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


AFTER blazing up like a fire of straw, his enthusiasm for the "digester" was extinguished with a like rapidity. Soothed for the time being, his dyspepsia began again; presently, this over-stimulating essence of nourishment brought on such an irritation of the bowels that Des Esseintes was obliged to drop its use with all possible speed.

The complaint resumed its course, hitherto unknown symptoms going with it. First nightmares, hallucinations of smell, disturbances of vision, a hacking cough, coming on at a fixed hour with the regularity of clockwork, a beating of the arteries and heart accompanied by cold sweats; then, delusions of hearing, all the mischiefs, in fact, that mark the last stage of the malady.

Eaten up by a burning fever, Des Esseintes would suddenly hear the sound of running water, the buzz of wasps; then these noises would melt into a single one resembling the whirring of a lathe; then this would grow shriller and thinner, changing finally into the silvery tinkle of a bell.

Then he would feel his maddened brain wafted away on waves of music, rolling among the billows of harmony familiar to his boyhood. The chants he had learned from the Jesuit Fathers recurred to him, recalling the college, the college chapel, where they had echoed; then the hallucination would pass on to the olfactory and visual organs, wrapping them in the vapour of incense and the gloom of a sanctuary dimly lit through painted windows under lofty vaults.

Among the Fathers, the rites of religion were performed with great pomp and ceremony; an excellent organist and a noteworthy choir made these spiritual exercises an artistic delight, to the great end of edification. The organist was a lover of the old masters, and on days of festival he would select one of Palestrina's or Orlando Lasso's masses, Marcello's psalms, Handel's oratorios, Sebastian Bach's motets, would play in preference to the sensuous, facile compilations of Father Lambillotte so much favoured by the average priest, certain "Laudi spirituali" of the sixteenth century whose stately beauty had many a time fascinated Des Esseintes.

But above all, he had experienced ineffable pleasures in listening to the "plain-song," which the organist had kept up in spite of modern prejudices.

This form, now looked down upon as an effete and Gothic type of the Christian liturgy, as an antiquarian curiosity, as a relic of barbarous centuries, was the life-word of the ancient Church, the very spirit of the Middle Ages; it was the prayer of all time set to music in tones modulated in accord with the aspirations of the soul, the never-ceasing hymn of praise that had risen for hundreds of years to the throne of the Most High.

This traditional melody was the only one that, with its mighty unison, its solemn, massive harmonies, like blocks of ashlar, could fitly go with the old basilicas and fill their romanesque vaults, of which it seemed the emanation and the living voice.

How many times had not Des Esseintes been entranced and mastered by an irresistible awe when the "Christus factus est" of the Gregorian chant had swelled up in the nave whose pillars trembled amid the floating clouds of incense, or when the rolling bass of the "De profundis" groaned forth, mournful as a stifled sob, poignant as a despairing cry of mankind bewailing its mortal destiny, imploring the tender mercy of its Saviour.

In comparison with this magnificent plain-song, created by the genius of the Church, impersonal, anonymous as the organ itself, whose inventor is unknown, all other religious music seemed to him secular, profane. At bottom, in all the works of Jomelli and Porpora, of Carissimi and Durante, in the most admirable conceptions of Handel and Bach, there was no real renunciation of popular triumph, no sacrifice of artistic success, no abdication of human pride listening to itself at prayer; at best, in those imposing masses of Lesueur's performed at Saint-Roch was the true religious style renewed, grave and august, making some approach to the unadorned nudity, the austre majesty of the old plain-song.

Since those days, utterly revolted by pretentious works like the Stabat mater of Rossini or the similar compositions of Pergolese, disgusted with all this intrusion of worldly art into the liturgical sanctum, Des Esseintes had held aloof altogether from these equivocal productions tolerated by an indulgent Mother Church.

In fact, this fatal complacence, due partly to the greed for offertories, partly to a supposed attraction the music exercised on the faithful, had led directly to abuses,--airs borrowed from Italian operas, trivial cavatinas, unseemly quadrilles, performed with full orchestral accompaniment in the churches transformed into fine ladies' boudoirs, entrusted to theatre actors who bellowed aloft under the roof while down below the women fought a pitched battle of fine clothes with one another and quivered with soft emotion to hear the heroes of the opera whose wanton tones defiled the sacred notes of the organ!

For years now he had positively refused to take part in these pious entertainments, resting satisfied with his memories of childhood, regretting even having heard sundry Te Deums by great masters, for did he not remember that admirable Te Deum of the plain-song, that hymn so simple and grandiose, composed by some Saint, a St. Ambrose or a St. Hilary, who, lacking the complicated resources of an orchestra, failing the mechanical music of modern music, displayed an ardent faith, a delirious joy, the essence of the soul of all humanity expressed in burning, trustful, almost heavenly accents?

In any case, Des Esseintes' ideas on music were in flagrant contradiction with the theories he professed as to the other arts. In religious music, he really cared only for the monastic music of the Middle Ages, that ascetic music that acted instinctively on the nerves, like certain pages of the old Christian Latinity; besides, he admitted it himself, he was incapable of understanding the artful devices contemporary masters might have been able to introduce into Catholic art. The truth is, he had not studied music with the same passionate ardour he had applied to painting and to literature. He could play the piano like any other amateur, had come, after many fumblings, to be competent to read a score; but he knew nothing of harmony or the technique needful for really appreciating lights and shades of expression, for understanding nice points, for entering, with proper comprehension, into refinements and elaborations.

Then, on another side, secular music is a promiscuous art which one cannot enjoy at home and alone, as one reads a book; to taste it, he must needs have mixed with that inevitable public that crowds to theatres and besieges the Cirque d'hiver where, under a broiling sun, in an atmosphere as muggy as a wash-house, you see a man with the look of a carpenter bawling a remoulade and massacring disconnected bits of Wagner to the huge delight of an ignorant crowd!

He had never had the courage to plunge into this bath of promiscuity in order to hear Berlioz; some fragments of whom had nevertheless won his admiration by their high-wrought passion and abounding fire, while he realized with no less perspicacity that there was not a scene, not a phrase in any opera of the mighty Wagner that could be detached from its context without ruining it.

The scraps thus cut from the whole and served up at a concert lost all meaning, all sense, for, like the chapters in a book that mutually complete each other and all concur to bring about the same conclusion, the same final effect, his melodies were used by Wagner to define the character of his personages, to incarnate their thoughts, to express their motives, visible or secret, and their ingenious and persistent repetitions were only intelligible for an audience which followed the subject from its first opening and watched the characters grow little by little more clearly defined, observed them develop in surroundings from which they could not be separated without seeing them perish like branches severed from a tree.

So Des Esseintes thought, convinced that of all the horde of melomaniacs who every Sunday fell into ecstasies on the benches, twenty at most knew the score the musicians were massacring, when the box-openers were kind enough to hold their tongues and let the orchestra be heard.

The circumstance also being remembered that the intelligent patriotism of the French nation forbade the production of an opera of Wagner's at a Paris theatre, there was nothing left for the curious amateur who is unskilled in the arcana of music and cannot or will not travel to Bayreuth, save to stay at home, and that was the reasonable course Des Esseintes had adopted.

On another side, more popular, easier music and detached morceaux taken from the old-fashioned operas scarcely appealed to him; the trivial tunes of Auber and Boieldieu, of Adam and Flotow, and the commonplaces of musical rhetoric favoured by Ambroise Thomas, Bazin and their like repelled him just as much as the antiquated sentimentalities and cheap graces of the Italian composers. He had therefore resolutely refused to have anything to do with music, and for all the years this renunciation lasted, he found nothing to look back upon with any pleasure save a few chamber concerts at which he had heard Beethoven and above all Schumann and Schubert, who had stimulated his nerves as keenly as the most telling and tragical poems of Edgar Allan Poe.

Certain settings for the violoncello by Schumann had left him positively panting with emotion, gasping for breath under the stress of hysteria; but it was chiefly Schubert's lieder that had stirred him to the depths, lifted him out of himself, then prostrated him as after a wasteful outpouring of nervous fluid, after a mystic debauch of soul.

This music thrilled him to the very marrow, driving back an infinity of forgotten griefs, of old vexations, on a heart amazed to contain so many confused miseries and obscure sorrows. This music of desolation, crying from the deepest depths of being, terrified, while fascinating him. Never, without nervous tears rising to his eyes, had he been able to repeat the "Young Girl's Plaints," for in this lamento there was something more than heart-broken, something despairing that tore his entrails, something recalling the end of love's dream in a dismal landscape.

Every time they came back to his lips, these exquisite and funereal laments called up before his fancy a lonely place beyond the city boundaries, a beggarly, forsaken locality, where noiselessly, in the distance, lines of poor folks, harassed by life's wretchedness, filed away, bent double, into the gloom of twilight, while, meantime, he himself, full of bitterness, overflowing with disgust, felt himself standing alone, all alone in the midst of weeping Nature, overborne by an unspeakable melancholy, by an obstinate distress, the mysterious intensity of which brooked no consolation, no comparison, no respite. Like a passing bell, the despairing air haunted his brain now that he lay in bed, enfeebled by fever and tormented by an anxiety the more implacable because he could no longer discover its cause. Eventually he surrendered himself to the current, let himself be swept away by the torrent of the music, suddenly barred for a brief minute by the plain-song of the psalms that rose with its long-drawn bass notes in his head, whose temples seemed bruised and battered by the clappers of a hundred bells.

One morning, however, these noises fell quiet; he was in better possession of his faculties and asked the servant to hand him a mirror. He hardly knew himself; his face was earthen in hue, the lips dry and swollen, the tongue furrowed, the skin wrinkled; his straggling hair and beard, which his man had not trimmed since the beginning of his illness, added to the horror of the sunken cheeks and staring, watery eyes that burned with a feverish brightness in this death's-head bristling with unkempt hair.

Worse than his weakness, worse than his irrepressible fits of vomiting which rejected every attempt at taking food, worse than the wasting from which he suffered, this disfigurement of face alarmed him. He thought he was done for; then, in spite of the exhaustion that crushed him down, the fierce energy of a man at bay brought him to a sitting posture in his bed, lent him strength to write a letter to his Paris doctor and order his servant to go instantly to find him and bring him back with him, cost what it might, the same day.

In an instant, he passed from the most absolute despair to the most comforting hope. The physician in question was a noted specialist, renowned for the cure of nervous disorders; "he must before now have cured more obstinate and more dangerous cases than mine," Des Esseintes told himself; "not a doubt of it, I shall be set up again in a few days' time." But presently again this over-confidence was followed by a feeling of utter disenchantment; no matter how learned and how perspicacious they may be, doctors really know nothing about nervous disease, the very cause of which they cannot tell. Like all the rest, he would prescribe the everlasting oxide of zinc and quinine, bromide of potassium and valerian; "and who can say," he went on to himself, clinging to the last twig of hope, "if the reason why these remedies have hitherto failed me is not simply because I have not known how to employ them in proper doses."

Despite everything, this waiting for expected relief gave him new life; but presently a fresh dread assailed him,-- suppose the doctor should not be in town or should decline to disturb his arrangements; then came yet another panic lest his servant should have failed to find him at all. This threw him into the depths of despair. His mind began to fail again, jumping, moment by moment, from the most inordinate hopefulness to the most baseless apprehension, exaggerating both his chances of sudden recovery and his fears of immediate danger. Hour after hour slipped by, and a time arrived when, despairing and exhausted, convinced the doctor would never come, he told himself over and over again in impotent anger that, if only he had seen to it in time, he would undoubtedly have been saved; then after a while, his rage with his servant, his indignation at the doctor's delay, abated, and he began to cherish a bitter vexation against himself instead, blaming his own procrastination in having waited so long before sending for help, persuading himself that he would have been perfectly well by now, if, even the night before only, he had provided himself with good, strong medicines and proper nursing.

Gradually these alternate paroxysms of hope and fear that tormented his half-delirious brain grew milder, as these repeated panics wore down his strength. He dropped into a sleep of exhaustion broken by incoherent dreams, a kind of coma interrupted by periods of wakefulness too brief for consciousness to be regained. He had finally lost all notion of what he wished and what he feared so completely that he was merely bewildered, and felt neither surprise nor satisfaction, when suddenly the doctor made his appearance in the room.

The servant no doubt had informed him of the manner of life Des Esseintes led and of various symptoms he had himself been in a position to notice since the day when he had picked up his master by the window where he lay, felled by the violence of his perfumes, for he asked the patient very few questions, knowing indeed his antecedents for many years past. But he examined and sounded him and carefully scrutinized the urine, in which certain white streaks told him the secret of one of the chief determining causes of his nervous collapse. He wrote a prescription and took his leave without a word, saying he would come again.

His visit comforted Des Esseintes, albeit he was alarmed at the doctor's silence and besought his servant not to hide the truth from him any longer.

The man assured him the doctor had showed no signs of anxiety and, suspicious as he was, Des Esseintes could detect no tokens whatever of prevarication or falsehood in the old man's calm face.

Then his thoughts grew more cheerful; indeed the pain had stopped and the feebleness he had experienced in every limb had merged into a sort of agreeable languor, a feeling of placid content at once vague and slowly progressive. Then he was at once astonished and pleased to find his bedside table unlittered with drugs and medicine bottles, and a pale smile hovered over his lips when finally his servant brought him a nourishing enema compounded with peptone, and informed his master that he was to repeat the little operation three times every twenty-four hours.

The thing was successfully carried out, and Des Esseintes could not help secretly congratulating himself on the event which was the coping stone, the crowning triumph, in a sort, of the life he had contrived for himself; his predilection for the artificial had now, and that without any initiative on his part, attained its supreme fulfilment! A man could hardly go farther; nourishment thus absorbed was surely the last aberration from the natural that could be committed.

"What a delicious thing," he said to himself, "it would be if one could, once restored to full health, go on with the same simple régime. What a saving of time, what a radical deliverance from the repugnance meat inspires in people who have lost their appetite! what a definite and final release from the lassitude that invariably results from the necessarily limited choice of viands! what a vigorous protest against the degrading sin of gluttony! last but not least, what a direct insult cast in the face of old Mother Nature, whose never varying exigencies would be for ever nullified!"

In this vein, he went on talking to himself under his breath. Why, it would be easy enough to sharpen one's appetite by swallowing a strong aperient, then when one could truly tell oneself: "Come, what hour is it now? seems to me it must be high time to sit down to dinner, I have a wolf in my stomach," the table would be laid by depositing the noble instrument on the cloth,--and lo! before you had time so much as to say grace, the troublesome and vulgar task of eating would be suppressed.

Some days later, the man handed his master an enema altogether different in colour and smell from the peptone suppositories.

"Why, it's not the same!" exclaimed Des Esseintes, looking with consternation at the liquid poured into the apparatus. He demanded the menu as he might have done in a restaurant and unfolding the physician's prescription, he read out--

	Cod-liver oil   20 grammes 
	Beef-tea 	200  "
	Burgundy    	200  "
	Yolk of one egg

He sat pensive. He had never succeeded, on account of the ruined state of his stomach, in taking a serious interest in the art of cookery; now he was surprised to find himself all of a sudden pondering over combinations of a posteriori gourmandise! Then a grotesque notion shot across his brain. Perhaps the doctor had imagined his patient's abnormal palate was wearied by this time of the flavour of peptone; perhaps, like a skilful chef, he had wished to vary the savour of the foods administered, to prevent the monotony of the dishes leading to a complete loss of appetite. Once started on this train of thought, Des Esseintes busied himself in composing novel recipes, contriving dinners for fast days and Fridays, strengthening the dose of cod-liver oil and wine, while striking out the beef-tea as being meat and therefore expressly forbidden by the Church. But, before very long, the necessity disappeared of deliberating about these nourishing liquids, for the doctor managed little by little to overcome the nausea and gave him, to be swallowed by the ordinary channel, a syrup of punch mixed with powdered meat and having a vague aroma of cocoa about it that was grateful to his genuine mouth.

Weeks passed and the stomach at last consented to act; occasionally fits of nausea still recurred, which, however, ginger beer and Rivière's anti-emetic draught were effectual in subduing. Eventually, little by little, the organs recovered with the help of the pepsines, and ordinary foods were digested. Strength returned and Des Esseintes was able to stand on his feet and try to walk about his bedroom, leaning on a stick and holding on to the furniture. Instead of being pleased with this success, he forgot all his past sufferings, was irritated by the length of his convalescence, and upbraided the doctor for protracting it in this slow fashion. True, sundry ineffectual experiments had delayed matters; no better than quinine did the stomach, tolerate iron, even when mitigated by the addition of laudanum, and these drugs had to be replaced by preparations of arsenic; this after a fortnight had been lost in useless efforts, as Des Esseintes noted with no small impatience.

At last, the moment was reached when he could remain up for whole afternoons at a time and walk about his rooms without assistance. Then his working-room began to get on his nerves; defects to which custom had blinded his eyes now struck him forcibly on his coming back to the room after his long absence. The colours chosen to be seen by lamplight seemed to him discordant under the glare of daylight; he thought how best to alter them and spent hours in contriving artificial harmonies of hues, hybrid combinations of cloths and leathers.

"Without a doubt I am on the highroad to health," he told himself, as he noted the return of his former preoccupations and old predilections.

One morning, as he was gazing at his orange and blue walls, dreaming of ideal hangings made out of stoles of the Greek Church, of gold-fringed Russian dalmatics, of brocaded copes patterned with Slavonic lettering, adorned with precious stones from the Urals and rows of pearls, the doctor came in and, noting what his patient's eyes were looking at, questioned him.

Then Des Esseintes told him of his unrealizable ideals and began to plan out new experiments in colour, to speak of novel combinations and contrasts of hues that he meant to contrive, when the physician soused a sudden douche of cold water over his head, declaring in the most peremptory fashion that, come what might, it would not be in that house he could put his projects into execution.

Then, without giving him time to recover breath, he announced that so far he had only attacked the most urgent necessity, the re-establishment of the digestive functions, but that now he must deal with the nervous derangements which were by no means mitigated and would require for their cure years of regimen and careful living. He concluded with the ultimatum that, before trying any course of cure, before beginning any sort of hydropathic treatment,--impracticable in any case at Fontenay,--he was bound to abandon this solitary existence, to return to Paris and take part again in the common life of men; in a word, endeavour to find diversions the same as other people.

"But they don't divert me, the pleasures other people enjoy," protested Des Esseintes, indignantly.

Without discussing the question, the doctor simply assured his hearer that this radical change of life which he ordered was in his opinion a matter of life and death, of restored health or insanity followed at short notice by tuberculosis.

"Then it is a case either of death or deportation!" cried Des Esseintes, in exasperation.

The physician, who was imbued with all the prejudices of a man of the world, only smiled and made for the door without vouchsafing an answer.

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