During the days following his return, Des Esseintes contemplated his books and experienced, at the thought that he might have been separated from them for a long period, a satisfaction as complete as that which comes after a protracted absence. Under the touch of this sentiment, these objects possessed a renewed novelty to his mind, and he perceived in them beauties forgotten since the time he had purchased them.
Everything there, books, bric-a-brac and furniture, had an individual charm for him. His bed seemed the softer by comparison with the hard bed he would have occupied in London. The silent, discreet ministrations of his servants charmed him, exhausted as he was at the thought of the loud loquacity of hotel attendants. The methodical organization of his life made him feel that it was especially to be envied since the possibility of traveling had become imminent.
He steeped himself in this bath of habitude, to which artificial regrets insinuated a tonic quality.
But his books chiefly preoccupied him. He examined them, re-arranged them on the shelves, anxious to learn if the hot weather and the rains had damaged the bindings and injured the rare paper.
He began by moving all his Latin books; then he arranged in a new order the special works of Archelaus, Albert le Grand, Lully and Arnaud de Villanova treating of cabbala and the occult sciences; finally he examined his modern books, one by one, and was happy to perceive that all had remained intact.
This collection had cost him a considerable sum of money. He would not suffer, in his library, the books he loved to resemble other similar volumes, printed on cotton paper with the watermarks of Auvergne.
Formerly in Paris he had ordered made, for himself alone, certain volumes which specially engaged mechanics printed from hand presses. Sometimes, he applied to Perrin of Lyons, whose graceful, clear type was suitable for archaic reprints of old books. At other times he dispatched orders to England or to America for the execution of modern literature and the works of the present century. Still again, he applied to a house in Lille, which for centuries had possessed a complete set of Gothic characters; he also would send requisitions to the old Enschede printing house of Haarlem whose foundry still has the stamps and dies of certain antique letters.
He had followed the same method in selecting his papers. Finally growing weary of the snowy Chinese and the nacreous and gilded Japanese papers, the white Whatmans, the brown Hollands, the buff-colored Turkeys and Seychal Mills, and equally disgusted with all mechanically manufactured sheets, he had ordered special laid paper in the mould, from the old plants of Vire which still employ the pestles once in use to grind hemp. To introduce a certain variety into his collection, he had repeatedly brought from London prepared stuffs, paper interwoven with hairs, and as a mark of his disdain for bibliophiles, he had a Lubeck merchant prepare for him an improved candle paper of bottle-blue tint, clear and somewhat brittle, in the pulp of which the straw was replaced by golden spangles resembling those which dot Danzig brandy.
Under these circumstances he had succeeded in procuring unique books, adopting obsolete formats which he had bound by Lortic, by Trautz-Bauzonnet or Chambolle, by the successors of Cape, in irreproachable covers of old silk, stamped cow hide, Cape goat skin, in full bindings with compartments and in mosaic designs, protected by tabby or moire watered silk, ecclesiastically ornamented with clasps and corners, and sometimes even enamelled by Gruel Engelmann with silver oxide and clear enamels.
Thus, with the marvelous episcopal lettering used in the old house of Le Clere, he had Baudelaire's works printed in a large format recalling that of ancient missals, on a very light and spongy Japan paper, soft as elder pith and imperceptibly tinted with a light rose hue through its milky white. This edition, limited to one copy, printed with a velvety black Chinese ink, had been covered outside and then recovered within with a wonderful genuine sow skin, chosen among a thousand, the color of flesh, its surface spotted where the hairs had been and adorned with black silk stamped in cold iron in miraculous designs by a great artist.
That day, Des Esseintes took this incomparable book from his shelves and handled it devotedly, once more reading certain pieces which seemed to him, in this simple but inestimable frame, more than ordinarily penetrating.
His admiration for this writer was unqualified. According to him, until Baudelaire's advent in literature, writers had limited themselves to exploring the surfaces of the soul or to penetrating into the accessible and illuminated caverns, restoring here and there the layers of capital sins, studying their veins, their growths, and noting, like Balzac for example, the layers of strata in the soul possessed by the monomania of a passion, by ambition, by avarice, by paternal stupidity, or by senile love.
What had been treated heretofore was the abundant health of virtues and of vices, the tranquil functioning of commonplace brains, and the practical reality of contemporary ideas, without any ideal of sickly depravation or of any beyond. In short, the discoveries of those analysts had stopped at the speculations of good or evil classified by the Church. It was the simple investigation, the conventional examination of a botanist minutely observing the anticipated development of normal efflorescence abounding in the natural earth.
Baudelaire had gone farther. He had descended to the very bowels of the inexhaustible mine, had involved his mind in abandoned and unfamiliar levels, and come to those districts of the soul where monstrous vegetations of thought extend their branches.
There, near those confines, the haunt of aberrations and of sickness, of the mystic lockjaw, the warm fever of lust, and the typhoids and vomits of crime, he had found, brooding under the gloomy clock of Ennui, the terrifying spectre of the age of sentiments and ideas.
He had revealed the morbid psychology of the mind which has attained the October of its sensations, recounted the symptoms of souls summoned by grief and licensed by spleen, and shown the increasing decay of impressions while the enthusiasms and beliefs of youth are enfeebled and the only thing remaining is the arid memory of miseries borne, intolerances endured and affronts suffered by intelligences oppressed by a ridiculous destiny.
He had pursued all the phases of that lamentable autumn, studying the human creature, quick to exasperation, ingenious in deceiving himself, compelling his thoughts to cheat each other so as to suffer the more keenly, and frustrating in advance all possible joy by his faculty of analysis and observation.
Then, in this vexed sensibility of the soul, in this ferocity of reflection that repels the restless ardor of devotions and the well-meaning outrages of charity, he gradually saw arising the horror of those senile passions, those ripe loves, where one person yields while the other is still suspicious, where lassitude denies such couples the filial caresses whose apparent youthfulness seems new, and the maternal candors whose gentleness and comfort impart, in a sense, the engaging remorse of a vague incest.
In magnificent pages he exposed his hybrid loves who were exasperated by the impotence in which they were overwhelmed, the hazardous deceits of narcotics and poisons invoked to aid in calming suffering and conquering ennui. At an epoch when literature attributed unhappiness of life almost exclusively to the mischances of unrequited love or to the jealousies that attend adulterous love, he disregarded such puerile maladies and probed into those wounds which are more fatal, more keen and deep, which arise from satiety, disillusion and scorn in ruined souls whom the present tortures, the past fills with loathing and the future frightens and menaces with despair.
And the more Des Esseintes read Baudelaire, the more he felt the ineffable charm of this writer who, in an age when verse served only to portray the external semblance of beings and things, had succeeded in expressing the inexpressible in a muscular and brawny language; who, more than any other writer possessed a marvelous power to define with a strange robustness of expression, the most fugitive and tentative morbidities of exhausted minds and sad souls.
After Baudelaire's works, the number of French books given place in his shelves was strictly limited. He was completely indifferent to those works which it is fashionable to praise. "The broad laugh of Rabelais," and "the deep comedy of Moliere," did not succeed in diverting him, and the antipathy he felt against these farces was so great that he did not hesitate to liken them, in the point of art, to the capers of circus clowns.
As for old poetry, he read hardly anything except Villon, whose melancholy ballads touched him, and, here and there, certain fragments from d'Aubigne, which stimulated his blood with the incredible vehemence of their apostrophes and curses.
In prose, he cared little for Voltaire and Rousseau, and was unmoved even by Diderot, whose so greatly praised Salons he found strangely saturated with moralizing twaddle and futility; in his hatred toward all this balderdash, he limited himself almost exclusively to the reading of Christian eloquence, to the books of Bourdaloue and Bossuet whose sonorously embellished periods were imposing; but, still more, he relished suggestive ideas condensed into severe and strong phrases, such as those created by Nicole in his reflections, and especially Pascal, whose austere pessimism and attrition deeply touched him.
Apart from such books as these, French literature began in his library with the nineteenth century.
This section was divided into two groups, one of which included the ordinary, secular literature, and the other the Catholic literature, a special but little known literature published by large publishing houses and circulated to the four corners of the earth.
He had had the hardihood to explore such crypts as these, just as in the secular art he had discovered, under an enormous mass of insipid writings, a few books written by true masters.
The distinctive character of this literature was the constant immutability of its ideas and language. Just as the Church perpetuated the primitive form of holy objects, so she has preserved the relics of her dogmas, piously retaining, as the frame that encloses them, the oratorical language of the celebrated century. As one of the Church's own writers, Ozanam, has put it, the Christian style needed only to make use of the dialect employed by Bourdaloue and by Bossuet to the exclusion of all else.
In spite of this statement, the Church, more indulgent, closed its eyes to certain expressions, certain turns of style borrowed from the secular language of the same century, and the Catholic idiom had slightly purified itself of its heavy and massive phrases, especially cleaning itself, in Bossuet, of its prolixity and the painful rallying of its pronouns; but here ended the concessions, and others would doubtless have been purposeless for the prose sufficed without this ballast for the limited range of subjects to which the Church confined itself.
Incapable of grappling with contemporary life, of rendering the most simple aspects of things and persons visible and palpable, unqualified to explain the complicated wiles of intellects indifferent to the benefits of salvation, this language was nevertheless excellent when it treated of abstract subjects. It proved valuable in the argument of controversy, in the demonstration of a theory, in the obscurity of a commentary and, more than any other style, had the necessary authority to affirm, without any discussion, the intent of a doctrine.
Unfortunately, here as everywhere, the sanctuary had been invaded by a numerous army of pedants who smirched by their ignorance and lack of talent the Church's noble and austere attire. Further to profane it, devout women had interfered, and stupid sacristans and foolish _salons had acclaimed as works of genius the wretched prattle of such women.
Among such works, Des Esseintes had had the curiosity to read those of Madame Swetchine, the Russian, whose house in Paris was the rendezvous of the most fervent Catholics. Her writings had filled him with insufferably horrible boredom; they were more than merely wretched: they were wretched in every way, resembling the echoes of a tiny chapel where the solemn worshippers mumble their prayers, asking news of one another in low voices, while they repeat with a deeply mysterious air the common gossip of politics, weather forecasts and the state of the weather.
But there was even worse: a female laureate licensed by the Institute, Madame Augustus Craven, author of Recit d'une soeur, of Eliane and Fleaurange, puffed into reputation by the whole apostolic press. Never, no, never, had Des Esseintes imagined that any person could write such ridiculous nonsense. In the point of conception, these books were so absurd, and were written in such a disgusting style, that by these tokens they became almost remarkable and rare.
It was not at all among the works of women that Des Esseintes, whose soul was completely jaded and whose nature was not inclined to sentimentality, could come upon a literary retreat suited to his taste.
Yet he strove, with a diligence that no impatience could overcome, to enjoy the works of a certain girl of genius, the blue-stocking pucelle of the group, but his efforts miscarried. He did not take to the Journal and the Lettres in which Eugenie de Guerin celebrates, without discretion, the amazing talent of a brother who rhymed, with such cleverness and grace that one must go to the works of de Jouy and Ecouchard Lebrun to find anything so novel and daring.
He had also unavailingly attempted to comprehend the delights of those works in which one may find such things as these:
This morning I hung on papa's bed a cross which a little girl had given him yesterday.
Mimi and I are invited by Monsieur Roquiers to attend the consecration of a bell tomorrow. This does not displease me at all.
Or wherein we find such important events as these:
On my neck I have hung a medal of the Holy Virgin which Louise had brought me, as an amulet against cholera.
Or poetry of this sort:
O the lovely moonbeam which fell on the Bible I was reading!
And, finally, such fine and penetrating observations as these:
When I see a man pass before a crucifix, lift his hat and make the sign of the Cross, I say to myself, 'There goes a Christian.'
And she continued in this fashion, without pause, until after Maurice de Guerin had died, after which his sister bewailed him in other pages, written in a watery prose strewn here and there with bits of poems whose humiliating poverty ended by moving Des Esseintes to pity.
Ah! it was hardly worth mentioning, but the Catholic party was not at all particular in the choice of its proteges and not at all artistic. Without exception, all these writers wrote in the pallid white prose of pensioners of a monastery, in a flowing movement of phrase which no astringent could counterbalance.
So Des Esseintes, horror-stricken at such insipidities, entirely forsook this literature. But neither did he find atonement for his disappointments among the modern masters of the clergy. These latter were one-sided divines or impeccably correct controversialists, but the Christian language in their orations and books had ended by becoming impersonal and congealing into a rhetoric whose every movement and pause was anticipated, in a sequence of periods constructed after a single model. And, in fact, Des Esseintes discovered that all the ecclesiastics wrote in the same manner, with a little more or a little less abandon or emphasis, and there was seldom any variations between the bodiless patterns traded by Dupanloup or Landriot, La Bouillerie or Gaume, by Dom Gueranger or Ratisbonne, by Freppel or Perraud, by Ravignan or Gratry, by Olivain or Dosithee, by Didon or Chocarne.
Des Esseintes had often pondered upon this matter. A really authentic talent, a supremely profound originality, a well-anchored conviction, he thought, was needed to animate this formal style which was too frail to support any thought that was unforseen or any thesis that was audacious.
Yet, despite all this, there were several writers whose burning eloquence fused and shaped this language, notably Lacordaire, who was one of the few really great writers the Church had produced for many years.
Immured, like his colleagues, in the narrow circle of orthodox speculations, likewise obliged to dissipate his energies in the exclusive consideration of those theories which had been expressed and consecrated by the Fathers of the Church and developed by the masters of the pulpit, he succeeded in inbuing them with novelty and in rejuvenating, almost in modifying them, by clothing them in a more personal and stimulating form. Here and there in his Conferences de Notre-Dame, were treasures of expression, audacious usages of words, accents of love, rapid movements, cries of joy and distracted effusions. Then, to his position as a brilliant and gentle monk whose ingenuity and labors had been exhausted in the impossible task of conciliating the liberal doctrines of society with the authoritarian dogmas of the Church, he added a temperament of fierce love and suave diplomatic tenderness. In his letters to young men may be found the caressing inflections of a father exhorting his sons with smiling reprimands, the well-meaning advice and the indulgent forgiveness. Some of these Des Esseintes found charming, confessing as they did the monk's yearning for affection, while others were even imposing when they sought to sustain courage and dissipate doubts by the inimitable certainties of Faith. In fine, this sentiment of paternity, which gave his pen a delicately feminine quality, lent to his prose a characteristically individual accent discernible among all the clerical literature.
After Lacordaire, ecclesiastics and monks possessing any individuality were extremely rare. At the very most, a few pages of his pupil, the Abbe Peyreyve, merited reading. He left sympathetic biographies of his master, wrote a few loveable letters, composed treatises in the sonorous language of formal discourse, and delivered panegyrics in which the declamatory tone was too broadly stressed. Certainly the Abbe Peyreyve had neither the emotion nor the ardor of Lacordaire. He was too much a priest and too little a man. Yet, here and there in the rhetoric of his sermons, flashed interesting effects of large and solid phrasing or touches of nobility that were almost venerable.
But to find writers of prose whose works justify close study, one was obliged to seek those who had not submitted to Ordination; to the secular writers whom the interests of Catholicism engaged and devoted to its cause.
With the Comte de Falloux, the episcopal style, so stupidly handled by the prelates, recruited new strength and in a manner recovered its masculine vigor. Under his guise of moderation, this academician exuded gall. The discourse which he delivered to Parliament in 1848 was diffuse and abject, but his articles, first printed in the _Correspondant and since collected into books, were mordant and discerning under the exaggerated politeness of their form. Conceived as harangues, they contained a certain strong muscular energy and were astonishing in the intolerance of their convictions.
A dangerous polemist because of his ambuscades, a shrewd logician, executing flanking movements and attacking unexpectedly, the Comte de Falloux had also written striking, penetrating pages on the death of Madame Swetchine, whose tracts he had collected and whom he revered as a saint.
But the true temperament of the writer was betrayed in the two brochures which appeared in 1848 and 1880, the latter entitled l'Unite nationale.
Moved by a cold rage, the implacable legitimist this time fought openly, contrary to his custom, and hurled against the infidels, in the form of a peroration, such fulminating invectives as these:
"And you, systematic Utopians, who make an abstraction of human nature, fomentors of atheism, fed on chimerae and hatreds, emancipators of woman, destroyers of the family, genealogists of the simian race, you whose name was but lately an outrage, be satisfied: you shall have been the prophets, and your disciples will be the high-priests of an abominable future!"
The other brochure bore the title le Parti catholique and was directed against the despotism of the Univers and against Veuillot whose name he refused to mention. Here the sinuous attacks were resumed, venom filtered beneath each line, when the gentleman, clad in blue answered the sharp physical blows of the fighter with scornful sarcasms.
These contestants represented the two parties of the Church, the two factions whose differences were resolved into virulent hatreds. De Falloux, the more haughty and cunning, belonged to the liberal camp which already claimed Montalembert and Cochin, Lacordaire and De Broglie. He subscribed to the principles of the Correspondant, a review which attempted to cover the imperious theories of the Church with a varnish of tolerance. Veuillot, franker and more open, scorned such masks, unhesitatingly admitted the tyranny of the ultramontaine doctrines and confessed, with a certain compunction, the pitiless yoke of the Church's dogma.
For the conduct of this verbal warfare, Veuillot had made himself master of a special style, partly borrowed from La Bruyere and Du Gros-Caillou. This half-solemn, half-slang style, had the force of a tomahawk in the hands of this vehement personality. Strangely headstrong and brave, he had overwhelmed both free thinkers and bishops with this terrible weapon, charging at his enemies like a bull, regardless of the party to which they belonged. Distrusted by the Church, which would tolerate neither his contraband style nor his fortified theories, he had nevertheless overawed everybody by his powerful talent, incurring the attack of the entire press which he effectively thrashed in his Odeurs de Paris, coping with every assault, freeing himself with a kick of the foot of all the wretched hack-writers who had presumed to attack him.
Unfortunately, this undisputed talent only existed in pugilism. At peace, Veuillot was no more than a mediocre writer. His poetry and novels were pitiful. His language was vapid, when it was not engaged in a striking controversy. In repose, he changed, uttering banal litanies and mumbling childish hymns.
More formal, more constrained and more serious was the beloved apologist of the Church, Ozanam, the inquisitor of the Christian language. Although he was very difficult to understand, Des Esseintes never failed to be astonished by the insouciance of this writer, who spoke confidently of God's impenetrable designs, although he felt obliged to establish proof of the improbable assertions he advanced. With the utmost self-confidence, he deformed events, contradicted, with greater impudence even than the panegyrists of other parties, the known facts of history, averred that the Church had never concealed the esteem it had for science, called heresies impure miasmas, and treated Buddhism and other religions with such contempt that he apologized for even soiling his Catholic prose by onslaught on their doctrines.
At times, religious passion breathed a certain ardor into his
oratorical language, under the ice of which seethed a violent current;
in his numerous writings on Dante, on Saint Francis, on the author of
This manner of viewing questions from a single viewpoint was also the method of that literary scamp, Nettement, whom some people would have made the other's rival. The latter was less bigoted than the master, affected less arrogance and admitted more worldly pretentions. He repeatedly left the literary cloister in which Ozanam had imprisoned himself, and had read secular works so as to be able to judge of them. This province he entered gropingly, like a child in a vault, seeing nothing but shadow around him, perceiving in this gloom only the gleam of the candle which illumed the place a few paces before him.
In this gloom, uncertain of his bearings, he stumbled at every turn, speaking of Murger who had "the care of a chiselled and carefully finished style"; of Hugo who sought the noisome and unclean and to whom he dared compare De Laprade; of Paul Delacroix who scorned the rules; of Paul Delaroche and of the poet Reboul, whom he praised because of their apparent faith.
Des Esseintes could not restrain a shrug of the shoulders before these stupid opinions, covered by a borrowed prose whose already worn texture clung or became torn at each phrase.
In a different way, the works of Poujoulat and Genoude, Montalembert, Nicolas and Carne failed to inspire him with any definite interest. His taste for history was not pronounced, even when treated with the scholarly fidelity and harmonious style of the Duc de Broglie, nor was his penchant for the social and religious questions, even when broached by Henry Cochin, who revealed his true self in a letter where he gave a stirring account of the taking of the veil at the Sacre-Coeur. He had not touched these books for a long time, and the period was already remote when he had thrown with his waste paper the puerile lucubrations of the gloomy Pontmartin and the pitiful Feval; and long since he had given to his servants, for a certain vulgar usage, the short stories of Aubineau and Lasserre, in which are recorded wretched hagiographies of miracles effected by Dupont of Tours and by the Virgin.
In no way did Des Esseintes derive even a fugitive distraction from his boredom from this literature. The mass of books which he had once studied he had thrown into dim corners of his library shelves when he left the Fathers' school. "I should have left them in Paris," he told himself, as he turned out some books which were particularly insufferable: those of the Abbe Lamennais and that impervious sectarian so magisterially, so pompously dull and empty, the Comte Joseph de Maistre.
A single volume remained on a shelf, within reach of his hand. It was the Homme of Ernest Hello. This writer was the absolute opposite of his religious confederates. Almost isolated among the pious group terrified by his conduct, Ernest Hello had ended by abandoning the open road that led from earth to heaven. Probably disgusted by the dullness of the journey and the noisy mob of those pilgrims of letters who for centuries followed one after the other upon the same highway, marching in each other's steps, stopping at the same places to exchange the same commonplace remarks on religion, on the Church Fathers, on their similar beliefs, on their common masters, he had departed through the byways to wander in the gloomy glade of Pascal, where he tarried long to recover his breath before continuing on his way and going even farther in the regions of human thought than the Jansenist, whom he derided.
Tortuous and precious, doctoral and complex, Hello, by the piercing cunning of his analysis, recalled to Des Esseintes the sharp, probing investigations of some of the infidel psychologists of the preceding and present century. In him was a sort of Catholic Duranty, but more dogmatic and penetrating, an experienced manipulation of the magnifying glass, a sophisticated engineer of the soul, a skillful watchmaker of the brain, delighting to examine the mechanism of a passion and elucidate it by details of the wheel work.
In this oddly formed mind existed unsurmised relationships of thoughts, harmonies and oppositions; furthermore, he affected a wholly novel manner of action which used the etymology of words as a spring-board for ideas whose associations sometimes became tenuous, but which almost constantly remained ingenious and sparkling.
Thus, despite the awkwardness of his structure, he dissected with a singular perspicacity, the Avare, "the ordinary man," and "the passion of unhappiness," revealing meanwhile interesting comparisons which could be constructed between the operations of photography and of memory.
But such skill in handling this perfected instrument of analysis, stolen from the enemies of the Church, represented only one of the temperamental phases of this man.
Still another existed. This mind divided itself in two parts and revealed, besides the writer, the religious fanatic and Biblical prophet.
Like Hugo, whom he now and again recalled in distortions of phrases and words, Ernest Hello had delighted in imitating Saint John of Patmos. He pontificated and vaticinated from his retreat in the rue Saint-Sulpice, haranguing the reader with an apocalyptic language partaking in spots of the bitterness of an Isaiah.
He affected inordinate pretentions of profundity. There were some fawning and complacent people who pretended to consider him a great man, the reservoir of learning, the encyclopedic giant of the age. Perhaps he was a well, but one at whose bottom one often could not find a drop of water.
In his volume Paroles de Dieu, he paraphrased the Holy Scriptures, endeavoring to complicate their ordinarily obvious sense. In his other book Homme, and in his brochure le Jour du Seigneur, written in a biblical style, rugged and obscure, he sought to appear like a vengeful apostle, prideful and tormented with spleen, but showed himself a deacon touched with a mystic epilepsy, or like a talented Maistre, a surly and bitter sectarian.
But, thought Des Esseintes, this sickly shamelessness often obstructed the inventive sallies of the casuist. With more intolerance than even Ozanam, he resolutely denied all that pertained to his clan, proclaimed the most disconcerting axioms, maintained with a disconcerting authority that "geology is returning toward Moses," and that natural history, like chemistry and every contemporary science, verifies the scientific truth of the Bible. The proposition on each page was of the unique truth and the superhuman knowledge of the Church, and everywhere were interspersed more than perilous aphorisms and raging curses cast at the art of the last century.
To this strange mixture was added the love of sanctimonious delights, such as a translation of the Visions by Angele de Foligno, a book of an unparalleled fluid stupidity, with selected works of Jean Rusbrock l'Admirable, a mystic of the thirteenth century whose prose offered an incomprehensible but alluring combination of dusky exaltations, caressing effusions, and poignant transports.
The whole attitude of this presumptuous pontiff, Hello, had leaped from a preface written for this book. He himself remarked that "extraordinary things can only be stammered," and he stammered in good truth, declaring that "the holy gloom where Rusbrock extends his eagle wings is his ocean, his prey, his glory, and for such as him the far horizons would be a too narrow garment."
However this might be, Des Esseintes felt himself intrigued toward this ill-balanced but subtile mind. No fusion had been effected between the skilful psychologist and the pious pedant, and the very jolts and incoherencies constituted the personality of the man.
With him was recruited the little group of writers who fought on the front battle line of the clerical camp. They did not belong to the regular army, but were more properly the scouts of a religion which distrusted men of such talent as Veuillot and Hello, because they did not seem sufficiently submissive and shallow. What the Church really desires is soldiers who do not reason, files of such blind combatants and such mediocrities as Hello describes with the rage of one who has submitted to their yoke. Thus it was that Catholicism had lost no time in driving away one of its partisans, an enraged pamphleteer who wrote in a style at once rare and exasperated, the savage Leon Bloy; and caused to be cast from the doors of its bookshops, as it would a plague or a filthy vagrant, another writer who had made himself hoarse with celebrating its praises, Barbey d'Aurevilly.
It is true that the latter was too prone to compromise and not sufficiently docile. Others bent their heads under rebukes and returned to the ranks; but he was the enfant terrible, and was unrecognized by the party. In a literary way, he pursued women whom he dragged into the sanctuary. Nay, even that vast disdain was invoked, with which Catholicism enshrouds talent to prevent excommunication from putting beyond the pale of the law a perplexing servant who, under pretext of honoring his masters, broke the window panes of the chapel, juggled with the holy pyxes and executed eccentric dances around the tabernacle.
Two works of Barbey d'Aurevilly specially attracted Des Esseintes, the Pretre marie and the Diaboliques. Others, such as the Ensorcele, the Chevalier des touches and Une Vieille Maitresse, were certainly more comprehensive and more finely balanced, but they left Des Esseintes untouched, for he was really interested only in unhealthy works which were consumed and irritated by fever.
In these all but healthy volumes, Barbey d'Aurevilly constantly hesitated between those two pits which the Catholic religion succeeds in reconciling: mysticism and sadism.
In these two books which Des Esseintes was thumbing, Barbey had lost all prudence, given full rein to his steed, and galloped at full speed over roads to their farthest limits.
All the mysterious horror of the Middle Ages hovered over that improbable book, the Pretre marie; magic blended with religion, black magic with prayer and, more pitiless and savage than the Devil himself, the God of Original Sin incessantly tortured the innocent Calixte, His reprobate, as once He had caused one of his angels to mark the houses of unbelievers whom he wished to slay.
Conceived by a fasting monk in the grip of delirium, these scenes were unfolded in the uneven style of a tortured soul. Unfortunately, among those disordered creatures that were like galvanized Coppelias of Hoffmann, some, like Neel de Nehou, seemed to have been imagined in moments of exhaustion following convulsions, and were discordant notes in this harmony of sombre madness, where they were as comical and ridiculous as a tiny zinc figure playing on a horn on a timepiece.
After these mystic divagations, the writer had experienced a period of calm. Then a terrible relapse followed.
This belief that man is a Buridanesque donkey, a being balanced between two forces of equal attraction which successively remain victorious and vanquished, this conviction that human life is only an uncertain combat waged between hell and heaven, this faith in two opposite beings, Satan and Christ, was fatally certain to engender such inner discords of the soul, exalted by incessant struggle, excited at once by promises and menaces, and ending by abandoning itself to whichever of the two forces persisted in the pursuit the more relentlessly.
In the Pretre marie, Barbey d'Aurevilly sang the praises of Christ, who had prevailed against temptations; in the Diaboliques, the author succumbed to the Devil, whom he celebrated; then appeared sadism, that bastard of Catholicism, which through the centuries religion has relentlessly pursued with its exorcisms and stakes.
This condition, at once fascinating and ambiguous, can not arise in the soul of an unbeliever. It does not merely consist in sinking oneself in the excesses of the flesh, excited by outrageous blasphemies, for in such a case it would be no more than a case of satyriasis that had reached its climax. Before all, it consists in sacrilegious practice, in moral rebellion, in spiritual debauchery, in a wholly ideal aberration, and in this it is exemplarily Christian. It also is founded upon a joy tempered by fear, a joy analogous to the satisfaction of children who disobey their parents and play with forbidden things, for no reason other than that they had been forbidden to do so.
In fact, if it did not admit of sacrilege, sadism would have no reason for existence. Besides, the sacrilege proceeding from the very existence of a religion, can only be intentionally and pertinently performed by a believer, for no one would take pleasure in profaning a faith that was indifferent or unknown to him.
The power of sadism and the attraction it presents, lies entirely then in the prohibited enjoyment of transferring to Satan the praises and prayers due to God; it lies in the non-observance of Catholic precepts which one really follows unwillingly, by committing in deeper scorn of Christ, those sins which the Church has especially cursed, such as pollution of worship and carnal orgy.
In its elements, this phenomenon to which the Marquis de Sade has bequeathed his name is as old as the Church. It had reared its head in the eighteenth century, recalling, to go back no farther, by a simple phenomenon of atavism the impious practices of the Sabbath, the witches' revels of the Middle Ages.
By having consulted the Malleus maleficorum, that terrible code of Jacob Sprenger which permits the Church wholesale burnings of necromancers and sorcerers, Des Esseintes recognized in the witches' Sabbath, all the obscene practices and all the blasphemies of sadism. In addition to the unclean scenes beloved by Malin, the nights successively and lawfully consecrated to excessive sensual orgies and devoted to the bestialities of passion, he once more discovered the parody of the processions, the insults and eternal threats levelled at God and the devotion bestowed upon His rival, while amid cursing of the wine and the bread, the black mass was being celebrated on the back of a woman on all fours, whose stained bare thighs served as the altar from which the congregation received the communion from a black goblet stamped with an image of a goat.
This profusion of impure mockeries and foul shames were marked in the career of the Marquis de Sade, who garnished his terrible pleasures with outrageous sacrileges.
He cried out to the sky, invoked Lucifer, shouted his contempt of God, calling Him rogue and imbecile, spat upon the communion, endeavored to contaminate with vile ordures a Divinity who he prayed might damn him, the while he declared, to defy Him the more, that He did not exist.
Barbey d'Aurevilly approached this psychic state. If he did not presume as far as De Sade in uttering atrocious curses against the Saviour; if, more prudent or more timid, he claimed ever to honor the Church, he none the less addressed his suit to the Devil as was done in medieval times and he, too, in order to brave God, fell into demoniac nymphomania, inventing sensual monstrosities, even borrowing from bedroom philosophy a certain episode which he seasoned with new condiments when he wrote the story le Diner d'un athee.
This extravagant book pleased Des Esseintes. He had caused to be printed, in violet ink and in a frame of cardinal purple, on a genuine parchment which the judges of the Rota had blessed, a copy of the _Diaboliques, with characters whose quaint quavers and flourishes in turned up tails and claws affected a satanic form.
After certain pieces of Baudelaire that, in imitation of the clamorous songs of nocturnal revels, celebrated infernal litanies, this volume alone of all the works of contemporary apostolic literature testified to this state of mind, at once impious and devout, toward which Catholicism often thrust Des Esseintes.
With Barbey d'Aurevilly ended the line of religious writers; and in truth, that pariah belonged more, from every point of view, to secular literature than to the other with which he demanded a place that was denied him. His language was the language of disheveled romanticism, full of involved expressions, unfamiliar turns of speech, delighted with extravagant comparisons and with whip strokes and phrases which exploded, like the clangor of noisy bells, along the text. In short, d'Aurevilly was like a stallion among the geldings of the ultramontaine stables.
Des Esseintes reflected in this wise while re-reading, here and there, several passages of the book and, comparing its nervous and changing style with the fixed manner of other Church writers, he thought of the evolution of language which Darwin has so truly revealed.
Compelled to live in a secular atmosphere, raised in the heart of the romantic school, constantly being in the current of modern literature and accustomed to reading contemporary publications, Barbey d'Aurevilly had acquired a dialect which although it had sustained numerous and profound changes since the Great Age, had nevertheless renewed itself in his works.
The ecclesiastical writers, on the contrary, confined within specific limitations, restricted to ancient Church literature, knowing nothing of the literary progress of the centuries and determined if need be to blind their eyes the more surely not to see, necessarily were constrained to the use of an inflexible language, like that of the eighteenth century which descendants of the French who settled in Canada still speak and write today, without change of phrasing or words, having succeeded in preserving their original idiom by isolation in certain metropolitan centres, despite the fact that they are enveloped upon every side by English-speaking peoples.
Meanwhile the silvery sound of a clock that tolled the angelus announced breakfast time to Des Esseintes. He abandoned his books, pressed his brow and went to the dining room, saying to himself that, among all the volumes he had just arranged, the works of Barbey d'Aurevilly were the only ones whose ideas and style offered the gaminess he so loved to savor in the Latin and decadent, monastic writers of past ages.
Last modified 28 February 2008