route cover

En route (1895)


The Humanitarian

December 1896.


I. — "EN ROUTE."

"En Route," by J. K. Huysmans. London: Kegan Paul.

It is not fair to an author to translate his book into another language. Of necessity he must lose something in style, and in the original meaning which he intended to convey; and this is especially true of a French novel translated into English. The delicate nuances of expression, the sparkle of wit, and the pathos of the sadness, which are so characteristic of the French school, must necessarily suffer when translated into bald English prose. All the same we are bound to say that the book before us suffers less than most, for in Mr. Kegan Paul, Monsieur Huysmans has been fortunate enough to find a translator who is to a great extent in sympathy with him. On the whole it is a faithful translation and a free one — two qualities which are not generally wedded to one another; but to our regret be it said, we find that here and there, Mr. Kegan Paul, in subservience to conventional English prejudices, has seen fit to bowdlerise, or as he expresses it, to "soften in phrase" certain portions of this book. This is especially true of the scene wherein Durtal unburdens his sins to his confessor. The sins of Durtal were mainly what are called the sins of the flesh, and his way of expressing them are, to say the least of it, somewhat frank, as naturally iy would be if a man were unburdening his whole soul to another whom he regarded as the Shadow of God upon earth. Mr. Kegan Paul, however, in this translation is evidently in agreement with a certain Jesuit Father who told his penitents "always to repsect the modesty of the confessional." The result is that the most powerful scene in the book is marred by an undue obedience to the prejudices of the middle-class Englishman, or Englishwoman. One has only to read the book in its original French and then the translation to see how much this is the case. With these reservations, however, the translation may be considered one of the most perfect renderings of any French author that has yet seen the light of England.

To put the plot of this book in a nut-shell, it is the record of a man who has swerved suddenly from agnosticism to Catholicism; and simultaneously from the lower or bestial life to the higher or spiritual. Such cases are not uncommon, especially in France, wehre there is apt to be no middle distance in these matters. A man is either a sceptic or a Catholic. The half-way house of refuge, Protestantism, does not appeal to him, indeed it does not exist. And this we say advisedly, with full knowledge of the well-meaning efforts of evangelical Protestants in France; and with a deep sense of the abiding work which Monsieur Renan has done for Reason in his day and generation. But even Monsieur Renan was fain to admit in effect, that a religion is absolutely necessary to the common people; and though he endeavoured to set up a cult of moral and spiritual exaltation which would satisfy the intellectual, his efforts have never really touched the heart of the average Frenchman. He is either an agnostic or a devout Catholic. And so it was with Durtal, the hero of this book.

Monsieur Huysmans has adopted what one may call the Swinburnian method of trilogy. The first of this series was "La Bas," in which Durtal is also the hero, wherein he revelled in Satanism, Black Masses, sensuality, and other extremes of impiety and self-indulgence, which are perhaps more common in France than in England. In this book, the second, we see him casting off the old man and endeavouring — whether vainly or not we cannot tell, for the book ends with a note of interrogaion — to "put upon him the armour of light." It is an interesting psychological study, a mental conflict between the higher and lower nature, which only as Frenchman could have conceived or have written, for Durtal from being an epicure in vice, becomes an epicure in religion. His experiences, whether carnal or spiritual, are not those of the average halthy-minded man, but rather of the Neurotic or Decadent, who of late years has sprung up like a mushroom out of the fermenting soil of Paris. Briefly, then, the book is a brief for Catholicism; but to say that and nothing more is not to state the whole truth. If it were nerely a plea for the Roman obedience we should not review it in these pages, but containing as it does much of that mysticism which is common to all creeds, and indeed to all humanity, and much of that struggle between the lower and the higher nature which every man experiences sooner or later, it comes within the purview of a magazine which recognises neither caste nor creed but only the advancement of mankind.

From the beginning it is evident that the struggle in Durtal’s mind is one of no common order. Like many other men of abnormal intellectual development, his sensual nature seems to be exceedingly strong, and in the days when he was, to all intents and purposes, a Pagan, that is to say, when the higher or moral part of his being was not called into play, he abandoned himself occasionally to the grossest excesses, and practised the lowest forms of vice and the most sacrilegious impiety without any scruples of conscience. But suddenly there awoke in him a yearning for something higher and something nobler. He could not find it, as a better-balanced mind might have found it in the dictates of reason or the consolations of scientific and intellectual pleasures, so he sought it in the only place he knew where, in the bosom of the Catholic Church. At first his efforts were in vain, for the worldliness of the secular clergy in Paris disgusted him. One day great good fortune brought him into touch with a most interesting priest, who, though a Catholic, was wholly a mystic, the Abbé Gevresin, who put before him religion in its most attractive light. And here let us say that the Catholicism which confronts us in this book is something wholly and totally different from that which we have seen, chiefly through Protestant spectacles, in England. The Roman Catholic Church has not one face but many, and the one she turns to us here is the most attractive. It is that curious blend of Christianity with Oriental influences which may be traced from the Vedanta philosophy through Neo-Platonism and the Gospel ascribed to St. John, down to the Ecstasis of St. Bernard, who was of the Alexandrian school, and one of the greatest of those Christian mystics, who no doubt did much to help forward the marvellous growth of Christianity in the first centuries of the Christian era. It is this aspect of Catholicism, the aspect which was condemned in the Middle Ages, which is present in this book. The horrors of the Inquisition, the stake and the rack, the vain efforts which the Church made to quench the light of science, the ecclesiastical tyranny of the Middle Ages, and the impossible sacerdotal pretensions which are thrust forward even in the present day, all these are carefully kept out of sight, and the Church looks upon us here with a tender smile, as the refuge of sinners and the hospital of sick souls. The marvellous knowledge of human nature which Roman priests acquire through the confessional, is here clearly shadowed forth, and explains much that is unaccountable of the hold which Catholicism attains over many intellectual and educated men.

Durtal, turning from his sins of indulgences, had many conversations with the Abbé Gevresin on the subject of mysticism, especially as it affected the Catholic Church, and himself as a member of it. Particularly interesting is the theory of the law of substitution, "the superhuman triumph of mysticism," as it is called, which means, to put it briefly, that the substitution of a strong soul as an expiation of the sins of a weaker soul is efficient and acceptable. Viewed from this point, the lives of nuns and monks who devote themselves to praying for the sins of others, form a sufficient atonement. To the average lay mind, it certainly appears that the contemplative orders of apparently lazy monks and nuns are worse than useless, but in the view of this book,

"They are the lightning conductors of society; they draw on themsleves the demoniacal fluid; they absorb temptations to vice, preserve by their prayers thsoe who live, like ourselves, in sin; they appease, in fact, the wrath of the Most High, that He may not place the earth under and inerdict. While the sisters who devote themselves to nursing the sick and the infirm are indeed admirable, their task is easy in comparison to that undertaken by the cloistered orders — the orders where penance never ceases, and the very nights spent in bed are broken by sobs."

This theory, of course, from a scientific point of view is extravagant and grotesque, but it can hardly be dismissed as altogether impossible. It is one of the mysteries which centre around the problem of the will. It is a known fact that the concentration of the wills of a number of people upon any given object, will influence that object for good or for evil as the case may be, and the concentration of a stronger will upon a weaker will, undoubtedly sways the weaker. With the sixth sense still undevelopled, with the laws of sympathetic and antipathetic vibration still imperfectly understood, we can hardly dismiss this theory lightly or wit contempt. The theory that it is a miracle, will not, of course, hold water, for as Monsieur Renan has well put it, "the miracle is only the unexplained." The intensity of the will, the passionate desire of one man concentrated upon another, must undoubtedly have some influence, and frequently does sway actions in a way we do not pretend to understand. In this sense, therefore, it may be truly said that the prayer of the righteous man availeth much.

There is a very powerful scene in the book of a nun taking her vows renouncing the world. It contains much that is repugnant to our ideas, yet we cannot forbear quoting it.

"Her two attendants lifted the veil of the bride, took off her wreath of orange flowers, unrolled the coils of her hair, while a priest spread a napkin on the knees of the prelate and the deacon presented a pair of long scissors on a salver. Then before the gesture of this Ecclesiastic making himself ready like an executioner to shear the condemned person whose hour of expiation was at hand, the terrible beauty of innocence becoming like crime in substitution for sins of which she was ignorant, which she could not even understand, was evident to the public who had come to the chapel out of curiosity and in consternation at the super-human denial of justice. It trembled when the Bishop seized the entire handful of her hair, and drew it towards him over her brow. Then there was as it were a flash of steel in a dark shower, in the death-like silence of the church, the grinding of the scissors was heard in the mass of hair which fell under the blades, and then all was silent. Dom Etienne opened his hand and the hair fell on his knees in long black threads."

To our mind there is something revolting in this sacrifice of a young life on the altar of superstition. Woman’s true mission is not to be found in nunneries and convents shut off from the world, but rather in the wide field of human sorrow and pain, and claiming her right in all things to be considered as the equal and the mate of man. Yet as things are today, as woman’s position too often is now, who shall say that the nun has not, in some respects, a happier lot than her ill-treated sister of the world. What becomes of many of these unhappy girls in Catholic countries, more especially those who do not seek a refuge within the convent walls? Married to drunkards and hammered by beatings; maids in taverns, ill-treated by their masters, brutalised by the other servants, scorned and betrayed, cast out into the streets to prostitute themselves, or to starve — this is too often their portion. Nuns at any rate escape this degradation. As Monsieur Huysmans puts it, "They remain perhaps beasts of burden, but at any rate God’s beasts of burden."

In accordance with the directions of the Abbé, Durtal gos into retreat for a space in a Trappist Monastery. His experiences therein are marvellously described. Here again we have the same idea of monks taking upon themselves the sins of the world, and offering their lives in expiation for the same. There is a wonderful chapter in which the penitent, who, sleepless from being tortured by evil dreams and sensual lusts, arises from his pallet in the darkness of the night and gropes his way down from his cell to the chapel of the monastery. When he opens the chapel door, what does he see?

"He made a step, crossed himself, and fell back, for he had stumbled over a body, and he looked down at his feet. He had come upon a battle-field. On the ground human forms were lying in the attitudes of combatants mowed down by grape shot. Some flat on their faces, others on their knees, some leaning their hands on the ground as if striken from behind, others extended with their fingers clenched on their breast, others again holding their heads or stretchng out their arms, and from this group in their agony rose no groan and no complaint."

This it is necessary to say is a picture of the monks of La Trappe engaged in silent prayer at night in the chapel of the monastery.

Durtal went through many spiritual experiences in which he may be said to have fought with the beasts of Ephesus. He did not find perfect peace either in confession or in his absolution, or even in his Communion; in fact it seemed that after all these spiritual exercises, the doubt which M. Huysmans calls the Devil, entered into him and fought and wrestled with him even more fiercely than before. There is a description of a controversy which he carries on with himself on the subject of original sin, heredity and atavism, which leaves us, of a truth it must be said, very much where it found us. In fact, the whole book, from a controversial point of view, is unsatisfactory; one feels also that it is unfair. The case of Durtal is not a normal case. It may be that to a man of his temperament there was no choice between the grossest excesses of animal lust and the spiritual extravagances of the Catholic Church. Indeed it is a well known fact in psychology, that the sensual nature is very frequently allied with religious enthusiasm. One sees this sort of thing in another form in the Salvation Army, and in the revival meetings of Protestant dissenters. It is generally the neurotic, the sensual, the emotional, the brute, the animal pure and simple who is "converted" first. The average man or woman of education and intellectual calibre does not, we take it, need to hedge himself or herself round with dogmas and superstitions to prevent him from plunging into the grossest excesses. He knows, for his reson tells him, that the laws of Nature cannot be outraged with impunity, and that whatsoever a man sows that shall he sooner or later reap. He knows also that he has no right to do things which will cause his brother to offend; and these simple maxims, his duty towards himself and his duty towards his neighbour, were rules of life and conduct long before Christianity or the Church was in existence. Neither do they date their origin from the laws of the semi-barbarous Hebrew, but they have animated the minds of men from the beginning. They have developed with civilization, and they will attain their fullest fruition when apart from sect or dogma, the world at large accepts the creed of humanity.