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DURING the days that followed his return home Des Esseintes occupied himself in reviewing the books of his library, drawing from the thought that he might have been parted from them for a long period as genuine a satisfaction as he would have enjoyed if he had really been coming back to them after a serious absence. Under the stimulus of this feeling, the volumes appeared to him in a new light altogether, for he found beauties in them he had quite forgotten ever since the day he first purchased them.
Everything: books, bric-à-brac, furniture, acquired a peculiar charm in his eyes. His bed struck him as more downy, in comparison with the pallet he would have occupied in London; the discreet, silent bearing of his domestics enchanted him, harassed as he was to think of the noisy loquacity of hotel waiters; the methodical organization of his daily life seemed more than ever desirable, since the haphazard of travelling had become a possibility.
He plunged himself again in the bath of fixed habits to which artificial regrets added a more bracing and tonic quality.
But it was his books that chiefly attracted his interest. He examined them, arranged them afresh on the shelves, looking to see whether, since his coming to Fontenay, the heat and wet had not injured their bindings or foxed their costly papers.
He began by turning over all his Latin library, after which he re-marshalled the special works of Archelaüs, Albertus Magnus, Raymond Lully and Arnaud de Villanova treating of the kabbala and the occult sciences; lastly he verified, one by one, his modern books and was delighted to find they were all intact, dry and in good condition.
This collection had cost him considerable sums of money; the fact is that he could not endure to see the authors he specially cherished printed, like those in other people's libraries, on rag paper, wearing hob-nailed shoes like a clumsy peasant's.
In former days at Paris, he had certain volumes specially set up for him and printed off by specially hired workmen on hand-presses. Sometimes he would go to Perrin of Lyons, whose slim, clear types were suitable for archaic re-impressions of old tracts; sometimes he would send to England or the States, for new characters to print works of the present century; sometimes he would apply to a house at Lille which had for hundreds of years possessed a complete font of Gothic letters; sometimes again he would call in the help of the long-established Enschede press, of Haarlem, whose type-foundry preserves the stamps and matrices of the so-called "letters of civility."
He had followed the same course for his papers. Wearying one fine day of the ordinary papers de luxe,--the silvery Chinese, the pearly golden Japanese, the white Whatmans, the brown Dutch, the Turkey-grains and Seychal-mills tinted to resemble chamois leather, and long ago disgusted with the machine-made articles, lie had commissioned a laid paper run in special moulds from the ancient paper-mills at Vire, where they still use the old-fashioned stamps formerly employed to break the hemp. Then, to introduce a little variety in his collection, he had at various times imported from London dressed fabrics--flock-papers, repp-papers--while to further accentuate his scorn of the bibliophiles, a Lübeck tradesman was making him a glorified candle-paper, bluish in tint, crackling and rather brittle, in the substance of which the straw-lines were replaced by gold spangles like those that glitter in Dantzig liqueur-brandy.
By such means, he had secured a unique library, always choosing unusual sizes and shapes of page. These treasures he had had clothed by Lortic, by Trautz Bauzonnet, by Chainbolle, by the firm of Capé's Successors, in irreproachable bindings of antique silk, of stamped ox-leather, of Cape goat-skin, full bindings, panelled and mosaiced, with wavy or watered silk linings instead of end-papers, adorned like Church service-books with clasps and metal corners, sometimes even ornamented by Gruel-Engelmann in oxydized silver and transparent enamel.
On these lines, he had had printed in the admirable episcopal character of the ancient firm of Le Clere, a copy of Baudelaire in a large format, recalling that of a Missal, on a very light Japanese felt, spongy in texture, as soft as elder-pith and just faintly tinged with pink over its milky white. This edition, limited to a single copy and printed in a velvety India-ink black, had been clothed outside and covered within with a marvellous and authentic sow-skin, one picked out of a thousand, flesh colour all dotted with the bristle marks and decorated with a lacework in black executed with the cold iron, the designs miraculously assorted by a great artist.
To-day, Des Esseintes took down this incomparable volume from his shelves, and after fondling it reverently in his hands, re-read certain pieces, which in this simple but inimitable frame seemed to him more striking and significant than ever.
His admiration for the writer in question was limitless. To his mind, Literature had hitherto confined itself to exploring the mere surface of the soul or, at most, penetrating into such of its underground chambers as were readily accessible and well lighted, verifying here and there the stratification of the deadly sins, studying their seams and their origin, noting for instance with Balzac the geological formation of the soul possessed by the monomania of an overmastering passion,-- by ambition, or avarice, or paternal infatuation, or senile love.
After all, it was entirely concerned with virtues and vices of a quite healthy and robust order, with the peaceable activity of brains of a perfectly ordinary conformation, with the practical reality of current ideas, with never a thought of morbid depravations, with no outlook beyond the pale of everyday; in a word, the speculations of these analysts of human nature stopped short at the ordinary classification of human acts by the Church into good and evil; it was all the simple investigation, the mere examination into normal conditions of a botanist who watches minutely the foreseen development of the everyday flora growing in common earth.
But Baudelaire had gone further; he had descended to the bottom of the inexhaustible mine, had pushed his way along abandoned or unexplored galleries, had penetrated those districts of the soul where the monstrous vegetations of the sick mind flourish.
There, near the confines where aberrations of the intellect and diseases of the will sojourn,--the mystic tetanus, the burning fever of wantonness, the typhoids and yellow fevers of crime, he had found, hatching in the gloomy forcing-house of Ennui, the appalling reaction of age on the feelings and ideas.
He had revealed the morbid psychology of the mind that has reached the October of its sensations, detailed the symptoms of souls challenged by grief, set apart by spleen; had demonstrated the ever incroaching caries of the impressions at a time when the enthusiasms and beliefs of youth are faded; when there remains only the barren memory of miseries endured, of tyrannies suffered, of vexations undergone, in intelligences crushed by an incongruous fortune.
He had traced all the phases of this lamentable Autumn, as he watched the human creature, quick to grow embittered, ingenious at self-deception, forcing his thoughts to cheat each other, all to render his suffering more acute, spoiling in advance, thanks to his powers of analysis and observation, all possibility of happiness.
Next, following on this sensitivenes, this irritability of soul, on this ferocity of bitter reflexion that repulses the importunate ardour of acts of devotion, the benevolent insults of charity, he saw arise little by little the horror of those passions of age, those loves of maturity, where one is still ready to comply while the other remains aloof and on guard, where lassitude claims of the pair filial caresses whose false juvenility seems a something new, or maternal fondlings whose gentleness is so restful and affords, as it were, the stimulating remorse of a vague sort of incest.
In magnificent pages he had exposed these hybrid loves, pages exasperated by their powerlessness to express the whole truth, these dangerous subterfuges of stupefying and poisonous drugs called upon to help soothe pain and conquer the weariness of the flesh. At a period when Literature was wont to attribute the grief of living exclusively to the mischances of disappointed love or the jealousy of adulterous deceptions, he had said not a word of these childish maladies, but had sounded those more incurable, more poignant and more profound: wounds that are inflicted by satiety, disillusion and contempt in ruined souls tortured by the present, disgusted with the past, terrified and desperate of the future.
And the more Des Esseintes re-read his Baudelaire, the more fully he recognized an indescribable charm in this writer, who, in days when verse had ceased to serve any purpose save to depict the external aspect of men and things, had succeeded in expressing the inexpressible, thanks to a sinewy and firm-bodied diction which, more than any other, possessed the wondrous power of defining with a strange sanity of phrase the most fleeting, the most evanescent of the morbid conditions of broken spirits and disheartened souls.
After Baudelaire, the number of French books that found a place on his shelves was very limited. He was assuredly insensible to the merits of those works which it is a mark of taste and cleverness to wax enthusiastic over. The side-shaking mirth of Rabelais, "the full-bodied vis comica of Molière" failed to rouse his sense of humor; indeed his antipathy towards these comicalities even went so far that he did not hesitate to liken them, from the point of view of art, to those rows of flaring sconces that contribute to the jollity of country fairs.
So far as older poets were concerned, his reading hardly went beyond Villon, whose mournful "ballades" touched him, and some stray morsels of D'Aubigné that stirred his blood by the incredible virulence of their apostrophes and anathemas.
In prose, he made small account of Voltaire and Rousseau, or even of Diderot, whose extravagantly lauded "Salons" struck him as being stuffed to a singular excess with moral twaddlings and nonsensical aspirations. Detesting all this balderdash, he confined his reading almost entirely to the masterpieces of Christian eloquence, to Bourdaloue and Bossuet, whose sonorous and elaborate periods impressed him; but, for choicer preference, he savoured those pithy aphorisms condensed in stern, strong phrases of the sort Nicole wrought, in his meditations, and still more Pascal, whose austere pessimism and agonizing sense of sin stirred him to the bottom of his heart.
Apart from these few books, French literature, so far as his library was concerned, began with the present century. It was classified into two groups, one comprising the ordinary, profane writers, the other the Catholic authors,--a special literature, almost unknown to the generality, albeit disseminated by long established and enormous bookselling firms to the four corners of the world.
He had had the courage to wander in these hidden places, and, the same as in secular literature, he had discovered, underneath a gigantic mass of insipidities, some works written by true masters.
The distinctive characteristic of this literature was the persistency, the unchangeableness of its ideas and diction; just as the Church has perpetuated the primordial shape and form of sacred objects, in the same way has she kept intact the relics of her dogmas and piously preserved the reliquary that enshrined them,--the oratorical phraseology of the Grand Siècle. As one of its own exponents even, Ozanam to wit, declared, the Christian style had nothing to learn from the language of Rousseau; its duty was to employ exclusively the dialect made use of by Bourdaloue and by Bossuet.
Despite this dictum, the Church, more tolerant than her disciple, winked at sundry expressions, sundry turns of phrase, borrowed from the lay speech of the same century, and the Catholic idiom had to some extent shaken itself free of its ponderous periods, weighed down, especially in Bossuet, by the length of its parentheses and the painful redundancy of its pronouns. But there the concessions had stopped; indeed. others would no doubt have been unavailing, for so lightened, this prose was adequate for the limited number of subjects which the Church condemned herself to treat.
Incapable of dealing with contemporary life, of making visible and palpable the simplest aspect of men and things, ill adapted to explain the complex ruses of a brain indifferent to the state of grace, this diction nevertheless excelled in the treatment of abstract subjects. Useful in the discussion of a controversy, in the demonstration of a theory, in the uncertainties of a commentary, it possessed more than any other the authority needful to lay down, without discussion, the value of a doctrine.
Unfortunately, there as everywhere, an innumerable army of pedants had invaded the sanctuary and degraded by their ignorance and want of talent its stern and uncompromising dignity. Then, to crown the calamity, pious ladies had taken up the pen, and ill-advised sacristies and rash drawing-rooms had extolled as veritable works of genius the wretched prattlings of these females.
Among other works of this sort that stirred his curiosity, Des Esseintes had read those of Madame Swetchine, the Russian General Officer's wife whose house at Paris was the rendezvous of the most fervent Catholics. They had filled him with an inexhaustible and overpowering sense of weariness; they were worse than bad, they were trivial; the whole thing suggested an echo hanging about a little chapel wherein a crowded congregation of bigoted, narrow-minded people knelt muttering prayers, asking after each others' news in whispers, repeating with looks of profound mystery a string of commonplaces on politics, the state of the barometer, the condition of the weather at the moment.
But there was a lower depth; there was Madame Augustus Craven, an accredited laureate of the Institut, the author of the "Récit d'une Soeur," of "Eliane," of "Fleurange," applauded with blaring trumpets and rolling organ by the whole Catholic press. Never, no never, had Des Esseintes imagined that anyone could write such poor stuff. The books were, from the point of view of general conception, so utterly silly and were written in so nauseous a style, that they actually attained a sort of individuality of their own, became curiosities in their way.
In any case, it was not among female writers that Des Esseintes, whose mind was naturally sophisticated and unsentimental, could find a literary refuge adapted to his peculiar idiosyncrasies.
Still he persevered and with a conscientiousness no impatience could modify, did his best to appreciate the work of that child of genius, the blue-stocking Virgin of this group, Eugénie de Guérin. His efforts were in vain, he could not stomach the famous "Journal" and "Letters" in which she extols, without tact or discretion, the prodigious talents of a brother who rhymed with such consummate ingenuity and grace that we must surely go back to the works of M. de Jouy and M. Ecouchard Lebrun to find any verses so boldly conceived and so fresh and new.
To no purpose had he tried to understand the charm of these productions in which we find such thrilling remarks as these:--"This morning I hung up beside papa's bed a cross a little girl gave him yesterday,"--"We are invited tomorrow, Mimi and I, to M. Roquiers', to attend the service of blessing a bell; I am very pleased to go,"--in which are recorded such momentous events as this: "I have just hung about my neck a medal of the Blessed Virgin, sent me by Louise as a safeguard against cholera,"--in which we come upon poetry of this calibre: "Oh, the lovely moonbeam that has just fallen on the Gospel I was reading!" or, to make an end, observations of the brilliant perspicacity of the following: "Whenever I see a man, on passing a crucifix, cross himself and take off his hat, I tell myself--That is a Christian going by."
This was the sort of thing that runs on page after page, without truce or respite, till the death of Maurice de Guérin, whom his sister bewails in still more rhapsodies, written in a wishy-washy prose interspersed here and there with tags of verse the poverty of which ended by moving Des Esseintes' pity.
Well, there was no denying it, the Catholic party was not hard to please in its choice of protégées, and far from critical! These pious muses it had made so much of and for whom it had exhausted the complaisance of its press, wrote one and all like Convent schoolgirls, in a colourless diction, in a flux of words no astringent can arrest!
The end was Des Esseintes turned away in horror from the stuff. But neither were the modern masters of sacred literature of a nature to offer him any sufficient compensations for his disappointment. These preachers and polemists were impeccable and correct in style, but the Christian dialect, in their sermons and books, had ended by becoming impersonal, stereotyped in a rhetoric whose movements and pauses were all fixed beforehand, arranged in a series of periods each constructed on one and the same model. In fact, the ecclesiastical authors all wrote alike, with a trifle more or a trifle less unconstraint and emphasis; the differences were all but imperceptible among these grey, colourless canvases, whether the work of Messeigneurs Dupanloup or Landriot, La Bouillerie or Gaume, of Dom Gueranger or the Père Ratisbonne, of Monseigneur Freppel or Monseigneur Perraud, of the Réverends Pères Ravignan or Gratry, the Jesuit Olivain, the Carmelite Dosithee, the Dominican Didon or of the erstwhile Prior of Saint-Maximin, the Réverend Chocarne.
Again and again, the conclusion had been forced upon Des Esseintes that it would need a very authentic talent, a very genuine originality, a firmly anchored conviction to thaw this frozen diction, to give life to this conventional style incapable of expressing a single unexpected idea, of upholding any thesis of the smallest audacity.
Nevertheless, one or two authors were to be found whose burning eloquence could melt and mould this inert phraseology,--Lacordaire first and foremost, one of the only real authors the Church has produced for many years.
Imprisoned, like all his colleagues, within the narrow circle of orthodox speculation, obliged, like them, to mark time and refrain from touching any ideas but such as had been originated and consecrated by the Fathers of the Church and developed by the masters of the pulpit, he yet managed to turn the obstacle, to rejuvenate, almost to modify, these time-honoured commonplaces by throwing them into a more personal and more living form.
Scattered up and down his Conférences de Notre-Dame, happy phrases, bold expressions, accents of loving-kindness, outbursts of enthusiasm, cries of gladness, ecstatic outpourings of spirit occurred that made the age-old style smoke under his pen. Then, over and above his talent as an orator,--and he was a true orator, this capable gentle-hearted monk whose intellect and industry were exhausted in the hopeless effort to conciliate the liberal doctrines of an advanced society with the authoritative dogmas of the Church, he was further endowed with a temperament of fervent charity, of diplomatic tenderness.
Then, again, the letters he used to write to young men often contained the loving words of a father exorting his sons,--smiling reprimands, indulgent expressions of forgiveness. Some were charming where he would avow all his greed for affection, others almost impressively serious when he was sustaining his correspondents' courage or dissipating their doubts by the statement of the irrefragable certainties of his own Faith. In a word, this feeling of fatherhood, which under his pen assumed a dainty, feminine touch, impressed on his prose an accent unique amid all the mass of clerical literature.
After him, very few were the ecclesiastics and monks who showed any individuality. At most, some pages of his pupil the Abbé Peyreyve were readable. He had left touching biographical notices of his master, written some amiable letters, composed articles conceived in the sonorous language of the pulpit, pronounced panegyrics in which the declamatory note is too dominant. Undoubtedly, the Abbé Peyreyve had neither the tenderness nor the fire of Lacordaire. He was too much a priest and too little a man; here and there nevertheless his rhetoric as a preacher was illuminated by telling analogies, broad and weighty phrases, purple patches rising almost to sublimity.
But it was only among writers who had not submitted to Ordination, among secular authors attached to the interests of Catholicism and devoted to its propaganda, that a prose style was to be found worthy to arrest the attention.
The episcopal diction, so feebly handled by our Prelates, had acquired new strength, regained something of masculine force and vigour in the hands of the Comte de Falloux. Under an appearance of moderation, this Academician distilled gall; his discourses pronounced in 1848 in Parliament were diffuse and dull, but his articles contributed to the Correspondant, and afterwards collected in book form, were biting and bitter under the exaggerated courtesy of their outward expression. Conceived as set speeches, they displayed a certain caustic wit, while they startled by the intolerance of their convictions.
Dangerous as a controversialist by reason of the pitfalls he dug for his adversaries and the crookedness of his logic, forever turning the enemy's flank and striking an unexpected blow, the Comte de Falloux had also written some striking pages on the death of Madame Swetchine, whose remains he had edited and whom he revered as a Saint.
But where this author's temperament really showed itself was in two pamphlets which appeared one in 1846 and the other in 1880, the latter entitled l'Unite nationale ("National Unity").
Filled with a cold fury, this implacable Legitimist delivered for once, contrary to his custom, a frontal attack, and by way of peroration hurled at the sceptics' heads this thunder of savage invective:--
"And you, Utopians of a system, who make an abstraction of human nature, panegyrists of atheism, nourished on hallucinations and detestations, emancipators of woman, destroyers of the family, genealogists of the simian race, you, whose name was once insult enough, be well content; you will have been the prophets and your disciples will be the high-priests of an abominable future!"
The other pamphlet bore for title: le Parti catholique ("The Catholic Party") and was directed against the despotism of the Univers and its editor Veuillot, whose name it refused to utter. Here the flank attacks were resumed, poison lurked under every line of the little book in which the gentleman, bruised and battered, answered with scornful sarcasms the brutal blows of the professional bully.
Between them they represented the two parties in the Church whose differences degenerate into ungovernable hatred. De Falloux, at once more arrogant and more crafty than his opponents, belonged to that liberal coterie which already embraced both Montalembert and Cochin, both Lacordaire and de Broglie; he adhered heart and soul to the principles advocated by the Correspondant, a review which strove to overlay with a varnish of tolerance the peremptory theories of the Church. Veuillot, more outspoken and frank, threw off the mask, avowed unhesitatingly the tyranny of ultramontane aspirations, openly admitted and loudly acclaimed the pitiless yoke of her dogmas.
The latter champion had forged himself for the struggle a special language, borrowed part from La Bruyère and part from the bully of the Gros-Caillou. This style, half pompous, half familiar, wielded by this brutal personality, had the crushing weight of a bludgeon. Extraordinarily stubborn and extraordinarily courageous, he had felled with this terrible weapon free-thinkers and bishops alike, hitting out might and main, rushing like a wild bull at his foes to whichever party they belonged. Distrusted by the Church, which approved neither his contraband diction nor his blackguard attitude, this religious mountebank had nevertheless made his mark by his undoubted talents, bringing about his heels the whole pack of the press, which he lashed till the blood came in his Odeurs de Paris, keeping at bay every assault, kicking off the whole base horde of low quill-drivers that tried to bite his calves.
Unfortunately, his incontestable talents only showed in a fight; in cold blood Veuillot was but an indifferent writer. His poetry and novels only inspired pity; his peppery invective lost its pungency when blows were no longer flying; the Catholic warrior was metamorphosed, in peaceful days, into a dyspeptic wheezing out trite litanies and stammering puerile canticles.
More narrow, more limited, more serious was the cherished apologist of the Church, the inquisitor of Christian diction, Ozanam. Difficult though he was to apprehend, Des Esseintes could not fail to be astonished by the aplomb of this author who would prate of the inscrutable purposes of God when he should have been adducing the proofs of the impossible assertions he was making; with the most perfect coolness he would travesty events, deny, more impudently still than the panegyrists of the other parties, the acknowledged facts of history, declare that the Church had never hidden the high esteem in which it held Science, describe heresies as foul miasmas, treat Buddhism and all other religions with such fine scorn that he excused himself from sullying Catholic prose by so much as an attack upon their doctrines.
There were occasions when religious passion breathed a certain ardour into his oratorical periods, beneath the ice of which boiled an undercurrent of suppressed violence; in his numerous writings on Dante, on St. Francis, on the author of the "Stabat," on the Franciscan poets, on Socialism, on Commercial Law, on everything, the man never failed to plead the defence of the Vatican which he deemed impeccable, judging all cases alike according as they approached more or less close or differed more or less widely from his own.
The same manner of looking at all questions from one point of view and one only equally belonged to that paltry scribbler whom some people held up as his rival, Nettement. The latter was less straitlaced and made less exalted and more worldly pretensions. He had repeatedly trespassed beyond the literary cloister in which Ozanam was a voluntary prisoner, and had dipped into profane writings with a view to appraising them. This region, indeed, he had penetrated groping, like a child in a cave, seeing nothing but darkness round him, perceiving in the general blackness only the flicker of the taper that lighted him onwards, throwing its glimmer a few feet ahead.
In this ignorance of the localities, in this obscurity, he had blundered at every step. Speaking of Mürger, he described him as "heedful of a polished and carefully finished style"; Victor Hugo was one who searched out the impure and filthy and he dared to compare N. de Laprade with him; Delacroix disdained all rules, while Paul Delaroche and the poet Reboul he extolled because they seemed to him to possess faith.
Des Esseintes could not help a shrug of the shoulders at these unfortunate criticisms, which were expressed in a laboured prose, the material of which, already worn threadbare, caught and tore on every corner of his sentences.
In another class, the productions of Poujoulat and Genoude, Montalembert, Nicolas and Carné failed to inspire him with any much more vivid interest; nor were his inclinations for History treated with painstaking erudition and in dignified language by the Duc de Broglie, nor his predilections for social and religious questions discussed by Henry Cochin, who had, however, revealed his true sentiments in a letter wherein he recounted a heart-stirring assumption of the veil at the Sacré-Coeur, very much more pronounced. For years, he had not looked into these books, and it was now a far-off day when he had thrown away as waste paper the puerile lucubrations of the dismal Pontmartin and pitiable Féval, and handed over to the servants for household purposes the little histories of Aubineau and Lesserre, those feeble hagiographers of the miracles wrought by M. Dupont de Tours and the Virgin.
In a word, Des Esseintes failed to extract from this literature even a passing distraction to his boredom; so he pushed away into the remote corners of his library this mass of volumes which he had studied in former days after leaving the Jesuits' seminary,--"I should have done better to leave them behind in Paris," he muttered, as he drew out from their lurking-place behind the rest two sets of books he found particularly unendurable, the works of the Abbé Lamennais and those of that unmitigated fanatic, so supremely, so pompously tiresome and futile, Count Joseph de Maistre.
A single volume only was left still in place on a shelf within reach of the hand, that entitled l'Homme, by Ernest Hello.
This writer was the absolute antithesis of his brethren in religion. Almost isolated in the pious group which was shocked by his ways of thought, Ernest Hello had ended by abandoning the great main road that leads from earth to heaven.
Sickened no doubt by the triteness of this highway and the throng of pilgrims of letters that had for centuries filed obediently along the same track, walking each in the foot-marks of his predecessor, stopping at the same halting-places, to exchange the same commonplaces on Religion, on the Fathers of the Church, on their identical beliefs, on their identical masters, he had diverged along by-paths, had come out into the gloomy forest clearing of Pascal, where he had tarried a long while to recover his wind; then he had pursued his journey and penetrated further into Jansenism, which all the time he abused, in the regions of human thought.
Full of subtlety and preciosity, erudite and elaborate, Hello with his hair-splitting minutiae of analysis reminded Des Esseintes of the laboured and meticulous studies of some of the psychological sceptics of the last and present centuries. There was in him a kind of Catholic Duranty, but more dogmatic and more astute, a practised master of the microscope, a trained engineer of the soul, a skilful watchmaker of the brain, delighting to examine the mechanism of a passion and explain minutely every wheel of the machinery.
In this oddly constituted mind were to be found associations of thought, analogies and contrasts scarcely to have been expected; added to which, a curious trick whereby he made the etymology of the words he used a spring-board for leaping off to fresh ideas, the combination of which was often trivial enough, but almost invariably ingenious and stimulating.
In this way, and in spite of the faulty equilibrium of his constructions, he had taken to pieces, so to speak, with remarkable perspicacity The Miser, The Mediocre Man, analysed "Popular Taste," "The Passion of Calamity," besides revealing the interesting comparisons that can be established between the processes of photography and those of memory.
But this adroitness in wielding this perfected weapon of analysis which he had stolen from the Church's enemies represented only one of the sides of the man's temperament.
Yet another being existed in him; his mind had a double aspect, and after the good side appeared the bad,--that of a religious fanatic and a Biblical prophet.
Like Hugo himself, whose contortions both of thought and phrase he recalled, Ernest Hello had loved to pose as a little St. John on Patmos to play the pontiff and enact the oracle from the top of a rock manufactured in the sacred image shops of the Rue Saint-Sulpice, haranguing the reader in an apocalyptic tongue salted here and there with the gall of an Isaiah.
He affected at that time exaggerated pretensions to profundity; some flatterers even hailed him as a genius, pretended to regard him as the great man of his day, the well of knowledge of his epoch,--a well perhaps, but one where you could very often not see one drop of water.
In his volume Paroles de Dieu ("Words of God"), in which he paraphrased the Scriptures and did his best to complicate their meaning when fairly obvious; in another book of his entitled l'Homme; in his pamphlet le Jour du Seigneur ("The Day of the Lord"), composed in a Biblical style, broken and obscure, he showed the qualities of a vindictive, haughty apostle, full of gall and bitterness; he revealed himself in the character of a crack-brained deacon, half mystic, half epileptic, of a De Maistre for once endowed with talent, of a harsh and ferocious sectary.
At the same time, reflected Des Esseintes, this morbid excess of zeal barred the way to inventive sallies of casuistry; with more intolerance than Ozanam, he repudiated absolutely whatever did not pertain to his own narrow world, announced the most amazing axioms, maintained with a disconcerting air of authority that "Geology had gone back to Moses," that Natural History, Chemistry, all contemporary Science was by way of verifying the scientific accuracy of the Bible; every page was full of the "sole and only Verity," "the superhuman wisdom of the Church," the whole interspersed with aphorisms more than dangerous, and savage imprecations poured out in foul torrents on the art and literature of the last century.
To this strange alloy was superadded a love of pious studies--translations of the Visions of Angèle de Foligno, a book of an unparalleled fluidity and folly; and of selected portions from Ruysbroek l'Admirable, a mystic of the thirteenth century, whose prose presents an incomprehensible but fascinating combination of gloomy ecstasies, outpourings of unction, transports of bitterness.
All this attitude of the overbearing high-priest, which was characteristic of Hello, had come out in full force in an astounding Preface he wrote for this book. It is his own remark that "extraordinary things can only be told in stammers," and he stammered accordingly, declaring that "the holy obscurity wherein Ruysbroek spreads his eagle's wings is his ocean, his prey, his glory, and the four horizons would be for him a garment all too narrow."
Let him be what he would, Des Esseintes felt himself attracted by this ill-balanced, but subtle mind; to complete the fusion between the adroit psychologist on the one hand and the pious pedant on the other, had proved impossible, and these jolts, these incoherences even constituted the personality of the man.
Recruits to his standard were certain other writers forming little bands that operated as skirmishers on the outskirts of the Clerical camp. They did not belong to the main body, but were, properly speaking, rather the scouts of a Religion that distrusted men of talent like Veuillot and Hello, whom it deemed too independent and not colourless enough. What it really wanted was soldiers who never reasoned, regiments of the purblind, mediocre sort of men whom Hello stigmatized with the indignation of one who had endured their yoke. Accordingly, Catholicism had made all haste to expel from the columns of its organs one of its own partisans, Leon Bloy, a savage pamphleteer, who wrote a style at once furious and artificial, coquettish and uncultivated, and had turned out of doors at its official bookshops, as one plague-stricken and unclean, another author who had yet bawled himself hoarse in celebrating its praises: Barbey d'Aurévilly.
Truth to tell, he was too compromising an ally, and too indocile a disciple. The rest would always in the long run bow the head under rebuke and fall back into line; he was the incorrigible urchin" the party could not recognize; he was a literary runagate after the girls, whom he brought bare-bosomed into the very sanctuary.
It was only due to that huge scorn with which Catholicism looks down on talent that an excommunication in due and proper form had not outlawed this strange servant who, under pretext of doing honour to his masters, was for breaking the church windows, mountebanking with the sacred vessels, executing fancy dances round the tabernacle.
Two works in particular of Barbey d'Aurévilly's fired Des Esseintes' imagination: the Prêtre marié ("Married Priest") and the Diabolique. Others, such as l'Ensorcelé ("The Bewitched"), the Chevalier des Touches, Une vieille Maîtresse ("An Old Mistress"), were no doubt better balanced and more complete works, but they appealed less warmly to Des Esseintes, who was genuinely interested only in sickly books with health undermined and exasperated by fever.
In these comparatively sane volumes Barbey d'Aurévilly was perpetually tacking to and fro between those two channels of Catholicism which eventually run into one,--mysticism and Sadism.
But in these two books which Des Esseintes was now turning over, Barbey had abandoned all prudence, had given the rein to his steed, had dashed off whip and spur along the roads he had then traversed to their extremest limits.
All the mysterious horror of the Middle Ages hovered over that improbable book the Prêtre marie; magic was mixed up with religion, gibberish with prayer, and more pitiless, more cruel than the Devil, the God of original sin tortured without respite or remorse the innocent Calixte, the victim of His abhorrence, branding her with a red cross on the brow, as of old He had had one of his angels mark the houses of unbelievers whom he was fain to slay.
Conceived by a fasting monk run delirious, these scenes succeeded one another in the broken language of a fever patient. But, unfortunately, among these creations as fantastic as the Coppélias galvanized into life by Hoffmann, there were some, the Néel de Néhou for example, that seemed to have been imagined in one of those periods of exhaustion that follow a crisis and were quite out of keeping amid these tales of gloom and madness, into which they imported the comic element that moves our involuntary mirth at sight of the little tin mannikin that plays the horn, in hunting boots, on the top of a mantelpiece clock.
Succeeding to these mystical divagations, the author had a period of comparative calm; then a terrible relapse followed.
The belief that man is a Buridan's ass, a being dragged this way and that by two forces of equal strength, which fight, turn and turn about victorious and vanquished, for his soul, the conviction that human life is no better than a doubtful struggle between hell and heaven, the faith in two opposed entities, Satan and the Christ, were bound fatally and inevitably to engender those inward discords where the soul, stimulated by an incessant combat, excited in a sort by promises and threats, ends by giving up the effort to resist and prostitutes itself to whichever of the two factions had been most obstinate in its pursuit.
In the Prêtre marié, the praises of the Christ, whose temptations had been successful, were sung by Barbey d'Aurévilly; in the Diaboliques, the author had surrendered to the Devil whom he then extolled. And then came the apparition of Sadism, that bastard birth of Catholicism, which Faith has for centuries, under all its shapes, pursued with its exorcisms and its fires.
This condition of mind, so strange and so ill-defined, cannot in fact arise in the soul of an unbeliever. It does not consist solely in a mad riot amid the excesses of the flesh, further stimulated by bloody outrages of cruelty, for in that case it would be merely an aberration of the sexual feelings, an instance of satyriasis arrived at its point of supreme maturity; it consists primarily and particularly in a course of sacrilegious acts, in a moral revolt, in a spiritual debauch, in an aberration purely ideal, purely Christian. Another essential characteristic is a joy tempered by fear, analogous to the naughty pleasure of disobedient children who insist on playing with forbidden articles for no other reason than because their parents have expressly forbidden them to go near them.
In truth, if it did not involve a sacrilege, Sadism would have no raison d'être on the other hand, sacrilege, which flows from the very existence of a religion, cannot be intentionally and effectively committed save by a believer, for a man would experience no satisfaction from profaning a faith that he did not believe in, or knew nothing of.
The force of Sadism then, the attraction it offers, lies wholly in the forbidden pleasure of transferring to Satan the homages and prayers we owe to God; it lies then in the non-observance of the Catholic precepts which we are actually respecting, though in an inverse sense, when we commit, in order the more scornfully to mock the Christ, the sins he had most expressly banned,--pollution of holy things and carnal orgies.
In reality, the vice to which the Marquis de Sade has given his name was as old as the Church herself; it had been rampant in the eighteenth century, reintroducing, to go back no farther, by a mere phenomenon of atavism, the impious practices of the mediaeval Witches' Sabbath.
By simply consulting the Malleus Maleficorum, Jacob Sprenger's terrible code of justice, which permitted the Church to exterminate by the fires of the stake thousands of necromancers and sorcerers, Des Esseintes was enabled to recognize in the ancient Sabbath all the obscene practices and all the blasphemies of Sadism. Over and above the unclean orgies dear to the Evil One, nights consecrated successively to lawful and unnatural coition, nights befouled by the bloody bestialities of ruttish animals, he found repeated the same parodies of Church processions, the same standing insults and defiances against God, the same ceremonies of devotion to his Rival, when was celebrated, with curses in lieu of blessings on the bread and wine, the Black Mass on the back of a woman crouching on all fours, whose rump, naked and polluted again and again; served for altar table, and the congregation communicated, in derision, with a black host on the face of which a figure of a he-goat was impressed.
The very same debauch of foul-mouthed raillery and degrading insults was to be seen in the Marquis de Sade, who added to his cruel and abominable sensualities the spice of sacrilegious profanities.
He defied Heaven, made invocation to Lucifer, called God a contemptible scoundrel, an idiot, an imbecile, spat on the communion, did all he could to degrade with vile obscenities a Deity he hoped would damn him, while declaring, the better to defy Him, that he had no existence.
This condition of soul Barbey d'Aurévilly came very near sharing. If he did not go as far as De Sade in uttering atrocious maledictions against the Saviour; if, more prudent or more timid, he always made a profession of honouring the Church, he none the less, as they did in the Middle Ages, addressed his pleadings to the Devil and fell, like the rest, by way of defying God, into demoniac erotomania, contriving sensual monstrosities of vice; borrowing even from the Philosophie dans le Boudoir a certain episode, which he seasoned with new condiments, when he wrote the tale: le Diner d'un athée ("An Atheist's Dinner-Party").
This extraordinary book was Des Esseintes' delight; he had printed for him in violet ink, Bishop's violet, within a border of Cardinal purple, on an authentic parchment which the Church officials had blessed, a copy of the Diaboliques set up in "letters of civility," whose outlandish serifs and flourishes, twisted into horns and hoofs, affect a Satanic contour.
After certain pieces of Baudelaire's which, in imitations of the psalms chanted on the nights of the Witches' Sabbath, took the form of infernal Litanies, this volume was among all the works of contemporary apostolic literature the only one that bore witness to that condition of soul at once pious and impious, towards which the remembered claims of Catholicism, stimulated by the attacks of nervous disorder, had often urged Des Esseintes.
With Barbey d'Aurévilly, the series of religious writers came to an end. To tell the truth, this pariah belonged more, from every point of view, to secular literature than to the other in which he was for claiming a place that was denied him. His language, characterized by a romanticism run wild, crammed with contorted expressions, unusual turns of phrase, extravagant similes, whipped up his sentences which tore along with roar and rattle and clang of noise of bells from top to bottom of the page. In a word, d'Aurévilly appeared like a full-blooded stallion among the geldings that people the Ultramontane stables.
Such were Des Esseintes' reflexions as he re-read passages chosen at random from the book and compared its nervous and varied style with the lymphatic, stereotyped diction of his fellows, thinking at the same time of the evolution of language so rightly insisted on by Darwin.
Associating with the profane, educated in the romantic school, familiar with the new literature, accustomed to the business of modern publications, Barbey found himself inevitably in possession of a dialect which had undergone many and profound modifications, which had been changed and renovated, since the days of the Grand Siècle.
Very different had been the case with the ecclesiastical writers; confined to their own domain, imprisoned within an ancient and identical range of reading, knowing nothing of the literary movements of the centuries and firmly determined, if need be, to tear out their eyes rather than see, they necessarily employed a language incapable of change, like that speech of the eighteenth century which the descendants of the French settlers in Canada still speak and write as their mother tongue, without any selection of phraseology or words having ever been possible in their idiom, isolated as it is from the ancient metropolis and surrounded on all sides by the English language.
Matters were at this point when the silvery sound of a bell tinkling a tiny angelus informed Des Esseintes that breakfast was ready. He left his books, wiped his forehead and made for the dining-room, telling himself that among all the volumes he had been arranging on his shelves, the works of Barbey d'Aurévilly were still the only ones whose matter and style offered those gamey flavours, those stains of disease and decay, that cankered surface, that taste of rotten-ripeness which he so loved to savour among the decadent writers, Latin and Monastic, of the early ages.