MODERN SAINTS AND MODERN MIRACLES:
AN INTERVIEW WITH JORIS KARL HUYSMANS
By Frederic Lees
A MORE fitting place to talk of spiritualism and diabolical influence, but more especially of mysticism and modern saints, could not be found than Joris Karl Huysmans’ study. It is a small room on the top floor of an old house in the Rue de Sèvres in Paris, and it overlooks a still more ancient house which, once-upon a time, was a Prémontrés monastery. In the narrow compass of that room (it contains hardly sufficient space for more than a small writing-table and a couple of chairs) may be seen scattered on all sides a multitude of saintly objects — carved wooden figures of saints, and church ornaments such as may be seen on altars — giving the room almost an ecclesiastical air, such an air as one might expect to find in the house of a priest, such as those who know the story of the conversion to Catholicism of the grey-headed author of La Cathédrale are not astonished to find in this, his chamber of meditation. There, in fact, has M. Huysmans worked out many problems since he wrote the first word of Là-Bas and the last word of La Cathédrale; his crowded bookcase, directly facing the window, is witness to the strange subjects which he has studied, and about some of which he consented to converse with me.
M. Huysmans’ mental progress can, to a certain extent, be traced in his books. Thus, in his very early works, such as A Vau I’Eau, a short story which relates the petty troubles and worries of an official at one of the ministries, or Les Soeurs Vatard, a pronounced vein of pessimism runs through them. In Là-Bas, published in 1891, the author introduces his readers for the first time to the character of Durtal, who is afterwards found in En Route and in La Cathédrale, and who will finally be seen in L’Oblat. These four novels form a study of the character of Durtal: his sensations as a devil-worshipper in Là-Bas, his conversion to Catholicism, and his subsequent progress in the religious life in the two succeeding volumes. Now, as in the character of Durtal we cannot fail to recognise to a certain extent M. Huysmans himself, it was only after some hesitation and with an air of apology that I referred to the subject-matter of that early volume of the Durtal series.
"You are quite correct in thinking," replied M. Huysrnans, "that, since writing Là-Bas, I have not troubled myself with the subject of devil-worship. During my documentation for that novel I made a deep study of the subject, but since then it has had no interest for me."
"That I can quite understand, M. Huysmans, knowing that you have devoted your attention of recent years to matters connected with the Church. But let us go back to the days when Là-Bas was written. Can you vouch for things happening as you have described them?"
"Absolutely. Everything which you will find in Là-Bas may be taken to be accurate for the time of which I wrote. Though I may not have seen with my own eyes some of the incidents therein described, I can vouch for the accuracy of my facts. It was a book which gave me a great deal of trouble on account of the difficulty in obtaining material, accurate information on certain subjects of which it was necessary to treat in order to draw a true picture of the character of the hero. You remember the chapter in which I describe the visit which Durtal paid with Madame Chantelouve to what had once been an ancient Ursulines convent, where they witnessed the celebration of the Black Mass? Well, that chapter was the most difficult to write in the whole book."
"Owing, I suppose, to the fact that the horrible rites of the devil-worshippers are kept a profound secret? Are these rites, then, really gone through? Are the incidents which you have described really something more than things of the imagination?"
"Yes, owing to the profound secrecy in which the Satanists envelop their ’religious’ ceremonies. Indeed, it is largely owing to this secrecy that they obtain the satisfaction they do, though it is difficult to understand what satisfaction can be got out of their ceremonies. Those ignoble ’choir-boys’ dressed in red, the altar above which is placed a hideous figure of Christ, the burning of rue, henbane and dried solanaceae (perfumes which are said by the Satanists to be agreeable to Satan!), and that grotesquely blasphemous address commencing with the words: ’Maître des Esclandres, Dispensateur des bienfaits du crime, Intendant des somptueux vices, Satan, c’est toi que nous adorons, Dieu logique, Dieu juste!’ are not exactly calculated to satisfy any but the most depraved. Whether the devil-worshippers still hold their meetings in Paris I cannot say. M. Jules Bois would be able to tell you more about that than I can."
"Mentioning the name of the author of Les Petites Religions de Paris reminds me, M. Huysmans, that I should like to have your opinion on the subject of spiritualism. M. Bois has been making some very remarkable experiments with a medium, named Mlle. Lina."
"Mlle. Lina, who was discovered by Colonel de Rochas? Ah! yes. She is a truly remarkable subject. But to tell truth, I have not followed these things with interest for years. You can say this, however, in your article, that I do not believe any satisfactory progress is to be made on the side of spiritualism proper. Since the days when it was first discovered that a table would act like an animate thing not the slightest progress has been made. We are just as much in the dark as ever, and should remain so if it were not for such men as Sir William Crookes, who, as far as I can see, is the only man who is doing anything towards the solution of the many problems which surround us. There are certain phenomena which are quite inexplicable by the laws of modern science. For instance, upon one occasion when I was at a spiritualistic séance, a heavy table which was in one of the corners of the room told me by raps the name,. profession and other details of a friend of mine, of whom, mark you, I was in no way thinking at the time. Such a thing as that cannot possibly be explained by science."
"Needless to say you are no believer in spirits?"
"Not in the least. Like every good Catholic, I believe that there is a future life, but I trust it will not resemble this."
M. Huysmans went on to explain why he was dissatisfied with the present life. Thirty years’ service in the offices of the Ministry of the Interior were very wearying to the flesh, and since he retired on his pension a year ago he had found writing for the newspapers wearying too; it took up so much of his time that he had had no time for serious literary work; he longed to get away from Paris to Ligugé, where he would be able not only to write L’Oblat, but to complete his projected life of Sainte Lidwine. And it was when talking of the latter work that we naturally drifted into the subject of modern saints, modern miracIes, and mysticism generally. Sainte Lidwine, said M. Huysrnans, lived in the fifteenth century at a small village in the neighbourhood of Rotterdam. One of the great laws of mysticism was that a person might expiate the sins of another by taking them upon himself or herself, and that was what Sainte Lidwine had done. She had passed nearly the whole of her life in bed, suffering the most terrible agony.
"And have conditions changed since the Middle Ages? Have we saints in our midst to-day?"
"No, conditions have not changed," replied M. Huysmans. "Most certainly there are saints at the present day. The great difficulty is to distinguish between hysterical subjects and those filled with the divine spirit That, I say, is where the difficulty comes in; but there are or were — for I do not know absolutely for certain whether the women of whom I am speaking are still alive or not — some well-authenticated cases. One well-known case was that of Louise Lateau, the Belgian modern saint, who died some years ago. But a better case for our purpose, since I believe the woman is still alive, is that of Marie Julie Jahenny of the hamlet of Fraudais, near Blain, in the department of the Loire-Inferieure, who has been under the observation of Dr. Antoine Imbert-Gourbeyre ever since 1873. In that year the doctor was summoned by Mgr. Fournier, the Bishop of Nantes, to make a medical examination of Marie Julie, who was then a young Breton peasant girl of twenty-three years of age. He did so, and came to the conclusion that he was in the presence of a genuine stigmatisée. Soon afterwards the bishop became of the same opinion. And for more than twenty years, as Dr. Imbert-Gourbeyre has stated, has Marie Julie Jahenny been a subject of fruitful study."
"Do you recollect any of the remarkable signs which point to her being the object of divine inspiration?"
"Certainly. Marie Julie’s mystic marriage to Jesus was foretold by a blood-red ring which appeared upon her finger — a symbol of her betrothal. That was witnessed to by fourteen people. The woman is gifted with the most miraculous power of recognising relics at a distance, or reciting Latin verses totally unknown to her, she is able to distinguish consecrated wafers from those not consecrated; in a word, she is sensible to divine currents. Louise Lateau recognised relics, when they were brought to her, by smiles, but Marie Julie does more; she can name the relics, tell their origin unerringly. Let me cite a few instances of this miraculous power, which are inexplicable to Charcot or to any of his school.
"On November 20th, 1876," continued M. Huysmans, who showed by his earnest manner how interesting these and kindred subjects had become to him through long study, "Marie Julie was visited by the Abbé David, one of the priests of La Fraudais, in whose possession at the time was a small box containing a relic of Saint Vincent de Paul. Hardly had he entered her room when she turned towards him and asked for the box and its contents. A still more surprising phenomenon occurred on February 20th, 1880, the anniversary of Marie Julie’s mystic marriage. One of the village priests brought her a bunch of snowdrops which had been placed overnight at the foot of the monstrance. The flowers were placed in her hands. Immediately she commenced kissing them, and uttered the following remarkable words: ’Oh! dear little flowers, which have remained the whole night at the feet of my love, how happy you are! Dear little flowers, my little sisters, how I envy your happiness! You possess simplicity; your whiteness resembles the whiteness of the wheat of the elect! The angels grew you for my anniversary. The first among all your sisters, you bloomed immediately after the hoarfrost of winter. While you were at the feet of my dear spouse, angels filled your petals with perfumes which perfume me.’
"Remarkable words for a poor, ignorant Breton peasant girl to utter! But more extraordinary things even than these occurred. Marie Julie foretold the terrible sufferings which she was destined to undergo: her paralysis, her blindness.
"Certainly the case of Marie Julie is the most remarkable of modern times. She has shown all the signs of divine inspiration which one looks for in a saint, especially those mysterious marks which appear on the bodies of saintly personages, generally on the same spots where Christ was wounded."
"Will you kindly explain more fully about these marks?"
"At certain stated periods blood-red marks, resembling wounds, appear on the palms of the hands, on the feet, and on the sides of the saint. Louise Lateau was marked in that way. So was Marie Julie Jahenny, who was further gifted with the power of foretelling that her marks would disappear or undergo changes at set periods. She was always in a state of ecstacy when making these prophecies. Thus, in April, 1880, she announced several times that her mark would alter, and, surely enough, on June 2th, a fresh crown of oval form appeared around the mark on her back, and other curious marks, four in number, one at the extremity of each axis. On September 19th, 1882, when Dr. Imbert-Gourbeyre was at La Fraudais, he heard Marie Julie state that her ring and crown would change. On the morning of October 15th, the mark on her finger to which I have already referred disappeared, and another ’ring,’ different in shape and design, appeared in its place. It was bright red in colour. Marie Julie further prophesied that she would receive a more brilliant crown than that she wore, that it would be ornamented with diamonds, and that the archangel would descend with his sweet music when she received the gift. On Thursday, May 24th, 1883, at six o’clock in the morning, the change took place as she had foretold it. The girl’s family heard the celestial music on two different occasions.
"Then, again, Marie Julie gave another sign of her saintly origin: she gave off holy scents. Dr. Schoof, of Tours, has certified to having smelt them. That is one of the most conclusive signs, though not so conclusive as ’the mantle of living fire.’ By these words, not my own, but those of Marie Julie, I refer to the strange luminous emanation which comes from the bodies of saints. Marie Julie stated on All Saints Day, 1884, that Our Lord had told her she would soon be enveloped in a ’mantle of living fire.’ Some weeks later, I think it was on the occasion of the fête of the Immaculate Conception, light suddenly sprang from the two ’wounds’ on the palms of her hands, light as brilliant as the flash from a diamond, and which burnt for ten minutes.
"The cases of Louise Lateau and Marie Julie are most valuable to us. Both are the most extraordinary of modern times, presenting as they do, features which cannot possibly he explained by our free-thinking scientists. The stigmata on the body of Louise Lateau appeared every week during a period of sixteen years, and remained each time from fifty to sixty hours; those on Marie Julie’s body appear on a slightly reddened skin, the blood which is exuded coagulating to form rings, or points, or figures, or even letters."
"Is there any analogy between these cases and that of Mlle. Couesdon, who said she was inspired by the Angel Gabriel? You remember that that young lady also said some very extraordinary things."
"No analogy whatever. Mlle. Couesdon gave utterance to too many sottises. She was a somnambule à quatre sous. As I have already said, the great difficulty in all these cases is to separate the genuine stigmatisées from those which are ordinary cases of hysteria. The Church has not yet recognised such women as Louise Lateau and Marie Julie Jahenny to be saints, because of the element of doubt which enters into the question. But I for one believe they are the object of divine inspiration, and perhaps the Church will do likewise some day.
"It is a most fascinating subject for study, and I am longing for the time when I can find leisure to write my life of St Lidwine. All the material necessary for my work is to be found there" — pointing at his bookcase — "and when I was in Holland last summer I had a number of photographs taken of the scenes of her lifetime, which I shall use in my description of those parts. There are places in Holland which have not changed since the Middle Ages. A strange country indeed!"
[We shall publish a reply to M. Huysmans next month from Professor GilIes de Tourette, the eminent professor of medicine at the Salpétrière, Paris. — ED.]