Six Masters of Disillusion

Algar Thorold

Archibald Constable and Co, 1909.



SIXTEEN years ago M. Jules Huret, the well-known Parisian journalist, published an Enquête sur l’Evolution Littéraire. He interviewed some thirty of the best-known novelists and men of letters in France and gave their views to the world without comment, save that involved in the colloquial skill with which he gracefully delivered them of their opinions. And he thus produced a most interesting and important volume. Apart from the literary value of the pot-pourri, its significance was of the highest. For the writers interviewed — such was M. Huret’s professional ability — did not hesitate to express themselves with ingenuous candour on their own prospects and those of their confrères.

On first reading one derived but a hopelessly confused impression, but gradually, as the cloud of stormy eloquence rose, one discerned two things on whic the writers interviewed semmed pretty well agreed: That naturalism was dead, and that among the jeunes, from whom something new was to be expected, Huysmans, Remy de gournmont, and Maurice Barrès had, in the vivid vernacular of the French writing-table, quelque chose dans le ventre. Sisteen years have passed, and Barrès has left the battles of letters for the repose of the Palais Bourbon and the Academy, Remy de Gourmont has produced several volumes of philosophical romance of a high order, and continues to delight us twice a month in the Mercure de France with his own strongly individualised blend of Nietzsche and Renan, while Huysmans has left us for ever within the last few months. He entered into peace through the gate of pain, of pain so intolerable that it will not bear thinking of, but before the eyes of that lover of exquisite sensation were veiled by his last unutterable anguish, he had accomplished his task.

Joris-Karl Huysmans who was born in Paris of Flemish descent, in 1848, commenced author as a fervent disciple of Zola. He was one of the contributors to the famous Soirées de Medan with Sac-à-dos, a masterpiece of ferocious irony, in which the real distress of the patriotic conscript is not caused by the heroic sufferings of war, but by an unintermittent colic. The satire of the little tale is Rabelaisian both in its intensity and the coarseness of its detail, and its essential irony is enhanced by its humbling and brutal verisimilitude. We cannot doubt, as we lay it down, that this, or something like iit is, in fact, what war means to most of the obscure thousands who are sacrificed to its lurid prestige and dubious benefits. I do not know whether anarchists make us of Sac-à-dos for their propaganda; they certainly could not do better. Les Soeurs Vatard, published in 1879, and dedicated to Zola by ’his fervent admirer and devoted Friend,’ is, however, the greatest work produced by Huysmans, during what is called his naturalist period. It is indeed one of the finest works produced by any of the writers of that school, and far more faithful to the naturalist formula than Zola’s epic poems in prose. Huysmans understood naturalism in the sense of Flaubert, who, in spite of the romantic beauty of his expression, revealed himself as the first and greatest of the naturalists in Mme. Bovary. Huysmans indeed renounced, whether unconsciously, or through deliberate reflection, Flaubert’s search for beauty and expression, seeking nothing but accuracy and fulness of presentation. This he achieves by means of an amazing accumulation of physical detail, which produces on the imagination almost the effect of an actual experience. There is a description of a Fair in Les Soeurs Vatard, which is one of the most astonishing pieces of realistic writing ever composed. As you read it the book fades before your eyes: you are there, at Vincennes, you are burnt by the sun, you are deafened by the shouts of cheap-jacks, you eagerly elbow your way through the steaming, struggling crowd to contemplate the charms of the femme colosse and the sinister arts of the serpent-charmer; you are alternately touched and mortified by the sentimental gaucheries of Désirée Vatard, who clings after the manner of her class to your arm, and when you lay the book down, you feel the physical and mental fatigue inseperable from such a way of passing the afternoon. In this book Huysmans succeeds in transferrring, by suggestion, sensorial impressions to the imagination directly, with all the acute crudeness of sheer physical contact. But this is not all. The psychology of Désirée and Céline Vatard, the wise and the foolish virgin, is presented carefully and convincingly. Two years out of the lives of two little Parisian work-girls, one of whom is temperamentally chaste and the other the reverse, but both of them bonnes filles, Céline the noceuse, with a highly comical sense of her own dignity and her soul of a poor little animal which, after all, asks only to gratify its instincts; Désirée, the virtuous, with all the elements of the jeune fille of bourgeois romance, saved from her sister’s troubles by a natural modesty of blood, as primary and ineluctable a necessity of her being, as Céline’s riotous desires are of hers — this is all the story. And yet on this narrow scene, within these sordid and trivial limits, the whole of life seems to pass before us. The ambiguous generalisation, the pseudo-scientific theorising of Zola, is wholly absent from the pages. Every character in the pitiful little play from the leading ladies to the merest super, to the strangers one brushes in the street, is individualised, is given his full value as a human unique, every episode is made wholly concrete, the author not only never once betrays any desire to explain things, but does not even suggest the faintest personal interest in his puppets. He is wholly absent from his creation, his pen seeming to react mechanically to the stimulus of the spectacle. Flaubert’s ideal of the impersonality of the artist is attained, and the effect is the most poignant imaginable. Just so, we feel, would life appear to us if we saw it as it really is, apart from the deforming mirage of our egoistic passions. Just so would it appear, we think, to some superhuman intelligence, some angel or demi-urge who, freed from the limitations and exigencies of sense perception, would be equally emancipated from those torturing and delicious derivatives of the senses, the imagination and the emotions. But, after all, such a fantastic hypothesis is unnecessary, it is just so that it appears to the purified eye of the scientific observer ’from hope and fear set free.’

Equally galling to the vital instinct and satisfactory to the instinct of knowledge is A Vau l’Eau. It is a short story of some fiteen thousand words which details the miseries of a vieux célibataire in Paris. M. Folantin is a Government employé at £60 a year; he is timid in temperament, moderate in desires, but he possesses a plain, strong intelligence which precludes the possibility of contentment with the few poor illusions which his pittance can buy. Once more, in this dreary little tale, we are made to drink the bitter lees of existence. The essential bitterness of the draught is caused by the absolute futility of such lives as M. Folantin’s. And millions of such lives are necessitated by the conditions of humanity. It is not merely that all super-terrestrial hope, all religious and metaphysical aspirations are banished from such lives — this if we accept science as our only reliable guide, we must be prepared for — it is that such lives themselves are hopelessly mutilated. It is, however, in the conviction of the nothingness, the néant of life, that Huysmans finds the real tragedy of humanity. It is not merely that men suffer — the highest hope that ever irradiated man’s heart was based on the joyous acceptance of suffering — it is that neither suffering nor joy really matter. The universe goes on its senseless way to it purposeless end that is no conclusion — for it never ends, or rather it ends but to re-commence — blindly throwing up from the depths of the unconscious, millions of conscious organisms, stamped as, under the old régime, French criminals were branded with a red-hot fleur de lys, with the ironic insignia of an illusory royalty. Man waves his stage sceptre with an inalienable sense of freedom and power, and what happens? That which was irrevocably determined to happen when our solar system was still but a nebula, but a faintly luminous corona in the ether. And the irony of the situation is raised to its highest, most sinister point when we reflect that man’s illusion is as surely determined as his impotence. For what is ’man’s place in the universe?’ For a few seconds the world reaches the point of self-consciousness, and mirrors itself in the passive contemplation of a human mind before sinking again into the unconscious eternity on the surface of which organic life itself is but a ripple. Those minds are re-duplicated a millionfold, yet each subsists but for a few moments while, sooner or later, the conditions of the planet will no longer permit the existence of any at all.

As the conditions of life burn lower the universe will slowly turn from the enigmatic and redoubtable experiment of self-consciousness, and the peace of death will brood once more over unconscious matter. Such is the world as known to naturalism, and the contemplation of it as the only certitude bred in Huysmans a dull despair. He exhaled his hatred of life in that strange fantasy A Rebours. Life is worthless indeed, but, for the privileged few, there is art. Let us then abandon life and live in an aristocratic dream of beauty, of beauty created by our own brains and hands. for the so-called beauty of nature is a delusion. The beauty of nature leads directly to the strengthening and enhancing of the vital instinct, and therefore to the perpetuation of the iniquity of life. Nature’s appeal is so obviously in most cases to the nerves rather than to the brain, hence the success of the uneducated. Popular ’art’ follows also the line of least resistance, there must be something wrong even about Rembrandt, for such hopeless people admire him. He might have added that moonlight cannot really be beautiful because it makes nurse-maids sentimental.

The further art can go from nature the better. The artistic sensations that Huysmans preferred were subtle, rare and complex. The Art that is simple and majestic, the Art, for instance, that was the product of the Greek mind, says nothing to him. The neurotic hero, Des Esseintes, who has retired to the hermitage of his villa to live a life of delicate inversion, spends an hour or two dreaming over his favourite books. His ’Index’ is significant. Virgil is "L’un des plus terribles cuistres, l’un des plus sinstres raseurs que l’antiquité ait jamias produits." Horace "a des grâces éléphantines." Ovid and Tacitus bore him less than other classical writers, but he is really at his ease only with the Decadents. Lucan and Petronius ravish him, particularly Petronius in his Satyricon. At the end of the book Des Esseintes feels the reminsicent sting of his early religious training and cries aloud for Faith. The book closes with his prayer: "Seigneur, prenez pitié du chré qui doute, de l’incrédule qui voudrait croire, du forçat de la vie qui s’embarque seul, dans la nuit sous un firmament que n’éclairent plus les consolants fanaux du vieil epsoir!"

This monograph of aesthetic neurasthenia, as it might be called, contains some of the finest passages Huysmans ever wrote. Take the marvellous description of Gustave Moreau’s l’Apparition or Des Esseintes’ terrific vision of Scrofula, the secular scourge of human generations. Never have words been made to do so much. A Rebours, opening with Des Esseintes’ rejection of life, and ending with his hysterical cry for Faith, is the bridge connecting Huysmans’ first and second period; his naturalism and his mysticism. Yet this criticism, in order not to be misleading, must be made more precise. In method Huysmans remained an impenitent naturalist to the end. Whether he is writing of M. Folantin’s despairing hunt for a decent meal in the restaurants of his quartier, or of the visions of St. Lidwina of Schiedam, his methods are always the same. he proceeds invariably by the accumulation of physical details which build up, as it were, cell by cell, the organic whole of the scene he is evoking. The intensity of the evocation, when complete, is due to the power with which the details are made to live in themselves, and the skill with which they are inter-related. He produces a composition which lives in the apparently spontaneous unity of a concrete moment. For — and in an attempt to appreciate Huysmans, the point cannot be too strongly made — he is always concerned with the concrete episode, which is indeed what gives him his place among the purest and greatest of naturalistic Masters, affiliating him also, in no uncertain way, to those other great naturalist artists, the painters of his native land. The technique of his imaginative perception is very closely reminiscent of the methods of the Flemish painters. The exquisite conscientiousness with which his details are finished, his sense of colour, a certain rich simplicity of order in his composition, the constant recurrence of certain elements — meals almost taking the place in his pages of the white horse with his red-coated rider in the pictures of Wouvermans — his sense for the sordid, the trivial, are characteristics which surely indicate the artistic family to which he belongs.

In discourse he is at his worst. The theological and archaeological disquisitions which seem to be interpolated, as indeed they are, in his later works, have a merely informational value and that, I fancy, not always of the soundest. Certainly his theology sounds peculiar at times. Nor does their weakness come from the inherent difficulty in taking up a new subject in middle age: it comes from his innate incapacity to express himself in the way of discourse. His attempts at reasoning in Les Foules de Lourdes, one of his latest works in which he hotly defends the miraculous nature of that successful watering-place, are those of a clever child who constantly misses the point through his inability to resist distractions. You feel too that he is aware of his unconvincingness, and being unable, from the nature of the case, to use his own methods, turns in vain to bitterness and even, on occasion, to personal abuse of those so unfortunate as not to share his prepossessions, in order, as they say, to help himself out. The same tendency is visible in the didactic parts of En Route.

We have seen that there is no difference in Huysmans’ earlier and late methods, that his change was not in manner but in content. In the first pages of Là-Bas, the volume which follows A Rebours and precedes En Route, there occurs a dialogue which throws a light on his new departure. After Des Hermies has said that naturalism was the incarnation of materialism in literature, the glorification of democracy in art, so correct a representation of bourgeois ideas, "qu’il semble une parole, issue de l’accouplement de Lisa, la charcutière du Ventre de Paris et de Homais," Durtal replies: "Le matérialisme me répugne tout autant qu’à toi, mais ce n’est pas une raison pour nier les inoubliables services que les naturalistes ont rendus à l’art, car, enfin, ce sont eux qui nous ont débarassés des inhumains fantoches du romantisme et qui ont extrait la littérature d’une idéalisme de ganache et d’une inanition de vieille fille exaltée par le célibat! En somme, après Balzac, ils ont créé des êtres visibles et palpables et ils les ont mis en accord avec leurs alentours, ils ont aidé au développement de la langue commencée par les romantiques; ils on connu le véritable rire et ont parfois même le don des larmes, enfin, ils n’ont pas toujours été soulevés par ce fanatisme de bassesse dont tu parles."

Des Hermies leaves and Durtal continues his soliloquy, summing up his conclusions as follows: "Il faudrait garder la véracité du document, la précision du detail, la langue étoffée et nerveuse du réalisme, mais il faudrait aussi se faire puisatier d’âme et ne pas vouloir expliquer le mystère par les maladies des sens; le roman, si cela se pouvait, devrait se deviser de lui-même en deux parts, néanmoins soudé ou plutôt confondues, comme elles le sont dans la vie, celle de l’âme, celle du corps, et s’occuper de leurs réactifs, de leurs conflits, de leur entente. Il faudrait, en un mot, suivre la grande voie si profondément creusée par Zola, mais il serait nécessaire aussi de tracer en l’air un chemin parallèle, une autre route, d’atteindre les en deça et les après, de faire, en un mot, un naturalisme spiritualiste; ce serait autrement fier, autrement complet, autrement fort!"

Such is the artistic programme which Huysmans attempted to carry out in his later period. As I have said, he in no way wished to modify the methods of his technique which remained essentially naturalist; he wished to enlarge the content of his art, to widen the field of his observation. When he speaks of tacing in the air a parallel line to Zola’s line of physical observation he makes indeed a philosophical advance on his former position, for sound philosophy recognises that experience needs for its constitution a subject as well as an object, from which it follows that a state of mind as such, independently of its physical accompaniment, is as truly a fact as a state of body. This step was no doubt taken unconsciously, for there never was a mind more radically incapable of any kind of philosophic speculation than his. It is nevertheless what constitutes the human interest of the work of his later period. For that interest certainly cannot be said to lie in his somewhat bizarre presentation of Christian mythology, which he happened to find ready to his hand, to be tortured and inverted by the horrible maniacs whom he shows us in Là-Bas, to be enthusiastically, if somewhat uncritically, glorified in En Route and his other distinctly Catholic works. It lies surely in the recognition of the mystery of human experience diffused through these volumes, together with the sense of pity of the human lot and of the supreme value of love. For these emotions he found both adequate expression and an adequate stimulus, in the symbols of mediaeval mysticism. Nor was that expression purely literary. As is known, the raod of Damascus, on which Durtal travels from Là-Bas to l’Oblat, was the path followed by his creator. Whether Huysmans’ interest in Catholicism was due in the first instance to the exigences of his literary developement or to the necessities of his soul is an unprofitable subject of inquiry. It is enough for the critic to note that his hadn grew subdued to what he worked in, and that the man came to acquiesce, with the full fervour of intense conviction, in the doctrines of the writer. To criticise the personal solution in which he at length found peace would be foreign to the subject of this essay, and obviously of the nature of an impertinece. Nevertheless as there have been several, and not of one camp only, who have openly expressed their doubts of the sincerity of his attitude, I cannot refrain from expressing the opinion that never was there a more complete, a more sincere conversion than that of Huysmans. None of the psychological elements of such a change were wanting to him. A disgust of contemporary life and an invincible repulsion to its ideals, together with an ardent attraction for the naive beauty of the mediaeval soul, for the whole domain of that wondrous "fief of Art", as he calls it, which was the creation of the mediaeval Church — these were most prominent among the raisons de coeur which prevailed with him. The mysterious crystallisation of these elements into the definite attitude of belief, is as necessarily beyond criticism as any other vital phenomenon. So much may perhaps be said without offence. When, however, we turn to the literary expression of his convictions, we are once more in the world of discourse, we have once more before us matter for reasoned appreciation. What cannot fail to strike any one at all familiar with contemporary Catholic literature is that Huysmans’ religious books fall into a category of their own. The man submits to the discipline which is to save his soul, the writer remains a free lance. The distinctive Catholic literature of our day is either apologetic or written for purposes of edification. And the public which it is attempted to edify must be confined entirely, one would think, to women and children. Huysmans certainly did not try to put himself in line with this class of book. And, as regards apologetic, it must be admitted that so far as he had it in mind at all, it was of a very different kind to that which we associate with the subtle disquisitions of philosophers, such as Laberthonniàe and Leroy, or the quasi-socialist propaganda of the Christian democrats. The social or philosophic possibilities of present-day religion had not the slightest interest for his mind which was spellbound by the vision of the glorious past, le moyen âge énorme et délicat. In fact he was a mediaevalist before he was a Catholic. In Là-Bas, while still far from any mental state which could be called faith, he is a firm believer in the supernatural, in magic, black and white. He knows the names of many demons and their functions in the cosmic economy. Indeed it is matter of reproach with him against the ecclesiastical authorities, that they betray so languid an interest in demonology; are, in fact, as he fears, tainted with scepticism. Why insist on trying to come to an understanding with M. Clémenceau, when you are really dealing with Azrael?

Thus he resuscitates for us in his vibrant pages that old world, and makes it live once more with its fantastic hopes and fears, its heaven and hell, its angels and saints and demons. He does more. He resuscitates also its beauty. The guardians of the heavenly city to-day are often too much absorbed in the immediate exigencies of the Holy War to care for the beauty of the streets of Jerusalem. The service which Huysmans has done in calling attention to the treasure of Art which is the heritage of the Catholic Church is one which should make the members of that Church his debtors, and in any case, entitles him to the gratitude of all lovers of the beautiful everywhere.