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En route (1895)


The Bookman

November 1896


En Route. By J. K. Huysmans: translated by C. Kegan Paul, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co.

What is the psychological secret of the mysterious connection that exists between religious deisre in man and the desire that is sensuous and even sensual? That there is some such relation it is impossible to doubt when we look into the records alike of literature and of life. Let one turn to the confessions of Saint Augustine, the loftiest and greatest of the Latin Fathers, and read the appalling chronicle of those wallowings in sin, through which he ultimately passed to the saintly life that still shines with undimmed purity down the path of human effort. Let one also call to mind the strangely dual life of Paul Verlaine, who so often sat down, reeking with the odours of the foulest of Parisian gargotes, to pour out in verse of almost superhuman sweetness the apsirations of a soul profoundly touched with religious yearning. Nor is it without a deep significance that in ancient times the worship of the gods was often blended with rites of indescribable eroticism, and that in all ages the vocabulary of religious exaltation is borrowed from the language of human passion. The Song of Songs, ascribed to Solomon, is, to be sure, no longer viewed as a sacred allegory; yet it was for many centuries so regarded, and the sternest and most ascetic Puritan was not revolted by the thought that its amorous imagery was meant to voice a spiritual sentiment. To take a very modern instance, it is only a few years since one of the most widely popular of evangelical hymns was criticised, and not quite unreasonably, because its language was too emphatically suggestive of mere sexual desire. It may be, in fact, that there is something typical and significant in the legend of Saint Anthony, one of the holiest of anchorites, whose chief temptation was that which filled his cell with visions of fair women.

The subject is, perhaps, a little dangerous, and we shall not here pursue it any further; yet it is quite irrestistibly suggested by the volume which now lies before us, and which we are inclined to think not only the greatest novel of the day, but one of the most important, because one of the most characteristic, seems to us incredible that no publisher as yet has chosen to reprint it for the benefit of readers in this country, and that, so far as we can find, no copy of it has as yet been offered here for sale.

Until its author, M. Huysmans, wrote it, his name suggested to the readers of French literature nothing more than naturalistic fiction of the rankest and most brutal type — fiction that surpassed the most typical work of Zola in the frankness of its physiology and the shamelessness of its indecency. With A Rebours, which appeared in 1885 [1884], this Flemish Frenchman reached a sort of morbid climax both in subject and in tretment, and because of this Herr Nordau chose him out as embodying the quintessence of moral and literary degeneracy. Yet it seemed to us at the time of its appearance that in A Rebours there was to be detected a new and striking note, an indication of new currents of tendency, a drift away from merely physical analysis, a reaching out toward something which, if not ethically higher, was at any rate more subtle and more psychologically interesting. The later works of M. Huysmans have made it plain that this assumption was a true one; and since Là Bas has been succeeded by this latest work, the true significance of the change is very clear. Taking these three novels together, one may rightly view them as embodying a single purpose — a purpose of which perhaps and probably the writer was himself not always fully conscious, but which, as his task proceeded, fully seized upon his intellect and was, no doubt, developed with the simultaneous development of his own experience.

For it is permissible to think that in setting before us the evolution of a true degenerate, M. Huysmans has been writing a spiritual and intellectual autobiography. Mr. Kegan Paul, to be sure, in his admirable introduction to the book, declares that such an assertion is both impertinent and unnecessary; but even he avoids a flat denial of its truth. Whether it be impertinent or not, it will occur with great force to every one who knows the story of M. Huysmans; life and who is thoroughly familiar with his work; nor do we think that the hypothesis is one which the author would himself resent. It seems, indeed, impossible that the strange things set forth in A Rebours could have been imagined by a person whose own life had been free from any such experience, or that the intensity of feeling that marks the strongest chapters of En Route could be merely the tour de force of a clever writer. We shall not therefore be far wrong if we assume that we have now before us the record of a searching self-analysis, however much the superficial incidents of the story be altered from the actual facts. This must be borne in mind, for the books that form a sort of series refer ostensibly to different persons; yet it is, in reality, but one single experience that M. Huysmans is relating. For whether the protagonist be spoken of as Des Esseintes in A Rebours or as Durtal in En Route, the change of name implies no change in personality, nor in the conditions of the psychological and moral problem that is presented for our contemplation.

The story itself is the narrative of a man who has deliberately cultivated sensation to the point where it has touched the very extreme of enervation, and who in this persistent quest has exhausted the possibilities of physical pleasure, until at last the morbid and the abnormal have reached the narrow line that marks the verge of sanity. This phase is set before us in A Rebours, perhaps the strongest effort of perverse imagination that literature can show. Here we find the degenerate already sated with the pleasures of the flesh, jaded and fatigued, yet seeking still for something to excite at least a momentary interest, and endeavouring to find it in the piquancy of a life in which everything shall be utterly abnormal, in which all the modes and all the conditions of ordinary existence shall be consistently reversed. He therefore creates for himself a home apart from any possible contact with other men, where in every possible way he follows out the cult of the artificial as being the supreme attainment of human genius. He is served by unseen attendants, who avoid entering his presence. He never quits his home. He sleeps, when his insomnia permits it, by day, and prowls about his habitation in the hours when other men are sleeping. His living-rooms are enclosed one within another, with holes that admit an artificial light through glass receptacles filled with water coloured by essences to a muddy yellow, and containing mechanical fish that pass slowly back and forth through clusters of sham sea-weed. The chamber is impregnated with the smell of tar and decorated with crude lithographs of ships and seascapes. In this strange place he amuses himself with experimenting in the theories of Symbolism, translating each of the senses into terms of another. Wishing to hear music, he summons its sensations by drinking drops of curious liqueursm whose effect upon the taste causes in his mind the sensations analogous to those produced by different instruments of music — dry curaçoa recalling the clarionet, gin and whiskey the trombone, anisette the flute, and Chios-raki and mastic the cymbal and the kettledrum. When he longs for the effect produced by pictures, he obtains it through his sense of smell, mixing together the perfumes that bring up before his depraved imagination landscapes or city scenes, the dressing-room of the theatre, or the surgeon’s clinic where ulcers and festering wounds attract his thought. His morbid ingenuity evokes from every scent an optical sensation, from the smell of stephanotis and ayapana to that of ordure and of human sweat. When he eats, and before his body revolts from the abnormality of his tastes, he dines on buttered roast beef dipped in tea. We need not recall to our readers the further details of this phase of his development. On the face of it there seems to be nothing in the tale but what is morbid and delirious, and to a healthy mind both hideous and revolting. Yet, as we have already said, one can here detect a subtle note that is not found in Marthe or Soeurs Vatard. The cult of the purely physical has ceased to satisfy, and there is a vaguely outlined longing for something intangible that the flesh alone can not allay.

In Là Bas, the second novel of the series, this longing has taken a more definite form. We see a quite distinctly formulated interest in the spiritual, or at least the supernatural. Mere animalism retires into the background of the mental picture, though it still exists as a discordant and disturbing element. The degenerate hero of the book has turned his mind toward the phenomena of the religious sentiment as a sphere neglected heretofore and perhaps quite capable of affording new sensations. Yet, as before in other things he utterly reversed all normal notions, so in this new quest his impulses are inspired by perversity. He approaches religion from the standpoint of its contemner. Where a normal sinner would seek the influence of prayer and worship, Durtal enrolls himself among those fearful creatures who embrace the cult of Satanism. These singular rites, as one tradition tells us, were brought to Western Europe from the East by the Knights Templar at the time of the Crusades, and were finally at least the pretext for the dissolution of that famour Order. As many know, the cult survives in France, and has not been unknown in England during the past hundred years; for students of literary history will remember how it found a devotee in Lord le Despencer, who practised it with men like Wilkes and Byron and Paul Whitehead at Medmenham in the old Cistercian abbey. Durtal is led by the influence of one Madame Chantelouve, a diabolic creature, to join in the frightful practices of the Satanists. He is present at a Black Mass, where blasphemy supplants the Litany, where prayer is mocked by cursing, and where images of the Devil and his angels take the place of God and of the saints. By Madame Chantelouve he is lured into various acts of sacrilege, some of them involuntary; and thus he seems to have sunk to an even lower depth than when he lived the frankly pagan life of an eccentric decadent. Yet one feels in laying down the book that the end is not yet; that Durtal is still groping in the darkness, and that the very violence and outrageousness of his impulses may lead him at last into a reaction against the physical and moral disease that vexes him.

In En Route we find a striking contrast at the very outset. Durtal is presented to us as already weaned, in spirit at least, from the life that he has led so long. He is shown as one who has accepted in the fullest sense the faith of the Catholic Church. The processes of his conversion are not detailed, but they may be inferred from what is told us in the opening chapter. Led on by curiosity, and perhaps by a desire for new experiences, he began to tudy the manifestations of the religious sentiment, and at once his mind and imagination alike were seized and held fast by the artistic side of the Roman ritual. He began to study the inner history of the Church, the lives of saints, and the story of passionate devotion which those lives have illustrated. He steeped himself in the spirit of the Middle Ages, and sought out those sanctuaries where that spirit still finds its manifestations apart from the sordidness of modern life. The stately Gregorian music, the childlike yet affecting forms of medieval art, the ancient churches whose chapels are dimmed by the smoke of innumerable censers, and impregnated with the odour of extinguished tapers and of burning incense excited in him indescribable emotions.

"Among these [churches] St. Séverin seemd to Durtal the most exquisite and the most certain. He felt at home there; he believed that if he could ever pray in earnest, he could do it in that church’ and he said to himself that therein lived the spirit of the fabric. It is impossible but that the burning prayers, the hopeless sobs of the Middle Ages, have not forever impregnated the pillars and stained the walls; it is impossible but that the vine of sorrows whence of old the saints gathered warm clusters of tears, has not preserved from those wonderful days emanations which sustain, a breath which still awakes a shame of sin and the gift of tears."

He enters into the dim aisles of a vast cathedral and listens to the magnificent music that the distant choir sing. The passage is a striking one:

"Durtal sat down again. The sweetness of his solitude was enhanced by the aromatic perfume of wax, and the memories, now faint, of incense, but it was suddenly broken. As the fist chords crashed on the organ Durtal recognised the Dies Irae, that despairing hymn of the Middle Ages; instinctively he bowed his head and listened.

De Profundis, a humber supplication, a suffering which believes it has been heard, and discerns a path of light to guide it in the darkness, no longer the prayer which has hope enough not to tremble; it was the cry of absolute desolation and terror. And, indeed, the wrath divine breathed tempestuously through these stanzas. They seemed addressed less to the God of Mercy, to the Son who listens to prayer, than to the inflexible Father, to Him whom the Old Testament shows us, overcome with anger, scarcely appeased by the smoke of pyres and the inconceivable attractions of burnt-offerings. In this chant it asserted itself still more savagely, for it threatened to strike the waters, and break in pieces the mountains, and to rend asunder the depths of heaven by thunder-bolts. And the earth, alarmed, cried out in fear.

A crystalline voice, a clear child’s voice, prclaimed in the nave the tidings of these cataclysms, and after this the choir chanted new strophes wherein the implacable judge came with shattering blare of trumpets, to purify by fire the rottenness of the world.

Then, in its turn, a bass, deep as a vault, as though issuing from the crypt, accentuated the horror of these prophecies, made these threats more overwhelming; and after a short strain by the choir, an alto repeated them in still more detail. Then, as soon as the awful poem had exhausted the enumeration of chastisement and suffering, in shrill tones — the falsetto of a little boy — the name of Jesus went by, and a light broke in upon the thundercloud, the panting universe cried for pardon, recalling, by all the voices of the choir, the infinite mercies of the Saviour, and His pardon, pleading with Him for absolution, as formerly He had spared the penitent theif and the Magdalen. But in the same despairing and headstrong melody the tempest raged again, drowned with its waves the half-seen shores of heaven, and the solos continued, discouraged, interrupted by the recurrent weeping of the choir, giving, with the diversity of voices, a body to the special conditions of shame, the particular states of fear, the different ages of tears.

At last, when still mixed and blended, these voices had borne away on the great waters of the organ all the wreckage of human sorrows, all the buoys of prayers and tears, they fell exhausted, paralysed by terror, wailing and sighing like a child who hides its face, stammering Dona eis requiem, they ended, worn out, in an Amen so plaintive, that it died away in a breath above the sobbing of the organ.

What man could have imagined such despair or dreamed of such disaters? And Durtal made answer to himself, ’No man.’"

In fact, Durtal was brought back to religion by his love for art; and the sight of the countless worshippers who knelt day after day before the crucifix shook to the depths his tainted soul. He believed, and his whole being cried out for a refuge from his disgust with life, his infinite weariness of self. But as yet he had faith alone. He could not pray; he could not even master the temptations of the flesh that kept assailing him with even greater strength than heretofore. He sinned and sinned again, even while his mind was full of these new emotions. But at this moment he fell under the influence of a priest, a shrewd, kindly man, of vast experience, cultivated, and a keen judge of human nature. Him Durtal consults, not as a priest so much as a sympathetic friend; and little by little he yeilds to the kindly influence of the shrewd old Abbé. With infnite tact and delicate finesse, the Abbé leads him on to take an interest in those Orders in the Church that are purely contemplative — the Cistercians and the Trappists. Little by little, Durtal’s imagination is fired by the thought of a life of such pure devotion, until at last the Abbé Gévresin suggests that he spend a short time as a ’retreatant’ in the Trappist monastery of Notre Dame de l’Atre, shut out from the world, and surrounded by the influence and example of those monks who aproach in their lives the nearest to complete self-abnegation. Durtal is startled at the thought. He asks questions as to the restraints that are imposed upon a layman who enters even for a week a monastery such as this. His first objections are singular in their modernness. He is fond of cigarettes, and cannot think of giving up tobacco. He hates oily cookery, and he cannot digest milk in any form. But the notion of becoming a retreatant fascinates him. He reflects and hesitates. It occurs to thim that he can perhaps find some way of smoking cigarettes by stealth in the woods about the monastery. He thinks that he can stand the cooking. At last, after days of internal conflict, he decides to go, and makes a prayer — a most curious prayer:

"Take count on this, O Lord: I know by experience that when I am ill-fed, I have neuralgia. Humanly, logically speaking, I am certain to be horribly ill at Notre Dame de l’Atre; nevertheless, if I can get about at all, the day after tomorrow I will go all the same. In default of love, this is the only proof I can give that I desire Thee, that I truly hope and believe in Thee; but do Thou, O Lord, aid me."

The same odd mixture of modernity and medievalism is seen throughout. Durtal, with his mind filled by thoughts of St. Magdalen of Pazzi and Bonaventura and Dionysius the Areopagite, stuffs his valise with pink packages of cigarettes, and Menier’s sweet chocolate, and antipyrine, and sets out for the monastery from the Gare du Nord. We cannot spare the space for even the briefest recapitulation of his experiences there, which Huysmans tells with minute detail and the most singular frankness. His life as a retreatant, his spiritual struggles, his mental battles with unbelief, his victories and his defeats, are vivid in their realism. One feels that this is just what would be the experience of a modern, only half-weaned from a loose and lawless life, suddenly plunged into an atmosphere of the strictest medievalism. This life keeps recurring to the imagination of Durtal. A certain Florence comes to his mind with maddening persistency. He sees continually her sly face aping the modesty of a little girl, her slim body, her strange tastes that lead her to drink toilet scents and to eat caviare with dates. Once he believes that Satan himself enters the room and fills it with visions of horror. Again, in the midst of prayer, he is seized with a fearful longing to rise and yell out blasphemies. He finally goes to confession, and the scene is told with curious minuteness. Then at last a great calm comes upon him. The atmosphere of intense devotion, the sublime reality of the faith that inspires all about him, their life devoted to the single end of praise and worship and adoration, and the benignant and sympathetic kindness of the monks soothed and comforted and strengthened him. Here was rest and hope and perfect tranquillity, and the book ends with his regretful return to Paris and the expression of his longing for a life of religious contemplation.

"If they [his loose companions] knew how inferior they are to the lowest of the lay brothers! If they could imagine how the divine intoxication of a Trappist interests me more than all their conversations and all their books! Ah, Lord, that I might live, live in the shadow of the prayers of humble Brother Simeon!"

The English translation by Mr. C. Kegan Paul has been excellently done, although he exasperates us at times by his trick of joining typographically into a single sentence, two sentences that are quite distinct and separate — a wretched Gallicism. Here and there he has softened and shortened the excessive frankness of the original, when it would be offensive to English delicacy; though in one instance — the curious account of the Succuba on page 169 — he has allowed the whole passage to stand with a rather startling effect. His prefatory note is admirably written, and shows that he undertook the labour of translation in a devout and reverential spirit, believing that only good can come to the reader of the book from its perusal.

En Route is interesting in many ways. It is unique among the other books of Huysmans in style no less than in spirit. Here he has wholly put aside the studied bareness and hardness of expression that characterise his earlier method, and the descriptive passages glow with colour and abound in strange felicities of expression. His enthusiasm for the purely medieval fairly carries him away, and, we think, has led him into indefensible extremes. Did space permit we should like to say something of his evident devotion to plain song as against the harmonised Gregorian chant of Palestrina; for we think that the greatest masters of church music would decline to follow him in his lack of discrimination between the plain chant in the prefaces to the Mass and the other portions of the service, in which more than a single voice is necessary for the full effect. His enthusiasm leads him also into long and rather tedious digressions upon the history of the medieval saints whose lives he insists upon detailing with remorseless elaboration, so that the effect produced is thoroughly inartistic from a literary point of view, and gives the impression of one who has crammed up a subject and is unwilling to lose any portion of his material.

Interesting also is the psychological side of the book, with its implied thesis that faith, like all other emotions, is contagious; and with its illustration of the though with which we commenced this review, that the sensuous nature under certain influences can become the most profoundly spiritual and religious. M. Huysmans is usually classified as one of the disciples of Emile Zola; but Zola could never have written a book like this. For, in spite of the contrary opinion that prevails, Zola is no sensualist in the fullest meaning of the word. He is only an intense materialist, and he lacks a sympathetic insight into the phenomena that are purely spiritual. He is like the photographer who with equl unconcern and as a matter of mere business will in the same hour turn his camera upon the dead child in its coffin filled with flowers, or upon the leering dancer in her spangled tights.

To those of us who are Protestants the book is full of deep instruction, in revealing with startling force the secret of the power of that wonderful religious organisation which has made provision for the needs of every human soul, whether it requires for its comfort active service or the mystical life of contemplation. We see how every want is understood and how for every spiritual problem and answer is provided; how the experience of twenty centuries has been stored up and recorded, and how all that man has ever known is known to those who guide and perpetuate this mighty system. And in these days when Doctors of Divinity devote their energies to nibbling away the foundations of historic faith, and when the sharpest weapons of agnosticism are forged on theological anvils, there is something reassuring in the contemplation of the one great Church that does not change from age to age, that stands unshaken on the rock of its convictions, and that speaks to the wavering and troubled soul in the serene and lofty accents of divine authority.

H. T. Peck