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Written Twenty Years After the Novel
I SUPPOSE all men of letters are like myself in this, that they never re-read their works once they have appeared.
Nothing in fact is more disenchanting, more painful than to examine one's phrases again after an interval of years. They have been in bottle, so to speak, and form a deposit at the bottom of the book; and, most times, volumes are not like wines which improve with age; once clarified in the fulness of time, the chapters grow flat and their bouquet evaporates.
Such is the impression certain bottles stacked in the "Against the Grain" bin made upon me when I had to uncork them.
Now, sadly enough, I endeavour to recall, as I turn over the pages, what precise state of mind I could have been in at the time I wrote them.
Naturalism was then at full tide; but that school, which was destined to perform the never-to-be-forgotten good service of showing real personages in accurate surroundings, was condemned to go on repeating itself, marking time for ever on the same spot.
It would allow, in theory at any rate, almost no exception; it was therefore bound to limit its range to the delineation of everyday existence, forced, under pretext of making its characters alive, to create beings as like as they could possibly be made to the general average of people. This ideal was, in its class, realized in a masterpiece which has been, far more than L'Assommoir, the type and paragon of Naturalism, viz, the Education Sentimentale of Gustave Flaubert. This book was for all of us, men of the Soirées de Médan, a veritable Bible; but it brought little grist to our mill. It was done and ended, a thing not to be begun again even by Flaubert himself. Consequently we found ourselves reduced in those days to tack about, to prowl round all the countryside by roads more or less thoroughly explored before.
Virtue being, we are compelled to admit, an exception here below, was for that very reason barred from the Naturalistic author's scheme. Not possessing the orthodox Christian conception of the Temptation and Fall, we had no knowledge from what struggles and what tribulations it had arisen; the soul's heroism, triumphant over snares and pitfalls, was inappreciable by us. It would never have occurred to us to describe this combat, with its ups and down, its feints and flank attacks, not to speak of its skilled auxiliaries arming themselves very often far from the individual against whom the Evil One's assault is directed, in the quiet of some remote Cloister; to us Virtue seemed the attribute of creatures devoid of intelligent curiosity or wanting in common sense,--hardly a stimulating subject, in any case, to treat from the point of view of art.
Remained the Vices; but here the area capable of cultivation was restricted. It was confined to the territories of the Seven Deadly Sins, and even of these seven, one only, that against the Sixth Commandment, was fairly accessible.
The rest had been cropped cruelly bare, and hardly a grape was left to pluck in those vineyards. Avarice, for instance, had been squeezed to the last drop of liquor by Balzac and Hello. Pride, Anger, Envy had played their parts in every publication of the Romantics, and as dramatic motifs had been so violently distorted by the abuse of stage exigencies that it would have called for a veritable genius to rejuvenate them in a book. As for Gluttony and Idleness, these seemed to lend themselves to realization rather in subsidiary characters, to be more suitable to supers than to leading actors or prima donnas in the novel of manners.
The truth is that Pride would have been the most magnificent of all sins to study, in its infernal ramifications of cruelty towards others and false humility, that Gluttony, towing in its wake Lust and Idleness, and Theft would have supplied subjects for surprising investigations, if only writers had examined these offences with the lamp and blow-pipe of the Church and possessing Faith. But as a fact not one of us was qualified for the task. We were therefore driven to handle and re-handle the sin of all others most easily laid bare, Lust, in all its various manifestations; God knows we did our best, but this amusement was in the nature of things short-lived. Invent what one chose, the story could be summed up in half-a-dozen words,--to wit, why did Monsieur So-and-So commit or not commit adultery with Madame This or That? If you wished to be distinguished and stand out as a writer of the most polite taste, you made the work of the flesh take place between a Marquise and a Count; if on the other hand, you wanted to pose as a popular author, a writer knowing what's what, you chose a lover from the slums and the first street girl to hand. Only the frame was different. High life, it appears to me, has carried the day at present in the reader's good graces, for I notice that for the moment he hardly cares to regale himself on plebeian or middle-class amours, but still continues to savour the scruples and hesitations of the Marquise on her way to meet her seducer at a dainty little flat, whose aspect changes according to the varying fashion in furniture. Will she fall? Will she not fall? This is called a study in Psychology. Well, I have no objection.
Nevertheless I must own that, if I happen to open a book and come upon this everlasting seduction and not less everlasting adultery, I make haste to shut it again, being in no sort of way anxious to know how the promised idyll will finish. Any volume that does not contain authenticated documents, any book that does not teach me something, loses all interest in my eyes.
At the date when "Against the Grain" was published, in 1884 that is to say, the state of things therefore was this: Naturalism was getting more and more out of breath by dint of turning the mill for ever in the same round. The stock of observations that each writer had stored up by self-scrutiny or study of his neighbours was getting exhausted. Zola, who was a first-rate scene-painter, got out of the difficulty by designing big, bold canvases more or less true to life; he suggested fairly well the illusion of movement and action; his heroes were devoid of soul, governed simply and solely by impulses and instincts, which greatly simplified the work of analysis. They moved about, carried out sundry summary activities, peopled the scene with tolerably convincing sketches of lay-figures that became the principal characters of his dramas. In this fashion he celebrated the Central Markets, and the big stores of Paris, the railways and mines of the country at large; and the human beings wandering lost amid these surroundings played no more than the part of utility men and supers therein. But Zola was Zola--an artist a trifle ponderous, but endowed with powerful lungs and massive fists.
The rest of us, less robust and concerned about a more subtle method and a truer art, were constrained to ask ourselves the question whether Naturalism was not marching up a blind alley and if we were not bound soon to knock up against an impassable wall.
To tell the truth, these reflections did not actually occur to me till much later. I was striving in vain to escape from a cul-de-sac in which I was suffocating, but I had no settled plan, and "Against the Grain," which, by letting in fresh air, let me get away from a literature that had no door of escape, is a purely unpremeditated work, imagined without any preconceived ideas, without definite intentions for the future, without any predetermined plan whatever.
It had appeared to me at first in the light of a brief fantasy, under the form of an extravagant tale; I saw in it something like a pendant to A vau-l'eau transferred into another milieu; I pictured to myself a Monsieur Folantin, more cultured, more refined, more wealthy and who has discovered in artificiality a relief from the disgust inspired by the worries of life and the American habits of his time; I outlined him winging a swift flight to the land of dreams, seeking refuge in the illusion of extravagant fancies, living alone and aloof, remote from his own country, amid the association called up by memory of more cordial epochs, and less villainous surroundings. The more I pondered over it, the more the subject grew and the more it seemed to demand long and patient researches. Each chapter became the extract of a speciality, the sublimate of a different art; I found it condensing into a "meat essence" of precious stones, of perfumes, of flowers, of literature religious and lay, of profane music and plain-song.
The strange thing was that, without having had an inkling of this at the beginning, I was led by the very nature of my task to study the Church under many aspects. It was in fact impossible to go back to the only really characteristic eras humanity has ever known, the Middle Ages that is, without realizing that She embraced everything, that art existed only in Her and by Her. Being outside the Faith, I looked upon Her with some suspicion, surprised at Her greatness and glory, asking myself how a Religion which seemed to me only made for children had been able to suggest such marvellous works.
I prowled a little round Her in a groping way, guessing more than I saw, reconstructing a whole for myself with the fragments I recovered in Museums and old books. And to-day as I skim, after more lengthy and more trustworthy investigations, the pages of "Against the Grain," that deal with Catholicism and religious art, I note that that miniature panorama I then sketched on leaves of block-books, is accurate. What I depicted then was succinct, wanting elaboration, but it was veracious. I have confined myself subsequently to enlarging and developing my outline drawings.
I might quite well sign my name at the present moment to the pages of "Against the Grain" relating to the Church, for they appear in very deed to have been written by a Catholic.
Yet I supposed myself far from Religion all the time! I did not dream that from Schopenhauer, whom I admired beyond all reason, to Ecclesiastes and the Book of Job was only a step. The premises as to Pessimism are identical, only when it comes to action, the Philosopher shirks away. I like his ideas on the horror of existence, on the stupidity of the world, on the harshness of fate; I like them just as well in the Holy Books. But Schopenhauer's observations end in nothing; he leaves you, so to say, in the lurch; his aphorisms, in fact, are but a hortus siccus of lifeless specimens. The Church for her part explains origins and causes, certifies results, offers remedies; she is not satisfied with giving you a spiritual consultation, she treats you and cures you, while the German quack, after clearly showing you that the complaint you suffer from is incurable, turns his back on you with a sardonic grin.
His Pessimism is no different from that of the Scriptures from which he borrowed it. He has said no more than Solomon or than Job, no more even than the Imitation, which long before his day summed up his whole philosophy in a sentence:--"Verily it is a wretched thing to be alive on the earth!"
Looked at from a distance, these similarities and dissimilarities stand out clearly, but at that period, if I saw them at all, I paid no heed; the necessity of coming to a conclusion did not appeal to me; the road laid down by Schopenhauer was practicable and offered diversified views. I travelled contentedly along it, without a thought of where it led. In those days I had no real illumination as to debts to be paid, no apprehension of penalties to be exacted; the mysteries of the Catechism struck me as childish; like the mass of Catholics, indeed, I was entirely ignorant of my religion; I failed to realize that everything is mysterious, that we live only in mystery, that if chance existed, chance would be yet more mysterious than Providence. I could not admit the fact of pain inflicted by a God, I persuaded myself that Pessimism could act as the consoler of lofty souls. What foolishness! Of all notions this had the smallest basis of experience, was the lease of a "human document," to use a phrase dear to Naturalism. Never yet has Pessimism consoled either the sick of body or the afflicted of soul!
I smile when after so many years I re-read the pages where these theories, determinedly false, are affirmed.
But what strikes me most forcibly in this perusal is another fact: all the romances I have written since "Against the Grain" are contained in embryo in that book. The successive chapters are nothing more nor less than the priming of the volumes that followed. The chapter on the Latin Literature of the Decadence I have, if not developed, at any rate probed deeper into, when treating of the Liturgy in En Route and L'Oblat. I shall now reprint it without any alteration save in connexion with St. Ambrose, whose watery prose and turgid rhetoric I continue to dislike. I still think him what I called him then, a "tiresome Christian Cicero," but, in compensation, as a poet he is charming; his hymns and those of his school are among the finest the Church has preserved. I will add that the literature, of a rather special sort it is true, of the Hymnary might well have found a place in the reserved compartment of that chapter.
No more than in 1884 am I at the present moment enamoured of the Classical Latin of Maro and the "Chick-pea," (Cicero); as in the days of "Against the Grain," I prefer the language of the Vulgate to that of the Augustan Age, nay, even to that of the Decadent Period more curious though it be with its gamey flavour and its discolourations as of over-high venison. The Church, which after disinfecting and rejuvenating it, created, to deal with an order of ideas hitherto unexpressed, a vocabulary of grandiloquent words and diminutives of exquisite tenderness, appears to me to have fashioned Herself a diction far superior to the dialect of Paganism, and Durtal still holds the same views on this point as did Des Esseintes.
The chapter on precious stones I have recapitulated in La Cathédrale, in the second case treating the matter from the point of view of the symbolism of gems. I have there given life to the dead stones of "Against the Grain." Of course I do not deny that a fine emerald may be admired for the flashes that sparkle in the fire of its green depths, but, if we are ignorant of the idiom of symbols, is it not an unknown being, a stranger, a foreigner with whom no talk can be had and who has no word to say himself, because we do not understand his language? But he is surely something more and better than that.
Without admitting with an old writer of the sixteenth century, Estienne de Clave, that precious stones propagate their species, like human beings, with a seed disseminated in the womb of mother earth, we may truly say that they are minerals with a meaning, substances that talk,--that in one word they are symbols. They have been regarded under this aspect from the remotest times and the tropology of gems is one branch of that Christian symbolism so absolutely forgotten by priests and laymen alike in our own day, and which I have endeavoured to reconstruct in its main features in my volume on the basilica of Chartres.
The chapter in "Against the Grain" is therefore only superficial, a flush-bezel setting, so to speak. It is not what it should be, a display ranging beyond the mere material stones, it is made up of caskets of jewels more or less well described, more or less artistically arranged in a show-case,--but that is all, and that is not enough.
The painting of Gustave Moreau, the engravings of Luyken, the lithographs of Bresdin and Redon make the same impression on me now as then. I have no modification to make in the arrangement of the little collection.
As for the terrible Chapter VI, the number of which corresponds, without any preconceived purpose on my part, to the Commandment it offends against, as also for some portions of Chapter IX that may be classed with it, I should obviously not write them in the same vein again. They should at least have been accounted for, in a more studious spirit, by that diabolic perversity of the will which affects, especially in matters of sensual aberration, the exhausted brains of sick folk. It would seem, in fact, that nervous invalids expose fissures in the soul's envelope whereby the Spirit of Evil effects an entrance. But this is a riddle that remains unsolved; the word hysteria explains nothing; it may suffice to define a material condition, to mark invincible disturbances of the senses, it does not account for the spiritual consequences attached to the phenomena and, more particularly, the sins of dissimulation and falsehood that are almost always engrafted on them. What are the details and attendant circumstances of this malady of sinfulness, in what degree is the responsibility diminished of the individual whose soul is attacked by a sort of demoniac possession that takes root in the disorganization of his unhappy body? None can tell: on this point Medicine talks mere folly, Theology holds her peace.
In default of a solution which manifestly he could not supply, Des Esseintes should have viewed the question from the point of view of sinfulness and expressed at any rate some regret. He refrained from abusing himself, and he did wrong; but then, though educated by the Jesuits, whose panegyrist he is,--and a more ardent one than Durtal,--he had grown subsequently so recalcitrant to the Divine constraints, so obstinately resolved to wallow in the mire of his carnal appetites!
In any case, these chapters seem to be mark-stakes unconsciously planted to indicate the road Là-Bas was to follow. It is noteworthy moreover that Des Esseintes' library contained a certain number of old books of magic and that the ideas expressed in Chapter VII of "Against the Grain" on sacrilege are the hooks on which to hang a subsequent volume treating the subject more thoroughly.
As for this book Là-Bas, which frightened so many people, neither should I write it, if I had to do the thing again, in the same manner, now I am become a Catholic once more. There is no doubt indeed that the wicked and sensual side therein developed is reprehensible; but at the same time I declare I have glazed over things, I have said nothing of the worst; the documents it embodies are in comparison with those I have omitted, but which I have among my papers, very insipid sweetmeats, very tasteless tit-bits.
I believe, nevertheless, that in spite of its cerebral aberrations and its abdominal follies, the work, by mere virtue of the subject it laid bare, has done good service. It has recalled attention to the wiles of the Evil One, who had succeeded in getting men to deny his existence; it has been the starting-point of all the studies, revived of late years, on the never-changing procedure of Satanism; it has helped, by exposing them, to put an end to the odious practices of sorcery; it has taken sides, in fact, and fought a very strenuous fight for the Church against the Devil.
To come back to "Against the Grain," of which this book is only a succedaneum, I may repeat in connexion with the flower chapter what I have already stated with regard to precious stones.
"Against the Grain" considers them only from the point of view of shapes or colours, in no wise from that of the significations they disclose; Des Esseintes chose only rare orchids, strange blossoms, but without a tongue. It is fair to add that he would have found it hard to give speech in the book to a flora attacked by aphasia, a dumb flora, for the symbolic language of plants died with the Middle Ages, and the vegetable creoles cherished by Des Esseintes were unknown to the allegorists of those days.
The counterpart of this flower study I have written since in La Cathédrale, when dealing with that liturgical horticulture which has suggested such quaint pages in the works of St. Hildegard, St. Meliton and St. Eucher.
It is different with the question of odours, the mystic emblems of which I have expounded in the same book.
Des Esseintes had concerned himself only with lay perfumes, simple scents or extracts, and profane perfumes, compound essences or bouquets.
He might have extended his experiments to the aromas of the Church, incense, myrrh and that strange Thymiama mentioned in the Bible and which is still noted in the ritual books as proper to be burned, together with incense, under the mouths of Church bells when they are baptised, after the Bishop has washed them with holy water and made the sign of the cross on them with the Holy Chrism and the oil of the sick. But this fragrant essence seems forgotten even by the Church, and I imagine a curé would be not a little startled if asked for Thymiama.
Yet the recipe is given in Exodus. The Thymiama was compounded of styrax, galbanum, incense and onycha, and this last ingredient would seem to be nothing else but the operculum of a certain shell of the tribe of the "purples" which is dredged up in the Indian seas.
Now it is difficult, not to say impossible, given the insufficient description of this shell and the locality it comes from, to prepare an authentic Thymiama. This is a pity, for had it been otherwise, this lost perfume would have surely called up before Des Esseintes' imagination sumptuous pictures of the religious festivals and liturgical rites of Eastern lands.
As for the chapters on contemporary literature, lay and clerical, they still, in my opinion, remain, as does that on Latin literature, well founded. That dealing with profane writing has helped to set in due relief several poets very little known to the public of that day,--Corbière, Mallarmé, Verlaine. I have nothing to retract in what I wrote nineteen years ago; I still keep my admiration for these authors; the admiration I professed for Verlaine has even increased. Arthur Rimbaud and Jules Laforgue would have well deserved to figure in Des Esseintes' florilegium, but at that date they had not yet printed anything and it was only long after that their works saw the light.
I do not anticipate, on the other hand, that I shall ever come to appreciate the modern religious authors scourged in "Against the Grain." Nothing will ever change my view that the criticism of the late lamented Nettement is idiotic and that Mine. Augustin Craven and Mlle. Eugénie de Guérin are blue-stockings of a very lymphatic sort and pious pedants of a very barren kind. Their juleps strike me as insipid; Des Esseintes has passed his taste for spices on to Durtal, and I think they would come to a good understanding together, both of them, at the present moment, to prepare, in lieu of these emulsions, an essence savoury with the stimulating condiment of art.
Nor have I changed my mind about the literature of the confraternity of the Poujoulats and Genoudes, but I should be less severe nowadays on the Père Chocarne, named among a miscellaneous lot of pious scribblers, for he has at any rate composed some pithy pages on Mysticism in his introduction to the works of Saint Jean de la Croix; in the same way I should deal more gently with De Montalembert who, despite his lack of talent, has bestowed on the world a work, incoherent indeed and ill-arranged, but still moving, on the monastic orders. Above all I should not now describe the visions of Angèle de Foligno as silly, insipid stuff; the exact contrary is the truth, but I must plead in my excuse that I had then read them only in Hello's translation. Now the latter was possessed with a mania for pruning, sugaring, softening down the mystics for fear of offending the mock modesty of Catholic readers. He has set under the press a work, strong and full of sap, to extract therefrom only a vapid and colourless juice, feebly warmed up again in a pipkin over the poor night-light of his style.
So much being allowed, that as a translator Hello showed himself a molly-coddle and a pious fraud, it is only fair to add that when he was working on original matter he was an originator of fresh ideas, a sagacious commentator, an analyst of true power. He was indeed, among the writers of his type, the only thinker; I came to the support of Aurévilly in commending the work of this writer, so incomplete, but so interesting, and "Against the Grain" has, I think, had some share in securing what little success his best book, L'Homme, won after his death.
The conclusion arrived at in this chapter on modern ecclesiastical literature was that among the geldings of religious art, there was only one stallion, to wit Barbey d'Aurévilly; and this opinion remains absolutely and entirely accurate. He was the one and only artist, in the proper sense of the word, that Catholicism produced at that period; he was a great prose stylist, an admirable novelist whose boldness set all beadledom screaming, enraged by the explosive vehemence of his phraseology.
To conclude the list, if ever chapter can be considered the starting-point of other books, it is surely the one on plain. chant which I afterwards amplified in all my publications, in En Route and above in L'Oblat.
As result of this brief review of each of the special articles exhibited in the show-cases of "Against the Grain" the conclusion is forced upon us,--the book was priming for my Catholic propaganda, which is implicit in it in its entirety, though in embryo.
Indeed the misunderstanding and stupidity of sundry pedants and agitated members of the priesthood strike me, yet once again, as unfathomable. Year after year they clamoured for the destruction of the book, the copyright of which, by-the-bye, I do not own, without ever realizing that the mystic volumes that came after it are incomprehensible without being as it is, I reiterate the statement, the root from which they all sprang. Besides this, how it is possible to appreciate the work of an author in its entirety, if it is not taken from its first beginnings and followed up step by step; above all, how is it possible to realize the progress of God's Grace in a soul, if the traces of its passage are neglected, if the first tokens left by its presence are effaced?
One thing at any rate is certain, that "Against the Grain" marked a definite rupture with its predecessors, with Les Soeurs Vatard, En Ménage, A vau-l'eau, that with it I entered on a path the goal of which I did not so much as suspect.
More sagacious than the Catholics, Zola saw this clearly. I remember how, after the first appearance of "A Rebours," I went to spend a few days at Médan. One afternoon when we were out walking, the two of us, in the country, he stopped suddenly, and his face grown dark, reproached me for having written the book, declaring I was dealing a terrible blow at Naturalism, that I was leading the school astray, that, into the bargain, I was burning my ships with such a book, inasmuch as no class of literature was possible of this sort, where a single volume exhausted the subject; finally, as a friend--he was the best of good fellows--he urged me to return to the beaten track, to put myself in harness and write a study of manners.
I listened to what he said, thinking that he was at one and the same time right and wrong--right, when he accused me of undermining Naturalism and entirely blocking my own road; wrong, in this sense that the novel as he conceived it seemed to me moribund, worn to a shadow by the wearisome repetitions that, whether he liked it or no, possessed no interest for me.
There were many things Zola could not understand; in the first place, the craving I felt to open the windows, to escape from surroundings that were stifling me; secondly, the desire that filled me to shake off preconceived ideas, to break the limitations of the novel, to introduce into it art, science, history; in a word not to use this form of literature except as a frame in which to put more serious kinds of work. For my part, the thing that seemed to me most indispensable at that period was to do away with the traditional plot of intrigue, even to eliminate love and woman altogether, to concentrate the ray of light on a single character, to strike out a new line at any price.
Zola vouchsafed no answer to the arguments by which I endeavoured to convince him, but went on repeating over and over again the one phrase:--"I cannot allow that a man may change his ways of working and his view of art; I cannot allow that he may burn what he once adored."
Well, well! has he not too played the part of the good Sicambrian? He has, as a matter of fact, if not modified his methods of composition and writing, at least varied his manner of conceiving humanity and explaining life. After the black pessimism of his first books, have we not had, under colour of socialism, the self-satisfied optimism of his latest productions?
It must be freely confessed that nobody ever showed less comprehension of the soul than the "Naturalists" who undertook the task of investigating it. They saw existence all of a piece; they would have nothing to do with it except as manifested under probable conditions. But I have learned since by experience to know that the improbable is not always, in this world, exceptional, that the adventures of Rocambole are sometimes as true to nature as those of Gervaise and Coupeau. But the mere thought that Des Esseintes might be as truly drawn as the dramatis personae of his own novels disconcerted and came near to angering Zola.
So far, in these few pages of introduction, I have spoken of "Against the Grain" mainly from the point of view of literature and art. Now I must discuss it from that of God's Grace, show how large a share the unconscious, the workings of a soul ignorant of its own tendencies, may often have in the production of a book.
The definite set of "Against the Grain" towards Catholicism, manifest and clearly-marked as it is, remains, I confess, an insoluble problem to me.
I was not brought up in the schools of any religious order, but just in a Lycée. I was never a pious boy, and the influences of childish associations, of first Communion, of religious teaching, which often loom so large in conversion, never had any effect on me. What still further complicates the difficulty and defies analysis is this: in the days when I wrote "Against the Grain," I never set foot in a church, I did not know a single Catholic who regularly performed his religious duties, I had not a single priest among my acquaintance; I felt no Divine impulse drawing me towards the Church, I lived calmly and comfortably in my own style; it seemed to me perfectly natural to satisfy the calls of my sensual appetities, and the thought never so much as entered my head that that sort of amusement was forbidden.
"Against the Grain" appeared in 1884, and I set off to be converted at a Trappist House in 1892; nearly eight years had elapsed before the seeds of the book had germinated. Give two years, or even three, of the working of Grace,--a working slow and secret, only occasionally visible; there would still remain five years at least during which I can remember having felt no Christian stirrings at all, no remorse for the life I was leading, no wish to alter it. Why, by what impulse, have I been incited to take a road at that time shrouded in darkness from my view? I am utterly unable to say; nothing, save perhaps an ancestry not unconnected with Béguinages and Religious Houses and the prayers of a very devout Dutch family, which however I knew hardly anything of, will account for the purely unconscious unction of the concluding cry, the pious appeal of the last page of "Against the Grain."
Yes, I am quite aware, there are people of very sturdy fibre who trace out plans, organize beforehand itineraries of existence and follow them; it is even to be understood, if I am not mistaken, that by force of will any end may be reached. I can quite believe it, but for me, I confess, I have never been either tenacious of purpose as a man or worldly wise as an author. My life and my writings have something of passive receptivity about them, some unknown element, some trace of direction from outside myself which cannot be questioned.
Providence was merciful to me and the Virgin kind. I confined myself simply to not resisting them when they gave token of their purposes; I merely obeyed; I was led by what they call "extraordinary ways." If any man can have the certainty of the worthless thing he would be without God's help, it is I.
Persons who do not belong to the Faith will object that, with such ideas, one is like to end in fatalism and the negation of all scientific psychology.
Not so, for Faith in Our Lord is not fatalism. Free will remains free. I could if I chose, continue to yield to the temptations of the senses and stay on at Paris, instead of going to suffer tribulations at a Trappist Monastery. God doubtless would not have insisted; but, while certifying that the will is intact, we must nevertheless allow that the Saviour has much to do in the matter, that he harasses the sinner, tracks him down, shadows him, to use a forcible phrase of the police; but I say again, one can, at one's own risk and peril, reject his offices.
As to Psychology, the thing is otherwise. If we regard it, as I am doing, from the point of view of a conversion, it is, in its preliminaries, impossible to unravel; certain points tangible, but the rest, no; the subterranean workings of the soul are beyond our ken. There was no doubt at the date when I was writing "Against the Grain," a shifting of the soil, a delving of the earth, to lay the foundations, of which I was all unconscious. God was digging to lay His wire, and he was at work only in the darkness of the soul, in the night. Nothing was visible on the surface; it was only years after that the spark began to run along the wires. Then I could feel my soul stirred by the shock; as yet it was neither very painful nor very distinct. The Church offices, mysticism, art were the vehicles and the means; it occurred mostly in churches, at Saint Séverin in particular, where I used to go out of curiosity, for lack of other things to do. I experienced as I watched the services only an inward tremor, the little shiver one feels on seeing, hearing or reading a fine work of art; but there was no definite movement, no positive impulse to come to a decision.
Only, little by little, I was shaking myself loose from my shell of impurity; I was beginning to have a disgust of myself, but at the same time I kicked against the articles of the Faith. The objections I raised in my own mind seemed irresistible; and lo! one fine morning when I woke they were solved,--I never knew how. I prayed for the first time, and the catastrophe was over.
For such as do not believe in the Grace of God, all this seems folly. For those who have experienced its effects, no surprise is possible; or, if surprise there were, it could continue only over the period of incubation, the period when one sees nothing and notices nothing, the period of the clearing of the ground and laying of the foundations of which one never had even a suspicion.
I can understand, in fact, up to a certain point what befell between the year 1891 and the year 1895, between Là-Bas and En Route, nothing at all between the year 1884 and the year 1891, between "Against the Grain" and Là-Bas.
If I failed to understand them myself, a fortiori others could not understand the impulses that moved Des Esseintes. "Against the Grain" fell like an aerolite into the literary fairground, to be received with mingled amazement and indignation; the Press completely lost their heads; such an outburst of incoherent ravings had never been known before. After first calling me a misanthropic impressionist and describing Des Esseintes as a maniac and lunatic of a complex sort, the Schoolmasters, with M. Lemaître at their head, were furious that I had not eulogized Virgil, and declared in authoritative tones that the decadent exponents of the Latin tongue in the Middle Ages were simply "drivellers and idiots." Other would-be critics were kind enough to advise me that it would do me a world of good to be confined in a hydropathic establishment and suffer the discipline of cold douches. Then, the public lecturers took their turn to join in the abuse. At the Salle des Capucines, the high archon Sarcey was crying in bewilderment: "I am quite ready to be hanged if I understand one blessed word of the book." Finally, to make all complete, the serious reviews, such as the Revue des Deux Mondes, deputed their fugleman, M. Brunetiere, to liken the novel to the vaudevilles of Waflard and Fulgence.
In all this hurly-burly, a single writer alone saw clear, Barbey d'Aurévilly, who, be it said, had no personal acquaintance with me. In an article in the Constitutionnel, bearing date July 28th, 1884, and which has been reprinted in his Le Roman Contemporain published in 1902, he wrote:--
"After such a book, it only remains for the author to choose between the muzzle of a pistol or the foot of the cross."
The choice has been made.
J. K. HUYSMANS