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


AFTER this evening when, without any apparent cause, he had dwelt upon the melancholy memory of Auguste Langlois, Des Esseintes lived his whole life over again.

He was now incapable of understanding one word of the volumes he perused; his eyes themselves refused to read; it seemed to him that his mind, satiated with literature and art, declined absolutely to absorb any more.

He lived on himself, fed on his own substance, like those hibernating animals that lie torpid in a hole all the winter; solitude had acted on his brain as a narcotic. At first, it had nerved and stimulated him, but its later effect was a somnolence haunted by vague reveries; it checked all his plans, broke down his will, led him through a long procession of dreams which he accepted with passive endurance without even an attempt to escape them.

The confused mass of reading and meditation on artistic themes which he had accumulated since he had lived alone as a barrier to arrest the current of old recollections, had been suddenly carried away, and the flood was let loose, sweeping away present and future, submerging them under the waves of the past, drowning his spirit in a vast lake of melancholy, on the surface of which floated, like grotesque derelicts, trivial episodes of his existence, ridiculously unimportant incidents.

The book he was holding tumbled on to his knees; he did not try to resume it, but sat reviewing, full of fear and disgust, the years of his dead past; his thoughts pivoted, like swirling waters round a stake that stands firm and immovable in their midst, about the memories connected with Madame Laure and Auguste. What a time that was!--the period of evening parties, of race-meetings, of card-playing, of love scenes, ordered in advance and served to the minute, at the stroke of midnight, in his pink boudoir! His mind was obsessed by glimpses of faces, looks, unmeaning words that stuck in his memory in the way popular tunes have of doing, which for a while you cannot help humming over and over, but are as suddenly forgotten without your being aware of it.

This epoch was of short duration; then followed a siesta of memory, during which he buried himself once more in his Latin studies, anxious to efface every last trace of these recollections of by-gone years.

But the game was fairly started; a second phase followed almost immediately on the first, when his thoughts clung persistently about his boyhood, and especially the part of it spent with the Jesuit fathers.

These memories were more distant, yet clearer than the others, engraved on his heart more deeply and more ineffaceably; the leafy park, the long garden walks, the flower beds, the benches, all the material details rose before him.

Then the gardens filled with a throng of boys and masters; he could hear the former's shouts at play, the latter's laughter as they mingled in the lads' sports, playing tennis with tucked-up cassocks, the skirts passed between their legs, or else talking under the trees to their pupils without the least affectation of superiority, as if conversing with comrades of their own age.

He recalled that paternal yoke which discountenanced any form of punishment, declined to inflict impositions of five hundred or one thousand lines, was content to have the unsatisfactory task done over again while the rest of the class were at recreation, more often than not preferred a mere reprimand, watched over the growing child with an active but loving care, striving to please his tastes, agreeing to walks in whatever direction he liked on Wednesday half-holidays, seizing the opportunity offered by all the little semi-official feast-days of the Church to add to the ordinary fare at meals a treat of cakes and wine or organize a country expedition,--a yoke under which the pupil was never brutalized, but was admitted to open discussion, was treated in fact like a grown man, while still being pampered like a spoilt child.

In this way the Fathers succeeded in gaining a real ascendancy over the young, moulded to some extent the minds they cultivated, guided them in the desired direction, engrafted particular modes of thought on their intelligence, secured the development of their character after the required pattern by an insinuating, wheedling method of treatment which they continued to pursue afterwards, making a point of following their subsequent course of life, backing them in their career, keeping up an affectionate correspondence with them,--letters of the sort the Dominican Lacordaire knew well how to write to his former pupils at Sorrèze.

One by one, Des Esseintes went over the points of the training he had undergone, as he himself supposed without result; he quite appreciated its merits, albeit his temperament, recalcitrant and stubborn, carping and critical, eager to argue out every proposition, had prevented his being modelled by their discipline or ruled by what they taught him. Once outside the College walls, his scepticism had grown more acute; his intercourse with legitimist society, intolerant and narrow to the last degree, his talks with puzzle-headed church officials and half educated priests whose blunders tore away the veil so cleverly contrived by the Jesuits, had still further fortified his spirit of independence and increased his distrust in any and every form of belief.

He deemed himself, in a word, released from every tie, free from every obligation; all he had hitherto preserved, differing herein from all his friends who had been educated at Lycées or lay boarding-schools, was a highly favourable memory of his school and school-masters; yet now, he was actually examining his conscience, beginning to ask himself if the seed heretofore fallen on barren ground was not showing signs of fructifying.

The fact is for some days he had been in an indescribably strange state of mind. For a brief moment he was a believer, an instinctive convert to religion; then, after the shortest interval of reflexion, all his attraction towards the Faith would evaporate. But all the time and in spite of everything, he was anxious and disturbed in spirit.

Yet he was perfectly well aware, if he looked into his own heart, that he could never have the humility and contrition of a truly Christian soul; he knew beyond all possibility of doubt that the moment of which Lacordaire speaks, the moment of grace, "when the final ray of right penetrates the soul and draws together to a common centre the truths that lie dispersed therein," would never come for him; he experienced none of that craving for prayer and mortification without which, if we are to listen to the majority of priests, no conversion is possible; he felt no wish to supplicate a God, whose loving-kindness seemed to him highly problematical. At the same time the sympathy he still had for his former instructors was sufficient to interest him in their works and teachings; the inimitable accents of conviction he remembered, the ardent voices of men of superior intelligence he recalled, haunted his mind and made him doubt his own ability and strength of intellect. Living the lonely life he now did, with no fresh food for thought, no novel impressions to stimulate imagination, no exchange of sensations coming from outside, from meeting friends or society, from living the same life as other men, confined within an unnatural prison-house which he refused to escape from, all sorts of problems, never thought of during his residence in Paris, demanded a solution with irritating persistency.

His study of the Latin works he delighted in, works almost without exception written by bishops and monks, had no doubt played their part in determining this crisis. Surrounded by a cloistered atmosphere, wrapt in a fragrance of incense that intoxicated his brain, he had got into an overwrought condition of nerves, and then, by a natural association of ideas, these books had ended by dimming his recollections of his life as a young man, while throwing into high relief those connected with his boyhood among the Fathers.

"There is no difficulty," Des Esseintes told himself with an effort after self-examination, "in accounting for this irruption of the Jesuit element at Fontenay; ever since I was a child, and without my knowing it myself, I have had this leaven, which had not previously fermented; is not this inclination I have always felt towards religious thoughts and things perhaps a proof of this?"

But his efforts were all directed to persuading himself of the contrary, annoyed as he was to find himself no longer absolute master of his own soul. He sought for motives to account for the change in himself; yes, he must have been forcibly drawn in the direction of the priesthood because the Church, and the Church only, has preserved the art, the lost beauty of the centuries; she has stereotyped, even in the cheap modern reproductions, the patterns of metal work, preserved the charm of chalices slim and tall as petunias, of sacred vessels of exquisite curves and contours, safeguarded, even in aluminium, in sham enamel, in coloured glass, the grace of the models of olden days. As a matter of fact, the main part of the precious objects exhibited in the Musée de Cluny, having escaped by a miracle the foul savagery of the sans-culottes, come from the old Abbeys of France. Just as in the Middle Ages the Church saved from barbarism, philosophy, history and letters, so she has saved plastic art, brought down to our own days those wondrous patterns in ecclesiastical robes and jewelry which the manufacturers of Church furniture and ornaments do their best to spoil, though they can never quite ruin the original beauty of form and colour. There was therefore no cause for surprise in the fact that he had sought eagerly for these antique curios, that like many another collector, he had acquired suchlike relics from the shops of the Parisian antiquaries and the stores of country dealers.

But, despite all the good reasons he could call up to his aid, he could not quite manage to convince himself. No doubt, after due consideration, he still continued to look upon religion merely as a superb myth, as a magnificent imposture; and yet, heedless of all his excuses and explanations, his scepticism was beginning to wear thin.

There was the fact, odd as it might seem: he was less confident at the present moment than he had been in his boyhood, in the days when the Jesuits exercised direct supervision over his training, when their teaching had to be received, when he was entirely in their hands, was theirs, body and soul, without family ties, without any outside influences of any kind to react against their ascendancy. Moreover, they had instilled in him a certain taste for the marvellous that had slowly and stealthily taken root in his soul, and was now coming to a head in this solitary life that could not but exert its influence on his silent, self-centred nature, for ever moving within the narrow limits of certain fixed ideas.

By dint of examining the processes of his thought, of striving to connect its threads together and discover its causes and conditioning circumstances, he eventually persuaded himself that its activities during his life in the world of men had their origin in the education he had received. Thus, his tendencies to artificiality, his longings for eccentricity, were these not, after all, results of plausible studies, supra-terrestrial refinements, semi-theological speculations; in ultimate analysis they amounted to the same thing as religious enthusiasms, aspirations towards an unknown universe, towards a far-off beatitude, just as ardently to be desired as that promised to believers by the Scriptures.

He pulled himself up short, broke off the thread of his reflexions. "Come, come," he chid himself angrily, "I am more seriously hit than I thought: here I am argufying with myself, like a casuist."

He remained pensive, troubled by a secret fear. No doubt, if Lacordaire's theory was correct, he had nothing to dread, seeing that the magic touch of conversion does not come about in an instant; to produce the explosion, the ground must have been long and systematically mined. But if the novelists talk about the thunderclap of love at first sight, there is also a certain number of theologians who speak of the thunderclap of religion. Admitting the truth of this doctrine, no man then was safe against succumbing. There was no room left for self-analysis, no use in weighing presentiments, no object gained by taking preventive measures; the psychology of mysticism was futile. It was so because it was so, and there was no more to be said.

"Why, I am growing crazy," Des Esseintes told himself; "the dread of the disease will end by bringing on the disease itself, if this goes on."

He managed to shake off the influence of these preoccupations to some extent, but other morbid symptoms supervened. Now it was the subject matter of various discussions that haunted him to the exclusion of everything else. The College garden, the school lessons, the Jesuit Fathers sank into the remote background, his whole mind was dominated by abstractions, his thoughts were busy, in spite of himself, with contradictory interpretations of dogmas, with long forgotten apostasies, denounced in his work on the Councils of the Church by Père Labbe. Fragments of these schisms, scraps of these heresies, which for centuries divided the Western and the Eastern Churches, haunted his memory. Here it was Nestorius, protesting against the Virgin's bearing the title of Mother of God, because in the mystery of the Incarnation, it was not God, but rather the human creature, she had carried in her womb; there it was Eutyches, maintaining that the image of Christ could not be like that of the rest of mankind, inasmuch as the Divinity had been domiciled in his body and had thereby changed its nature utterly and entirely; elsewhere again other quibblers would have it that the Redeemer had had no human body at all, that the language of the Holy Books on this point must be understood figuratively, while yet again Tertullian was found positing his famous quasi-materialistic axiom: "Nothing is incorporal save what is not; whatever is, has a body that is proper to itself," till finally we come to the old, old question debated for years: was the Christ bound alone to the cross, or did the Trinity, one in three persons, suffer, in its threefold hypostasis, on the gibbet of Calvary? All these difficulties tormented him, pressing for an answer,--and mechanically, like a lesson already learnt by rote, he kept asking himself the questions and repeating the replies.

For several succeeding days, his brain was seething with paradoxies and subtleties, puzzling over a host of hairsplitting distinctions, wrestling with a tangle of rule as complicated as so many points of law, open to any and every interpretation, admitting of every sort of quirk and quibble, leading up to a system of celestial jurisprudence of the most tenuous and burlesque subtlety. Then the abstract side fell in its turn into abeyance, and a whole world of plastic impressions took its place, under the influence of the Gustave Moreaus hanging on the walls.

He beheld a long procession pass before his eyes of prelates, archimandrites, patriarchs, blessing the kneeling multitudes with uplifted arms of gold, wagging their white beards in reading of the Scriptures and in prayer; he saw dim crypts receive the silent ranks of innumerable penitents; he looked on while men raised vast cathedrals where white-robed monks thundered from the pulpit. In the same fashion as de Quincey, after a dose of opium, would at the mere sound of the words "Consul Romanus" recall whole pages of Livy, would see the consuls coming on in solemn procession and the pompous array of the Roman legionaries marching stately by, so Des Esseintes, struck by some theological phrase, would halt in breathless awe as he pondered the flux and reflux of Nations, and beheld the forms of bishops of other days standing forth in the lamplit gloom of basilicas; visions like these kept him entranced, travelling in fancy from age to age, coming down at last to the religious ceremonies of the present day, enfolded in an endless flood of music, mournful and tender. Now he was beyond all self-justification, the thing was decided beyond appeal; it was just an indefinable impression of veneration and fear; the artistic sense was dominated by the well-calculated scenes of Catholic ceremonial. At these memories his nerves quivered; then, in a sudden mood of revolt, of swift revolution, ideas of monstrous depravity would attack him,--thoughts of the profanities foreseen in the Confessors' Manual, degraded and filthy abuses of the holy water and the consecrated oil. Face to face with an omnipotent God now stood up a rival full of energy, the Demon; and he thought a hideous glory must needs result from a crime committed in open church by a believer fiercely resolved, in a mood of horrid merriment, of a sadic satisfaction, to blaspheme, to overwhelm with insult and recrimination the things most deserving veneration; mad doings of magic, the black mass, the witches' sabbath, horrors of demoniac possession and exorcism rose before his imagination; he began to ask himself if he were not guilty of sacrilege in possessing articles once consecrated to holy uses,--church service-books, chasubles, pyx-covers. And, strange to say, this notion of living in a state of sin afforded him a sense of proud satisfaction and pleasure; he found a delight in these acts of sacrilege,-- after all a possibly innocent sacrilege; in any case not a very serious offence, seeing he really loved these articles and put them to no base usage. Thus he comforted himself with prudent, coward considerations, his half-hearted condition of soul forbidding open crimes, robbing him of the needful courage to accomplish real sins, deliberate, damning iniquities.

Eventually, little by little, these casuistries disappeared. He looked out, as it were, from the summit of his mind, over the panorama of the Church and her hereditary influence over humanity, as old as the centuries; he pictured her to himself, solitary and impressive, proclaiming to mankind the horror of life, the inclemency of fate; preaching patience, contrition, the spirit of sacrifice; essaying to heal men's sores by exhibiting the bleeding wounds of the Christ; guaranteeing divine privileges, promising the best part of paradise to the afflicted; exhorting the human creature to suffer, to offer to God as a holocaust his tribulations and his offences, his vicissitudes and his sorrows. He saw her truly eloquent, a mother to the unfortunate, a pitiful father to the oppressed, a stern judge to oppressors and tyrants.

At this point, Des Esseintes recovered footing. Doubtless he was content to accept this admission of social rottenness, but his mind revolted against the vague remedy offered, the hope of another life. Schopenhauer was more exact; his doctrine and the Church's started from a common point of view; he, too, took his stand on the wickedness and baseness of the world; he, too, cried out, with the Imitation of Our Lord, in bitterness of spirit: "Verily it is a pitiful thing to be alive on the earth!" He, too, preached the nullity of existence, the advantages of solitude; warned humanity that, whatever it did, whichever way it turned, it must still be unhappy,--the poor man, because of the sufferings that spring from privations; the rich, by reason of the invincible ennui engendered by abundance. But he proclaimed no panacea, consoled you, as a cure for inevitable evils, with no alluring bait.

Nor did he maintain the revolting dogma of original sin; did not try to convince you of the existence of a God supremely good and kind who protects the scoundrel, succours the fool, crushes infancy, brutalizes old age, chastises the innocent; he did not extol the benefits of a Providence which has invented that abomination, useless, incomprehensible, unjust and inept, physical pain; far from endeavouring, like the Church, to justify the necessity of torments and trials, he exclaimed in his indignant pity: "If a God had made this world, I should not like to be that God; the misery of the world would break my heart."

Schopenhauer had seen the truth! What were all the evangelical pharmacopoeias beside his treatises of spiritual hygiene? He made no professions of healing, offered the sick no compensation, no hope; but his theory of Pessimism was, after all, the great consoler of chosen intellects, of lofty souls; it revealed society as it was, insisted on the innate foolishness of women, pointed you out the beaten tracks, saved you from disillusions by teaching you to restrict, so far as possible, your expectations; never, if you felt yourself strong enough to check the impulse, to let yourself come to the state of mind of believing yourself happy at last if only, when you least expected it, heaven did not send crashing on your head some murderous tile from the housetops.

Setting out from the same starting-point as the Imitation, this theory found the very same goal, but without losing itself on the road among mysterious mazes and impossible bypaths, in resignation and passivity.

Only, if this resignation, frankly based on the observation of a deplorable condition of things and the impossibility of effecting any alteration in them, was accessible to the rich in spirit, it was only the more hardly to be received by the poor, whose grievances and indignation the kindly hand of Religion was better adapted to appease.

These reflexions relieved Des Esseintes of a heavy burden; the aphorisms of the great German thinker calmed the tumult of his thoughts, while at the same time the points of similarity between the two doctrines mutually helped each other to find a firm place in his memory, and he could never forget Catholicism, so poetical, so touching, in which he had been bathed as a boy and whose essence he had absorbed through every pore.

These returns towards religious convictions, these fears and doubts of uncertain faith had tormented him, especially since new complications had begun to show themselves in his health; they coincided with certain nervous disturbances that had lately arisen.

Since his earliest childhood he had been tormented by inexplicable repulsions, shuddering spasms that froze his backbone and clenched his teeth, whenever, for instance, he saw a servant-maid in the act of wringing out wet linen. These instinctive dislikes had never changed, and to that day it caused him genuine suffering to hear a piece of stuff torn in two, to rub his finger over a lump of chalk, to stroke the surface of watered silk.

The excesses of his bachelorhood, the abnormal strains put upon his brain had extraordinarily aggravated his original nervous weakness, still further impoverished the exhausted blood of his race; in Paris he had been obliged to resort to hydropathic treatment for trembling of the hands, for atrocious pains, for neuralgic agonies that seemed to cut his face in two, that beat with a never-ceasing hammering at his temples, sent stabbing throbs through his eyelids, provoked fits of nausea he could only subdue by stretching himself flat on his back in the dark.

These inconveniences had gradually disappeared, thanks to a better regulated and quieter life; now they were making themselves felt again, though in a different shape, diffused through the body generally; the pain left the head and attacked the stomach, which was swollen and hard; scorched the inwards as with a red-hot iron, brought on a condition of the bowels at once uneasy and constipated. Presently a nervous cough, dry and hacking, beginning always exactly at a set hour and lasting for precisely the same number of minutes, woke him half choking in his bed. Finally he lost all appetite; hot, gassy eructations rose like fire in his throat; the stomach was distended; he felt stifled, after each attempt to eat; he could not endure the least constriction about the body, a buttoned trouser-belt or a buckled waistcoat.

He gave up spirituous liquors, coffee and tea, confined himself to a milk diet, resorted to bathing the body with cold water, stuffed himself with assafoetida, valerian and quinine; he even consented to leave the house and take strolls in the country when the days of rain came that make the roads silent and deserted; he forced himself to walk, to take exercise; as a last resource, he renounced reading altogether for the time being and, consumed with ennui, determined by way of filling up this time of enforced leisure to carry out a project the execution of which he had again and again postponed out of laziness and dislike of change since the first day of his settling at Fontenay.

No longer able to intoxicate himself afresh with the magical enchantments of style, to fall into an ecstasy over the delicious witchery of the rare and well-chosen epithet that, while still definite and precise, yet opens infinite perspectives, to the imagination of the initiate he resolved to complete the decoration of his dwelling, to fill it with costly hothouse flowers and so procure himself a material occupation that should distract his thoughts, calm his nerves and rest his brain. Moreover, he had hopes that the sight of their strange and magnificent colours might console him somewhat for the loss of the fancied or real shades of literary style which his abstention from all reading was to make him forget for the moment or lose altogether.

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