Next> | <Prev | ToC

From Against the Grain (A Rebours), by J.-K. Huysmans, 1884


ONE division of the shelves fixed against the walls of his blue and orange working-room was occupied exclusively by Latin works,--those works which minds broken in to conventionality by listening year after year to the miserable teaching of School and College lecturers designate under the generic name of "The Decadence."

The truth is, the Latin language, as it was written at the period which learned professors still persist in calling the "Golden Age," roused his interest scarcely at all. That idiom, confined within such narrow limits, with its carefully counted, almost invariable turns of phrase, without suppleness of syntax, without colour or light and shade; that idiom, ironed smooth on every seam, pruned of the rugged but often picturesque expressions of earlier epochs, could at a pinch enunciate the pompous nullities, the vague commonplaces repeated ad nauseam by the rhetoricians and poets of that day, but so lacking was it in originality, so instinct with tediousness, that we must, in our studies of language and literature, come down to the French style of the age of Louis XIV, to find one so wilfully emasculated, so solemnly tiresome and sapless.

Among other authors, the gentle Virgil, he whom school ushers name the Swan of Mantua, presumably because he was not born in that city, appeared to him as one of the most terrible of pedants, one of the most dismal twaddlers Antiquity ever produced; his shepherd swains, all washed and beribboned, taking turn and turn about to empty over the unfortunate reader's head their slops of sententious, chilly verses, his Orpheus whom he compares with a weeping nightingale, his Aristæus blubbering over bees, his Æneas, that weak-kneed, fluent personage who stalks, like a shadow figure at a show, with wooden gestures behind the ill-fitted and badly oiled screen of the poem, set him beside himself with exasperation. He might indeed have put up with the tedious fiddle-faddle these marionettes exchange by way of dialogue as a stage device; he might even have excused the impudent plagiarisms perpetrated on Homer, Theocritus, Ennius, Lucretius, the flagrant theft Macrobius has revealed to us of the whole Second Book of the Æneid, copied almost word for word from a poem of Pisander's, he might have forgiven, in fact, all the indescribable dulness of this farrago of borrowed verses; but what revolted him more than all was the false ring of those hexameters, with their tinny tinkle like the rattle of a cracked pot, with their longs and shorts weighed out by the pound according to the unalterable laws of a pedantic, barren prosody; it was the framework of these stiff and formal lines that was beyond all bearing, with their official stamp and cringing subservience to grammatical propriety, these verses each mechanically bisected by an unmodifiable caesura, then stopped off at the tail, always in precisely the same way, by a dactyle knocking up against a final spondee.

Borrowed from the cast-iron system perfected by Catullus, that unvarying metrical scheme, unimaginative, inexorable, stuffed full of useless verbiage and endless amplifications, an array of ingeniously contrived pegs each fitting into its corresponding and expected hole, that poor trick of the Homeric "standing epithet," dragged in again and again without rhyme or reason, all that scanty vocabulary with its dull, flat tones, were a torment to his sensibility.

It is only fair to add that, if his admiration for Virgil was decidedly lukewarm and his appreciation of the light lucubrations of Ovid anything but marked, the disgust he felt for the elephantine graces of Horace, the twaddle of this unmitigated lout who smirks at his audience with the painted face and villainous jests of a superannuated clown, was limitless.

In prose, his enthusiasm was not a whit greater for the redundant figures and nonsensical digressions of "Chick-Pea" (Cicero); the braggadocio of his apostrophes, the claptrap of his never-ending appeals to patriotism, the exaggerated emphasis of his harangues, the ponderousness of his style, well-fed and full-fleshed, but run to fat and devoid of bones and marrow, the intolerable litter of his sonorous adverbs opening every sentence, the monotonous structure of his portly periods tied awkwardly to each other by a thread of conjunctions, worst of all his wearisome habits of tautology, were anything but attractive to him. Cæsar again was little more to his taste, for all his reputation for conciseness; his was the opposite excess,--a dry-as-dust aridity, a deadly dulness, an unseasonable constipation of phrase that passes belief.

The end of it all was that he could find mental pabulum neither among these writers nor among that other class which still forms the delight of dilettante scholars,--Sallust, who indeed is less insipid than most of the rest; Livy, sentimental and pompous; Seneca, turgid and jejune; Suetonius, lymphatic and horrifying; Tacitus, the most nervous in his studied concision, the most biting, the most sinewy of them all. In poetry, Juvenal, despite some vigorously conceived lines, Persius, despite his mysterious insinuations, both left him cold. Neglecting Tibullus and Propertius, Quintilian and the two Plinies. Statius, Martial of Bilbilis, Terence even and Plautus, whose jargon, full as it is of neologisms, made-up words and diminutives, might have pleased him, had not his low wit and coarse jocosity repelled him, Des Esseintes only began to be interested in the language of Rome on the appearance of Lucan, with whom it took on a wider range, becoming henceforth more expressive and less harsh; that author's laboured workmanship, his verse, veneered with enamels, studded with jewels, caught his fancy, albeit his exclusive preoccupation with form, his tinkling sonorities, his metallic brilliancies, did not entirely hide from his eyes this author's, vacuity of thought and the emptiness of the wind-bag phrases that plump out the carcase of the "Pharsalia."

The writer he really loved and who made him reject for good and all from among the books he read, Lucan and his sounding periods, was Petronius.

Petronius was an acute observer, a delicate analyst, a marvellous delineator; calmly, without prejudice, without animosity, he described the daily life of Rome, setting down in the lively little chapters of the Satyricon the manners, customs and morals of his day.

Noting facts as they occurred, putting them down in positive black and white, he disclosed the trivial, every-day existence of the commonalty, its incidents, its bestialities, its sensualities.

Here, we have the Inspector of Lodgings coming to inquire the names of the travellers lately arrived; there, it is a brothel where men are prowling round naked women standing beside placards giving name and price, while through the half-open doors of the rooms the couples can be seen at work; elsewhere again, now in country houses full of insolent luxury, amid a mad display of wealth and ostentation, now in poverty-stricken taverns with their brokendown pallet-beds swarming with fleas, the society of the period runs its race,-- debauched cut-purses like Ascyltos and Eumolpus on the look-out for a piece of luck; old wantons of the male sex with their tucked-up gowns and cheeks plastered with ceruse and acacia red; minions of sixteen, plump and curly-headed; women frantic with hysteria; legacy hunters offering their boys and girls to gratify the lustful caprices of rich men; all these and more gallop across the pages, quarrel in the streets, finger each other at the baths, belabour each other with fisticuffs like the characters in a pantomime.

All this told with an extraordinary vigour and precision of colouring, in a style that borrows from every dialect, that cribs words from every language imported into Rome, that rejects all the limitations, breaks . all the fetters of the so-called "Golden Age," that makes each man speak in his own peculiar idiom--freemen, without education, the vernacular Latin, the argot of the streets; foreigners, their barbarian lingo, saturated with African, Syrian, Greek expressions; idiotic pedants, like the Agamemnon of the Satyricon, a rhetoric of invented words. All these people are drawn with a free pencil, squatted round a dining-table, exchanging the imbecile conversation of tipsy revellers, mouthing dotards' wise saws and pointless proverbs, all eyes turned upon Trimalchio, the giver of the feast, who sits picking his teeth, offers the company chamber-pots, discourses of his insides, begging his guests to make themselves at home.

This realistic romance, this slice cut from the raw of Roman life, without one thought, whatever people may say, whether of reforming or satirizing society, without any moral purpose whatever or idea of moralizing, this tale,--there is neither intrigue nor action in it,--bringing before the reader the love adventures of male prostitutes, analyzing with calm address the joys and griefs of these amours and these amorous couples, depicting in language wrought to the perfection of a piece of goldsmith's work, without the writer once showing himself, without a word of comment, without one phrase of approbation or disapproval of his characters' deeds and thoughts, the vices of a decrepit civilization, an Empire falling to ruin, rivetted Des Esseintes' attention; he saw in the refinements of its style, the keenness of its observation, its closely knit, methodical construction, a strange likeness, a curious analogy with the three or four modern French novels that he could stomach.

We may be sure he bitterly regretted the loss of the Eustion and the Albutia, two works by Petronius mentioned by Planciades Fulgentius, but now vanished beyond possibility of recovery; however, the bibliophile side of him came in to console the scholarly, as he fondled in reverent hands the example he owned of the superb edition of the Satyricon, the octavo edition bearing date 1585 printed by J. Dousa at Leyden.

After Petronius, his collection of Latin authors came to the Second Century of the Christian era, skipping over the declaimer Fronto, with his old-fashioned turns of speech and his ill-adjusted, ill-polished style, leaving on one side the Noctes Atticæ of Aulus Gellius, his disciple and friend, a sagacious and inquisitive mind, but as a writer embarrassed by a sticky, glutinous style,--only stopping when he reached Apuleius, the editio princeps of which author he possessed the folio printed at Rome in 1469.

This African rhetorician was his delight; the Latin language was surely at its best and richest in him, rolling along in a full, copious flood, fed by many tributary streams from all the Provinces of the Empire, and combining all these different elements to form one strange, exotic dialect, hardly dreamed of before; in it new mannerisms, new details of Latin society found expression in new turns of phrase, invented in the stress of conversation in a little Roman town in a corner of Africa. Moreover, the man's bonhomie,--he was a fat, jovial boon companion, there could be no doubt of that,--and the warm-blooded exuberance of his southern nature tickled our hero's fancy. He had the air of a gay and genial comrade, not mealy-mouthed by any means, alongside of the Christian apologists, his contemporaries,--the soporific Minutius Felix, a pseudoclassic, ladling out in his Octavius Cicero's heavy periods, grown heavier than ever, or even Tertullian himself, whom he kept on his shelves more perhaps for the sake of the Aldine edition of his works than for any love of the matter.

Well equipped as he was for Theological disquisitions, the argumentations of the Montanists against the Catholic Church, the polemics of the latter against gnosticism, left him cold; so, despite the preciosity of Tertullian's style, a style rigorously compressed, full of quibbles and amphibologies, based on a liberal use of participles, emphasized by continual antitheses, crammed with puns and plays upon words, variegated with words borrowed from the language of jurisprudence and the diction of the Greek Fathers, he hardly ever now opened the Apologetica or the Tractate on Patience; the most he ever did was to skim through a page or two of the De Cultu Feminarum, in which Tertullian charges the sex not to bedeck their persons with jewels and precious stuffs and forbids them to make use of cosmetics because they are thereby trying to correct and improve on Nature.

These ideas, the precise opposite of his own, made him smile; though the part played by Tertullian as Bishop of Carthage seemed to him suggestive in the way of pleasant day-dreams. In a word, it was really the man more than his works that attracted him.

He had, in truth, lived in stormy times, at a period of fearful stress and strain, under Caracalla, under Macrinus, under that amazing personage, the High-Priest of Emessa, Elagabalus; and he had gone on calmly and quietly writing his sermons, composing his dogmatic treatises, preparing his apologies and homilies, while the Roman Empire was tottering to its foundations, while the frantic follies of Asia and the foul vices of Paganism were at their worst; he was preaching with an air of perfect self-possession carnal abstinence, frugality of diet, sobriety of dress at the very moment when, treading on powder of silver and sand of gold, his head crowned with a tiara, his robes studded with precious stones, Elagabalus was at work, among his eunuchs, at women s tasks, calling himself by the title of Empress and every night lying with a new Emperor, selecting him for choice from the ranks of the Court barbers and scullions, or the charioteers from the Circus.

This contrast delighted him; then the Latin language, after attaining to supreme maturity in Petronius, was beginning to break up; the literature of Christianity was claiming its place, bringing in along with new ideas new words, unfamiliar constructions, strange verbs, adjectives of far-fetched meanings, abstract nouns, hitherto scarce in the Roman tongue, and of which Tertullian had been one of the first to introduce the usage.

Only this degeneration, which was carried further after Tertullian's death by his pupil St. Cyprian, by Arnobius, by the muddy Lactantius, was eminently unattractive. It was a gradual decay, slow and incomplete, marked by awkward attempts to return to the emphasis of the Ciceronian periods, not yet possessing that special raciness which in the Fourth and still more in the succeeding Centuries the odour of Christianity will give to the Pagan tongue, as it decomposes little by little, acquires a stronger and stronger aroma of decay, dropping bit by bit to pieces pari passu with the crumbling of the civilization of the Ancient World, with the collapse, before the advance of the Barbarian hordes, of the Empires rotted by the putrescence of the ages.

Only one Christian poet, Commodian of Gaza, was to be found in his library as representative of the art of the Third Century. The Carmen Apologeticum, written about 259 A.D., is a compendium of rules of conduct, tortured into acrostics, composed in rude hexameters, divided by a caesura after the fashion of heroic verse, but without any attention to quantity or the rules of hiatus and often eked out with rhymes of the kind ecclesiastical Latin later on afforded numerous examples of.

These strained, sombre verses, with their touch of savagery, full of common, vernacular expressions, of words deflected from their original meanings, appealed to him, interested him even more than the style, over-ripe and already decadent, the historians Ammianus Marcellinus and Aurelius Victor, of the letter-writer Symmachus and the compiler and grammarian Macrobius; he even preferred them to the lines, correctly scanned, and the variegated and superbly picturesque diction of Claudian, Rutilius and Ausonius.

These were in their day the masters of the art; they filled the dying Empire with their swan songs,--the Christian Ausonius with his Cento Nuptialis and his copious and elaborate poem on the Moselle; Rutilius, with his hymns to the glory of Rome, his anathemas against the Jews and against the Monks, his itinerary of Cisalpine Gaul, where he manages sometimes to render certain aspects of the beauties of Nature, the vague charm of landscapes reflected in water, the mirage of mists, the flying vapours about the mountain tops.

Then there is Claudian, a kind of avatar of Lucan, who dominates all the Fourth Century with the terrific clarion of his verse--a poet who wrought a striking and sonorous hexameter, beating out, amid showers of sparks, the right epithet at a blow, attaining a certain grandeur, filling his work with a puissant breath of life. In the Western Empire falling more and more into ruin, amid the confusion of the repeated disasters that fall upon it, unchecked by the constant threat of invasion by the Barbarians now pressing in hordes at the very gates of the Empire whose bolts and bars are cracking under the strain, he revivifies Antiquity, sings of the Rape of Proserpine, lays on his brilliant colours, goes by with all his fires ablaze in the gathering gloom that is overspreading the world.

Paganism lives again in him, sounding its last fanfare, raising its last great poet high above the Christianity that is from his day onwards utterly to submerge the language and for ever after remain absolute arbiter and master of poetry,-- with Paulinus, pupil of Ausonius, with the Spanish priest Juvenous, who paraphrases the Gospels in verse, with Victorinus, author of the Macchabæi, with Sanctus Burdigalensis, who in an Eclogue copied from Virgil makes the herdsmen Egon and Buculus deplore the maladies of their flocks. Then these are succeeded by all the series of the Saints,--Hilary of Poitiers, the champion of the faith of Nicæa, the Athanasius of the West, as he was called; Ambrosius, the author of indigestible homilies, the wearisome Christian Cicero; Damasus, the fabricator of epigrams cut and polished like precious stones; Jerome, the translator of the Vulgate, and his adversary Vigilantius of Comminges who attacks the worship of the saints, the abuse of miracles and the practice of fasts, and already preaches, using arguments the ages will go on repeating one to the other, against monastic vows and the celibacy of the clergy.

At last, in the Fifth Century, comes Augustine, Bishop of Hippo. Him Des Esseintes knew only too well, for he was the writer of all others most highly reputed by the Church, the founder of Christian orthodoxy, the theologian whom good Catholics regard as an oracle, a sovereign authority. Result: he never opened his books any more, albeit he had celebrated, in his Confessions, his disillusionment with this world and with groans of pious contrition; in his Civitas Dei, had endeavoured to assuage the woeful distress of the age by seductive promises of better things to come in a future life. In the years when he was an active theologian, he was already a tired man, sated with his own preachings and jeremiads, weary of his theories on predestination and grace, exhausted by his fights against the schisms.

Des Esseintes liked better to dip into the Psychomachia of Prudentius, the inventor of the allegorical poem, destined later on to flourish uninterruptedly in the Middle Ages, or the Works of Sidonius Apollinaris, whose correspondence, stuffed with sallies, points of wit, archaisms, enigmas, attracted him. He was always ready to read the panegyrics, wherein, in support of his pompous praises, he invokes the deities of Paganism, and in spite of his better judgment, could not but acknowledge a weakness for the affectations and hidden meanings of these poems put together by an ingenious mechanic who loves his machine, scrupulously oils its working parts, and is prepared at a pinch to invent new ones just as complicated and as useless as the old.

After Sidonius, again, he kept on familiar terms with the panegyrist Merobaudes; Sedulius, author of rhymed poems and alphabetical hymns of which the Church has appropriated portions to incorporate in her offices; Marius Victor, whose dark and dismal tractate on the Perversity of Morals is lit up here and there by lines that glitter like phosphorus; Paulinus of Pella, the poet of that icy production the Eucharisticon; Orientius, Bishop of Auch, who in the distichs of his Monitoria rails at the licence of women, whose faces, he declares, destroy the nations.

The interest that Des Esseintes felt in the Latin language remained as strong as ever even now when, rotten through and through, it hung a decaying carcase, losing its limbs, distilling its pus, barely keeping, in the utter corruption of its body, a few sound parts which the Christians abstracted to preserve them in the salt pickle of their new dialect.

The second half of the Fifth Century was come, the appalling period when unspeakable troubles afflicted the world. The Barbarians were ravaging Gaul; Rome, paralyzed, sacked by the Visigoths, felt her life frozen within her veins as she saw her outlying limbs, the East and the West, struggling in a sea of blood, growing more and more exhausted from day to day.

Amid the general dissolution, amid the assassinations of Caesars that follow close on each other's heels, amid the uproar of slaughter that rolls from end to end of Europe, a wild hurrah broke forth, terrifying men's hearts, and drowning all other sounds. On the banks of the Danube, thousands of men, perched on little horses, wrapt in rat-skin coats, hideous Tartars with immense heads, flat noses, chins furrowed with wounds and scars, jaundiced, hairless faces, are rushing down helter-skelter on the provinces of the Lower Empire, overwhelming everything in the whirlwind of their advance.

Civilization disappeared in the dust of their gallop, in the smoke of their fires. Darkness fell upon the world and the peoples trembled in consternation as they heard the dread host rush by with a sound of thunder. The horde of Huns swept over Europe, precipitated itself on Gaul, to be overwhelmed on the plains of Châlons where Aëtius heaped up its dead in a fearful carnage. The land was gorged with blood,--a very sea of rolling purple; two hundred thousand corpses barred the road and broke the onrush of this avalanche that, turned aside, fell like a thunderclap on Italy, whose ruined cities flamed up to heaven like so many fired hay-ricks.

The Eastern Empire crumbled under the shock; the expiring life it still dragged out in decrepitude and corruption was extinguished. The last end of the universe indeed seemed near at hand; the cities Attila had passed over were decimated by plague and famine. The Latin tongue, too, seemed to be perishing amid the ruins of a world.

Years rolled by; presently the Barbarian idioms grew more regular, began to emerge from their uncouth envelopes, to develop into true languages; Latin, rescued in the general cataclysm by the Monasteries, was limited to the Religious Houses and the secular cures. Only here and there a few poets appeared, cold, difficult versifiers,--the African Dracontius with his Hexameron; Claudius Mamert, with his liturgical poems; Avitus of Vienna; then presently biographers, such as Ennodius, who relates the miracles of St. Epiphanes, the acute and venerated diplomatist, the upright and vigilant pastor, such as Eugippus, who has recorded for us the incomparable life of St. Severin, the mysterious anchorite, the humble ascetic, who appeared like an angel of mercy to the mourning nations, mad with pain and fear; then again writers like Veranius of the Gevaudan, who composed a little treatise on Continence, like Aurelian and Ferreolus who compiled Church canons; historians like Rotherius of Agde, famed for a History of the Huns, now lost.

Works of the next succeeding centuries were few and far between on Des Esseintes' shelves. Still the Sixth Century was represented by Fortunatus, Bishop of Poitiers, whose hymns and the Vexilla Regis, hacked out of the ancient carcase of the Latin language, and flavoured with the aromatic spices of the Church, haunted his thoughts on certain days; by Boetius Gregory of Tours, and Jornandes. Then, in the Seventh and Eighth Centuries, inasmuch as, (over and above the Low Latin of the Chroniclers, such as Fredegarius and Paul the Deacon, and verses comprised in the Bangor Antiphonary, one hymn in which, the one that forms an acrostic and has one and the same rhyme ending every line, composed in honour of St. Comgill, he sometimes looked at), contemporary literature was almost exclusively confined to Lives of the Saints,--the legend of St. Columba by the cenobite Jonas and that of the Blessed Cuthbert compiled by the Venerable Bede from the notes of an anonymous monk of Lindisfarne, he confined himself to turning over at odd moments the pages of these Hagiographers and re-reading extracts from the Lives of St. Rusticula and St. Radegonde, related, the former by Defensorius, Synodite of Ligugé, the latter by the modest and simple-hearted Baudonivia, a Nun of Poitiers.

However, certain singular productions of Latin literature in Anglo-Saxon lands were more to his liking; there was for instance the whole series of the enigmas of Aldhelm, of Tatwine, of Eusebius, those inheritors of Symphosius' mantle, and in especial the riddles composed by St. Boniface in the form of acrostics, where the answer is given by the initial letters of the lines of each stanza.

His predilection grew less and less towards the end of these two Centuries; finding small pleasure indeed in the ponderous prose of the Carlovingian Latinists, the Alcuins and Eginhards, he contented himself, by way of specimens of the language of the Ninth Century, with the anonymous chronicler of St. Gall, with Freculf and Reginon, with the poem on the Siege of Paris indited by Abbo Le Courbé, with the Hortulus, the didactic poem of the Benedictine Walafrid Strabo, whose canto devoted to the glorification of the pumpkin, symbol of fecundity, charmed his sense of humour. Another favourite was the poem of Ermold the Black, celebrating the exploits of Louis le Débonnaire, a poem written in regular hexameters, in a severe, black style, in a diction of iron tempered in monastic waters, with here and there threads of sentiment imbedded in the hard metal; yet another, the De Viribus Herbarum, a poem of Macer Floridus on simples, which particularly delighted him by its poetical recipes and the extraordinary virtues he attributes to certain herbs and flowers,--to the aristolochia or birthwort, for example, which mixed with beef and laid as a plaster on a woman's abdomen is an infallible specific to make her bear a male child, or the borage, which sprinkled in an infusion about a dining hall, ensures the guests being all merry, or the peony, the pounded root of which cures head-ache for good and all, or the fennel, which, applied to a woman's bosom, clarifies her discharges and stimulates the sluggishness of her periods.

Except for a few special volumes, unclassed, certain works, modern or undated, cabalistic, medical and botanical, sundry odd tomes of Migne's Patrology, preserving Christian poems not to be found elsewhere, and Wernsdorff's Anthology of the Minor Latin Poets, except for Meursius, Forberg's Manual of Classical Erotology, the Moechialogy and the Diaconals for the use of Father Confessors, which he would take down from the shelves to dust at long intervals, with these exceptions, his Latin collections stopped with the beginning of the Tenth Century.

For truly the quaint originality, the complex simplicity of Christian Latinity had likewise come to an end. Henceforth the fiddle-faddle of philosophers and scholiasts, the vain logomachies of the Schoolmen, were to reign in undisputed mastery. The sooty masses of chronicles and books of history, the leaden lumps of the Cartularies, were to rise in more and more mountainous heaps, while the stammering grace, the clumsy but often exquisite simplicity of the Monks setting in a pious hotchpotch the poetical relics of Antiquity were no more, the fabrication of verses of refined sweetness, of substantives smelling of incense, of quaint adjectives, roughly shaped out of gold, in the barbarous, fascinating taste of Gothic jewelry, ceased. The old editions, fondly cherished by Des Esseintes, came to an end,--and making a prodigious jump over the centuries, he loaded the rest of his shelves with modern, vernacular works that, heedless of the slow progression of the ages, came down at once to the French of the present day.

Next> | ^Top