollow of the bells. Suddenly there was a quivering in the air, a silent breath of wind less keen smote on his cheeks. He looked up; a bell was beating against the wind, was beginning to vibrate. Suddenly it struck, swung forward and backward, like a gigantic pestle pounding out terrible sounds from its mortar, the bronze. The whole tower trembled, the parapet, on which he stood, quivered like the floor of a railway carriage; a vast continuous rumbling rolled on, broken by the deafening clang of the strokes."
Further on we get this charming creation, instinct with the life and colour of the bells of the Middle Ages:-
"All the details that he had once known about the secular liturgies pressed into his mind; the invitation to matins, the carillons breaking into bubbling showers of harmony over the winding and closely-packed streets, with their little cornet-shaped towers and their pepper-pot gables, their walls pierced by gulley-holes, and armed with teeth, the carillons chiming the canonical hours, prime and tierce, sext and nones, vespers and compline, celebrating the gay life of the city with the shrill laughter of their little bells, or its sadness with the massive tears of the mournful knell."
My reasons for abstaining from quoting any passage from those vigorous pages devoted to the Black Mass will be well understood; the terrible character of the sacrilege is beyond conception. But what surpassing power is displayed in the whole story of Gilles de Rais, especially in the judgment scene:-
"Suddenly the trumpets sounded, the hall was cleared, and the Bishops entered. They shone beneath their mitres in cloth of gold, their necks wreathed in the flaming golden fringe of the collets set with carbuncles. They advanced in silent procession, weighed down by the heavy copes which fall out from their shoulders, like golden bells opening in front, bearing crosier and maniple, a kind of green veil. At each step they shot out flames, like braziers blown on by with wind, their own light illumining the hall, and reflecting the pale sunbeams of a rainy October day, which drew fresh life from their jewels, and accumulated new rays, to disperse them again to the other end of the hall, where stood the silent people."
A mind like Durtal’s, I had almost written M. Huysmans’, could in all probability never have attained to faith except by some such route as this. His constant preoccupation with intense and exceptional cases, with rare and abstruse psychological problems, could not but be arrested by a subject like that of Là-Bas. Evil is perhaps the straightest road to good, and does not the Gospel say that there will be more joy in Heaven over the conversion of a sinner than over the entry of a saint? To brand the guilt and sacrilege of the Black Mass was to turn towards God, to take the first halting, hesitating steps on the road towards conversion. For whatever strange pleasure Durtal might experience in penetrating these devilish mysteries and assisting at the ceremonies of this infernal religion, he was, as a matter of fact, inspired by the liveliest feelings of disgust when brought face to face with such revolting spectacles of horrible impiety. He emerges from the inquiry which he had undertaken, feeling like a magistrate coming out of his court, his eyes and heart polluted, his brain filled with hateful images, only eager to get out into the fresh air, the sunshine, and the blue sky. The last words of Là-Bas are an anathema against the century and the existing social order. At the very top of the bell-tower of St. Sulpice, where Durtal and his friend, des Hermies, have sought refuge with the bell-ringer, Carhaix, and have found a haven of ideal peace, on this Sunday evening — the historic Sunday of General Boulanger’s election — they can still hear the popular shouts in honour of the General’s triumph, shouts of "Vive Boulanger! Vive Boulanger!" rising and spreading on the air. "The people nowadays! Ah! they would not shout like that for a man of learning or an artist, nor even for that supernatural being, the possible saint. . . . Down here everything is rotten and dead," replies a bystander. And Durtal’s gloomy pessimism breaks out into a violent exclamation of disillusionment, untranslatable unfortunately in its virulence, but indicating sufficiently clearly the novelist’s state of mind.
The knowledge of evil in its more extreme manifestations, and the disgust engendered by modern life, pushed to its furthest point and become a permanent and continuous obsession, form the two portals to the door through which Durtal must pass to his conversion.
En Route will show him in the very midst of that terrible and profoundly touching crisis, the tragic struggle of doubt to attain to faith. For it must be noted that Durtal is far from being one of those elect, in whose souls, to use St. Beuve’s phrase borrowed from Stendhal’s happy illustration of human love, Grace has succeeded in effecting her work of "active, illuminating and enkindling crystallisation." We may take a selfish pleasure in the fact, for otherwise we should have doubtless been deprived of one of the finest books which has ever been written on the sublime tortures that attend the deadly conflict between reason and faith. Durtal emerges victorious, ah! hardly victorious, for his is not that supreme power, the power to crush one’s doubts; but he is ready for the descent of grace, his soul opens like the calyx of a beautiful flower too long deprived of the light of the sun. The few days’ retreat at La Trappe have sown the seed in him of future harvests. He is himself again, he is once more master of that poor soul, whom life has cruelly marred and shattered and excess of every kind led astray from its true orbit. How disturbing it is, that process of self-examination upon which he embarks in all sincerity and whence he emerges breathless and torn by remorse, convinced that in the Church, "the hospital of souls," lies his only refuge. There at least he can lay down the foolish pride of his pessimism, there at least he may live far from the unreasoning and brutal crowd, there at least he will find sure ground of hope, there at least may he once more lay hands upon art, for "stronger even than his sick weariness of life, art had proved the irresistible magnet which drew him to God."
I shall dwell little on this book, for I know what a success the translation of it has achieved in England; even outside the religious world, which has been profoundly stirred by En Route, there is no man of letters and no thinker, at all interested in present literary movements, who does not know and appreciate this life-study of the noblest and most interesting of psychological struggles. The end of the book will be remembered: Durtal leaves La Trappe and returns to Paris, more hopelessly disabled than ever, carrying away many regrets from those few days of monastic life through which he has just passed, but a prey also to ennui and in terror of the future, conscious of his inability from henceforth to find happiness in the world. What will become of him? M. Huysmans’ next novel, La Cathédrale, to which he is just putting the finishing touches, will give the answer.
"Paris and Our Lady of Atre have in turn cast me off like a waif and stray," cries Durtal, on the last page of En Route, "and here am I condemned to live apart from my fellows, for I am still too much of a literary man to make a monk, and yet I am already too much of a monk to remain amongst literary men." This period of waiting, this breathing space, is the subject of La Cathédrale. Its structure is simple and concise, as in all M. Huysmans’ books, which are, without exception, romances with the romance left out.
Thus the Abbé Gévresin has a friend who has been nominated to the See of Chartres, and who is taking the Abbé with him as Vicar-General. Why should not Durtal go too? Incapable as he is of interesting himself in anything whatever belonging to the profane world of men, he is desirous of plunging deeper into the atmosphere of faith. His religious studies are still incomplete — only mysticism and plain-song have been studied in En Route — must he not further elucidate the architecture, painting and sculpture of religion, the whole symbolic language of the Middle Ages? And where could he find anywhere in the world a more beautiful specimen, or a finer field of study, than in the Cathedral of Chartres? Not from an archeological point of view, that to Durtal seems a mere barren dead letter, but from the point of view of its symbolical meaning. A cathedral is a poem in stone drawn from the Bible, the Old and New Testaments and the Apocryphal Gospels, as well as from the whole body of legend, and perhaps the lives of the saints belonging to the country in which it is raised. It is a poem of love and beauty, a sublime work, which we learn to read rather by intuition and spiritual fervour than by head-knowledge or the laborious processes of the understanding. Everything in it has meaning, each stone speaks a deep mysterious language with rules as definite as any human tongue; but, ah! how much higher and nobler, hidden as this tongue is in the work of artist and artificer, belonging to one of the most beautiful, if not the most beautiful of all artistic epochs, speaking in forest of columns, in campanile and in statue, living its own unchanging life throughout the ages, beating down revolution beneath its feet, piercing the azure depths with its soaring spires, raising a ceaseless canticle of beauty to the glory of the Creator.
An unpublished fragment of La Cathédrale, which has been kindly communicated to me by M. Huysmans, will show far better than any words of mine his conception of mediaeval art and of that miraculous Notre-Dame de Chartres, which remains one of its most perfect achievements:-
Mais Durtal ne l’écoutait plus; loin de toute cette exégèse monumentalee il admirait, sans même chercher à l’analyser, l’étonnante église.
Dans le mystère de son ombre brouillée par la fumée des pluies, elle montait de plus en plus claire à mesure qu’elle s’élevait dans le ciel blanc de ses nefs, s’exhaussant comme l’âme qui s’épure dans une ascension de clarté, lorsqu’elle gravit les voies de la vie mystique.
Les colonnes accotées filaient en de minces faisceaux, en de fines gerbes, si frêles qu’on s’attendait à les voir plier au moindre souffle; et ce n’était qu’à des hauteurs vertigineuses que ces tiges se courbaient, se rejoignaient, lancées d’un bout de la cathédrale à l’autre, au-dessus du vide, se greffaient, confondant leur sève, finissant par s’épanouir, ainsi qu’en une corbeille, dans les fleurs dédorées des clefs de voùte.
Cette basilique, elle était le suprême effort de la matière cherchant à s’alléger, rejetant tel qu’un lest, le poids aminci de ses murs, les remplaçant par une substance moins pesante et plus lucide, substituant à l’opacité de ses pierres, l’épiderme diaphane des vitres.
Elle se spiritualisait, se faisait tout âme, toute prière, lorsqu’elle s’élançait vers le Seigneur pour le rejoindre; légère et gracile, presque impondérable, elle était l’expression la plus magnifique de la beauté qui s’évade de sa gangue terrestre, de la beauté qui se séraphise. Elle était grêle et pâle comme ces Vierges de Roger van der Weyden qui sont si filiformes, si fluettes, qu’elles s’envoleraient si elles n’étaient en quelque sorte retenues îci-bas par le poids de leurs brocarts et de leurs traines. C’était la même conception mystique d’un corps fuselé tout en longueur et d’une âme ardente qui, ne pouvant se débarrasser complètement de ce corps, tentait de l’épurer, en le réduisant, en l’amenuisant, en le rendant presque fluide.
Elle stupéfiait avec l’essor éperdu de ses voùtes et la folle splendeur de ses vitres. Le temps était couvert et cependant toute une fournaise de pierreries brùlait dans les lames des ogives, dans les sphères embrasées des roses.
Là-haut, dans l’espace, tels que des salamandres, des êtres humains, avec des visages en ignition et des robes en braises, vivaient dans un firmament de feu; mais ces incendies étaient circonscrits, limités par un cadre incombustible de verres plus foncés qui arrêtait la joie jeune et claire des flammes, par cette espèce de mélancolie, par cette apparence de côté plus sérieux et plus âgé que dégagent les couleurs sombres. L’hallali des rouges, la sécurité limpide des blancs, l’alléluia répété des jaunes, s’attristait au voisinage des verts presque obscurs, des roux de cuivre encore chauds, des violets rudes de grès, des noirs de fuligine, des gris de cendre.
Et de même qu’à Bourges dont la vitrerie est de la même époque, l’influence de l’Orient était visible dans les panneaux de Chartres. Outre que les personnages avaient l’aspect hiératique, la tournure somptueuse et barbare des figures de l’Asie, les cadres, par leur dessin, par l’agencement de leurs tons, évoquaient le souvenir des tapis persans qui avaient certainement fourni des modèles aux peintres, car l’on sait par le Livre des métiers qu’au XIIIe siècle, l’on fabriquait en France, à Paris même, des tapis imités de ceux qui furent amenés du Levant par les Croisés.
Mais, en dehors même des sujets et des cadres, les couleurs de ces tableaux n’étaient, pour ainsi dire, que des foules accessoires, que des servantes destinées à faire valoir une autre couleur, le bleu, un bleu splendide, inouï, de saphir rutilant, extralucide, un bleu clair et aigu qui étincelait partout, dans les vitraux du bas scintillant ainsi que des verres remués de kaléidoscope, dans les verrières du haut, dans les rosaces des transepts, dans les fenêtres du porche royal où s’allumaient dans des armatures, dans des grilles de fer noir, la flamme azurée des soufres.
En somme avec la teinte de ses pierres et de ses vitres, Notre-Dame de Chartres était une blonde aux yeux bleus. Elle se personnifiait en une sorte de fée pâle, en une Vierge mince et longue, aux grands yeux d’azur ouverts dans les paupières en clarté de ses roses; Elle était la Mère d’un Christ du Nord, d’un Christ de Primitif des Flandres, trônant dans l’outremer d’un ciel et entourée comme d’un rappel touchant des Croisades, de ces tapis orientaux de verre.
Et ils étaient, ces tapis diaphanes, des bouquets fleurant le santal et le poivre, embaumant les subtiles épices des Rois Mages; ils étaient une floraison parfumée de nuances, cueillie, au prix de tant de sang, dans les prés de la Palestine, et que l’Occident qui les rapporta, offrait à la Madone, sous le froid climat de Chartres, en souvenir de ces pays du soleil où Elle vécut et où son Fils voulut naître.
I do not know that any hymn has ever been written in honour of a cathedral so splendid in its imagery, and so rhythmical in its devotion. It would be impossible to combine greater exactness with an equal degree of lyrical fervour. Besides this symbolical view of architecture, the book contains a symbolism of colours, flowers, precious stones, and wild beasts; illustrated by all the masterpieces of the religious art of the Middle Ages, treasures culled from sacristies and from museums. It is easy to see what a stylist of the rank of M. Huysmans will make of so vast a subject; we have a foretaste in the passage which I have just quoted.
So it comes to pass that the milieu in which Durtal is living, the penetrating atmosphere of literature and art, his own weariness, his thirst after the spiritual joys of mysticism, produce their effect upon his soul. His taste for the cloister grows stronger. Unfortunately, he is frightened by the rigorous austerity of the Trappists, and fears that he may not be able to endure hardness carried to so fine a point. But a young priest, the Abbé Plon, puts him in communication with the Benedictines of Solesmes. Over and above the fact that the rule of this Order is infinitely less austere, they celebrate the rites of religion with a splendour surpassing all that the most delicate artistic taste can conceive. Here, again, it is art which proves the potent source of attraction. The end of La Cathédrale shows us Durtal setting out for Solesmes, and L’Oblat, which will follow next, will be a study of the Benedictine life, and will complete the cycle. M. Huysmans’ conclusions come to this. A proud and delicate spirit can find nothing but suffering in the milieux created by modern civilisation, where physical and moral hideousness hold undisputed sway. The cloister alone offers peace of heart and rest of mind, serenity and happiness; the cloister alone will be the last refuge of art. There such souls will find salvation, not in fasting and mortification, and all the religious austerities of the Trappists, but in the gentle, temperate, artistic, and comparatively flower-strewn path of a Benedictine monastery. After the storm and stress of jaded existence; after being driven by the wind and tossed; when a man is left hopelessly stranded amid a hostile world, and all human beliefs to which he has clung have broken away from his desperate grasp, low down on the horizon the beacon of the cloister shines from afar across the dark and heaving billows of this troublesome world. Faith is the port of safety, there he may anchor the wrecked ship of life in calm waters, and peacefully watch the slow growth on the shore of those cities where dwell the sons of men. Agitation, ambition, and worldly care can touch him no more; here he dwells secure, wrapped in that sublime egoism which looks to God alone, offering himself as a sacrifice for his own future, building up an eternity of celestial joy.
(Translated from M. Mourey’s French MS. by J. E. H.)