The Book of Masks.

Remy de Gourmont

John Luce & Company, 1921.


J. K. Huysmans

"Romanée and Chambertin, Clos-Vougeot and Corton made the abbatial pomps, princely fetes,opulences of vestments figured in gold, aglow with light, pass before him. The Clos-Vougeot especially dazzled him. To him that wine seemed the syrup of great dignitaries. The etiquette glittered before his eyes, like glories surrounded by beams, placed in churches, behind the occiput of Virgins."

The writer who in 1881, in the midst of the naturalistic morass, had, before a name read on a wine list, such a vision, although ironic, of evoked splendours, must have puzzled his friends and made them suspect an apporaching defection. In fact, several years later, the unexpected A Rebours appeared, and it was not a point of departure, but the consecration of a new literature. No longer was it so much a question of forcing a brutal externality to enter the domains of Art by representation, as of drawing from this very representation motives for dreams and interior revaluations. En Rade further developed this system whose fruitfulness is limitless, — while the naturalistic method proved itself still more sterile that even its enermies had dared hope, — a system of strictest logic and of such marvelous suppleness that it permits, withour forfeiting anything to likelihood, to intercalate in exact scenes of rustic life, pages like "Esther" or like the "voyage sélenién."

The architecture of Là-Bas is based on an analogous plan, but the license profitably finds itself restrained by the unity of subject, which remains absolutely beneath its multiple faces: the Christ of Grunewald, in his extreme mystic violence, his startling and consoling hideousness, is not a fugue without line, nor are the demoniac forest of Tiffauges, the cruel Black Mass, or any of the "fragments" displaced or inharmonious; nevertheless, before the freedom of the novel, they had been criticized, not in themselves, but as not rigorously necessary to the advance of the book. Fortunately the novel is finally free, and to say more, the novel, as still conceived by Zola or Bourget, to us appears a conception as superannuated as the epic poem or the tragedy. Only, the old frame is still able to serve; it sometimes is necessary to entice the public to very arduous subjects, to simulate vague romantic intrigues, which the author unravels at his own will, after he has said all he wished to say. But the essential of yesterday is become the accessory, and an accessory more and more scorned: quite rare at the present hour are those writers who are clever or strong enough to confine themselves to a demolished genre, to spur the fatigued cavalry of sentimentalities and adultieries.

Moreover, aesthetics tends to specialization in as many forms as there are talents: among many vanities are admissible arrogances to which we cannot refuse the right to create into normal characters. Huysmans is of those; he no longer writes novels, he makes books, and he plans them according to an original arrangement; I believe that is one of the reasons why some persons still take issue with his literature and find it immoral. This last point is easy to explain by a single word: for the non-artist, art is always immoral. As soon as one wishes, for example, to translate sexual relations into a new language, he is immoral because he discloses, fatally, acts which, treated by ordinary procedures, would remain unperceived, lost in the mist of common things. Thus it is that an artist, not at all eroitc, can be accused of stupid outrages by the foolish or the mischievous, before the public. It, nevertheless, does not seem that the facts of love or rather of aberration related in Là-Bas at all entice the simplicity of virginal ignorance. This book rather gives disgust or hoor of sensuality in that it does not invite to foolish experiences or even to permissible unions. Will not immorality, if we behold it from a particular and peculiarly religious point of view, consist, on the contrary, in the insistence upon the exquisiteness of carnal love and the vaunting of the delights of legitimate copulation?

The Middle Ages knew not our hypocrisies. It was not at all ignorant of the eternal turpitudes, but it knew how to hate them. It had no use for our conduct, nor for our refinements; it published the vices, sculpted them on its cathedral portals and spread them in the verses of its poets. It had less regard for refraining from terrifying the fears of mummied souls than for tearing apart the robes and revealing the man, and showing to man, so as to make him ashamed, all the ugliness of his low animality. But it did not make the brute wallow in his vice; it placed him on his knees and made him lift his head. Huysmans has understood all this, and it was difficult to conquer. After the horrors of the satanic debauch, before the earhtly punishment, he has, like the noble weeping people he evokes, forgiven even the most frightful slayers of infants, the basest sadist, the most monstrous fool that ever was.

Having absolved such a man, he could without pharisaism absolve himself, and with the aid of God, some more humble and quite brotherly succor, of helpful reading, visitations to gentle conventual chapels, Huysmans one day found himself converted to mysticism, and wrote En Route, that book which is like a statue of stone that suddenly begins to weep. It is a mysticism a little raucous and hard, but like his phrases, his epithets, Huysmans is hard. Mysticism first came to him through the eyes rather than through the soul. He observed religious facts with the fear of being their dupe and the hope that they would be absurd; he was caught in the very meshes of the credo-quia-absurdum, — happy victim of his curiosity.

Now, fatigued at having watched men’s hypocritical faces, he watches the stones preparing a supreme book on "The Cathedral". There, if it is a question of feeling an understanding, it is especially a question of sight. He will see an no other person has seen, for no one other person has seen, no one ever was gifted with a glance so sharp, so boring, so frank and so skilled in insinuating himself into the very wrinkles of faces, rose-windows and masks.

Huysmans is an eye.