TO judge by such family portraits as were preserved in the Château de
Lourps, the race of the Floressas des Esseintes had been composed in
olden days of stalwart veterans of the wars, grim knights with scowling
visages. Imprisoned in the old-fashioned picture frames that seemed all
too narrow to contain their broad shoulders, they glared out alarmingly
at the spectator, who was equally impressed by the fixed stare in the
eyes, the martial curl of the moustaches and the noble development of
the chests encased in enormous steel cuirasses.
These were ancestral portraits; those representing subsequent
generations were conspicuous by their absence. There was a gap in the
series, a gap which one face alone served to fill and so connect the
past and present,—a mysterious, world-weary countenance. The features
were heavy and drawn, the prominent cheekbones touched with a spot of
rouge, the hair plastered to the head and entwined with a string of
pearls, the slender neck rising from amid the pleatings of a stiff
Already in this picture of one of the most intimate friends of the
Duc d'Epernon and the Marquis d'O, the vitiation of an exhausted race,
the excess of lymph in the blood, were plainly to be traced.
No doubt the gradual degeneration of this ancient house had
followed a regular and unbroken course; the progressive effemination of
the men had gone on continuously from bad to worse. Moreover, to
complete the deteriorating effect of time, the Des Esseintes had for
centuries been in the habit of intermarrying among themselves, thus
wasting the small remains of their original vigour and energy.
Sole surviving descendant of this family, once so numerous that it
covered nearly all the domains of the Ile-de-France and of La Brie, was
the Duc Jean des Esseintes, a frail young man of thirty, anaemic and
nervous, with hollow cheeks, eyes of a cold, steely blue, a small but
still straight nose, and long, slender hands.
By a curious accident of heredity, this last scion of a race bore a
strong resemblance to the far-off ancestor, the mignon of Princes, from
whom he had got the pointed beard of the very palest possible blonde
and the ambiguous look of the eyes, at once languid and energetic in
expression, which marked the portrait.
His childhood had been beset with perils. Threatened with
scrofulous affections, worn out with persistent attacks of fever, he
had nevertheless successfully weathered the breakers of puberty, after
which critical period his nerves had recovered the mastery, vanquished
the languors and depressions of chlorosis and permitted the
constitution to reach its full and complete development.
The mother, a tall, silent, white-faced woman, died of general
debility; then the father succumbed to a vague and mysterious malady.
At the time Des Esseintes was approaching his seventeenth birthday.
The only recollection he retained of his parents was one of fear
rather than of anything resembling gratitude or affection. His father,
who generally resided in Paris, was almost a total stranger; his mother
he only remembered as a chronic invalid, who never left the precincts
of a shuttered bedroom in the Château de Lourps. It was only on rare
occasions that husband and wife met, and of these meetings all he
recalled was the drab, colourless dulness,—his father and mother
seated on either side of a table lighted only by a deeply shaded lamp,
for the Duchess could not endure light and noise without suffering from
nervous attacks. In the semi-darkness, they would exchange two or three
sentences at most; then the Duke would slip away with a yawn and take
his departure by the first available train.
At the Jesuits' College to which Jean was sent to be educated, his
life proved pleasanter and less trying. The Fathers made much of the
lad, whose intelligence amazed them; yet. in spite of all their
efforts, they entirely failed to induce him to pursue any definite and
disciplined course of study. He, devoted himself eagerly to certain
tasks, acquired a precocious mastery of the Latin tongue; but on the
other hand, he was absolutely incapable of construing three words of
Greek, displayed no aptitude whatever for living languages and showed
himself a perfect fool directly any attempt was made to teach him the
merest rudiments of the physical sciences.
His family pretty much washed their hands of him; occasionally his
father would pay him a visit at the College, but, "Good day, good
evening, be a good boy and work hard," was about all he ever said to
him. His summer holidays he used to spend at the Château de Lourps,
where his presence quite failed to rouse his mother from her reveries;
she hardly seemed to see him or, if she did, would gaze at him for a
few moments with a painful smile, then sink back again into the
artificial night in which the heavy curtains drawn across the windows
wrapped the apartment.
The domestics were old and tiresome. The boy, left to himself,
would turn over the books in the library on wet days, or on fine
afternoons take long walks in the country.
It was his great delight to make his way down into the valley to
Jutigny, a village standing at the foot of the hills,—a little
cluster of cottages with thatched roofs tufted with moss. He would lie
out in the meadows under the lee of the tall hayricks, listening to the
dull rumble of the water-mills, filling his lungs with the fresh air of
the Voulzie. Sometimes he would wander as far as the peat-workings, to
the hamlet of Longueville with its hovels painted green and black; at
another time climb the wind-swept hills and gaze out over the vast
prospect. There he had below him on one side the valley of the Seine,
losing itself in immensity and melting into the blue haze of the far
distance; on the other, high on the horizon line, the churches and
Castle keep of Provins that seemed to shake and shiver in a sunlit
He spent the hours in reading or dreaming, drinking his fill of
solitude till nightfall. By dint of constantly brooding over the same
thoughts, his mind gained concentration and his still undeveloped ideas
ripened towards maturity. After each vacation, he went back more
thoughtful and more stubborn to his masters. These changes did not
escape their notice, clearsighted and shrewd, taught by their
profession to sound the deepest depths of the human soul, they were
well aware of the qualities and limitations of this alert but indocile
intelligence; they realized that this pupil of theirs would never
enhance the fame of the House, and as his family was wealthy and
appeared to take little interest in his future, they soon abandoned all
idea of directing his energies towards any of the lucrative careers
open to the successful student. Though he was ready enough to enter
with them into those theological disputations that attracted him by
their subtleties and casuistical distinctions, they never even thought
of preparing him for Holy Orders, for despite their efforts, his faith
remained feeble. In the last resort, out of prudence and a fear of the
unknown, they left him to himself to work at such studies as he chose
and neglect the rest, unwilling to alienate this independent spirit by
petty restrictions such as lay ushers are so fond of imposing.
So he lived a perfectly contented life, scarcely conscious of the
priests' fatherly yoke. He pursued his Latin and French studies after
his own fashion, and, albeit Theology found no place in the curriculum
of his classes, he completed the apprenticeship to that science which
he had begun at the Château de Lourps in the library of books left by
his great great-uncle Dom Prosper, erstwhile Prior of the Canons
Regular of Saint-Ruf.
The time, however, arrived when he must quit the Jesuit College; he
was coming of age and would be master of his fortune; his cousin and
guardian, the Comte de Montchevrel, gave him an account of his
stewardship. The intimacy thus established was of short duration, for
what point of contact could there be between the two, one of whom was
an old man, the other a young one? Out of curiosity, lack of
occupation, courtesy, Des Esseintes kept up relations with this family,
and on several occasions, at his hotel in the Rue da la Chaise, endured
evenings of a deadly dulness at which good ladies of his kin, as
ancient as the hills, conversed about quarterings of nobility, heraldic
scutcheons and ceremonial observances of years gone-by.
Even more than these worthy dowagers, the men, gathered round a
whist-table, betrayed their hopeless nullity; these descendants of the
old preux chevaliers, last scions of the feudal houses, appeared to Des
Esseintes under the guise of a parcel of snuffling, grotesque
greybeards, repeating ad nauseam a wearisome string of insipid outworn
platitudes. Just as when you cut the stalk of a fern, you can see the
mark of a lily, really a fleur-de-lis seemed to be the one and only
impress left on the softened pulp that took the place of brains in
these poor old heads.
The young man was filled with an ineffable pity for these mummies
buried in their rococo catafalques; for these crusty dandies who lived
with eyes for ever fixed on a vaguely defined Land of Promise, an
imaginary Canaan of good hope.
After a few experiences of the kind, he firmly resolved, in spite
of all invitations and reproaches, never again to set foot in this
Thereupon he began to spend his days among young men of his own age
and rank. Some of these, who had been brought up like himself at
religious seminaries, had retained from this training a special
character of their own. They attended church, communicated at Easter,
frequented Catholic clubs and dropping their eyes in mock modesty, hid
from each other, as if they had been crimes, their enterprises with
women. For the most part they were witless fellows, with a sufficiency
of good looks, but without a spark of mind or spirit; prime dunces who
had exhausted their masters' patience, but had nevertheless fulfilled
the latters' ambition to send out into the world obedient and pious
sons of the Church.
Others, reared in the Colleges of the State or at Lycées, were more
outspoken and less of hypocrites, but they were neither more
interesting nor less narrow-minded. These were men of pleasure,
devotees of operettas and races, playing lansquenet and baccarat,
stalking fortunes on horses and cards,—all the diversions in fact
that empty-headed folks love. After a year's trial of this life an
enormous weariness resulted; he was sick and tired of these people
whose indulgences struck him as paltry and commonplace, carried out
without discrimination, without excitement, without any real stirring
of blood or stimulation of nerves.
Little by little, he left off frequenting their society, and
approached the men of letters, with whom his mind must surely find more
points of sympathy and feel itself more at ease in their company. It
was a fresh disappointment; he was revolted by their spiteful and petty
judgments, their conversation that was as hackneyed as a church-door,
their nauseous discussions invariably appraising the merit of a work
solely according to the number of editions and the amount of profit on
the sales. At the same time, he discovered the apostles of freedom, the
wiseacres of the bourgeoisie, the thinkers who clamoured for entire
liberty,—liberty to strangle the opinions of other people,—to be a
set of greedy, shameless hypocrites, whom as men of education he rated
below the level of the village cobbler.
His scorn of humanity grew by what it fed on; he realized in fact
that the world is mostly made up of solemn humbugs and silly idiots.
There was no room for doubt; he could entertain no hope of discovering
in another the same aspirations and the same antipathies, no hope of
joining forces with a mind that, like his own, should find its
satisfaction in a life of studious idleness; no hope of uniting a keen
and doctrinaire spirit such as his, with that of a writer and a man of
His nerves were on edge, he was ill at ease; disgusted at the
triviality of the ideas exchanged and received, he was growing to be
like the men Nicole speaks of, who are unhappy everywhere; he was
continually being chafed almost beyond endurance by the patriotic and
social exaggerations he read every morning in the papers, overrating
the importance of the triumphs which an all-powerful public reserves
always and under all circumstances for works equally devoid of ideas
and of style.
Already he was dreaming of a refined Thebaïd, a desert hermitage
combined with modern comfort, an ark on dry land and nicely warmed,
whither he could fly for refuge from the incessant deluge of human
One passion and one only, woman, might have arrested him in this
universal disdain that was rising within him; but this too was
exhausted. He had tasted the sweets of the flesh with the appetite of a
sick man, an invalid debilitated andfull of whimsies, whose palate
quickly loses savour. In the days when he had consorted with the coarse
and carnal-minded men of pleasure, he had participated like the rest in
some of those unconventional supper parties where tipsy women bare
their bosoms at dessert and beat the table with dishevelled heads; he
had been a visitor likewise behind the scenes, had had relations with
actresses and popular singers, had endured, added to the natural and
innate folly of the sex, the frantic vanity of women of the stage; then
he had kept mistresses already famous for their gallantry and
contributed to swell the exchequer of those agencies that supply, for a
price, highly dubious gratifications; last of all, sick and satiated
with this pretence of pleasure, of these stale caresses that are all
alike, he had plunged into the nether depths, hoping to revive his
flagging passions by sheer force of contrast, thinking to stimulate his
exhausted senses by the very foulness of the filth and beastliness of
Try what he would, an overpowering sense of ennui weighed him down.
But still he persisted, and presently had recourse to the perilous
caresses of the experts in amorousness. But his health was unable to
bear the strain and his nerves gave way; the back of the neck began to
prick and the hands were tremulous,—steady enough still when a heavy
object had to be lifted, but uncertain if they held anything quite
light such as a wineglass.
The physicians he consulted terrified him. It was indeed high time
to change his way of life, to abandon these practices that were
draining away his vitality. For a while, he led a quiet existence; but
before long his passions awoke again and once more piped to arms. Like
young girls who, under the stress of poverty, crave after highly spiced
or even repulsive foods, he began to ponder and presently to practise
abnormal indulgences, unnatural pleasures. This was the end; as if all
possible delights of the flesh were exhausted, he felt sated, worn out
with weariness; his senses fell into a lethargy, impotence was not far
So he found himself stranded, a lonely, disillusioned, sobered man,
utterly and abominably tired, beseeching an end of it—an end the
cowardice of his flesh forbade his winning.
His projects of finding some retreat far from his fellows, of
burying himself in a hermit's cell, deadening, as they do the noise of
the traffic for sick people by laying down straw in the streets, the
inexorable turmoil of life, these projects more and more attracted him.
Besides, it was quite time to come to some definite decision for
other reasons; he reckoned up the state of his finances and was
appalled at the result. In reckless follies and riotous living
generally, he had squandered the major part of his patrimony, while the
balance, invested in land, brought him in only an insignificant
He determined to sell the Château de Lourps, which he never visited
and where he would leave behind him no tender memories, no fond
regrets; by this means he paid off all claims on the rest of his
property, bought Government annuities and so secured himself an annual
income of fifty thousand francs, while reserving, over and above, a
round sum to buy and furnish the little house where he proposed to
steep himself in a peace and quiet that should last his lifetime.
He searched the outer suburbs of the capital and presently
discovered a cottage for sale, above Fontenay-aux-Roses, in a remote
spot, far from all neighbours, near the Fort. His dream was fulfilled;
in this district, still unspoilt by intruders from Paris, he was secure
against all harassment; the very difficulties of communication—the
place was wretchedly served by a grotesquely inefficient railway at the
far end of the little town and a rustic tramway that went and came
according to a self-appointed time table—were a comfort to him.
As he thought over the new existence he meant to make for himself,
he experienced a lively sense of relief, seeing himself just far enough
withdrawn for the flood of Paris activity not to touch his retreat, yet
near enough for the proximity of the metropolis to add a spice to his
solitariness. Indeed, in view of the well-known fact that for a man to
find himself in a situation where it is impossible for him to visit a
particular spot is of itself quite enough to fill him with an instant
wish to go there, he was really guarding himself, by thus not entirely
barring the road, from any craving to renew intercourse with the world
or any regret for having abandoned it.
He set the masons to work on the house he had bought; then suddenly
one day, without telling a soul of his plans, he got rid of his
furniture, dismissed his servants and disappeared without leaving any
address with the concierge.
MORE than two months slipped by before the time came when Des
Esseintes found it feasible to immerse himself definitely in the peace
and silence of his house at Fontenay; purchases of all kinds still kept
him perambulating the Paris streets, tramping the town from end to end.
And yet, what endless inquiries had he not instituted, what lengthy
lucubrations had he not indulged in, before finally entrusting his new
home to the hands of the upholsterers! He had long been an expert in
the right and wrong combinations and contrasts of tints. In other days,
when he was still in the habit of inviting women to his house, he had
fitted up a boudoir where, amid dainty carved furniture of the
light-yellow camphor-wood of Japan, under a sort of tent of pink Indian
satin, the flesh tints borrowed a soft, warm glow from the artfully
disposed lights sifting down through the rich material.
This room, where mirrors hung on every wall, reflecting backwards
and forwards from one to another an infinite succession of pink
boudoirs, had enjoyed a great renown among his various mistresses, who
loved to bathe their nakedness in this flood of warm crimson amid the
aromatic odours given off by the Oriental wood of the furniture.
But, quite apart from the miracles wrought by this artificial
atmosphere in the way of transfusing, or so it seemed, a new blood into
tired veins and freshening up complexions tarnished and worn by the
habitual use of cosmetics and too frequent nights of love, he also
tasted in his own person, in this luxurious retreat, special and
peculiar satisfactions, pleasures exaggerated and rendered in a way
more entrancing by the recollections of evil days overpast and
vexations now outlived.
So, in a spirit of hate and scorn of his unhappy boyhood, he had
suspended from the ceiling of the room we speak of, a little cage of
silver wire in which a cricket was kept prisoner to chirp as they had
been used to do in old days among the cinders in the great fireplaces
at the Château de Lourps. Whenever he heard this sound, which he had so
often listened to on many an evening of constraint and silence in his
mother's chamber, all the miseries of a wretched and neglected
childhood would come crowding before the eye of memory. At such times,
roused from his reveries by the movements of the woman he was fondling
mechanically at the moment and whose words and laughter interrupted his
thoughts of the past and recalled him to reality, there as he lay in
the pink boudoir, a sudden commotion would shake his soul, a longing
for revenge on dreary hours endured in former times, a mad craving to
befoul with base and carnal acts his recollections of bygone family
life, an overmastering temptation toassuage his lustful propensities on
the soft cushion of a woman's body, to drain the cup of sensuality to
its last and bitterest dregs.
Other times again, when despondency weighed heavy on his spirit,
when on rainy Autumn days he felt a sick aversion for everything,—for
the streets, for his own house, for the dingy mud-coloured sky, for the
stony-looking clouds, he would fly to this refuge, set the cricket's
cage swinging gently to and fro and watch its movement repeated ad
infinitum in the surrounding mirrors, till at last his eyes would grow
dazed and he seemed to see the cage itself at rest, but all the room
tossing and turning, filling the whole apartment with a dizzy whirl of
Then, in the days when Des Esseintes still deemed it incumbent on
him to play the eccentric, he had also installed strange and elaborate
dispositions of furniture and fittings, partitioning off his salon into
a series of niches, each differently hung and carpeted, and each
harmonizing in a subtle likeness by a more or less vague similarity of
tints, gay or sombre, refined or barbaric, with the special character
of the Latin and French books he loved. He would then settle himself
down to read in whichever of these recesses displayed in its scheme of
decoration the closest correspondence with the intimate essence of the
particular book his caprice of the moment led him to peruse.
Last fancy of all, he had prepared a lofty hall in which to receive
his tradesmen. These would march in, take seats side by side in a row
of church stalls; then he would mount an imposing pulpit and preach
them a sermon on dandyism, adjuring his bookmakers and tailors to
conform with the most scrupulous fidelity to his commandments in the
matter of cut and fashion, threatening them with the penalty of
pecuniary excommunication if they failed to follow out to the letter
the instructions embodied in his monitories and bulls.
He won a great reputation as an eccentric,—a reputation he
crowned by adopting a costume of black velvet worn with a gold-fringed
waistcoat and sticking by way of cravat a bunch of Parma violets in the
opening of a very low-necked shirt. Then he would invite parties of
literary friends to dinners that set all the world talking. In one
instance in particular, modelling the entertainment on a banquet of the
eighteenth century, he had organized a funeral feast in celebration of
the most unmentionable of minor personal calamities. The dining-room
was hung with black and looked out on a strangely metamorphosed garden,
the walks being strewn with charcoal, the little basin in the middle of
the lawn bordered with a rim of black basalt and filled with ink; and
the ordinary shrubs superseded by cypresses and pines. The dinner
itself was served on a black cloth, decorated with baskets of violets
and scabiosae and illuminated by candelabra in which tall tapers
While a concealed orchestra played funeral marches, the guests were
waited on by naked negresses wearing shoes and stockings of cloth of
silver besprinkled with tears.
The viands were served on black-bordered plates,—turtle soup,
Russian black bread, ripe olives from Turkey, caviar, mule steaks,
Frankfurt smoked sausages, game dished up in sauces coloured to
resemble liquorice water and boot-blacking, truffles in jelly,
chocolate-tinted creams, puddings, nectarines, fruit preserves,
mulberries and cherries. The wines were drunk from dark-tinted glasses,
- wines of the Limagne and Roussillon vintages, wines of Tenedos, the
Val de Penas and Oporto. After the coffee and walnuts came other
unusual beverages, kwas, porter and stout.
The invitations, which purported to be for a dinner in pious memory
of the host's (temporarily) lost virility, were couched in the
regulation phraseology of letters summoning relatives to attend the
obsequies of a defunct kinsman.
But these extravagances, that had once been his boast, had died a
natural death; nowadays his only feeling was one of self-contempt to
remember these puerile and out-of-date displays of eccentricity,—the
extraordinary clothes he had donned and the grotesque decorations he
had lavished on his house. His only thought henceforth was to arrange,
for his personal gratification only and no longer in order to startle
other people, a home that should be comfortable, yet at the same time
rich and rare in its appointments, to contrive himself a peaceful and
exquisitely organized abode, specially adapted to meet the exigencies
of the solitary life he proposed to lead.
When at length the new house at Fontenay was ready and fitted up in
accordance with his wishes and intentions by the architect he had
engaged; when nothing else was left save to settle the scheme of
furniture and decoration, once again he passed in review, carefully and
methodically, the whole series of available tints.
What he wanted was colours the effect of which was confirmed and
strengthened under artificial light; little he cared even if by
daylight they should appear insipid or crude, for he lived practically
his whole life at night, holding that then a man was more truly at
home, more himself and his own master, and that the mind found its only
real excitant and effective stimulation in contact with the shades of
evening; moreover, he reaped a special and peculiar satisfaction from
finding himself in a room brilliantly lighted up, the only place alive
and awake among surrounding houses all buried in sleep and darkness,—
a sort of enjoyment that is not free from a touch of vanity, a selfish
mode of gratification familiar enough to belated workers when, drawing
aside the window curtains, they note how all about them the world lies
inert, dumb and dead.
Slowly, one by one, he sifted out the different tones.
Blue, by candle light, assumes an artificial green tinge; if deep
blue, like cobalt or indigo, it becomes black; if light, it changes to
grey; it may be as true and soft of hue as a turquoise, yet it looks
dull and cold.
Yes, it could only be employed as a supplement to help out some
other colour; there could be no question of making blue the dominating
note of a whole room.
On the other hand, the iron greys are even more sullen and heavy;
the pearl greys lose their azure tinge and are metamorphosed into a
dirty white; as for the deep greens, such as emperor green and myrtle
green, these suffer the same fate as the blues and become
indistinguishable from black. Only the pale greens therefore remained,
peacock green for instance, or the cinnabars and lacquer greens, but
then in their case lamplight extracts the blue in them, leaving only
the yellow, which for its part shows only a poor false tone and dull,
Nor was it any use thinking of such tints as salmon-pink, maize,
rose; their effeminate note would go dead against all his ideas of
self-isolation; nor again were the violets worth considering, for they
shed all their brightness by candle light; only red survives undimmed
at night,—but then what a red! a sticky red, like wine-lees, a base,
ignoble tint! Moreover, it struck him as quite superfluous to resort to
this colour, inasmuch as after imbibing a certain small dose of
santonin, a man sees violet, and it becomes the easiest thing in the
world to change about at will and without ever altering the actual tint
of his wall hangings.
All these colours being rejected, three only were left, viz. red,
Of these three, he preferred orange, so confirming by his own
example the truth of a theory he used to declare was almost
mathematically exact in its correspondence with the reality, to wit:
that a harmony is always to be found existing between the sensual
constitution of any individual of a genuinely artistic temperament and
whatever colour his eyes see in the most pronounced and vivid way.
In fact, if we leave out of account the common run of men whose
coarse retinas perceive neither the proper cadence peculiar to each of
the colours nor the subtle charm of their various modifications and
shades; similarly leaving on one side those bourgeois eyes that are
insensible to the pomp and splendour of the strong, vibrating colours;
regarding therefore only persons of delicate, refined visual organs,
well trained in appreciation by the lessons of literature and art, it
appeared to him to be an undoubted fact that the eye of that man
amongst them who has visions of the ideal, who demands illusions to
satisfy his aspirations, who craves veils to hide the nakedness of
reality, is generally soothed and satisfied by blue and its cognate
tints, such as mauve, lilac, pearl-grey, provided always they remain
tender and do not overpass the border where they lose their
individuality and change into pure violets and unmixed greys.
The blustering, swaggering type of men, on the contrary, the
plethoric, the sanguine, the stalwart go-ahead fellows who scorn
compromises and by-roads to their goal, and rush straight at their
object whatever it is, losing their heads at the first go-off, these
for the most part delight in the startling tones of the reds and
yellows, in the clash and clang of vermilions and chromes that blind
their eyes and surfeit their senses.
Last comes the class of persons, of nervous organization and
enfeebled vigour, whose sensual appetite craves highly seasoned dishes,
men of a hectic, over-stimulated constitution. Their eyes almost
invariably hanker after that most irritating and morbid of colours,
with its artificial splendours and feverish acrid gleams,—orange.
What Des Esseintes' final choice then would be hardly admitted of a
doubt; but indubitable difficulties still remained unsolved. If red and
yellow are accentuated under artificial light, this is not always the
case with their composite, orange, which is a hot-headed fellow and
often blazes out into a crimson or a fire red.
He studied carefully by candle light all its different shades, and
finally discovered one he thought should not lose equilibrium or refuse
to fulfil the offices he claimed of it.
These preliminaries disposed of, he made a point of eschewing, so
far as possible, at any rate in his study, the use of Oriental stuffs
and rugs, which in these days, when rich tradesmen can buy them in the
fancy shops at a discount, have become so common and so much a mark of
Eventually he made up his mind to have his walls bound like his
books in large-grained crushed morocco, of the best Cape skins,
surfaced by means of heavy steel plates under a powerful press.
The panelling once completed, he had the mouldings and tall plinths
painted a deep indigo, a blue lacquer like what the coach-builders use
for carriage bodies, while the ceiling, which was slightly coved, was
also covered in morocco, displaying, like a magnified oeil-de-boeuf,
framed in the orange leather, a circle of sky, as it were, of a rich
blue, wherein soared silver angels, figures of seraphim embroidered
long ago by the Weavers' Guild of Cologne for an ancient cope.
After the whole was arranged and finished, all these several tints
fell into accord at night and did not clash at all; the blue of the
woodwork struck a stable note that was pleasing and satisfying to the
eye, supported and warmed, so to say, by the surrounding shades of
orange, which for their part shone out with a pure, unsullied
gorgeousness, itself backed up and in a way heightened by the near
presence of the blue.
As to furniture, Des Esseintes had no long or laborious searches to
undertake, inasmuch as the one and only luxury of the apartment was to
be books and rare flowers; while reserving himself the right later on
to adorn the naked walls with drawings and pictures, he confined
himself for the present to fitting up almost all round the room a
series of bookshelves and bookcases of ebony, scattering tiger skins
and blue-foxes' pelts about the floor: and installing beside a massive
money-changer's table of the fifteenth century, several deep-seated,
high-backed armchairs, together with an old church lectern of wrought
iron, one of those antique service-desks whereon the deacon of the day
used once to lay the Antiphonary, and which now supported one of the
ponderous volumes of du Cange's Glossarium medaie et infimae
The windows, the glass of which was coarse and semiopaque, bluish
in tinge and with many of the panes filled with the bottoms of bottles,
the protuberances picked out with gilt, allowed no view of the outside
world and admitted only a faint dim "religious" light. They were
further darkened by curtains made out of old priestly stoles, the dull
dead gold of whose embroideries faded off into a background of a
subdued, almost toneless red.
To complete the general effect, above the fireplace, the screen of
which was likewise cut from the sumptuous silk of a Florentine
dalmatic, midway between two monstrances of gilded copper in the
Byzantine style which had come originally from the Abbaye-aux-Bois at
Bièvre, stood a marvellously wrought triptych, each of the three
separate panels carved with a lacelike delicacy of workmanship; this
now contained, guarded under glass let into the triple frame, copied on
real vellum in beautiful missal lettering and adorned with exquisite
illuminations, three pieces of Baudelaire's: right and left, the
sonnets called "The Lovers' Death" and "The Enemy," in the middle, the
prose poem that goes by the English title of "Anywhere out of the
AFTER the sale of his household goods, Des Esseintes kept on the two
old servants who had looked after his invalid mother and between them
had filled the double office of general factotum and hall-porter at the
Château de Lourps. The latter had, up to the date of its being put up
for sale, remained empty and untenanted.
He took with him to Fontenay this pair of domestics broken in to
play the part of sick-nurses, trained to the methodical habits of
wardsmen at a hospital, accustomed to administer at stated hours
spoonfuls of physic and doses of medicinal draughts, subdued to the
rigid quietude of cloistered monks, shut off from all communication
with the outer world, content to spend their lives in close rooms with
doors and windows always shut.
The husband's duty was to keep the rooms clean and fetch the
provisions, the wife's to attend to the cooking. Their master gave up
the first floor of the house for their accommodation, made them wear
thick felt shoes, had double doors installed with well-oiled hinges and
covered the floors with heavy carpeting so as to prevent his hearing
the faintest sound of their footsteps overhead.
Then he arranged with them a code of signals, fixing the precise
significance of different rings on his bell, few or many, long or
short, and appointed a particular spot on his writingdesk where each
month the account books were to be left; in fact, made every possible
disposition so as to avoid the obligation of seeing them or speaking to
them more often than was absolutely indispensable.
More than this, as the woman must needs pass along the front of the
house occasionally on her way to an outhouse where the wood was stored
and he was resolved not to suffer the annoyance of seeing her
commonplace exterior, he had a costume made for her of Flemish grogram,
with a white mutch and a great black hood to muffle face and head, such
as the Béguines still wear to this day at Ghent. The shadow of this
mediaeval coif gliding by in the dusk gave him a conventual feeling,
reminding him of those peaceful, pious settlements, those abodes of
silence and solitude buried out of sight in a corner of the bustling,
He fixed the hours of meals, too, in accordance with a never
varying schedule; indeed his table was of the plainest and simplest,
the feebleness of his digestion no longer permitting him to indulge in
heavy or elaborate repasts.
At five o'clock in winter, after dusk had closed in, he ate an
abstemious breakfast of two boiled eggs, toast and tea; then came
dinner at eleven; he used to drink coffee, sometimes tea or wine,
during the night, and finally played with a bit of supper about five in
the morning, before turning in.
These meals, the details and menu of which were settled once for
all at the beginning of each season of the year, he took on a table
placed in the middle of a small room communicating with his study by a
padded corridor, hermetically closed and allowing neither smell nor
sound to penetrate from one to the other of the two apartments it
served to connect.
The dining-room in question resembled a ship's cabin with its
wooden ceiling of arched beams, its bulkheads and flooring of
pitch-pine, its tiny window-opening cut through the woodwork as a
porthole is in a vessel's side.
Like those Japanese boxes that fit one inside the other, this room
was inserted within a larger one,—the real dining-room as designed by
This latter apartment was provided with two windows; one of these
was now invisible, being hidden by the bulkhead or partition wall,
which could however be dropped by touching a spring, so that fresh air
might be admitted to circulate freely around and within the pitch-pine
enclosure; the other was visible, being situated right opposite the
porthole contrived in the woodwork, but was masked in a peculiar way, a
large aquarium filling in the whole space intervening between the
porthole and the real window in the real house-wall. Thus the daylight
that penetrated into the cabin had first to pass through the outer
window, the panes of which had been replaced by a single sheet of plain
mirror glass, then through the water and last of all through the
glazing of the porthole, which was permanently fixed in its place.
At the hour when the steaming samovar stood on the table, the
moment when in Autumn the sun would be setting in the west, the water
in the aquarium, dull and opaque by daylight, would redden and throw
out fiery flashes as if from a glowing furnace over the light-coloured
Sometimes, of an afternoon, if Des Esseintes happened to be up and
about at that time of day, he would turn the taps connected with a
system of pipes and conduits that enabled the tank to be emptied and
refilled with fresh water, and then by pouring in a few drops of
coloured essences, he could enjoy at his pleasure all the tints, green
or grey, opaline or silvery, that real rivers assume according to the
hue of the heavens, the greater or less ardour of the sun's rays, the
more or less threatening aspect of the rain-clouds, in a word according
to the varying conditions of season and weather.
This done, he could picture himself in the 'tween-decks of a brig
as he gazed curiously at a shoal of ingenious mechanical fishes that
were wound up and swam by clockwork past the port-hole window and got
entangled in artificial water-weeds; at other times, as he inhaled the
strong smell of tar with which the room had been impregnated before he
entered it, he would examine a series of coloured lithographs on the
walls, of the sort one sees in packet-boat offices and shipping
agencies, representing steamers at sea bound for Valparaiso or the
River Plate, alongside framed placards giving the itineraries of the
Royal Mail Steam Packet services and of the various Ocean liners,
freighting charges and ports of call of the Transatlantic mail boats,
Then presently, when he was tired of consulting these time tables,
he would rest his eyes by looking over the collection of chronometers
and mariner's compasses, sextants and dividers, binoculars and charts
scattered about the table, whereon figured only a single book, bound in
sea-green morocco, the "Adventures of Arthur Gordon Pym," specially
printed for his behoof on pure linen-laid paper, hand picked, bearing a
sea-gull for water mark.
In the last resort, he could turn his gaze upon a litter of
fishing-rods, brown tanned nets, rolls of russet-coloured sails, a
miniature anchor made of cork painted black, all heaped together near
the door that communicated with the kitchen by a passage padded, like
the corridor joining the dining-room and study, in such a way as to
absorb every unpleasant smell and disturbing noise.
By these means he could procure himself, without ever stirring from
home, in a moment, almost instantaneously, all the sensations of a long
voyage; the pleasure of moving from place to place, a pleasure which
indeed hardly exists save as a matter of after recollection, almost
never as a present enjoyment at the moment of the actual journey, this
he could savour to the full at his ease, without fatigue or worry, in
this improvised cabin, whose ordered disorder, whose transitional look
and temporary arrangement, corresponded closely enough with the nature
of the flying visits he paid it and the limited time he devoted to his
meals, while it offered an absolute contrast to his working-room,—a
fixed and final spot, a place of system and settled habit, a room
manifestly contrived for the definite enjoyment of a life of cloistered
and learned leisure. In fact it appeared to him a futile waste of
energy to travel when, so he believed, imagination was perfectly
competent to fill the place of the vulgar reality of actual prosaic
facts. To his mind it was quite possible to satisfy all the cravings
commonly supposed to be the hardest to content under the normal
conditions of life, and this merely by a trifling subterfuge, by a more
or less close simulation of the object aimed at by these desires. Thus
it is a sufficiently well-known fact that in these days the epicure who
frequents those restaurants that have a reputation for the excellence
of their cellars is really and truly gratifying his palate by drinking
rare vintages artificially manufactured out of common, cheap wines
treated after M. Pasteur's methods. Now, whether genuine or faked,
these wines have the same aroma, the same colour, the same bouquet,
whence it follows that the pleasure experienced in imbibing these
fictitious, doctored beverages is absolutely identical with the
satisfaction that would be enjoyed from tasting the pure,
unsophisticated liquor now unprocurable even at its weight in gold.
Transferring this artful sophistication, this clever system of
adulteration, into the world of the intellect, there is no doubt we
can, and just as easily as in the material world, enjoy false,
fictitious pleasures every whit as good as the true; no doubt, for
instance, a man can undertake long voyages of exploration sitting in
his armchair by the fireside, helping out, if needful, his recalcitrant
or sluggish imagination by the perusal of some work descriptive of
travels in distant lands; no doubt again that it is quite possible,—
without ever stirring from Paris,—to obtain the health-giving
impression of sea-bathing. In two words, all that is required in this
last case is simply to take a walk to the "Bain Vigier," on a pontoon
moored right out in the middle of the Seine.
There, by just salting your bath and mixing with the water,
according to the formula given in the Pharmacopoeia, a compound of
sulphate of soda, hydrochlorate of magnesia and lime; by drawing from a
box carefully secured by a screw-top a ball of twine or a scrap of
rope's end bought for the purpose at one of those great marine store
dealers' emporiums whose huge warehouses and cellars reek with the
salty smell of the sea and sea-ports; by inhaling these odours which
the twine or ropes end are bound to retain; by examining a lifelike
photograph of the casino and industriously reading the "Guide Joanne"
describing the beauties of the seaside resort where you would like to
be; by letting yourself be lulled by the waves raised in the bath by
the passing river steamers as they steer close past the bathing
pontoon, by listening to the sobbing of the wind as it blusters through
the arches of the bridges and the dull rumble of the omnibuses rolling
six feet above your head across the Pont Royal; just by doing and
suffering these simple things, the illusion is undeniable,
overmastering,perfect; you are as good as at the seaside.
The whole secret is to know how to set about it, to be able to
concentrate the mind on a single point, to attain to a sufficient
degree of self-abstraction to produce the necessary hallucination and
so substitute the vision of the reality for the reality itself.
To tell the truth, artifice was in Des Esseintes' philosophy the
distinctive mark of human genius.
As he used to say, Nature has had her day; she has definitely and
finally tired out by the sickening monotony of her landscapes and
skyscapes the patience of refined temperaments. When all is said and
done, what a narrow, vulgar affair it all is, like a petty shopkeeper
selling one article of goods to the exclusion of all others; what a
tiresome store of green fields and leafy trees, what a wearisome
commonplace collection of mountains and seas!
In fact, not one of her inventions, deemed so subtle and so
wonderful, which the ingenuity of mankind cannot create; no Forest of
Fontainebleau, no fairest moonlight landscape but can be reproduced by
stage scenery illuminated by the electric light; no waterfall but can
be imitated by the proper application of hydraulics, till there is no
distinguishing the copy from the original; no mountain crag but painted
pasteboard can adequately represent; no flower but well chosen silks
and dainty shreds of paper can manufacture the like of!
Yes, there is no denying it, she is in her dotage and has long ago
exhausted the simple-minded admiration of the true artist; the time is
undoubtedly come when her productions must be superseded by art.
Why, to take the one of all her works which is held to be the most
exquisite, the one of all her creations whose beauty is by general
consent deemed the most original and most perfect,—woman to wit, have
not men, by their own unaided effort, manufactured a living, yet
artificial organism that is every whit her match from the point of view
of plastic beauty? Does there exist in this world of ours a being,
conceived in the joys of fornication and brought to birth amid the
pangs of motherhood, the model, the type of which is more dazzlingly,
more superbly beautiful than that of the two locomotives lately adopted
for service on the Northern Railroad of France?
One, the Crampton, an adorable blonde, shrill-voiced,
slender-waisted, with her glittering corset of polished brass, her
supple, catlike grace, a fair and fascinating blonde, the perfection of
whose charms is almost terrifying when, stiffening her muscles of
steel, pouring the sweat of steam down her hot flanks, she sets
revolving the puissant circle of her elegant wheels and darts forth a
living thing at the head of the fast express or racing seaside special!
The other, the Engerth, a massively built, dark-browed brunette, of
harsh, hoarse-toned utterance, with thick-set loins, panoplied in
armour-plating of sheet iron, a giantess with dishevelled mane of black
eddying smoke, with her six pairs of low, coupled wheels, what
overwhelming power when, shaking the very earth, she takes in tow,
slowly, deliberately, the ponderous train of goods waggons.
Of a certainty, among women, frail, fair-skinned beauties or
majestic, brown-locked charmers, no such consummate types of dainty
slimness and of terrifying force are to be found. Without fear of
contradiction may we say: man has done, in his province, as well as the
God in whom he believes.
Thoughts like these would come to Des Esseintes at times when the
breeze carried to his ears the far-off whistle of the baby railroad
that plies shuttlewise backwards and forwards between Paris and Sceaux.
His house was within a twenty minutes' walk or so of the station of
Fontenay, but the height at which it stood and its isolated situation
left it entirely unaffected by the noise and turmoil of the vile hordes
that are inevitably attracted on Sundays by the neighbourhood of a
As for the village itself, he had hardly seen it. Only at night,
from his window, he had looked out over the silent landscape that
stretches down to the foot of a hill on the summit of which rise the
batteries of the Bois de Verrieres.
In the shadow, to right and left, loomed other dimly seen masses,
terracing the hillside and dominated by other far-off batteries and
fortifications, the high revetments of which seemed in the moonlight as
if washed in with silver pigment upon a dark background of sky.
The plain lay partly in the shadows cast by the hills, while the
centre, where the moonlight fell, looked as if it were powdered with
starch and smeared with cold-cream; in the warm air that fanned the
pale grass and brought with it a spicy perfume, the trees stood out
clearly silhouetted with their shaggy leaves and thin stems, which
threw black bars of shadow across the chalky earth strewed with pebbles
that sparkled like shards of broken crockery.
The artificial, rather theatrical air of this landscape was to Des
Esseintes' taste; but after that one afternoon devoted to the search
for a house at the hamlet of Fontenay, he had never again trodden its
streets by daylight. In fact, the green-cry of this district inspired
him with no sort of interest, not offering even the dainty, melancholy
charm to be found in the pitiful, sickly vegetation that has so sore a
struggle to live on the rubbish-heaps of suburban spots near the
Besides, on that memorable day, he had caught sight of paunchy
citizens with flowing whiskers and smartly dressed individuals with
moustaches, carrying their heads high, as if they were something
sacrosanct, evidently magistrates or military officers; and after such
a sight, his usual horror of the human face had been still further
During the last months of his residence in Paris, at the period
when, utterly disillusioned, depressed by hypochondria, eaten up by
spleen, he had reached such a pitch of nervous irritability that the
mere sight of an unpleasant object or disagreeable person was deeply
graven on his brain and several days were needed to efface the impress,
even to a slight degree, of the human form that had formed one of his
most agonizing torments when passed casually in the street.
In positive fact, he suffered pain at the sight of certain types of
face, resented almost as insults the condescending or crabbed
expressions of particular visages, and felt himself sorely tempted to
box the ears of such and such a worthy citizen who strolled by with
half closed lids and a magisterial air, another who stood swinging his
cane and admiring himself in the shop windows, or yet another who
seemed to be pondering the fate of the universe, as he absorbed with
frowning brows the titbits and gossipy paragraphs of his morning paper.
He scented such a depth of stupidity, such a lively hatred of all
his own ideals, such a contempt for literature and art and everything
he himself adored, implanted and profoundly fixed in the meagre brains
of these tradesmen preoccupied to the exclusion of all else by schemes
of swindling and money-grubbing and only accessible to the ignoble
distraction that alone appeals to mean minds, politics, that he would
rush back home in a fury and lock himself up with his books.
Worst of all, he loathed with all his powers of hate the new types
of self-made men, the hideous boors who feel themselves bound to talk
loud and laugh uproariously in restaurants and cafés, who elbow you,
without apology, on the pavements, who, without a word of polite excuse
or so much as a bow, drive the wheels of a child's go-cart between your
ONE division of the shelves fixed against the walls of his blue and
orange working-room was occupied exclusively by Latin works,—those
works which minds broken in to conventionality by listening year after
year to the miserable teaching of School and College lecturers
designate under the generic name of "The Decadence."
The truth is, the Latin language, as it was written at the period
which learned professors still persist in calling the "Golden Age,"
roused his interest scarcely at all. That idiom, confined within such
narrow limits, with its carefully counted, almost invariable turns of
phrase, without suppleness of syntax, without colour or light and
shade; that idiom, ironed smooth on every seam, pruned of the rugged
but often picturesque expressions of earlier epochs, could at a pinch
enunciate the pompous nullities, the vague commonplaces repeated ad
nauseam by the rhetoricians and poets of that day, but so lacking was
it in originality, so instinct with tediousness, that we must, in our
studies of language and literature, come down to the French style of
the age of Louis XIV, to find one so wilfully emasculated, so solemnly
tiresome and sapless.
Among other authors, the gentle Virgil, he whom school ushers name
the Swan of Mantua, presumably because he was not born in that city,
appeared to him as one of the most terrible of pedants, one of the most
dismal twaddlers Antiquity ever produced; his shepherd swains, all
washed and beribboned, taking turn and turn about to empty over the
unfortunate reader's head their slops of sententious, chilly verses,
his Orpheus whom he compares with a weeping nightingale, his Aristaeus
blubbering over bees, his Aeneas, that weak-kneed, fluent personage who
stalks, like a shadow figure at a show, with wooden gestures behind the
ill-fitted and badly oiled screen of the poem, set him beside himself
with exasperation. He might indeed have put up with the tedious
fiddle-faddle these marionettes exchange by way of dialogue as a stage
device; he might even have excused the impudent plagiarisms perpetrated
on Homer, Theocritus, Ennius, Lucretius, the flagrant theft Macrobius
has revealed to us of the whole Second Book of the Aeneid, copied
almost word for word from a poem of Pisander's, he might have forgiven,
in fact, all the indescribable dulness of this farrago of borrowed
verses; but what revolted him more than all was the false ring of those
hexameters, with their tinny tinkle like the rattle of a cracked pot,
with their longs and shorts weighed out by the pound according to the
unalterable laws of a pedantic, barren prosody; it was the framework of
these stiff and formal lines that was beyond all bearing, with their
official stamp and cringing subservience to grammatical propriety,
these verses each mechanically bisected by an unmodifiable caesura,
then stopped off at the tail, always in precisely the same way, by a
dactyle knocking up against a final spondee.
Borrowed from the cast-iron system perfected by Catullus, that
unvarying metrical scheme, unimaginative, inexorable, stuffed full of
useless verbiage and endless amplifications, an array of ingeniously
contrived pegs each fitting into its corresponding and expected hole,
that poor trick of the Homeric "standing epithet," dragged in again and
again without rhyme or reason, all that scanty vocabulary with its
dull, flat tones, were a torment to his sensibility.
It is only fair to add that, if his admiration for Virgil was
decidedly lukewarm and his appreciation of the light lucubrations of
Ovid anything but marked, the disgust he felt for the elephantine
graces of Horace, the twaddle of this unmitigated lout who smirks at
his audience with the painted face and villainous jests of a
superannuated clown, was limitless.
In prose, his enthusiasm was not a whit greater for the redundant
figures and nonsensical digressions of "Chick-Pea" (Cicero); the
braggadocio of his apostrophes, the claptrap of his never-ending
appeals to patriotism, the exaggerated emphasis of his harangues, the
ponderousness of his style, well-fed and full-fleshed, but run to fat
and devoid of bones and marrow, the intolerable litter of his sonorous
adverbs opening every sentence, the monotonous structure of his portly
periods tied awkwardly to each other by a thread of conjunctions, worst
of all his wearisome habits of tautology, were anything but attractive
to him. Caesar again was little more to his taste, for all his
reputation for conciseness; his was the opposite excess,—a
dry-as-dust aridity, a deadly dulness, an unseasonable constipation of
phrase that passes belief.
The end of it all was that he could find mental pabulum neither
among these writers nor among that other class which still forms the
delight of dilettante scholars,—Sallust, who indeed is less insipid
than most of the rest; Livy, sentimental and pompous; Seneca, turgid
and jejune; Suetonius, lymphatic and horrifying; Tacitus, the most
nervous in his studied concision, the most biting, the most sinewy of
them all. In poetry, Juvenal, despite some vigorously conceived lines,
Persius, despite his mysterious insinuations, both left him cold.
Neglecting Tibullus and Propertius, Quintilian and the two Plinies.
Statius, Martial of Bilbilis, Terence even and Plautus, whose jargon,
full as it is of neologisms, made-up words and diminutives, might have
pleased him, had not his low wit and coarse jocosity repelled him, Des
Esseintes only began to be interested in the language of Rome on the
appearance of Lucan, with whom it took on a wider range, becoming
henceforth more expressive and less harsh; that author's laboured
workmanship, his verse, veneered with enamels, studded with jewels,
caught his fancy, albeit his exclusive preoccupation with form, his
tinkling sonorities, his metallic brilliancies, did not entirely hide
from his eyes this author's, vacuity of thought and the emptiness of
the wind-bag phrases that plump out the carcase of the "Pharsalia."
The writer he really loved and who made him reject for good and all
from among the books he read, Lucan and his sounding periods, was
Petronius was an acute observer, a delicate analyst, a marvellous
delineator; calmly, without prejudice, without animosity, he described
the daily life of Rome, setting down in the lively little chapters of
the Satyricon the manners, customs and morals of his day.
Noting facts as they occurred, putting them down in positive black
and white, he disclosed the trivial, every-day existence of the
commonalty, its incidents, its bestialities, its sensualities.
Here, we have the Inspector of Lodgings coming to inquire the names
of the travellers lately arrived; there, it is a brothel where men are
prowling round naked women standing beside placards giving name and
price, while through the half-open doors of the rooms the couples can
be seen at work; elsewhere again, now in country houses full of
insolent luxury, amid a mad display of wealth and ostentation, now in
poverty-stricken taverns with their brokendown pallet-beds swarming
with fleas, the society of the period runs its race,— debauched
cut-purses like Ascyltos and Eumolpus on the look-out for a piece of
luck; old wantons of the male sex with their tucked-up gowns and cheeks
plastered with ceruse and acacia red; minions of sixteen, plump and
curly-headed; women frantic with hysteria; legacy hunters offering
their boys and girls to gratify the lustful caprices of rich men; all
these and more gallop across the pages, quarrel in the streets, finger
each other at the baths, belabour each other with fisticuffs like the
characters in a pantomime.
All this told with an extraordinary vigour and precision of
colouring, in a style that borrows from every dialect, that cribs words
from every language imported into Rome, that rejects all the
limitations, breaks . all the fetters of the so-called "Golden Age,"
that makes each man speak in his own peculiar idiom—freemen, without
education, the vernacular Latin, the argot of the streets; foreigners,
their barbarian lingo, saturated with African, Syrian, Greek
expressions; idiotic pedants, like the Agamemnon of the Satyricon,
a rhetoric of invented words. All these people are drawn with a free
pencil, squatted round a dining-table, exchanging the imbecile
conversation of tipsy revellers, mouthing dotards' wise saws and
pointless proverbs, all eyes turned upon Trimalchio, the giver of the
feast, who sits picking his teeth, offers the company chamber-pots,
discourses of his insides, begging his guests to make themselves at
This realistic romance, this slice cut from the raw of Roman life,
without one thought, whatever people may say, whether of reforming or
satirizing society, without any moral purpose whatever or idea of
moralizing, this tale,—there is neither intrigue nor action in it,—
bringing before the reader the love adventures of male prostitutes,
analyzing with calm address the joys and griefs of these amours and
these amorous couples, depicting in language wrought to the perfection
of a piece of goldsmith's work, without the writer once showing
himself, without a word of comment, without one phrase of approbation
or disapproval of his characters' deeds and thoughts, the vices of a
decrepit civilization, an Empire falling to ruin, rivetted Des
Esseintes' attention; he saw inthe refinements of its style, the
keenness of its observation, its closely knit, methodical construction,
a strange likeness, a curious analogy with the three or four modern
French novels that he could stomach.
We may be sure he bitterly regretted the loss of the Eustion
and the Albutia, two works by Petronius mentioned by Planciades
Fulgentius, but now vanished beyond possibility of recovery; however,
the bibliophile side of him came in to console the scholarly, as he
fondled in reverent hands the example he owned of the superb edition of
the Satyricon, the octavo edition bearing date 1585 printed by
J. Dousa at Leyden.
After Petronius, his collection of Latin authors came to the Second
Century of the Christian era, skipping over the declaimer Fronto, with
his old-fashioned turns of speech and his ill-adjusted, ill-polished
style, leaving on one side the Noctes Atticae of Aulus Gellius,
his disciple and friend, a sagacious and inquisitive mind, but as a
writer embarrassed by a sticky, glutinous style,—only stopping when
he reached Apuleius, the editio princeps of which author he possessed
the folio printed at Rome in 1469.
This African rhetorician was his delight; the Latin language was
surely at its best and richest in him, rolling along in a full, copious
flood, fed by many tributary streams from all the Provinces of the
Empire, and combining all these different elements to form one strange,
exotic dialect, hardly dreamed of before; in it new mannerisms, new
details of Latin society found expression in new turns of phrase,
invented in the stress of conversation in a little Roman town in a
corner of Africa. Moreover, the man's bonhomie,—he was a fat, jovial
boon companion, there could be no doubt of that,—and the warm-blooded
exuberance of his southern nature tickled our hero's fancy. He had the
air of a gay and genial comrade, not mealy-mouthed by any means,
alongside of the Christian apologists, his contemporaries,—the
soporific Minutius Felix, a pseudoclassic, ladling out in his Octavius Cicero's heavy periods, grown heavier than ever, or even
Tertullian himself, whom he kept on his shelves more perhaps for the
sake of the Aldine edition of his works than for any love of the
Well equipped as he was for Theological disquisitions, the
argumentations of theMontanists against the Catholic Church, the
polemics of the latter against gnosticism, left him cold; so, despite
the preciosity of Tertullian's style, a style rigorously compressed,
full of quibbles and amphibologies, based on a liberal use of
participles, emphasized by continual antitheses, crammed with puns and
plays upon words, variegated with words borrowed from the language of
jurisprudence and the diction of the Greek Fathers, he hardly ever now
opened the Apologetica or the Tractate on Patience; the
most he ever did was to skim through a page or two of the De Cultu
Feminarum, in which Tertullian charges the sex not to bedeck their
persons with jewels and precious stuffs and forbids them to make use of
cosmetics because they are thereby trying to correct and improve on
These ideas, the precise opposite of his own, made him smile;
though the part played by Tertullian as Bishop of Carthage seemed to
him suggestive in the way of pleasant day-dreams. In a word, it was
really the man more than his works that attracted him.
He had, in truth, lived in stormy times, at a period of fearful
stress and strain, under Caracalla, under Macrinus, under that amazing
personage, the High-Priest of Emessa, Elagabalus; and he had gone on
calmly and quietly writing his sermons, composing his dogmatic
treatises, preparing his apologies and homilies, while the Roman Empire
was tottering to its foundations, while the frantic follies of Asia and
the foul vices of Paganism were at their worst; he was preaching with
an air of perfect self-possession carnal abstinence, frugality of diet,
sobriety of dress at the very moment when, treading on powder of silver
and sand of gold, his head crowned with a tiara, his robes studded with
precious stones, Elagabalus was at work, among his eunuchs, at women s
tasks, calling himself by the title of Empress and every night lying
with a new Emperor, selecting him for choice from the ranks of the
Court barbers and scullions, or the charioteers from the Circus.
This contrast delighted him; then the Latin language, after
attaining to supreme maturity in Petronius, was beginning to break up;
the literature of Christianity was claiming its place, bringing in
along with new ideas new words, unfamiliar constructions, strange
verbs, adjectives of far-fetched meanings, abstract nouns, hitherto
scarce in the Roman tongue, and of which Tertullian had been one of the
first to introduce the usage.
Only this degeneration, which was carried further after
Tertullian's death by his pupil St. Cyprian, by Arnobius, by the muddy
Lactantius, was eminently unattractive. It was a gradual decay, slow
and incomplete, marked by awkward attempts to return to the emphasis of
the Ciceronian periods, not yet possessing that special raciness which
in the Fourth and still more in the succeeding Centuries the odour of
Christianity will give to the Pagan tongue, as it decomposes little by
little, acquires a stronger and stronger aroma of decay, dropping bit
by bit to pieces pari passu with the crumbling of the civilization of
the Ancient World, with the collapse, before the advance of the
Barbarian hordes, of the Empires rotted by the putrescence of the ages.
Only one Christian poet, Commodian of Gaza, was to be found in his
library as representative of the art of the Third Century. The Carmen Apologeticum, written about 259 A.D., is a compendium of
rules of conduct, tortured into acrostics, composed in rude hexameters,
divided by a caesura after the fashion of heroic verse, but without any
attention to quantity or the rules of hiatus and often eked out with
rhymes of the kind ecclesiastical Latin later on afforded numerous
These strained, sombre verses, with their touch of savagery, full
of common, vernacular expressions, of words deflected from their
original meanings, appealed to him, interested him even more than the
style, over-ripe and already decadent, the historians Ammianus
Marcellinus and Aurelius Victor, of the letter-writer Symmachus and the
compiler and grammarian Macrobius; he even preferred them to the lines,
correctly scanned, and the variegated and superbly picturesque diction
of Claudian, Rutilius and Ausonius.
These were in their day the masters of the art; they filled the
dying Empire with their swan songs,—the Christian Ausonius with his Cento Nuptialis and his copious and elaborate poem on the Moselle;
Rutilius, with his hymns to the glory of Rome, his anathemas against
the Jews and against the Monks, his itinerary of Cisalpine Gaul, where
he manages sometimes to render certain aspects of the beauties of
Nature, the vague charm of landscapes reflected in water, the mirage of
mists, the flying vapours about the mountain tops.
Then there is Claudian, a kind of avatar of Lucan, who dominates
all the Fourth Century with the terrific clarion of his verse—a poet
who wrought a striking and sonorous hexameter, beating out, amid
showers of sparks, the right epithet at a blow, attaining a certain
grandeur, filling his work with a puissant breath of life. In the
Western Empire falling more and more into ruin, amid the confusion of
the repeated disasters that fall upon it, unchecked by the constant
threat of invasion by the Barbarians now pressing in hordes at the very
gates of the Empire whose bolts and bars are cracking under the strain,
he revivifies Antiquity, sings of the Rape of Proserpine, lays on his
brilliant colours, goes by with all his fires ablaze in the gathering
gloom that is overspreading the world.
Paganism lives again in him, sounding its last fanfare, raising its
last great poet high above the Christianity that is from his day
onwards utterly to submerge the language and for ever after remain
absolute arbiter and master of poetry,—with Paulinus, pupil of
Ausonius, with the Spanish priest Juvenous, who paraphrases the Gospels
in verse, with Victorinus, author of the Macchabaei, with
Sanctus Burdigalensis, who in an Eclogue copied from Virgil makes the
herdsmen Egon and Buculus deplore the maladies of their flocks. Then
these are succeeded by all the series of the Saints,—Hilary of
Poitiers, the champion of the faith of Nicaea, the Athanasius of the
West, as he was called; Ambrosius, the author of indigestible homilies,
the wearisome Christian Cicero; Damasus, the fabricator of epigrams cut
and polished like precious stones; Jerome, the translator of the
Vulgate, and his adversary Vigilantius of Comminges who attacks the
worship of the saints, the abuse of miracles and the practice of fasts,
and already preaches, using arguments the ages will go on repeating one
to the other, against monastic vows and the celibacy of the clergy.
At last, in the Fifth Century, comes Augustine, Bishop of Hippo.
Him Des Esseintes knew only too well, for he was the writer of all
others most highly reputed by the Church, the founder of Christian
orthodoxy, the theologian whom good Catholics regard as an oracle, a
sovereign authority. Result: he never opened his books any more, albeit
he had celebrated, in his Confessions, his disillusionment with
this world and with groans of pious contrition; in his Civitas Dei,
had endeavoured to assuage the woeful distress of the age by seductive
promises of better things to come in a future life. In the years when
he was an active theologian, he was already a tired man, sated with his
own preachings and jeremiads, weary of his theories on predestination
and grace, exhausted by his fights against the schisms.
Des Esseintes liked better to dip into the Psychomachia of
Prudentius, the inventor of the allegorical poem, destined later on to
flourish uninterruptedly in the Middle Ages, or the Works of Sidonius
Apollinaris, whose correspondence, stuffed with sallies, points of wit,
archaisms, enigmas, attracted him. He was always ready to read the
panegyrics, wherein, in support of his pompous praises, he invokes the
deities of Paganism, and in spite of his better judgment, could not but
acknowledge a weakness for the affectations and hidden meanings of
these poems put together by an ingenious mechanic who loves his
machine, scrupulously oils its working parts, and is prepared at a
pinch to invent new ones just as complicated and as useless as the old.
After Sidonius, again, he kept on familiar terms with the
panegyrist Merobaudes; Sedulius, author of rhymed poems and
alphabetical hymns of whichthe Church has appropriated portions to
incorporate in her offices; Marius Victor, whose dark and dismal
tractate on the Perversity of Morals is lit up here and there by lines
that glitter like phosphorus; Paulinus of Pella, the poet of that icy
production the Eucharisticon; Orientius, Bishop of Auch, who in the
distichs of his Monitoria rails at the licence of women, whose faces,
he declares, destroy the nations.
The interest that Des Esseintes felt in the Latin language remained
as strong as ever even now when, rotten through and through, it hung a
decaying carcase, losing its limbs, distilling its pus, barely keeping,
in the utter corruption of its body, a few sound parts which the
Christians abstracted to preserve them in the salt pickle of their new
The second half of the Fifth Century was come, the appalling period
when unspeakable troubles afflicted the world. The Barbarians were
ravaging Gaul; Rome, paralyzed, sacked by the Visigoths, felt her life
frozen within her veins as she saw her outlying limbs, the East and the
West, struggling in a sea of blood, growing more and more exhausted
from day to day.
Amid the general dissolution, amid the assassinations of Caesars
that follow close on each other's heels, amid the uproar of slaughter
that rolls from end to end of Europe, a wild hurrah broke forth,
terrifying men's hearts, and drowning all other sounds. On the banks of
the Danube, thousands of men, perched on little horses, wrapt in
rat-skin coats, hideous Tartars with immense heads, flat noses, chins
furrowed with wounds and scars, jaundiced, hairless faces, are rushing
down helter-skelter on the provinces of the Lower Empire, overwhelming
everything in the whirlwind of their advance.
Civilization disappeared in the dust of their gallop, in the smoke
of their fires. Darkness fell upon the world and the peoples trembled
in consternation as they heard the dread host rush by with a sound of
thunder. The horde of Huns swept over Europe, precipitated itself on
Gaul, to be overwhelmed on the plains of Châlons where Aëtius heaped up
its dead in a fearful carnage. The land was gorged with blood,—a very
sea of rolling purple; two hundred thousand corpses barred the road and
broke the onrush of this avalanche that, turned aside, fell like a
thunderclap on Italy, whose ruined cities flamed up to heaven like so
many fired hay-ricks.
The Eastern Empire crumbled under the shock; the expiring life it
still dragged out in decrepitude and corruption was extinguished. The
last end of the universe indeed seemed near at hand; the cities Attila
had passed over were decimated by plague and famine. The Latin tongue,
too, seemed to be perishing amid the ruins of a world.
Years rolled by; presently the Barbarian idioms grew more regular,
began to emerge from their uncouth envelopes, to develop into true
languages; Latin, rescued in the general cataclysm by the Monasteries,
was limited to the Religious Houses and the secular cures. Only here
and there a few poets appeared, cold, difficult versifiers,—the
African Dracontius with his Hexameron; Claudius Mamert, with his
liturgical poems; Avitus of Vienna; then presently biographers, such as
Ennodius, who relates the miracles of St. Epiphanes, the acute and
venerated diplomatist, the upright and vigilant pastor, such as
Eugippus, who has recorded for us the incomparable life of St. Severin,
the mysterious anchorite, the humble ascetic, who appeared like an
angel of mercy to the mourning nations, mad with pain and fear; then
again writers like Veranius of the Gevaudan, who composed a little
treatise on Continence, like Aurelian and Ferreolus who compiled Church
canons; historians like Rotherius of Agde, famed for a History of the
Huns, now lost.
Works of the next succeeding centuries were few and far between on
Des Esseintes' shelves. Still the Sixth Century was represented by
Fortunatus, Bishop of Poitiers, whose hymns and the Vexilla Regis,
hacked out of the ancient carcase of the Latin language, and flavoured
with the aromatic spices of the Church, haunted his thoughts on certain
days; by Boetius Gregory of Tours, and Jornandes. Then, in the Seventh
and Eighth Centuries, inasmuch as, (over and above the Low Latin of the
Chroniclers, such as Fredegarius and Paul the Deacon, and verses
comprised in the Bangor Antiphonary, one hymn in which, the one that
forms an acrostic and has one and the same rhyme ending every line,
composed in honour of St. Comgill, he sometimes looked at),
contemporaryliterature was almost exclusively confined to Lives of the
Saints,—the legend of St. Columba by the cenobite Jonas and that of
the Blessed Cuthbert compiled by the Venerable Bede from the notes of
an anonymous monk of Lindisfarne, he confined himself to turning over
at odd moments the pages of these Hagiographers and re-reading extracts
from the Lives of St. Rusticula and St. Radegonde, related, the former
by Defensorius, Synodite of Ligugé, the latter by the modest and
simple-hearted Baudonivia, a Nun of Poitiers.
However, certain singular productions of Latin literature in
Anglo-Saxon lands were more to his liking; there was for instance the
whole series of the enigmas of Aldhelm, of Tatwine, of Eusebius, those
inheritors of Symphosius' mantle, and in especial the riddles composed
by St. Boniface in the form of acrostics, where the answer is given by
the initial letters of the lines of each stanza.
His predilection grew less and less towards the end of these two
Centuries; finding small pleasure indeed in the ponderous prose of the
Carlovingian Latinists, the Alcuins and Eginhards, he contented
himself, by way of specimens of the language of the Ninth Century, with
the anonymous chronicler of St. Gall, with Freculf and Reginon, with
the poem on the Siege of Paris indited by Abbo Le Courbé, with the
Hortulus, the didactic poem of the Benedictine Walafrid Strabo, whose
canto devoted to the glorification of the pumpkin, symbol of fecundity,
charmed his sense of humour. Another favourite was the poem of Ermold
the Black, celebrating the exploits of Louis le Débonnaire, a poem
written in regular hexameters, in a severe, black style, in a diction
of iron tempered in monastic waters, with here and there threads of
sentiment imbedded in the hard metal; yet another, the De Viribus
Herbarum, a poem of Macer Floridus on simples, which particularly
delighted him by its poetical recipes and the extraordinary virtues he
attributes to certain herbs and flowers,—to the aristolochia or
birthwort, for example, which mixed with beef and laid as a plaster on
a woman's abdomen is an infallible specific to make her bear a male
child, or the borage, which sprinkled in an infusion about a dining
hall, ensures the guests being all merry, or the peony, the pounded
root of which cures head-ache for good and all, or the fennel, which,
applied to a woman's bosom, clarifies her discharges and stimulates the
sluggishness of her periods.
Except for a few special volumes, unclassed, certain works, modern
or undated, cabalistic, medical and botanical, sundry odd tomes of
Migne's Patrology, preserving Christian poems not to be found
elsewhere, and Wernsdorff's Anthology of the Minor Latin Poets, except
for Meursius, Forberg's Manual of Classical Erotology, the Moechialogy
and the Diaconals for the use of Father Confessors, which he would take
down from the shelves to dust at long intervals, with these exceptions,
his Latin collections stopped with the beginning of the Tenth Century.
For truly the quaint originality, the complex simplicity of
Christian Latinity had likewise come to an end. Henceforth the
fiddle-faddle of philosophers and scholiasts, the vain logomachies of
the Schoolmen, were to reign in undisputed mastery. The sooty masses of
chronicles and books of history, the leaden lumps of the Cartularies,
were to rise in more and more mountainous heaps, while the stammering
grace, the clumsy but often exquisite simplicity of the Monks setting
in a pious hotchpotch the poetical relics of Antiquity were no more,
the fabrication of verses of refined sweetness, of substantives
smelling of incense, of quaint adjectives, roughly shaped out of gold,
in the barbarous, fascinating taste of Gothic jewelry, ceased. The old
editions, fondly cherished by Des Esseintes, came to an end,—and
making a prodigious jump over the centuries, he loaded the rest of his
shelves with modern, vernacular works that, heedless of the slow
progression of the ages, came down at once to the French of the present
A CARRIAGE stopped late one afternoon before the house at Fontenay. As
Des Esseintes never received a visitor; as even the postman did not
venture within these deserted precincts, never having either newspaper,
review or letter to leave there, the servants hesitated, asking
themselves if they ought to open. But presently, at the repeated
summons of the bell outside the wall pulled with a vigorous hand, they
went so far as to draw aside the judas let into the door; this done,
they beheld a Gentleman whose whole breast was covered, from neck to
waist, with a vast buckler of gold.
They informed their master, who was at breakfast.
"By all means," said he, "bring the gentleman in,"—for he
remembered having on one occasion given his address to a lapidary to
enable the man to deliver an article he had ordered.
The Gentleman came in, made his bow and deposited in the
dining-room, on the pitch-pine flooring, his gold shield, which swayed
backwards and forwards, rising a little bit from the ground and
extending at the extremity of a snake-like neck a turtle's head which
next instant it drew back in a scare under its shell.
This turtle was the result of a whim that had suddenly occurred to
Des Esseintes a short while before his leaving Paris. Looking one day
at an Oriental carpet with iridescent gleams of colour and following
with his eyes the silvery glints that ran across the web of the wool,
the colours of which were an opaque yellow and a plum violet, he had
told himself: it would be a fine experiment to set on this carpet
something that would move about and the deep tint of which would bring
out and accentuate these tones.
Possessed by this idea, he had strolled at random through the
streets; had arrived at the Palais-Royal, and in front of Chevet's
window had suddenly struck his forehead,—a huge turtle met his eyes
there, in a tank. He had bought the creature; then, once it was left to
itself on the carpet, he had sat down before it and gazed long at it,
screwing up his eyes.
Alas! there was no doubt, the negro-head hue, the raw sienna tone
of the shell dimmed the sheen of the carpet instead of bringing out the
tints; the dominant gleams of silver now barely showed, clashing with
the cold tones of scraped zinc alongside this hard, dull carapace.
He gnawed his nails, searching in vain for a way to reconcile these
discordances, to prevent this absolute incompatibility of tones. At
last he discovered that his original notion of lighting up the fires of
the stuff by the to-and-fro movements of a dark object set on it was
mistaken; the fact of the matter was, the carpet was still too bright,
too crude, too new-looking. Its colours were not sufficiently softened
and toned down; the thing was to reverse the proposed expedient, to
deaden the tints, to stifle them by the contrast of a brilliant object
that should kill everything round it, casting the flash of gold over
the pale sheen of silver. Thus looked at, the problem was easier to
solve. Accordingly he resolved to have his turtle's back glazed over
Once back from the jeweller's who had taken it in to board at his
workshop, the beast blazed like a sun in splendour, throwing its
flashing rays over the carpet, whose tones were weak and cold in
comparison, looking for all the world like a Visigothic targe inlaid
with shining scales, the handiwork of some Barbaric craftsman.
At first, Des Esseintes was enchanted with the effect; but he soon
came to the conclusion that this gigantic jewel was only half finished,
that it would not be really complete and perfect till it was incrusted
with precious stones.
He selected from a collection of Japanese curios a design
representing a great bunch of flowers springing from a thin stalk, took
it to a jeweller's, sketched out a border to enclose this bouquet in an
oval frame, and informed the dumb-founded lapidary that every leaf and
every petal or the flowers was to be executed in precious stones and
mounted in the actual scales of the turtle.
The choice of the stones gave him pause; the diamond had grown
singularly hackneyed now that every business man wears one on his
little finger; Oriental emeralds and rubies are less degraded and dart
fine, flashing lights, but they are too reminiscent of those green and
red eyes that shine as head-lights on certain lines of Paris omnibuses;
as for topazes, burnt or raw, they are cheap stones, dear to the humble
housewife who loves to lock up a jewel-case or two in a glasscupboard;
of another sort, the amethyst, albeit the Church has given it something
of a sacerdotal character, is yet a stone spoilt by its frequent use to
ornament the red ears and bulbous hands of butchers' wives who are fain
at a modest cost to bedeck their persons with genuine and heavy jewels.
Alone among all these, the sapphire keeps its fires inviolate, unharmed
by the folly of tradesmen and money-grubbers. The brilliance of its
fire that sparkles from a cold, limpid background has to some degree
guaranteed against defilement its discreet and haughty nobility. But
unfortunately by artificial light its bright flames flash no longer;
the colour sinks back into itself and seems to go to sleep, only to
wake and sparkle again at daybreak.
No, not one of these stones satisfied Des Esseintes; besides, they
were all too civilized, too familiar. He preferred other, more
startling and uncommon, sorts. After fingering a number of these and
letting them trickle through his hands, he finally picked out a series
of stones, some real, some artificial, the combination of which should
produce a harmony, at once fascinating and disconcerting.
He combined together the several parts of his bouquet in this way:
the leaves were set with stones of a strong and definite green colour,
- chrysoberyls, asparagus green; peridots, leek green; olives, olive
green, springing from twigs of almandine and ouvarovite of a purple
red, gems throwing out sparkles of a clear, dry brilliance like the
incrustations of tartar that glitter on the insides of wine-casks.
For the blossoms that stood isolated, far removed from the stalk,
he used an ashen blue, rejecting, however, definitely the Oriental
turquoise that is used for brooches and rings, and which, along with
the commonplace pearl and the odious coral form the delight of vulgar
souls; he selected exclusively those European turquoises that, strictly
speaking, are only a fossil ivory impregnated with coppery
infiltrations and whose sea-green blue is heavy, opaque, sulphurous, as
if jaundiced with bile.
This done, he could now proceed to incrust the petals of such
blossoms as grew in the middle of the bunch, those in closest
neighbourhood of the stem, with certain translucent stones, possessing
a glassy, sickly sheen with feverish, vivid bursts of fire.
Three gems, and only three, he employed for this purpose,—Ceylon
cat's-eyes, cymophanes and sapphirines.
All three were stones that flashed with mysterious, incalculable
sparkles, painfully drawn from the chill interior of their turbid
substance,—the cat's eye of a greenish grey, striped with concentric
veins that seem to be endowed with motion, to stir and shift every
instant according to the way the light falls; the cymophane with bluish
waterings running across the milky hue that appears afloat within; the
sapphirine that lights up blue, phosphorescent fires on a dull,
The lapidary took careful notes and measures as to the exact places
where the stones were to be let in. "And the edges of the shell?" he
presently asked Des Esseintes.
The latter had thought at first of a border of opals and
hydrophanes. But these stones, interesting as they are by their curious
variations of colour and changes of sparkle, are too difficult and
untrustworthy to deal with; the opal has a quite rheumatic
sensitiveness, the play of its rays is entirely modified according to
the degree of moisture, and of heat and cold, while the hydrophane has
no fire, refuses to light up the grey glow of its furnace except in
water, after it has been wetted.
Finally he settled on stones whose hues would supplement each
other,—the hyacinth of Compostella, mahogany red; the aquamarine, sea
green; the balass ruby, vinegar rose; the Sudermania ruby, pale
slate-colour. Their comparatively feeble play of colours would suffice
to light up the deadness of the dull, grey shell, while leaving its
full value to the brilliant bouquet of jewelled blossoms which they
framed in a slender garland of uncertain splendours.
Des Esseintes stood gazing at the turtle where it lay huddled
together in one corner of the dining-room, flashing fire in the dim
He felt perfectly happy; his eyes were intoxicated with the
splendours of these flowers flashing in jewelled flames against a
golden background. Then, contrary to his use, he had an appetite and
was dipping his slices of toast spread with super-excellent butter in a
cup of tea, an impeccable blend of Si-a-Fayoun, Mo-you-tann and
Khansky,—yellow teas, imported from China into Russia by special
This liquid perfume he drank from those cups of Oriental porcelain
known as egg-shell china, so delicate and transparent are they; in the
same way, just as he would have nothing to say to any other save this
adorably dainty ware, he refused to use as dishes and plates anything
else but articles of genuine antique silver-gilt, a trifle worn so that
the underlying silver shows a little here and there under the film of
gold, giving a tender, old-world look as of something fading away in a
quiet death of exhaustion.
After swallowing his last mouthful, he went back to his study,
whither he directed a servant to bring the turtle, which obstinately
declined to make the smallest effort towards locomotion.
Outside the snow was falling. In the lamplight, ice arabesques
glittered on the dark windows and the hoar-frost sparkled like crystals
of sugar on the bottle-glass panes speckled with gold.
A deep silence wrapped the little house that lay asleep in the
Des Esseintes stood lost in dreams; the logs burning on the hearth
filled the room with hot, stifling vapours, and presently he threw the
window partly open.
Like an overhanging canopy of reversed ermine, the sky rose before
him, a black curtain dappled with white.
An icy wind was blowing, that sent the snow spinning before it and
soon reversed this first arrangement of black and white. The sky
returned to the correct heraldic blazon, became a true ermine, white
dappled with sable, where the black of night showed here and there
through the general whiteness of the snowy mantle of descending
He closed the window again. But this quick change, without any
intermediate transition, from the torrid heat of the room to the cold
of mid-winter had given him a shock; he crouched back beside the fire
and thought he would swallow a dose of spirits to restore his bodily
He made his way to the dining-room, where in a recess in one of the
walls, a cupboard was contrived, containing a row of little barrels,
ranged side by side, resting on miniature stocks of sandal wood and
each pierced with a silver spigot in the lower part.
This collection of liquor casks he called his mouth organ. A small
rod was so arranged as to connect all the spigots together and enable
them all to be turned by one and the same movement, the result being
that, once the apparatus was installed, it was only needful to touch a
knob concealed in the panelling to open all the little conduits
simultaneously and so fill with liquor the tiny cups hanging below each
The organ was then open. The stops, labelled "flute," "horn," "vox
humana," were pulled out, ready for use. Des Esseintes would imbibe a
drop here, another there, another elsewhere, thus playing symphonies on
his internal economy, producing on his palate a series of sensations
analogous to those wherewith music gratifies the ear.
Indeed, each several liquor corresponded, so he held, in taste with
the sound of a particular instrument. Dry curacao, for instance, was
like the clarinet with its shrill, velvety note; kummel like the oboe,
whose timbre is sonorous and nasal; creme de menthe and anisette like
the flute, at one and the same time sweet and poignant, whining and
soft. Then, to complete the orchestra, comes kirsch, blowing a wild
trumpet blast; gin and whisky, deafening the palate with their harsh
outbursts of comets and trombones; liqueur brandy, blaring with the
overwhelming crash of the tubas, while the thunder peals of the cymbals
and the big drum, beaten might and main, are reproduced in the mouth by
the rakis of Chios and the mastics.
He was convinced too that the same analogy might be pushed yet
further, that quartettes of stringed instruments might be contrived to
play upon the palatal arch, with the violin represented by old brandy,
delicate and heady, biting and clean-toned; with the alto, simulated by
rum, more robust, more rumbling, more heavy in tone; with vespetro,
long-drawn, pathetic, as sad and tender as a violoncello; with the
double-bass, full-bodied, solid and black as a fine, old bitter beer.
One might even, if anxious to make a quintette, add yet another
instrument,—the harp, mimicked with a sufficiently close
approximation by the keen savour, the silvery note, clear and
self-sufficing, of dry cumin.
Nay, the similarity went to still greater length, analogies not
only of qualities of instruments, but of keys were to be found in the
music of liquors; thus, to quote only one example, Bénédictine figures,
so to speak, the minor key corresponding to the major key of the
alcohols which the scores of wine-merchants' price-lists indicate under
the name of green Chartreuse.
These assumptions once granted, he had reached a stage, thanks to a
long course of erudite experiments, when he could execute on his tongue
a succession of voiceless melodies; noiseless funeral marches, solemn
and stately; could hear in his mouth solos of crême de menthe, duets of
vespetro and rum.
He even succeeded in transferring to his palate selections of real
music, following the composer's motif step by step, rendering his
thought, his effects, his shades of expression, by combinations and
contrasts of allied liquors, by approximations and cunning mixtures of
Sometimes again, he would compose pieces of his own, would perform
pastoral symphonies with the gentle blackcurrent ratafia that set his
throat resounding with the mellow notes of warbling nightingales; with
the dainty cacao-chouva, that sung sugarsweet madrigals, sentimental
ditties like the "Romances d'Estelle"; or the "Ah! vous di-rai-je
maman," of former days.
But tonight, Des Esseintes had no wish to "taste" the delights of
music; he confined himself to sounding one single note on the keyboard
of his instrument, filling a tiny cup with genuine Irish whisky and
taking it away with him to enjoy at his leisure.
He sank down in his armchair and slowly savoured this fermented
spirit of oats and barley—a strongly marked, almost poisonous flavour
of creosote diffused itself through his mouth.
Little by little, as he drank, his thoughts followed the impression
thus re-awakened on his palate, and stimulated by the suggestive savour
of the liquor, were roused by a fatal similarity of taste and smell to
recollections half obliterated years ago.
The acrid, carbolic flavour forcibly recalled the very same
sensation that had filled his mouth and burned his tongue while the
dentists were at work on his gums.
Once started on this track, his recollections, at first wandering
vaguely over all the different practitioners he had had to do with,
drew to a point, converging on one of the whole number, the eccentric
memory of whose proceedings was gravenwith particular emphasis on his
The thing had happened three years before: seized in the middle of
the night with an abominable toothache, he had done everything a man
does in such a case,—plugging his jaws with cotton-wool, stumbling
against the furniture, pacing up and down his room like a madman.
It was a molar that had been stopped again and again, and was past
cure; only the dentist's forceps could end his misery. In a fever of
agony, he waited for daylight, firmly resolved to bear the most
atrocious operation if only it would put an end to his sufferings.
Still holding his jaws between his hands, he asked himself what to
do. The dentists he usually consulted were well-to-do practitioners who
could not be seen at a moment's notice; a visit must be arranged
beforehand, a regular appointment made. "That is out of the question, I
cannot wait," he told himself; so he made up his mind to go to the
first dentist he could find, to resort to any common, low-class
tooth-drawer, one of those fellows with fists of iron, who, ignorant as
they may be of the art (a mighty useless art, be it said by the way) of
attending to decayed teeth and stopping hollow ones, know how to
extirpate with unparalleled rapidity the most obstinate of aching
stumps. Places of the sort open at daybreak, and there is no waiting.
Seven o'clock struck at last. He dashed out of doors, and remembering a
name he knew of such a mechanic calling himself a dentist and living at
the corner of a neighbouring street, he hurried thither, biting his
handkerchief and keeping back his tears as best he might.
Arrived in front of the house, which was advertised by a huge
wooden placard, whereon the name "Gatonax" sprawled in enormous yellow
letters on a black background and two little glazed cases in which
artificial teeth were ranged in symmetrical lines in gums of pink
composition joined together by mechanical springs of brass wire, he
stood panting for breath, the sweat rolling from his temples; a horrid
spasm shook him, a shudder ran over his skin,—and lo! relief came,
the pain stopped, the tooth ceased to ache.
He halted irresolute on the pavement. But eventually he mastered
his terror, climbed a dark staircase, mounting four steps at a time to
the third floor. There he found on a door an enamelled plaque repeating
in sky-blue lettering the same legend as on the board below. He pulled
the bell; then, appalled at the great red blotches of expectoration he
caught sight of on the steps, he suddenly turned tail, resolved to
endure toothache all his life long, when a fearful screech reached his
ears through the partition and re-echoed in the well of the staircase,
nailing him to the spot in a trance of horror, while at the same
instant a door opened and an old woman begged him to come in.
Shame had won the day over fear; he was shown into a dining-room;
then another door opened noisily, admitting a formidable grenadier of a
man, dressed in a frock coat and black trousers that seemed carved in
wood. Des Esseintes followed him into an inner sanctum.
From that moment his sensations had been vague. Confusedly he
remembered dropping into an armchair before a window, and stammering
out, as he put a finger to his tooth: "It has been stopped already; I
am afraid there's nothing can be done."
The man had cut short this explanation peremptorily, inserting an
enormous fore-finger into his mouth; then, muttering something from
under his lacquered, pointed moustaches, he had picked up an instrument
from a table.
Thereupon the drama had begun. Clinging to the arms of the
operating chair, Des Esseintes had felt a sensation of cold in his
cheek, then his eyes had seen three dozen candles all at once, and so
unspeakable were the tortures he was enduring, he had started beating
the floor with his feet and bellowing like an animal under the
There was a loud crack, the molar had broken in coming away; he
thought they were pulling off his head, smashing in his skull; he lost
all control of himself, howled at the top of his voice; fought
furiously against the man who now came at him again as if he would
plunge his arm to the bottom of his belly; had then suddenly stepped
back a pace and lifting the patient bodily by the tooth still sticking
in his jaw, had let him fall back again violently in a sitting posture
into the chair; next moment he was standing up blocking the window, and
puffing and panting as he brandished at the end of his pincers a blue
tooth with a red thread hanging from it.
Half fainting, Des Esseintes had spit out a basin full of blood,
waved away the old woman who now came in offering him the stump of his
tooth, which she was preparing to wrap up in a piece of newspaper, and
had fled, after paying two francs, taking his turn to leave his
signature in bloody spittle on the steps; then he was once more in the
street, a happy man, feeling ten years younger, ready to be interested
in the veriest trifles.
"B'rrr. . . ." he shivered, horrified at these dismal
reminiscences. He sprang up to break the horrid nightmare of his
thoughts, and coming back to everyday matters, began to feel anxious
about the turtle.
It still lay quite still; he touched it, it was dead. Accustomed no
doubt to a sedentary life, an uneventful existence spent under its
humble carapace, it had not been able to support the dazzling splendour
imposed on it, the glittering garment in which it had been clad, the
pavement of precious stones wherewith they had inlaid its poor back
like a jewelled pyx.
SIMULTANEOUSLY with his craving to escape a hateful world of degrading
restrictions and pruderies, the longing never again to see pictures
representing the human form toiling in Paris between four walls or
roaming the streets in search of money, had obtained a more and more
complete mastery over his mind.
Having once divorced himself from contemporary existence, he was
resolved to suffer in his hermit's cell no spectres of old repugnances
and bygone dislikes; accordingly he had chosen only to possess pictures
of a subtle, exquisite refinement, instinct with dreams of Antiquity,
reminiscent it may be of antique corruption, but at any rate remote
from our modern times and modern manners.
He had selected for the diversion of his mind and the delight of
his eyes works of a suggestive charm, introducing him to an unfamiliar
world, revealing to him traces of new possibilities, stirring the
nervous system by erudite phantasies, complicated dreams of horror,
visions of careless wickedness and cruelty.
Of all others there was one artist who most ravished him with
unceasing transports of pleasure,—Gustave Moreau.
He had purchased his two masterpieces, and night after night he
would stand dreaming in front of one of these, a picture of Salomé.
The conception of the work was as follows: A throne, like the high
altar of a Cathedral, stood beneath an endless vista of vaulted arches
springing from thick-set columns resembling the pillars of a Romanesque
building, encased in many coloured brickwork, incrusted with mosaics,
set with lapis lazuli and sardonyx, in a Palace that recalled a
basilica of an architecture at once Saracenic and Byzantine.
In the centre of the tabernacle surmounting the altar, which was
approached by steps in the shape of a recessed half circle, the
Tetrarch Herod was seated, crowned with a tiara, his legs drawn
together, with hands on knees.
The face was yellow, like parchment, furrowed with wrinkles, worn
with years; his long beard floated like a white cloud over the starry
gems that studded the gold-fringed robe that moulded his breast.
Round about this figure, that sat motionless as a statue, fixed in
a hieratic pose like some Hindu god, burned cressets from which rose
clouds of scented vapour. Through this gleamed, like the phosphoric
glint of wild beasts' eyes, the flash of the jewels set in the walls of
the throne; then the smoke rolled higher, under the arcades of the
roof, mingling its misty blue with the gold dust of the great beams of
sun-light pouring in from the domes.
Amid the heady odour of the perfumes, in the hot, stifling
atmosphere of the great basilica, Salomé, the left arm extended in a
gesture of command, the right bent, holding up beside the face a great
lotus-blossom, glides slowly forward on the points of her toes, to the
accompaniment of a guitar whose strings a woman strikes, sitting
crouched on the floor.
Her face wore a thoughtful, solemn, almost reverent expression as
she began the wanton dance that was to rouse the dormant passions of
the old Herod; her bosoms quiver and, touched lightly by her swaying
necklets, their rosy points stand pouting; on the moist skin of her
body glitter clustered diamonds; from bracelets, belts, rings, dart
sparks of fire; over her robe of triumph, bestrewn with pearls,
broidered with silver, studded with gold, a corselet of chased
goldsmith's work, each mesh of which is a precious stone, seems ablaze
with coiling fiery serpents, crawling and creeping over the pink flesh
like gleaming insects with dazzling wings of brilliant colours, scarlet
with bands of yellow like the dawn, with patterned diapering like the
blue of steel, with stripes of peacock green.
With concentrated gaze and the fixed eyes of a sleep walker, she
sees neither the Tetrarch, who sits there quivering, nor her mother,
the ruthless Herodias, who watches her, nor the hermaphrodite or eunuch
who stands sabre in hand on the lowest step of the throne, a terrible
figure, veiled to below the eyes, the sexless dugs of the creature
hanging like twin gourds under his tunic barred with orange stripes.
The thought of this Salomé, so full of haunting suggestion to the
artist and the poet, had fascinated Des Esseintes for years. How often
had he read in the old Bible of Pierre Variquet, translated by the
Doctors in Theology of the University of Louvain, the Gospel of St.
Matthew where it recounts in brief, naive phrases the beheading of the
Precursor; how often had he dreamed dreams between the simple lines:
"But when Herod's birthday was kept, the daughter of Herodias
danced before them, and pleased Herod.
"Whereupon, he promised with an oath to give her whatsoever she
"And she, being before instructed of her mother, said 'Give me here
John Baptist's head in a charger.'
"And the king was sorry: nevertheless, for the oath's sake, and
them which sat with him at meat, he commanded it to be given her.
"And he sent, and beheaded John in the prison.
"And his head was brought in a charger, and given to the damsel:
and she brought it to her mother."
But neither St. Matthew, nor St. Mark, nor St. Luke, nor any other
of the Sacred Writers had enlarged on the maddening charms and the
active allurements of the dancer. She had always remained a dim,
obliterated figure, lost with her mysterious fascination in the far-off
mist of the centuries, not to be realized by exact and pedestrian
minds, only appealing to brains shaken and sharpened, made visionary as
it were by hysteria; she had always eluded the grasp of fleshy
painters, such as Rubens who travestied her as a Flemish butcher's
wife; always baffled the comprehension of writers who have never yet
succeeded in rendering the delirious frenzy of the wanton, the subtle
grandeur of the murderess.
In the work of Gustave Moreau, going for its conception altogether
beyond the meagre facts supplied by the New Testament, Des Esseintes
saw realized at last the Salomé, weird and superhuman, he had dreamed
of. No longer was she merely the dancing-girl who extorts a cry of lust
and concupiscence from an old man by the lascivious contortions of her
body; who breaks the will, masters the mind of a King by the spectacle
of her quivering bosoms, heaving belly and tossing thighs; she was now
revealed in a sense as the symbolic incarnation of world-old Vice, the
goddess of immortal Hysteria, the Curse of Beauty supreme above all
other beauties by the cataleptic spasm that stirs her flesh and steels
her muscles,—a monstrous Beast of the Apocalypse, indifferent,
irresponsible, insensible, poisoning, like Helen of Troy of the old
Classic fables, all who come near her, all who see her, all who touch
So understood, she belonged to the ancient Theogonies of the Far
East; no longer she drew her origin from Biblical tradition; could not
even be likened to the living image of Babylonish Whoredom, or the
Scarlet Woman, the Royal Harlot of Revelations, bedecked like her with
precious stones and purple, tired and painted like her; for she was not
driven by a fateful power, by a supreme, irresistible force, into the
alluring perversities of debauch.
Moreover, the painter seemed to have wished to mark his deliberate
purpose to keep outside centuries of history; to give no definite
indication of race or country or period, setting as he does his Salomé
in the midst of this strange Palace, with its confused architecture of
a grandiose complexity; clothing her in sumptuous, fantastic robes,
crowning her with a diadem of no land or time shaped like a Phoenician
tower such as Salammbô wears, putting in her hand the sceptre of Isis,
the sacred flower of Egypt and of India, the great lotus-blossom.
Des Esseintes strove to fathom the meaning of this emblem. Did it
bear the phallic signification the primordial religions of India give
it; did it proclaim to the old Tetrarch a sacrifice of a woman's
virginity, an exchange of blood, an incestuous embrace asked for and
offered on the express condition of a murder? Or was it intended to
suggest the allegory of Fertility, the Hindu myth of Life, an existence
held betwixt the fingers of woman, snatched away and defiled by the
lustful hands of man, who is seized by a sudden madness, bewildered by
the cry of the flesh?
Perhaps, too, in arming his enigmatic goddess with the revered
lotus-flower, the painter had thought of the dancing harlot of all
times, the mortal woman the temple of whose body is defiled,—cause of
all the sins and all the crimes; perhaps he had remembered the
sepulchral rites of ancient Egypt, the ritual ceremonies of the
embalmment, when surgeons and priests stretch the dead woman's body on
a slab of jasper, then with curved needles extract her brains through
the nostrils, her entrails through an incision opened in the left side;
finally, before gilding the nails and teeth, before coating the corpse
with bitumen and precious essences, insert into her sexual parts, to
purify them, the chaste petals of the divine flower.
Be this as it may, an irresistible fascination breathed from the
canvas; but the water-colour entitled "The Apparition" was perhaps even
yet more troubling to the senses.
In it, Herod's Palace towered aloft like an Alhambra on light
columns iridescent with Moorish chequer-work, joined as with silver
mortar, consolidated with cement of gold; arabesques surrounded
lozenges of lapis lazuli and wound all along the cupolas, where on
marquetries of mother-of-pearl, wandered glittering rainbows, flashes
of prismatic colour.
The murder had been done; now the headsman stood there impassive,
his hands resting on the pommel of his long sword, stained with blood.
The decapitated head of the Saint had risen up from the charger
where it lay on the flags, and the eyes were gazing out from the livid
face with its discoloured lips and open mouth; the neck all crimson,
dripping tears of gore.
A mosaic encircled the face whence shone an aureola darting gleams
of fire under the porticoes, illuminating the ghastly lifting of the
head, revealing the glassy eyeballs, that seemed fixed, glued to the
figure of the dancing wanton.
With a gesture of horror, Salomé repulses the appalling vision that
holds her nailed to the floor, balanced on her toe tips; her eyes are
dilated, her hand grips her throat convulsively.
She is almost naked; in the ardour of the dance the veils have
unwound themselves, the brocaded draperies of her robes have slipped
away; she is clad now only in goldsmith's artistries and translucent
gems; a gorget clips her waist like a corselet; and for clasp a superb,
a wondrous jewel flashes lightnings in the furrow between her bosoms;
lower, on the hips, a girdle swathes her, hiding the upper thighs,
against which swings a gigantic pendant, a falling river of carbuncles
and emeralds; to complete the picture: where the body shows bare
betwixt gorget and girdle, the belly bulges, dimpled by the hollow of
the navel that recalls a graven seal of onyx with its milky sheen and
tint as of a rosy finger-nail.
Beneath the ardent rays flashing from the Precursor's head, every
facet of her jewelled bravery catches fire; the stones burn, outlining
the woman's shape in flaming figures; neck, legs, arms, glitter with
points of light, now red as burning brands, now violet as jets of gas,
now blue as flames of alcohol, now white as moonbeams.
The dreadful head flashes and flames, bleeding always, dripping
gouts of dark purple that point the beard and hair. Visible to Salomé,
alone, it embraces in the stare of its dead eyes neither Herodias, who
sits dreaming of her hate satiated at last, nor the Tetrarch, who,
leaning rather forward with hands on knees, still pants, maddened by
the sight of the woman's nakedness, reeking with heady fumes, dripping
with balms and essences, alluring with scents of incense and myrrh.
Like the old King, Des Esseintes was overwhelmed, over-mastered,
dizzied before this figure of the dancing-girl, less majestic, less
imposing, but more ensnaring to the senses than the Salomé of the oil
In the callous and pitiless statue, in the innocent and deadly
idol, the emotion, the terror of the human being had dawned; the great
lotus-flower had disappeared, the goddess vanished; an atrocious
nightmare now gripped the throat of the mime, intoxicated by the whirl
of the dance, of the courtesan, petrified, hypnotized by terror.
In this, she was altogether feminine, obedient to her temperament
of a passionate, cruel woman; she was active and alive, more refined
and yet more savage, more hateful and yet more exquisite; she was shown
awakening more powerfully the sleeping passions of man; bewitching,
subjugating more surely his will, with her unholy charm as of a great
flower of concupiscence, born of a sacrilegious birth, reared in a
hothouse of impiety.
As Des Esseintes used to maintain: never before at any epoch had
the art of water-colour succeeded in reaching such a brilliancy of
tint; never had the poverty of chemical pigments been able thus to set
down on paper such coruscating splendours of precious stones, such
glowing hues as of painted windows illumined by the noonday sun,
glories so amazing, so dazzling of rich garments and glowing flesh
And, falling into a reverie, he would ask himself what were the
origin and antecedents of the great painter, the mystic, the Pagan, the
man of genius who could live so remote from the outside world as to
behold, here and now in Paris, the splendid, cruel visions, the magic
apotheoses of other ages.
Who had been his predecessors? This Des Esseintes found it hard to
say; here and there, he seemed influenced by vague recollections of
Mantegna and Jacopo de Barbari; here and there, by confused memories of
Da Vinci and the feverish colouring of Delacroix. But in the main, the
effect produced by these masters' work on his own was imperceptible;
the real truth was that Gustave Moreau was a pupil of no man. Without
provable ancestors, without possible descendants, he remained, in
contemporary art, a unique figure. Going back to the ethnographic
sources of the nations, to the first origins of the mythologies whose
blood-stained enigmas he compared and unriddled, reuniting, combining
in one the legends derived from the Far East and metamorphosed by the
beliefs of other peoples, he thus justified his architectonic
combinations, his sumptuous and unexpected amalgamations of costumes,
his hieratic and sinister allegories, made yet more poignant by the
restless apperceptions of a nervous system altogether modern in its
morbid sensitiveness; but his work was always painful, haunted by the
symbols of superhuman loves and superhuman vices, divine abominations
committed without enthusiasm and without hope.
There breathed from his pictures, so despairing and so erudite, a
strange magic, a sorcery that moved you to the bottom of the soul, like
that of certain of Baudelaire's poems, and you were left amazed,
pensive, disconcerted by this art that crossed the last frontier-lines
of painting, borrowing from literature its most subtle suggestions,
from the art of the enameller its most marvellous effects of
brilliancy, from the art of the lapidary and the engraver its most
exquisite delicacies of touch. These two images of Salomé, for which
Des Esseintes' admiration was boundless, were living things before his
eyes where they hung on the walls of his working study on special
panels reserved for them among the shelves of books.
But this was by no means the end of the purchases of pictures he
had made with a view to beautifying his solitude.
True he had sacrificed all the first storey of his house, the only
one above the ground floor, and occupied none of its rooms for his
personal use, but the latter even by itself demanded a large number of
pictures to cover the nakedness of its walls.
This ground floor was distributed as follows: A dressing-room,
communicating with the bedroom, occupied one angle of the building;
from the bedroom you passed into the library, from the library into the
dining-room, which formed the other angle.
These rooms, making up one front of the house, extended in a
straight line, pierced with windows giving on the valley of Aunay.
The opposite side of the edifice consisted of four rooms exactly
corresponding, so far as size and disposition went, with the former.
Thus a kitchen stood at the corner, answering to the dining-room; a
large vestibule, serving as entrance hall to the dwelling, matched the
library; a kind of boudoir, the bedroom; the closets and bathrooms, the
All these latter rooms looked out on the side opposite to the
valley of Aunay, towards the Tour du Croy and Châtillon.
As to the staircase, it was built against one side of the house, on
the outside, so that the servants' footsteps, trampling up the steps,
reached Des Esseintes deadened and less noisy.
He had had the boudoir hung with tapestry of a vivid red, and on
each of the four walls were displayed in ebony frames prints by Jan
Luyken, an old Dutch engraver, almost unknown in France.
The works he possessed of this artist, at once fantastic and
depressing, vigorous and brutal, included the series of his Religious
Persecutions, a collection of appalling plates representing all the
tortures which the savagery of religious intolerance has invented,
plates exhibiting all the horrors of human agony,—men roasted over
braziers, skulls laid open by sword cuts, pierced with nails, riven
asunder with saws, bowels drawn out of the belly, and twisted round
rollers, finger-nails torn out one by one with pincers, eyes put out,
eyelids turned back and transfixed with pins, limbs dislocated or
carefully broken bones laid bare and scraped for hours with knives.
These productions, replete with abominable imaginations, stinking
of the stake, reeking with blood, echoing with curses and screams of
agony, made Des Esseintes' flesh creep as he stood stifled with horror
in the red boudoir.
But, over and above the qualms of disgust they provoked, over and
above the dreadful genius of the man and the extraordinary vividness he
gave his figures, there were likewise to be found among the thronging
multitudes that people his marvellous drawings, among the hosts of
spectators sketched with a dexterity of hand reminding us of Callot,
but with a power that amusing but trivial draughtsman never possessed,
curious reconstructions of the life of other places and periods;
architecture, costumes, manners and customs in the days of the
Maccabees, at Rome during the persecutions of the Christians, in Spain
under the Inquisition, in France in the Middle Ages and at the date of
the St. Bartholomew and the Dragonnades, were all noted with a
scrupulous exactitude, and put on paper with a supreme skill.
These prints were mines of curious information; a man could look at
them for hours and never weary; profoundly suggestive of ideas, they
often helped Des Esseintes to kill the time on days when books refused
to interest him.
Moreover, Luyken's own life was yet another attraction to him,
explaining indeed the wildness of his work. A fervent Calvinist, a
hidebound sectary, a fanatic of hymns and prayers, he composed
religious poems, which he illustrated with his burin, paraphrased the
Psalms in verse, lost himself in deep studies of the Bible, from which
he would emerge, haggard and enraptured, his brain haunted by bloody
pictures, his mouth full of the maledictions of the Reformation, and
roused to an ecstasy by its songs of terror and fury.
Added to this, he was one who scorned this world, gave up his goods
to the poor, lived on a crust of bread himself; in the end, he had
taken boat along with an old servant-maid, carried away by a fanatic
admiration of the man, put to sea at a venture, landing wherever his
vessel came ashore and preaching the Gospel to all peoples, trying to
live without eating, a madman and a savage almost at the last.
In the adjoining room, the vestibule, a larger apartment panelled
with cedar wood the colour of a cigar-box, were ranged in rows other
engravings and drawings equally extraordinary.
Bresdin's Comedy of Death was one, where in an impossible
landscape, bristling with trees, coppices and thickets taking the shape
of demons and phantoms, swarming with birds having rats' heads and
tails of vegetables, from a soil littered with human bones, vertebrae,
ribs and skulls, spring willows, knotted and gnarled, surmounted by
skeletons tossing their arms in unison and chanting a hymn of victory,
while a Christ flies away to a sky dappled with little clouds; a hermit
sits pondering, his head between his hands, in the recesses of a
grotto; a beggar dies worn out with privations, exhausted with hunger,
stretched on his back, his feet extended towards a stagnant pool.
Another was the Good Samaritan by the same artist, an immense
pen-and-ink drawing, lithographed,—a wild entanglement of palms,
service-trees, oaks, growing all together in defiance of seasons and
climates, an outburst of virgin forest, crammed with apes, owls and
screech-owls, cumbered with old stumps shapeless as roots of coral,—a
magic wood, pierced by a clearing dimly revealing far away, beyond a
camel and the group of the Samaritan and the man who fell by the
wayside, a river and behind it again a fairylike city climbing to the
horizon line, rising to meet a strange-looking sky, dotted with birds,
woolly with rolling clouds, swelling, as it were, with bales of vapour.
You would have thought it the work of an Early Italian master or a
half-developed Albert Durer, composed under the influence of opium.
But, much as he admired the delicacy of detail and the imposing
conception of this plate, Des Esseintes was more particularly attracted
by the other pictures that decorated the room. These were signed Odilon
In their light frames of unpainted pear-wood, with a gold beading,
they contained productions of an inconceivable eccentricity,—a head
in a Merovingian style, placed upon a cup; a bearded man, having
something about him recalling at one and the same time a Buddhist
priest and an orator at a public meeting, touching with the tip of his
finger a colossal cannonball; a horrible spider, with a human face
lodged in the middle of its body. Then there were crayons that went
further yet in the horrors of a nightmare dream. Here it was an
enormous die that winked a mournful eye; there, a series of landscapes,
- barren, parched, burnt-up plains, riven by earthquakes, rising in
volcanic heights wreathed with wild clouds under a livid, stagnant sky.
Sometimes even the subjects seemed to be borrowed from the dreams of
science, to go back to prehistoric times; a monstrous flora spread over
the rocks; everywhere were erratic blocks, glacial mud streams, and
amongst them human beings whose ape-like type,—the heavy jaws, the
projecting arches of the brows, the receding forehead, the flattened
top of the skull, recalled the ancestral head, the head of the earliest
quaternary period, when man was still a fruit-eater and speechless, a
contemporary of the mammoth, the woolly-haired rhinoceros and the giant
bear. These drawings passed all bounds, transgressing in a thousand
ways the established laws of pictorial art, utterly fantastic and
revolutionary, the work of a mad and morbid genius.
In fact, there were some of these faces, staring out with great,
wild, insane eyes, some of these shapes exaggerated out of all measure
or distorted as if seen refracted through water, that evoked in Des
Esseintes' memory recollections of typhoid fever, remembrances that had
stuck persistently in his head of hot nights of misery and horrid
Overcome by an indefinable sense of distress before these designs,
- the same distress he had formerly experienced at the sight of certain
Proverbs of Goya's which they resembled, as also after reading some of
Edgar Allan Poe's stories, whose mirages of hallucination and effects
of terror Odilon Redon seemed to have transferred into a sister art, he
would rub his eyes and gaze at a radiant figure that, amid these
frenzied designs, rose calm and serene, a figure of Melancholia, seated
before a round sun's disk, on rocks, in an attitude of depression and
Then the gloom would be dissipated as if by magic; a pleasing
sadness, a languor of gentle mournfulness, would fill his thoughts, and
he would meditate for hours before this work, which, with its splashes
of colour-wash gleaming amid the heavy chalks, struck a brilliant note
of liquid green and pale gold to relieve the unbroken black of all
these crayons and engravings.
Besides this series of Redon's works, covering nearly all the
panels of the vestibule, he had hung in his bedroom an extravagant
design, a sketch by Théocopuli, a Christ with livid flesh tints, the
drawing of which was exaggerated, the colouring crude, the vigour
excessive and undisciplined, an example of that painter's second
manner, when he was tormented with the one haunting idea of avoiding
any resemblance to Titian at all costs.
This gloomy work of art, with its tints of dead black and unhealthy
green, corresponded in Des Esseintes' ideas with certain conclusions he
came to with regard to the furnishing of the same apartment.
There existed, according to him, two ways and only two of arranging
a bedroom; either to make it a place for pleasure, contrived to excite
the passions for nightly adventure; or else to regard it as a retreat
dedicated to sleep and solitude, a home of quiet thoughts, a kind of
In the first case, the Louis XV. style, was pre-eminently the one
for refined minds, for people exhausted above all by stress and strain
of mental sensibility; indeed, only the Eighteenth Century has known
how to envelope woman in a vicious atmosphere, shaping its furniture on
the model of her charms, copying the contortions of her ardour,
imitating the spasms of her amorousness in the waving lines and
intricate convolutions of wood and copper, adding a spice to the
sugar-sweet languor of the blonde by the vivid, bright tone of its
ornamentation, mitigating the salty savour of the brunette by
tapestries of subdued, liquid, almost insipid hues.
A chamber of the sort he had already included in his Paris abode,
with the broad, white bed that gives an added titillation, an enhanced
satisfaction to the depraved senses of an old voluptuary, that is like
a cynic's grin in face of pretended chastity, before Greuze's innocent
sprigs of girlhood, before the artificial purity of naughty sheets that
seem spread for children and young virgins.
In the other case,—and now that he was determined to break with
the agitating memories of his past life, this was the only one
possible,—he must contrive a bed-chamber to resemble a monk's cell in
a Religious House; but here came difficulty upon difficulty, for he
refused absolutely to endure for his personal occupation the austere
ugliness that marks such refuges for penitence and prayer.
By dint of turning the question over this way and that and looking
at it from every side, he arrived at the conclusion that the result to
be aimed at amounted to this—to arrange by means of objects cheerful
in themselves a melancholy whole, or rather, while preserving its
character of plain ugliness, to impress on the general effect of the
room thus treated a kind of elegance and distinction; to reverse, in
fact, the optical delusion of the stage, where cheap tinsel plays the
part of expensive and sumptuous robes, to gain indeed precisely the
opposite effect, using costly and magnificent materials so as to give
the impression of common rags; in a word, to fit up a Trappist's cell
that should have the look of the genuine article, and yet of course be
nothing of the sort.
He set about the task as follows: to imitate the ochre wash that is
the invariable mark of administrative and clerical direction, he had
the walls hung with saffron silk; to represent the chocolate brown of
the wainscot, the regulation colour for suchlike places, he panelled
the lower part of these same walls with wood painted a rich, deep
purple. The effect was charmmg, recalling—though how different
really!—the bald stiffness of the pattern he was copying,—with
modifications. The ceiling, in the same way, was covered with
unbleached white cloth, giving the appearance of plaster, but without
its crude shiny look; then for the cold tiles of the floor; he mimicked
these very successfully, thanks to a carpet with a pattern of red
squares, interspersed with spots of a whitish hue where the occupants'
sandals might have been supposed to leave their mark.
This room he furnished with a little iron bedstead, a sham hermit's
couch, constructed out of old pieces of wrought and polished iron, its
plainness relieved at head and foot by a leaf and flower ornamentation,
- tulips and vine-tendrils intertwined, once part of the balustrade of
the great staircase of an old chateau.
By way of night-table, he installed an antique prie-Dieu, the
inside of which would hold a utensil, while the top supported a book of
offices of the Church; he erected against the opposite wall a state
pew, surmounted by an open-work canopy decorated with ornaments carved
in the solid wood; he used candelabra that had come from a desecrated
church, in which he burned real wax tapers purchased at a special house
patronized by the clergy, for he felt a genuine repugnance for all the
modern methods of illumination, whether petroleum, rock-oil, gas or
composite candles, all alike in their crude, dazzling effects.
In bed in the morning, as he lay with his head on the pillow before
falling asleep, he would gaze at his Théocopuli, the painful colouring
of which modified to some degree the soft cheerfulness of the yellow
silk on the walls and gave it a graver tone; at these times, he could
easily picture himself living a hundred leagues from Paris, far from
the world of men, in the depths of a Monastery.
And, after all, the illusion was not difficult to sustain for truly
he was living a life largely analogous to that of a Monk. In this way,
he enjoyed the advantages of confinement in a cloister, while he
escaped its inconveniences,—the quasi-military discipline, the lack
of comfort, the dirt and herding together and the monotonous idleness.
Just as he had made his cell into a warm, luxurious bedchamber, so he
had procured himself an existence carried on under normal conditions,
without hardship or incommodity, sufficiently occupied, yet free from
Like an eremite, he was ripe for solitude, harassed by life's
stress, expecting nothing more of existence; like a monk again, he was
overwhelmed with an immense fatigue, a craving for peace and quiet, a
longing to have nothing more to do henceforth with the vulgar, who were
in his eyes all utilitarians and fools.
In short, though he was conscious of no vocation for the state of
grace, he felt in himself a genuine sympathy for the folks shut up in
Monasteries, persecuted by a society that hates them and can never
forgive the well-grounded contempt they entertain for it nor the wish
they manifest to redeem, to expiate by long years of silence the
ever-increasing licentiousness of its grotesque or silly conversations.
BURIED in a vast hooded armchair, his feet resting on the silver-gilt
balls of the fire-dogs, his slippers roasting before the burning logs
that shot out bright, crackling flames as if lashed by the furious
blast of a blow-pipe, Des Esseintes laid down on a table the old quarto
he was reading, stretched himself, lit a cigarette and presently lapsed
into a delicious reverie, his mind hurrying full chase in pursuit of
old-time reminiscences. For months he had not given these a thought,
but now they were suddenly revived by the associations of a name that
recurred without apparent reason to his memory.
Once more he could see with surprising clearness his friend
D'Aigurande's embarrassment when once, at a gathering of confirmed old
bachelors, he had been forced to confess to the final completion of the
arrangements for his marriage. Everybody protested and drew a harrowing
picture for his benefit of the abominations of sleeping two in a bed.
Nothing availed; he had lost his head, he believed implicitly in the
good sense of his future wife and would have it he had discovered in
her quite exceptional gifts of tenderness and devotion.
Among them all, Des Esseintes had been the only one to encourage
him in his design,—this after learning the fact that his comrade's
fianceé wished to live at the corner of a newly constructed boulevard,
in one of those modern flats that are built on a circular ground-plan.
Convinced of the merciless influence exerted by petty vexations,
more disastrous as these are for highly strung temperaments than the
great sorrows of life, and basing his calculations on the fact that
D'Aigurande possessed no fortune of his own, while his wife's dowry was
all but non-existent, he foresaw in this harmless wish an indefinite
vista of ludicrous miseries to come.
D'Aigurande proceeded in due course to buy furniture all made on
the round,—console-tables hollowed out at the back so as to form a
semicircle, curtain-poles curved like a bow, carpets cut
crescent-shaped,—a whole suite of furniture made specially to order.
He spent twice as much as other people; then presently, when his wife,
finding herself short of money for her dress, got tired of living in
this round-house and removed to an ordinary square habitation at a
lower rent, no single piece of furniture would fit in or look right.
Little by little, these unconscionable chairs and tables and chests of
drawers gave rise to endless squabbles; conjugal happiness, already
worn thin by the friction of a life in common, grew week by week more
and more ambiguous; mutual recriminations followed, as they found it
impossible to live in their drawing-room where sofas and console-tables
refused to touch the wall and, in spite of wedges and props, shook and
shivered whenever you came near them. Funds were lacking for repairs
and improvements, which, to tell the truth, were quite impracticable.
Everything became a subject of bitterness and quarrelling, from the
drawers that had warped in the wobbling furniture to the petty thefts
of the maidservant who took advantage of her master and mistress's
squabbles to rob the cash-box. In one word, their life grew unbearable;
he sought amusement out of doors, she tried to find in the arms of
lovers an anodyne for the wretchedness of her overcast and monotonous
life. By common consent, they cancelled the settlements and petitioned
for a separation.
"Yes, my plan of campaign was quite correct," Des Esseintes had
told himself on hearing the news; he enjoyed the same satisfaction a
strategist feels when his manoeuvres, planned long beforehand, end in
Now, sitting there before his fire and thinking over the break-up
of this household which he had helped by his advice to bring together,
he threw a fresh armful of wood onto the hearth, and so off again full
cry in his dreams.
Belonging to the same order of ideas, other memories now began to
crowd upon him.
It was some years ago now since one evening in the Rue de Rivoli,
he had come across a young scamp of sixteen or so, a pale-faced,
quick-eyed child, as seductive as a girl. He was sucking laboriously at
a cigarette, the paper of which was bursting where the sharp ends of
the coarse caporal had come through. Cursing the stuff, the lad was
rubbing kitchen matches down his thigh; they would not light, and soon
he came to the end of the box. Catching sight of Des Esseintes who was
watching him, he came up, touching his peaked cap, and asked politely
for a light. Des Esseintes offered some of his own scented Dubeques,
after which he entered into conversation with the lad and urged him to
tell the story of his life.
Nothing could well be more ordinary; his name was Auguste Langlois,
and he worked at making pasteboard boxes; he had lost his mother and
had a father who beat him unmercifully.
Des Esseintes' thoughts were busy as he listened. "Come and have a
drink," he said,—and took him to a café where he regaled him with
goes of heady punch. The child drank his liquor without a word. "Look
here," broke in Des Esseintes suddenly, "would you like some fun this
evening? I'll pay the piper." And he had thereupon carried off the
youngster to Madame Laure's, a lady who kept an assortment of pretty
girls on the third floor of a house in the Rue Mosnier; there was a
series of rooms with red walls diversified by circular mirrors, the
rest of the furniture consisting mainly of couches and wash-basins.
There, petrified with surprise, Auguste as he fingered his cloth
cap, had stared with round eyes at a battalion of women whose painted
lips exclaimed all together:
"Oh! the little lad! Why, he is sweet!"
"But, tell us, my angel, you're not old enough yet, surely?" a
brunette had interjected, a girl with prominent eyes and a hook nose
who filled at Mine. Laure's establishment the indispensable rôle of the
Quite at his ease, and very much at home, Des Esseintes was talking
familiarly in a low voice with the mistress of the house.
"Don't be afraid, stupid," he turned to the child to say; "come
now, make your choice, it's my treat,"—and he pushed the lad gently
towards a divan, onto which he fell between two women. They drew a
little closer together, on a sign from Madame Laure, enveloping
Auguste's knees in their peignoirs and bringing under his nose their
powdered shoulders that emitted a warm, heady perfume. The child never
stirred, but sat there with burning cheeks, a dry mouth and downcast
eyes, darting from under their lids downward glances of curiosity, that
refused obstinately to leave the upper part of the girls' thighs.
Vanda, the handsome Jewess, kissed him, giving him good advice,
telling him to do what father and mother told him, while her hands were
straying all the time over the lad's person; a change came over his
face and he threw himself back in a kind of transport on her bosom.
"So it's not on your own account you've come tonight," observed
Madame Laure to Des Esseintes. "But where the devil did you get hold of
that baby?" she added, when Auguste had disappeared with the handsome
"In the street, my dear lady."
"Yet you're not drunk," muttered the old woman. Then, after
thinking a bit, she proceeded, with a motherly smile: "Ah, I
understand; you rascal, you like 'em young, do you?"
Des Esseintes shrugged his shoulders.—"You're wide of the mark!
oh! miles away from it," he laughed; "the plain truth is I am simply
trying to train a murderer. Now just follow my argument. This boy is
virgin and has reached the age when the blood begins to boil; he might,
of course, run after the little girls of his neighbourhood, and still
remain an honest lad while enjoying his bit of amusement; in fact, have
his little share of the monotonous happiness open to the poor. On the
contrary, by bringing him here and plunging him in a luxury he had
never even suspected the existence of and which will make a lasting
impression on his memory; by offering him every fortnight a treat like
this, I shall make him acquire the habit of these pleasures which his
means forbid his enjoying; let us grant it will take three months for
them to become absolutely indispensable to him—and by spacing them
out as I do, I avoid all risk of satiating him—well, at the end of
the three months, I stop the little allowance I am going to pay you in
advance for the benevolence you show him. Then he will take to thieving
to pay for his visits here; he will stop at nothing that he may take
his usual diversions on this divan in this fine gas-lit apartment.
"If the worst comes to the worst, he will, I hope, one fine day
kill the gentleman who turns up just at the wrong moment as he is
breaking open his desk; then my object will be attained, I shall have
contributed, so far as in me lay, to create a scoundrel, an enemy the
more for the odious society that wrings so heavy a ransom from us all."
The woman gazed at the speaker with eyes of amazement. "Ah! so
there you are!' he exclaimed, as he saw Auguste creeping back into the
room, red and shy, skulking behind the fair Vanda. "Come, youngster, it
is getting late, make your bow to the ladies." Then he explained to him
on their way downstairs that, once every fortnight, he might pay a
visit to Madame Laure's without putting hand in pocket. Finally, on
reaching the street, as they stood together on the pavement, he looked
the abashed child in the face and said:
"We shall not meet again after this; do you go back hot foot to
your father, whose hand is itching for work to do, and never forget
this half divine command: 'Do unto others as you would not have them do
unto you.' With that to guide you you will go far."
"Good night, sir."
"But whatever you do, do not be ungrateful, let me hear tidings of
you soon as may be,—in the columns of the Police News."
"The little Judas!" Des Esseintes muttered to himself on this
occasion, as he stirred the glowing embers; "to think that I have never
once seen his name in the newspapers! True, it has been out of my power
to play a sure game; that I have foreseen, yet been unable to prevent
certain contingencies,— old mother Laure's little tricks, for
instance, pocketing the money and not delivering the goods; the chance
of one of the women getting infatuated with Auguste, and, when the
three months was up, letting him have his whack on tick; or even the
possibility of the handsome Jewess's highly-spiced vices having scared
the lad, too young and impatient to brook the slow and elaborate
preliminaries, or stand the exhausting consummations of her caprices.
Unless, therefore, he has been in trouble with the criminal courts
since I have been at Fontenay where I never read the papers, I am
He got up from his chair and took two or three turns up and down
"It would be a thousand pities all the same," he mused, "for, by
acting in this way, I had really been putting in practice the parable
of lay instruction, the allegory of popular education, which, while
tending to nothing else than to turn everybody into Langlois, instead
of definitely and mercifully putting out the wretched creatures' eyes,
tries its hardest to force them wide open that they may see all about
them other lots unearned by any merit yet more benignant, pleasures
keener and more brightly gilded, and therefore more desirable and
harder to come at."
"And the fact is," went on Des Esseintes, pursuing his argument,
"the fact is that, pain being the effect of education, seeing that it
grows greater and more poignant the more ideas germinate, the more we
endeavour to polish the intelligence and refine the nervous system of
the poor and unfortunate, the more we shall be developing the germs,
always so fiercely ready to sprout, of moral suffering and social
The lamps were smoking. He turned them up and looked at his watch.
Three o'clock in the morning. He kindled a cigarette and plunged
himself again in the perusal, interrupted by his dreaming, of the old
Latin poem De LaudeCastitatis, written, in the reign of Gondebald, by
Avitus, Bishop Metropolitan of Vienne.
AFTER this evening when, without any apparent cause, he had dwelt upon
the melancholy memory of Auguste Langlois, Des Esseintes lived his
whole life over again.
He was now incapable of understanding one word of the volumes he
perused; his eyes themselves refused to read; it seemed to him that his
mind, satiated with literature and art, declined absolutely to absorb
He lived on himself, fed on his own substance, like those
hibernating animals that lie torpid in a hole all the winter; solitude
had acted on his brain as a narcotic. At first, it had nerved and
stimulated him, but its later effect was a somnolence haunted by vague
reveries; it checked all his plans, broke down his will, led him
through a long procession of dreams which he accepted with passive
endurance without even an attempt to escape them.
The confused mass of reading and meditation on artistic themes
which he had accumulated since he had lived alone as a barrier to
arrest the current of old recollections, had been suddenly carried
away, and the flood was let loose, sweeping away present and future,
submerging them under the waves of the past, drowning his spirit in a
vast lake of melancholy, on the surface of which floated, like
grotesque derelicts, trivial episodes of his existence, ridiculously
The book he was holding tumbled on to his knees; he did not try to
resume it, but sat reviewing, full of fear and disgust, the years of
his dead past; his thoughts pivoted, like swirling waters round a stake
that stands firm and immovable in their midst, about the memories
connected with Madame Laure and Auguste. What a time that was!—the
period of evening parties, of race-meetings, of card-playing, of love
scenes, ordered in advance and served to the minute, at the stroke of
midnight, in his pink boudoir! His mind was obsessed by glimpses of
faces, looks, unmeaning words that stuck in his memory in the way
popular tunes have of doing, which for a while you cannot help humming
over and over, but are as suddenly forgotten without your being aware
This epoch was of short duration; then followed a siesta of memory,
during which he buried himself once more in his Latin studies, anxious
to efface every last trace of these recollections of by-gone years.
But the game was fairly started; a second phase followed almost
immediately on the first, when his thoughts clung persistently about
his boyhood, and especially the part of it spent with the Jesuit
These memories were more distant, yet clearer than the others,
engraved on his heart more deeply and more ineffaceably; the leafy
park, the long garden walks, the flower beds, the benches, all the
material details rose before him.
Then the gardens filled with a throng of boys and masters; he could
hear the former's shouts at play, the latter's laughter as they mingled
in the lads' sports, playing tennis with tucked-up cassocks, the skirts
passed between their legs, or else talking under the trees to their
pupils without the least affectation of superiority, as if conversing
with comrades of their own age.
He recalled that paternal yoke which discountenanced any form of
punishment, declined to inflict impositions of five hundred or one
thousand lines, was content to have the unsatisfactory task done over
again while the rest of the class were at recreation, more often than
not preferred a mere reprimand, watched over the growing child with an
active but loving care, striving to please his tastes, agreeing to
walks in whatever direction he liked on Wednesday half-holidays,
seizing the opportunity offered by all the little semi-official
feast-days of the Church to add to the ordinary fare at meals a treat
of cakes and wine or organize a country expedition,—a yoke under
which the pupil was never brutalized, but was admitted to open
discussion, was treated in fact like a grown man, while still being
pampered like a spoilt child.
In this way the Fathers succeeded in gaining a real ascendancy over
the young, moulded to some extent the minds they cultivated, guided
them in the desired direction, engrafted particular modes of thought on
their intelligence, secured thedevelopment of their character after the
required pattern by an insinuating, wheedling method of treatment which
they continued to pursue afterwards, making a point of following their
subsequent course of life, backing them in their career, keeping up an
affectionate correspondence with them,—letters of the sort the
Dominican Lacordaire knew well how to write to his former pupils at
One by one, Des Esseintes went over the points of the training he
had undergone, as he himself supposed without result; he quite
appreciated its merits, albeit his temperament, recalcitrant and
stubborn, carping and critical, eager to argue out every proposition,
had prevented his being modelled by their discipline or ruled by what
they taught him. Once outside the College walls, his scepticism had
grown more acute; his intercourse with legitimist society, intolerant
and narrow to the last degree, his talks with puzzle-headed church
officials and half educated priests whose blunders tore away the veil
so cleverly contrived by the Jesuits, had still further fortified his
spirit of independence and increased his distrust in any and every form
He deemed himself, in a word, released from every tie, free from
every obligation; all he had hitherto preserved, differing herein from
all his friends who had been educated at Lycées or lay
boarding-schools, was a highly favourable memory of his school and
school-masters; yet now, he was actually examining his conscience,
beginning to ask himself if the seed heretofore fallen on barren ground
was not showing signs of fructifying.
The fact is for some days he had been in an indescribably strange
state of mind. For a brief moment he was a believer, an instinctive
convert to religion; then, after the shortest interval of reflexion,
all his attraction towards the Faith would evaporate. But all the time
and in spite of everything, he was anxious and disturbed in spirit.
Yet he was perfectly well aware, if he looked into his own heart,
that he could never have the humility and contrition of a truly
Christian soul; he knew beyond all possibility of doubt that the moment
of which Lacordaire speaks, the moment of grace, "when the final ray of
right penetrates the soul and draws together to a common centre the
truths that lie dispersed therein," would never come for him; he
experienced none of that craving for prayer and mortification without
which, if we are to listen to the majority of priests, no conversion is
possible; he felt no wish to supplicate a God, whose loving-kindness
seemed to him highly problematical. At the same time the sympathy he
still had for his former instructors was sufficient to interest him in
their works and teachings; the inimitable accents of conviction he
remembered, the ardent voices of men of superior intelligence he
recalled, haunted his mind and made him doubt his own ability and
strength of intellect. Living the lonely life he now did, with no fresh
food for thought, no novel impressions to stimulate imagination, no
exchange of sensations coming from outside, from meeting friends or
society, from living the same life as other men, confined within an
unnatural prison-house which he refused to escape from, all sorts of
problems, never thought of during his residence in Paris, demanded a
solution with irritating persistency.
His study of the Latin works he delighted in, works almost without
exception written by bishops and monks, had no doubt played their part
in determining this crisis. Surrounded by a cloistered atmosphere,
wrapt in a fragrance of incense that intoxicated his brain, he had got
into an overwrought condition of nerves, and then, by a natural
association of ideas, these books had ended by dimming his
recollections of his life as a young man, while throwing into high
relief those connected with his boyhood among the Fathers.
"There is no difficulty," Des Esseintes told himself with an effort
after self-examination, "in accounting for this irruption of the Jesuit
element at Fontenay; ever since I was a child, and without my knowing
it myself, I have had this leaven, which had not previously fermented;
is not this inclination I have always felt towards religious thoughts
and things perhaps a proof of this?"
But his efforts were all directed to persuading himself of the
contrary, annoyed as he was to find himself no longer absolute master
of his own soul. He sought for motives to account for the change in
himself; yes, he must have been forcibly drawn in the direction of the
priesthood because the Church, and the Church only, has preserved the
art, the lost beauty of the centuries; she has stereotyped, even in the
cheap modern reproductions, the patterns of metal work, preserved the
charm of chalices slim and tall as petunias, of sacred vessels of
exquisite curves and contours, safeguarded, even in aluminium, in sham
enamel, in coloured glass, the grace of the models of olden days. As a
matter of fact, the main part of the precious objects exhibited in the
Musée de Cluny, having escaped by a miracle the foul savagery of the
sans-culottes, come from the old Abbeys of France. Just as in the
Middle Ages the Church saved from barbarism, philosophy, history and
letters, so she has saved plastic art, brought down to our own days
those wondrous patterns in ecclesiastical robes and jewelry which the
manufacturers of Church furniture and ornaments do their best to spoil,
though they can never quite ruin the original beauty of form and
colour. There was therefore no cause for surprise in the fact that he
had sought eagerly for these antique curios, that like many another
collector, he had acquired suchlike relics from the shops of the
Parisian antiquaries and the stores of country dealers.
But, despite all the good reasons he could call up to his aid, he
could not quite manage to convince himself. No doubt, after due
consideration, he still continued to look upon religion merely as a
superb myth, as a magnificent imposture; and yet, heedless of all his
excuses and explanations, his scepticism was beginning to wear thin.
There was the fact, odd as it might seem: he was less confident at
the present moment than he had been in his boyhood, in the days when
the Jesuits exercised direct supervision over his training, when their
teaching had to be received, when he was entirely in their hands, was
theirs, body and soul, without family ties, without any outside
influences of any kind to react against their ascendancy. Moreover,
they had instilled in him a certain taste for the marvellous that had
slowly and stealthily taken root in his soul, and was now coming to a
head in this solitary life that could not but exert its influence on
his silent, self-centred nature, for ever moving within the narrow
limits of certain fixed ideas.
By dint of examining the processes of his thought, of striving to
connect its threads together and discover its causes and conditioning
circumstances, he eventually persuaded himself that its activities
during his life in the world of men had their origin in the education
he had received. Thus, his tendencies to artificiality, his longings
for eccentricity, were these not, after all, results of plausible
studies, supra-terrestrial refinements, semi-theological speculations;
in ultimate analysis they amounted to the same thing as religious
enthusiasms, aspirations towards an unknown universe, towards a far-off
beatitude, just as ardently to be desired as that promised to believers
by the Scriptures.
He pulled himself up short, broke off the thread of his reflexions.
"Come, come," he chid himself angrily, "I am more seriously hit than I
thought: here I am argufying with myself, like a casuist."
He remained pensive, troubled by a secret fear. No doubt, if
Lacordaire's theory was correct, he had nothing to dread, seeing that
the magic touch of conversion does not come about in an instant; to
produce the explosion, the ground must have been long and
systematically mined. But if the novelists talk about the thunderclap
of love at first sight, there is also a certain number of theologians
who speak of the thunderclap of religion. Admitting the truth of this
doctrine, no man then was safe against succumbing. There was no room
left for self-analysis, no use in weighing presentiments, no object
gained by taking preventive measures; the psychology of mysticism was
futile. It was so because it was so, and there was no more to be said.
"Why, I am growing crazy," Des Esseintes told himself; "the dread
of the disease will end by bringing on the disease itself, if this goes
He managed to shake off the influence of these preoccupations to
some extent, but other morbid symptoms supervened. Now it was the
subject matter of various discussions that haunted him to the exclusion
of everything else. The College garden, the school lessons, the Jesuit
Fathers sank into the remote background, his whole mind was dominated
by abstractions, his thoughts were busy, in spite of himself, with
contradictory interpretations of dogmas, with long forgotten
apostasies, denounced in his work on the Councils of the Church by Père
Labbe. Fragments of these schisms, scraps of these heresies, which for
centuries divided the Western and the Eastern Churches, haunted his
memory. Here it was Nestorius, protesting against the Virgin's bearing
the title of Mother of God, because in the mystery of the Incarnation,
it was not God, but rather the human creature, she had carried in her
womb; there it was Eutyches, maintaining that the image of Christ could
not be like that of the rest of mankind, inasmuch as the Divinity had
been domiciled in his body and had thereby changed its nature utterly
and entirely; elsewhere again other quibblers would have it that the
Redeemer had had no human body at all, that the language of the Holy
Books on this point must be understood figuratively, while yet again
Tertullian was found positing his famous quasi-materialistic axiom:
"Nothing is incorporal save what is not; whatever is, has a body that
is proper toitself," till finally we come to the old, old question
debated for years: was the Christ bound alone to the cross, or did the
Trinity, one in three persons, suffer, in its threefold hypostasis, on
the gibbet of Calvary? All these difficulties tormented him, pressing
for an answer,—and mechanically, like a lesson already learnt by
rote, he kept asking himself the questions and repeating the replies.
For several succeeding days, his brain was seething with paradoxies
and subtleties, puzzling over a host of hairsplitting distinctions,
wrestling with a tangle of rule as complicated as so many points of
law, open to any and every interpretation, admitting of every sort of
quirk and quibble, leading up to a system of celestial jurisprudence of
the most tenuous and burlesque subtlety. Then the abstract side fell in
its turn into abeyance, and a whole world of plasticimpressions took
its place, under the influence of the Gustave Moreaus hanging on the
He beheld a long procession pass before his eyes of prelates,
archimandrites, patriarchs, blessing the kneeling multitudes with
uplifted arms of gold, wagging their white beards in reading of the
Scriptures and in prayer; he saw dim crypts receive the silent ranks of
innumerable penitents; he looked on while men raised vast cathedrals
where white-robed monks thundered from the pulpit. In the same fashion
as de Quincey, after a dose of opium, would at the mere sound of the
words "Consul Romanus" recall whole pages of Livy, would see the
consuls coming on in solemn procession and the pompous array of the
Roman legionaries marching stately by, so Des Esseintes, struck by some
theological phrase, would halt in breathless awe as he pondered the
flux and reflux of Nations, and beheld the forms of bishops of other
days standing forth in the lamplit gloom of basilicas; visions like
these kept him entranced, travelling in fancy from age to age, coming
down at last to the religious ceremonies of the present day, enfolded
in an endless flood of music, mournful and tender. Now he was beyond
all self-justification, the thing was decided beyond appeal; it was
just an indefinable impression of veneration and fear; the artistic
sense was dominated by the well-calculated scenes of Catholic
ceremonial. At these memories his nerves quivered; then, in a sudden
mood of revolt, of swift revolution, ideas of monstrous depravity would
attack him,—thoughts of the profanities foreseen in the Confessors'
Manual, degraded and filthy abuses of the holy water and the
consecrated oil. Face to face with an omnipotent God now stood up a
rival full of energy, the Demon; and he thought a hideous glory must
needs result from a crime committed in open church by a believer
fiercely resolved, in a mood of horrid merriment, of a sadic
satisfaction, to blaspheme, to overwhelm with insult and recrimination
the things most deserving veneration; mad doings of magic, the black
mass, the witches' sabbath, horrors of demoniac possession and exorcism
rose before his imagination; he began to ask himself if he were not
guilty of sacrilege in possessing articles once consecrated to holy
uses,—church service-books, chasubles, pyx-covers. And, strange to
say, this notion of living in a state of sin afforded him a sense of
proud satisfaction and pleasure; he found a delight in these acts of
sacrilege,— after all a possibly innocent sacrilege; in any case not
a very serious offence, seeing he really loved these articles and put
them to no base usage. Thus he comforted himself with prudent, coward
considerations, his half-hearted condition of soul forbidding open
crimes, robbing him of the needful courage to accomplish real sins,
deliberate, damning iniquities.
Eventually, little by little, these casuistries disappeared. He
looked out, as it were, from the summit of his mind, over the panorama
of the Church and her hereditary influence over humanity, as old as the
centuries; he pictured her to himself, solitary and impressive,
proclaiming to mankind the horror of life, the inclemency of fate;
preaching patience, contrition, the spirit of sacrifice; essaying to
heal men's sores by exhibiting the bleeding wounds of the Christ;
guaranteeing divine privileges, promising the best part of paradise to
the afflicted; exhorting the human creature to suffer, to offer to God
as a holocaust his tribulations and his offences, his vicissitudes and
his sorrows. He saw her truly eloquent, a mother to the unfortunate, a
pitiful father to the oppressed, a stern judge to oppressors and
At this point, Des Esseintes recovered footing. Doubtless he was
content to accept this admission of social rottenness, but his mind
revolted against the vague remedy offered, the hope of another life.
Schopenhauer was more exact; his doctrine and the Church's started from
a common point of view; he, too, took his stand on the wickedness and
baseness of the world; he, too, cried out, with the Imitation of Our
Lord, in bitterness of spirit: "Verily it is a pitiful thing to be
alive on the earth!" He, too, preached the nullity of existence, the
advantages of solitude; warned humanity that, whatever it did,
whichever way it turned, it must still be unhappy,—the poor man,
because of the sufferings that spring from privations; the rich, by
reason of the invincible ennui engendered by abundance. But he
proclaimed no panacea, consoled you, as a cure for inevitable evils,
with no alluring bait.
Nor did he maintain the revolting dogma of original sin; did not
try to convince you of the existence of a God supremely good and kind
who protects the scoundrel, succours the fool, crushes infancy,
brutalizes old age, chastises the innocent; he did not extol the
benefits of a Providence which has invented that abomination, useless,
incomprehensible, unjust and inept, physical pain; far from
endeavouring, like the Church, to justify the necessity of torments and
trials, he exclaimed in his indignant pity: "If a God had made this
world, I should not like to be that God; the misery of the world would
break my heart."
Schopenhauer had seen the truth! What were all the evangelical
pharmacopoeias beside his treatises of spiritual hygiene? He made no
professions of healing, offered the sick no compensation, no hope; but
his theory of Pessimism was, after all, the great consoler of chosen
intellects, of lofty souls; it revealed society as it was, insisted on
the innate foolishness of women, pointed you out the beaten tracks,
saved you from disillusions by teaching you to restrict, so far as
possible, your expectations; never, if you felt yourself strong enough
to check theimpulse, to let yourself come to the state of mind of
believing yourself happy at last if only, when you least expected it,
heaven did not send crashing on your head some murderous tile from the
Setting out from the same starting-point as the Imitation, this
theory found the very same goal, but without losing itself on the road
among mysterious mazes and impossible bypaths, in resignation and
Only, if this resignation, frankly based on the observation of a
deplorable condition of things and the impossibility of effecting any
alteration in them, was accessible to the rich in spirit, it was only
the more hardly to be received by the poor, whose grievances and
indignation the kindly hand of Religion was better adapted to appease.
These reflexions relieved Des Esseintes of a heavy burden; the
aphorisms of the great German thinker calmed the tumult of his
thoughts, while at the same time the points of similarity between the
two doctrines mutually helped each other to find a firm place in his
memory, and he could never forget Catholicism, so poetical, so
touching, in which he had been bathed as a boy and whose essence he had
absorbed through every pore.
These returns towards religious convictions, these fears and doubts
of uncertain faith had tormented him, especially since new
complications had begun to show themselves in his health; they
coincided with certain nervous disturbances that had lately arisen.
Since his earliest childhood he had been tormented by inexplicable
repulsions, shuddering spasms that froze his backbone and clenched his
teeth, whenever, for instance, he saw a servant-maid in the act of
wringing out wet linen. These instinctive dislikes had never changed,
and to that day it caused him genuine suffering to hear a piece of
stuff torn in two, to rub his finger over a lump of chalk, to stroke
the surface of watered silk.
The excesses of his bachelorhood, the abnormal strains put upon his
brain had extraordinarily aggravated his original nervous weakness,
still further impoverished the exhausted blood of his race; in Paris he
had been obliged to resort to hydropathic treatment for trembling of
the hands, for atrocious pains, for neuralgic agonies that seemed to
cut his face in two, that beat with a never-ceasing hammering at his
temples, sent stabbing throbs through his eyelids, provoked fits of
nausea he could only subdue by stretching himself flat on his back in
These inconveniences had gradually disappeared, thanks to a better
regulated and quieter life; now they were making themselves felt again,
though in a different shape, diffused through the body generally; the
pain left the head and attacked the stomach, which was swollen and
hard; scorched the inwards as with a red-hot iron, brought on a
condition of the bowels at once uneasy and constipated. Presently a
nervous cough, dry and hacking, beginning always exactly at a set hour
and lasting for precisely the same number of minutes, woke him half
choking in his bed. Finally he lost all appetite; hot, gassy
eructations rose like fire in his throat; the stomach was distended; he
felt stifled, after each attempt to eat; he could not endure the least
constriction about the body, a buttoned trouser-belt or a buckled
He gave up spirituous liquors, coffee and tea, confined himself to
a milk diet, resorted to bathing the body with cold water, stuffed
himself with assafoetida, valerian and quinine; he even consented to
leave the house and take strolls in the country when the days of rain
came that make the roads silent and deserted; he forced himself to
walk, to take exercise; as a last resource, he renounced reading
altogether for the time being and, consumed with ennui, determined by
way of filling up this time of enforced leisure to carry out a project
the execution of which he had again and again postponed out of laziness
and dislike of change since the first day of his settling at Fontenay.
No longer able to intoxicate himself afresh with the magical
enchantments of style, to fall into an ecstasy over the delicious
witchery of the rare and well-chosen epithet that, while still definite
and precise, yet opens infinite perspectives, to the imagination of the
initiate he resolved to complete the decoration of his dwelling, to
fill it with costly hothouse flowers and so procure himself a material
occupation that should distract his thoughts, calm his nerves and rest
his brain. Moreover, he had hopes that the sight of their strange and
magnificent colours might console him somewhat for the loss of the
fancied or real shades of literary style which his abstention from all
reading was to make him forget for the moment or lose altogether.
HE had always been madly fond of flowers, but this passion which,
during his residence at Jutigny, had at the first embraced all flowers
without distinction of species or genus, had in the end grown more
discriminating and precise, limiting itself to a single type.
For a long time now he had scorned the everyday plants that blossom
on the counters of Parisian florists, in dripping flowerpots, under
green awnings or red umbrellas.
At the same time that his literary tastes, his preferences in art,
had become more refined, no longer caring for any works but such as had
been tried and sifted, the distillation of overwrought and subtle
brains; at the same time that his disgust with generally accepted
notions had reached its height, simultaneously his love of flowers had
rid itself of all base residuum, all dregs of commonness, had been
clarified, as it were, and purified.
He pleased his fancy by likening a horticulturist's shop to a
microcosm wherein were represented all the different categories of
society—poor, vulgar flowers, hovel flowers, so to speak, that are
really in their proper place only on the window-sill of a garret, roots
that are crammed in milk-tins and old earthen pots, the gilliflower for
instance; pretentious, conventional, silly flowers, whose only place is
in porcelain vases painted by young ladies, such as the rose; lastly,
flowers of high lineage, such as the orchids, dainty and charming,
trembling and delicate, such as the exotic flowers, exiles in Paris,
kept in hothouses, in palaces of glass, Princesses of the vegetable
world, living apart, having nothing whatever in common with the flowers
of the street, the blossoms that are the delight of grocers' wives.
In a word, he could do no more than feel a trivial interest, a
slight pity, for the people's flowers, fading under the poisonous
breath of sewers and sinks in squalid districts; to make up, he loathed
those that go with the cream and gold reception-rooms in new houses; he
reserved, in fact, for the full and perfect delectation of his eyes,
rare plants of high-bred type, coming from distant lands, kept alive by
skill and pains in an artificial equatorial temperature maintained
bycarefully regulated furnaces.
But this choice of his, that had deliberately fallen on greenhouse
flowers, had itself been further modified under the influence of his
general ideas, his opinions that had now come to definite conclusions
on all matters. In former days, in Paris, his innate preference for the
artificial had led him to neglect the real flower for its copy,
faithfully executed thanks to india-rubber and twine, glazed cotton and
lustring, paper and velvet.
He possessed in accordance with this taste a marvellous collection
of tropical plants, produced by the cunning fingers of supreme masters
of the craft, following Nature step by step, recreating her, taking the
flower from its birth, carrying it to maturity, imitating it to its
final decease, observing every shade of its infinite variety, the most
fleeting changes of its awakening and its sleep, noting the pose of its
petals blown back by the wind or beaten down by the rain, sprinkling on
its morning leaves little drops of gum to represent dew, fashioning it
according to every season,—in full bloom, when the twigs bend under
the weight of sap; or when it lifts its parched stem and ragged corolla
as the petals drop away and the leaves fall.
This admirable art had long fascinated him; but now he was dreaming
of the construction of another sort of flora.
He had done with artificial flowers aping the true; he wanted
natural flowers imitating the false.
He set himself to work out this problem, nor had he to search long
or go far, for was not his house situated in the very middle of the
district specially favoured by the great flower-growers? He went
straight off to pay a visit to the hot-houses of the Avenue de
Châtillon and the valley of Aunay, to return tired out and his purse
empty, thinking of nothing but the strange species he had bought,
ceaselessly haunted by his memories of superb and extraordinary blooms.
Two days later the carts arrived.
List in hand, Des Esseintes called the roster, verified his
purchases one by one.
The gardeners unloaded from their vans a collection of Caladiums
whose swollen, hairy stalks carried enormous leaves, shaped like a
heart; while keeping a general look of kinship, they were every one
They included some extraordinary specimens,—some rosy-red, like
the Virginale which seemed cut out in glazed cloth, in shiny
court-plaster; some all white, like the Albane, that looked as if made
of the semi-transparent membrane that lines an ox's ribs, or the
diaphanous film of a pig's bladder. Others again, especially the one
called Madame Maine, mimicked zinc, parodied pieces of stencilled metal
coloured emperor-green, blotched with drops of oil paint, streaks of
red-lead and ceruse: these,—the Bosphorus was an example,—gave the
illusion of starched calico, spotted with crimson and myrtle-green;
those, the Aurora Borealis for instance, had broad leaves the colour of
raw meat, intersected by striations of a darker red and purplish
threads, leaves that seemed swollen and sweating with dark liquor and
This plant, the Aurora Borealis, and the Albane between them
displayed the two opposite poles of constitution, the former bursting
with apoplexy, the latter pallid with bloodlessness.
The men brought other and fresh varieties, in this case presenting
the appearance of a fictitious skin marked by an imitation network of
veins. Most of them, as if disfigured by syphilis or leprosy, displayed
livid patches of flesh, reddened by measles, roughened by eruptions;
others showed the bright pink of a half-closed wound or the red brown
of the crusts that form over a scar; others were as if scorched with
cauteries blistered with burns; others again offered hairy surfaces
eaten into holes by ulcers and excavated by chancres. To finish the
list, there were some that had just come from the doctor's hands, it
seemed, plastered with black mercury dressing, smeared with green
belladonna ointment, dusted over with the yellow grains of iodoform
Thus assembled all together, these strange blossoms struck Des
Esseintes as more monstrous yet than when he had first seen them ranged
side by side with others, like patients in a hospital ward, down the
"Sapristi!" he exclaimed, stirred to the depths.
A new plant, of a type similar to the Caladiums, the "Alocasia
Metallica," moved his enthusiasm to a still higher pitch. Its leaves
were overlaid with a layer of green bronze, shot with gleams of silver;
it was the masterpiece, the fine flower of counterfeit; you might have
thought it a bit of stove-pipe, cut out of sheet iron in the shape of a
spear-head, by a jobbing blacksmith.
Next the men unloaded a tangled mass of leaves, lozenge-shaped,
bottle-green in hue; from their midst rose a switch on top of which
trembled a great ace of hearts, as smooth and shiny as a capsicum;
then, as if to defy all the familiar aspects of plants, from the middle
of this ace of hearts, of an intense vermillion, sprang a fleshy tail,
downy, white and yellow, upright in some cases, corkscrewed above the
heart, like a pig's tail, in others.
It was the Anthurium, one of the arum family, recently imported
from Colombia; it formed part of a section of the same family to which
also belonged an Amorphophallus, a plant from Cochin China, with long
black stalks seamed with scars, like a negro's limbs after a thrashing.
Des Esseintes' cup of joy was brimming over.
Then they got out of the carts a fresh batch of monstrosities, the
Echinopsis, showing a pink blossom like the stump of an amputated limb
rising out of a compress of cotton-wool; the Nidularium, displaying in
its sword-like leaves gaping, ragged hollows; the "Tillandsia Lindeni,"
like a broken-toothed cury-comb, of the colour of wine-must: the
Cypripedium, with its involved, incoherent, incongruous contours that
seem the invention of a madman. It was shaped like a wooden shoe, or a
little rag-bag, above which was a human tongue retracted, with the
tendon drawn tight, as you may see it represented in the plates of
medical works treating of diseases of the throat and mouth; two
miniature wings, of a jujube red, that seemed borrowed from a child's
toy windmill, completed this grotesque conjunction of the underside of
a tongue, colour of wine-lees and slate, and a little glossy pocket,
the lining of which distilled a viscous glue.
He could not take his eyes off this impossible-looking orchid,
indigenous to India, till the gardeners, exasperated by these delays,
began to read out aloud for themselves the labels fixed in the pots as
they carried them in.
Des Esseintes looked on in wonder, listened open-mouthed to the
barbarous names of the herbaceous plants,—the "Encephalartos
horridus," a gigantic artichoke, an iron spike painted rust colour,
like the ones they stick on the top of park gates to prevent intruders
climbing over; the "Cocos Micania," a sort of palm, with a notched and
slender stem, everywhere surrounded with tall leaves like paddles and
oars; the "Zamia Lehmanni," a huge pineapple, like an immense Cheshire
cheese, growing in peaty soil and bristling at the apex with barbed
spears and cruel looking arrows; the "Cibotium Spectabile," going one
better ever than its congeners in the wild caprice of its structure,
defying the maddest nightmare, throwing out from amid a clustered
foliage of palm leaves a prodigious orang-outang's tail, a brown, hairy
tail curling over at the tip like a bishop's crozier.
These, however, he barely glanced at, waiting impatiently for the
series of plants that particularly fascinated him, those vegetable
ghouls, the carnivorous plants,—the Flycatcher of the Antilles, with
its shaggy edge, secreting a digestive liquid, provided with curved
thorns folding into each other to form a barred grating over the insect
it imprisons; the Drosera of the peat mosses, furnished with rows of
stiff, glandulous hairs; the Sarracena; the Cephalothus, with deep,
voracious cups capable of absorbing and digesting actual lumps of meat;
last, but not least amazing, the Nepenthes whose eccentricity of shape
overpasses all known limits.
It seemed as though he could never weary of turning about in his
hands the pot in which trembled this extravagant vagary of the flower
tribe. It resembled the gum-tree in its long leaves of a sombre,
metallic green, but from the end of these leaves depended a green
string, a sort of umbilical cord, carrying a greenish coloured urn,
veined with purple, a sort of German pipe in porcelain, a strange kind
of bird's nest, that swung quietly to and fro, exhibiting an interior
carpeted with a hairy growth.
"That one is a veritable miracle," Des Esseintes murmured to
But he was forced to cut short his manifestations of delight, for
now the gardeners, in a hurry to be gone, were unloading the last of
their wares and setting down side by side tuberous Begonias and black
Crotons, flecked with red-lead spots, like rusty iron.
Then he noticed that one name was still left on the list, the
Cattleya of New Granada. They pointed out to him a little winged
bell-flower of a pale lilac, an almost invisible mauve; he drew near,
put his nose to it and started back; it exhaled an odour of varnished
deal, just the smell of a new box of toys, recalling irresistibly all
the horrors of the New Year and New Year's presents.
It struck him it would be well for him to beware of it, almost
regretted having admitted among the scentless plants he had become
possessor of the orchid that brought up the most unpleasant
He cast only one glance over this flood-tide of vegetation that
swelled in his vestibule; there they were, all confounded together,
intercrossing their sword-blades, their kreeses, their lance-heads,
forming a tangled mass of green weapons of war, over which floated like
barbarian pennons of battle, blossoms dazzling and cruel in their
The atmosphere of the room was clearer by now, and soon, in a dark
corner, just above the floor, a light crept out, soft and white.
He went up to it, to discover it was a cluster of Rhizomorphs, each
of which, as it breathed, was shedding this gleam like that cast by
"All the same, these plants are amazing things," he muttered to
himself; then he stepped back and embraced in one view the whole
collection. Yes, his object was attained; not one of them looked real;
cloth, paper, porcelain, metal seemed to have been lent by man to
Nature to enable her to create these monstrosities. When she had found
herself incapable of copying human workmanship, she had been reduced to
mimick the membranes of animals' insides, to borrow the vivid tints of
their rotting flesh, the superb horrors of their gangrened skin.
"It is all a matter of syphilis," reflected Des Esseintes, his eyes
attracted, riveted on the hideous marking of the Caladiums, lit up at
that moment by a shaft of daylight. And he had a sudden vision of the
human race tortured by the virus of long past centuries. Ever since the
beginning of the world, from sire to son, all living creatures were
handing on the inexhaustible heritage, the everlasting malady that has
devastated the ancestors of the men of to-day, has eaten to the very
bone old fossil forms which we dig up at the present moment.
Never wearying, it had travelled down the ages, to this day it was
raging everywhere, disguised under ordinary symptoms of headache or
bronchitis, hysteria or gout; from time to time, it would climb to the
surface, attacking for choice badly cared-for, badly-fed people
breaking out in gold pieces, setting, in horrid irony, a Nautch-girl's
parure of sequins on its wretched victim's brows, inscribing their
skin, for a crown to their misery, with the very symbol of wealth and
And lo! here it was reappearing, in its pristine splendour, on the
bright-coloured petals of flowers!
"It is true," pursued Des Esseintes, going back to the starting
point of his argument, "it is true that, for most of the time, Nature
is by herself incapable of producing species so morbid and perverse;
she supplies the raw material, the germ and the soil, the procreative
womb and the elements of the plant, which mankind rears, models,
paints, carves afterwards to suit his caprice."
Obstinate, confused, limited though she be, she has at last
submitted, and her master has succeeded in changing by chemical
reactions the substances of the earth, to utilize combinations long
ripened for use, crossings slowly prepared for, to employ artful
buddings, systematic graftings, so that nowadays he can make her
produce blooms of different colours on the same bough; invents new hues
for her; modifies, at his good pleasure, the age-old shapes of her
plants. He clears off the rough from her half-hewn blocks, puts the
finishing touches to her rude sketches, marks them with his signet,
impresses on them his sign-manual of art.
"There is no more to be said," he cried, resuming his train of
thought; "mankind is able in the course of a few years to bring about a
selection which sluggish Nature can never effect but after centuries of
time; no doubt of it, in these present times, the gardeners are the
only and the true artists."
He was a little weary and felt stifled in this atmosphere of
hothouse plants; the walks he had taken during the last few days had
exhausted him; the change from the open air to the warmth of the house,
from the sedentary life of a recluse to the free activity of an outdoor
existence, had been too sudden. He left the hall and went to lie down
on his bed; but, bent on one single absorbing subject, as if wound up
with a spring, the mind, though asleep all the while, went on paying
out its chain, and he was soon wallowing in the gloomy fancies of a
He was standing in the middle of a ride in a great forest at dusk;
he was walking side by side with a woman he did not know, had never
seen before; she was tall and thin, had pale flaxen hair, a bulldog
face, freckled cheeks, irregular teeth projecting below a flat nose.
She wore a servant's white apron, a long kerchief crossed like a
soldier's buff-belt over her chest, a Prussian grenadier's half-boots,
a black bonnet trimmed with ruchings and a big bow.
She had the look of a show-woman at a fair, a travelling mountebank
or the like.
He asked himself who the woman was whom he somehow knew to have
been a long while in the room, to have long been an intimate part of
his life; in vain he strove to remember her origin, her name, her
business, the explanation of her presence; no recollection would come
to him of this inexplicable liaison, of which however there could be no
He was still searching his memory when suddenly a strange figure
appeared in front of them; it was on horseback and trotted on for a
minute, then turned round in the saddle.
His blood gave one bound within him and he remained nailed to the
spot in utter horror. The ambiguous, sexless creature was green, and
from under purple lids shone a pair of pale blue eyes, cold and
terrible; two arms of an inordinate leanness, like a skeleton's bare to
the elbows, shaking with fever, projected from ragged sleeves, and the
fleshless thighs shuddered in churn-boots, a world too wide.
The awful eyes were fixed on Des Esseintes, piercing him, freezing
him to the marrow of his bones; more terrified still, the bulldog woman
pressed against him and yelled death and destruction, her head thrown
back, her neck stiffened with a spasm of wild terror.
And lo! in an instant he knew the meaning of the appalling vision.
He had before his eyes the image of the Pox.
Mad with fear, beside himself with consternation, he dashed into a
side path, ran at headlong speed to a summer-house standing among
laburnums to the left of the road, where he dropped into a chair in a
In a few minutes when he was beginning to get his breath, the sound
of sobs made him look up. The bulldog woman was before him; a piteous,
grotesque spectacle. She stood weeping hot tears, declaring she had
lost her teeth in her panic, and, drawing from the pocket of her
servant's apron a number of clay pipes, she proceeded to break them and
stuff bits of the stems into the holes in her gums.
"Come now, she's quite ridiculous," Des Esseintes kept telling
himself; "the pipes will never stick in,"—and as a matter of fact,
they all came tumbling out of her jaws one after the other.
At that moment, a galloping horse was heard approaching. A
paralysing fear seized Des Esseintes; his limbs failed him. But the
sound of hoofs grew momentarily louder; despair stung him to action
like the lash of a whip; he threw himself upon the woman, who was now
trampling the pipe bowls underfoot, beseeching her to be quiet and not
betray him by the noise of her boots. She struggled; but he dragged her
to the end of the passage, throttling her to stop her crying out.
Suddenly, he saw an ale-house door, with green painted shutters, pushed
it open, darted in and stopped dead.
In front of him, in the middle of a vast clearing in the woods,
enormous white pierrots were jumping like rabbits in the moonlight.
Tears of disappointment rose to his eyes; he could never, no, never
cross the threshold of the door.—"I should be dashed to pieces," he
thought,—and as if to justify his fears, the troop of giant pierrots
was reinforced; their bounds now filled the whole horizon, the whole
sky, which they knocked alternately with their heels and their heads.
The horse came to a standstill, it was there, close by, behind a
round window in the passage; more dead than alive, Des Esseintes turned
round and saw through the circular opening two pricked ears, two rows
of yellow teeth, nostrils breathing clouds of vapour that stank of
He sank to the earth, abandoning all idea of resistance or even of
flight; he shut his eyes so as not to see the dreadful eyes of the
Syphilis glaring at him through the wall, which nevertheless forced
their way under his lids, glided down his spine, enveloped his body,
the hairs of which stood up on end in pools of cold sweat. He expected
any and every torment, only hoped to have done with it with one final
annihilating blow; an age, that beyond a doubt lasted a whole minute,
went by; then he opened his eyes again with a shudder.
All had vanished; without transition, as if by a change of scene,
by a stage delusion, a hideous metallic landscape was disappearing in
the distance, a landscape wan, desert, cloven with ravines, dead and
dreary; a light illumined this desolate place, a calm, white light,
recalling the glint of phosphorus dissolved in oil.
On the surface, something moved which took a woman's shape, a
pallid, naked woman, green silk stockings moulding the legs.
He gazed at her curiously. Like horsehair curled by over-hot irons,
her locks were frizzled, with broken ends; urns of the Nepenthes hung
at her ears; tints of boiled veal showed in her half-opened nostrils.
With entranced eyes, she called him in a low voice.
He had no time to answer, for already the woman was changing;
gleams of iridescent colours flashed in her eyes; her lips assumed the
fierce red of the Anthuriums; the nipples of her bosom blazed out like
two bright red pods of capsicum.
A sudden intuition came to him; it is the Flower, he told himself;
and the spirit of reasoning still persisted in the nightmare, drew the
same conclusions as he had already in the daytime from the plants as
the malevolence of the Virus.
Then he noticed the terrifying irritation of the bosoms and of the
mouth, discovered on the skin of the body stains of bistre and copper,
and recoiled in horror; but the woman's eye fascinated him, and he
crept slowly, reluctantly towards her, trying to drive his heels into
the ground to stay his advance, dropping to the earth, only to rise
again to go to her. He was all but touching her when black
Amorphophalli sprang up on every side, and made darts at her belly that
was rising and falling like a sea. He put them away from him, pushed
them back, feeling an infinite loathing to see these hot, moist, firm
stems coiling between his fingers. Then, in a moment, the odious plants
disappeared, and two arms were seeking to wind themselves about him. An
agony of terror set his heart beating wildly, for the eyes, the
dreadful eyes of the woman, had become pale, cold blue, terrible to
look at. He made a superhuman effort to free himself from her embraces,
but with an irresistible gesture she seized and held him, and haggard
with horror, he saw the savage Nidularium blossom under her meagre
thighs, with its sword blades gaping in blood-red hollows.
His body was almost in contact with the hideous open wound of the
plant; he felt himself a dying man, and awoke with a start, choking,
frozen, frantic with fear, sobbing out: "Thank God, thank God! it is
only a dream."
THESE nightmares recurred again and again, till he was afraid to go to
sleep. He would lie stretched on his bed, sometimes the victim of
obstinate fits of insomnia and feverish restlessness, at others of
abominable dreams only interrupted by the spasmodic awakening of a man
losing foothold, pitching from top to bottom of a staircase, plunging
into the depths of an abyss, without power to stop himself.
For several days, the exhausting nervous disturbance gained the
upper hand again, showing itself more violent and more obstinate than
ever, though under new forms.
Now the bedclothes were a weight not to be borne; he felt stifled
under the sheets, while his whole body was tormented with tinglings;
his thighs burned, his legs itched. To these symptoms were soon added a
dull aching of the jaws and a sensation as if his temples were confined
within a vice.
His distress of mind grew more and more acute, but unfortunately
the proper means of mastering the merciless complaint were lacking. He
had tried without success to fit up an installation of hydropathic
appliances in his dressing room; but the impossibility of bringing
water to the top of the hill on which his house was perched, the
preliminary difficulty indeed of getting water at all in sufficient
quantity in a village supplied by public fountains which only trickled
sparingly at fixed hours, made his attempt abortive. Finding it
impracticable to get himself douched with jets of water, which, shot
freely and forcible against the bony rings of the vertebral columns,
formed the only method powerful enough to subdue the insomnia and bring
back peace of mind, he was reduced to the employment of short
aspersions in his bath-room or his tub; mere cold aspersions followed
by an energetic rubbing down with a horsehair glove at the hands of his
But these half measures were very far from scotching the disease;
the most he felt was a temporary relief of a few hours, dearly bought,
moreover, by a fresh access of the paroxysms returning to the charge
with increased violence.
He was consumed with infinite ennui. The pleasure he had felt in
the possession of his amazing flowers was exhausted; he was tired
already of looking at the texture of their leaves and the shades of
their blossoms. Besides, for all the care he lavished upon them, most
of his plants had died; these he had removed from the rooms, and then,
to such a pitch of nervous irritability had he come, that the sight of
the places left vacant for want of them wounded his eye and reduced him
to a condition of further exasperation.
To distract his attention and kill the interminable hours, he had
recourse to his portfolios of prints and sorted his Goyas. The early
states of certain plates of the Caprices, proofs distinguishable by
their reddish tone, which he had bought in former days at sales, at
extravagant prices, struck his fancy, and he lost himself in their
contemplation, as he followed the weird fancies of the artist with an
unfailing delight in his bewildering imaginations,—witches riding
black cats, women extracting a dead man's teeth at the foot of the
gallows, bandits, succubi, devils and dwarfs.
After this, he went through all the other series of the artist's
etchings and aquatints, his Proverbs, so grotesque in their gloomy
horror, his battle subjects, so ferocious in their bloodthirstiness,
his plate of the Garotte, of which he possessed a superb proof before
letters, printed on heavy paper, unsized, with visible watermark-lines
showing in its substance.
The savage vigour, the uncompromising, reckless talent of this
artist captivated him. Yet, at the same time, the universal admiration
his works had won put him off somewhat, and for years he had always
refused to frame them, fearing, if he exhibited them, that the first
noodle who might happen to see them would feel himself bound to talk
inanities and fall into an ecstasy in stereotyped phrases as he stood
in front of them.
It was the same with his Rembrandts, which he would examine now and
again on the sly; and indeed it is very true that, just as the finest
air in the world is vulgarized beyond all bearing once the public has
taken to hum it and the street organs to play it, so the work of art
that has appealed to the sham connoisseurs, that is admired by the
uncritical, that is not content to rouse the enthusiasm of only a
chosen few, becomes for this very reason, in the eyes of the elect, a
thing polluted, commonplace, almost repulsive.
This diffusion of appreciation among the common herd was in fact
one of the sorest trials of his life; unaccountable triumphs had for
ever spoilt his enjoyment in pictures and books he had once held dear;
the approbation of the general voice always ended by making him
discover some hitherto imperceptible blemish, and he would repudiate
them, asking himself if his taste was not getting blunted and
He shut his portfolios and once more fell into a state of
indifference and ill humour. To change the current of his ideas, he
tried a course of emollient reading; essayed, with a view to cooling
his brain, some of the solanaceæ of art; read those books so charming
for convalescents and invalids whom sensational stories or works richer
in phosphates would only fatigue: Charles Dickens' novels.
But the volumes produced an effect just the opposite of what he
looked for; his chaste lovers, his Protestant heroines, modestly draped
to the chin, whose passions were so seraphic, who never went beyond a
coy dropping of the eyes, a blush, a tear of happiness, a squeezing of
hands, exasperated him. This exaggerated virtue drove him into the
opposite extreme; in virtue of the law of contrasts, he rushed into the
contrary excess; thought of passionate, full-bodied loves; pictured the
doings of frail, human couples; of ardent embraces mouth to mouth; of
pigeon kisses, as ecclesiastical prudery calls them when tongue meets
tongue in naughty wantonness.
He threw away his book, and banishing the mock-modesty of Albion
far from his thoughts, dreamed of the licentious practices, the
salacious little sins the Church condemns. A commotion shook him; the
insensibility of brain and body that he had supposed final and
irrevocable was no more. Solitude has its influence, too, on broken
nerves; he was filled with a craving, not now for religious conviction,
but for the pleasant sins religion condemns. The habitual object of its
threats and curses was the one thing that tempted him; the carnal side
of his nature, that had lain dormant for months, roused, first of all,
by the feebleness of the pious stuff he had been reading, then stirred
to full wakefulness in a spasm of the nerves by the hateful English
cant, now asserted itself, and the stimulated senses harking back to
the past, he found himself wallowing in the memories of his old
He got up and gloomily opened a little box of silver-gilt, its lid
set here and there with aventurines.
It was full of bonbons of a violet colour; one of these he took and
turned it about in his fingers, thinking over the strange properties of
these sweetmeats, sprinkled over with a powdering of sugar, like
hoar-frost; formerly, in the days when his impotency was an established
fact and he could dream of women without bitterness, regret or longing,
he would place one of these sweetmeats on his tongue and let it melt in
his mouth; then, in a moment, would recur with an infinite tenderness
recollections, almost effaced, altogether soft and languishing, of the
lascivious doings of other days.
These bonbons, an invention of Siraudin's known under the
ridiculous name of "Pearls of the Pyrenees," consisted of a drop of
sarcanthus scent, a drop of essence of woman, crystallized in a piece
of sugar; they entered by the papillae ofthe mouth, evoking
reminiscences of water opalescent with rare vinegars; and deep,
searching kisses, all fragrant with odours.
As usual, his face broke into a smile, as he drank in this amorous
aroma; this shadowy semblance of caresses that revived in a corner of
his brain a sense of female nudity and re-awakened for a second the
savour, once so adorable, of certain women. But today, it was no longer
a muffled peal that was ringing; the drug's effect was no longer
limited to reviving the memory of far away, half forgotten escapades;
rather was it to tear the veils from before his eyes and show him the
bodily reality, in all its brutal force and urgency.
Heading the procession of mistresses that the taste of the
sweetmeat helped to define in clear outlines, one riveted his
attention, a woman with long, white teeth, a satiny skin, rosy with
health, a short nose, mouse-grey eyes, short-clipped, yellow hair.
It was Miss Urania, an American girl with a supple figure, sinewy
legs, muscles of steel, arms of iron.
She had been one of the most famous of the acrobats at the Cirque.
Whole evenings, Des Esseintes had watched her performing. The first
few times she had struck him as being just what she was, a powerfully
made, handsome woman, but he had felt no desire to come into any closer
contact with her; she had nothing about her to appeal to the tastes of
a worn man of the world, yet for all this he returned again and again
to the Circus, drawn by some mysterious attraction, urged by some
sentiment difficult to define.
Little by little, as he watched her, his mind filled with strange
notions. The more he admired her strength and suppleness, the more he
seemed to see an artificial change of sex operating in her; her pretty
allurements, her feminine affectations fell more and more into the
background, while in their stead were developed the charms attaching to
the agility and vigour of a male. In a word, after being a woman to
begin with, then something very like an androgyne, she now seemed to
become definitely and decisively and entirely a man.
"This being so, just as a robust athlete falls in love with a thin
slip of a girl, thiswoman of the trapeze should by natural tendency
love a feeble, backboneless weakling like myself," Des Esseintes told
himself; by dint of considering his own qualities and giving the rein
to his faculties of comparison, he presently arrived at the conclusion
that, on his side, he was himself getting nearer and nearer the female
type. This point reached, he was seized with a definite desire to
possess this woman, craving for her as an anaemic young girl will for
some great, rough Hercules whose arms can crush her to a jelly in their
This change of sex between Urania and himself had stirred him
deeply; we are made for each other, he would declare, while, added to
this sudden admiration of brute force, a thing he had hitherto
detested, was the spice of the self-degradation involved in such a
union,—the same base delight a common prostitute enjoys in paying
dear for the clumsy caresses of a bully.
Meantime, as his determination to seduce the acrobat, to make his
dreams a reality, if the thing could be done, was maturing, he confined
his cherished illusion by attributing the same series of inverted
thoughts as his own to the unconscious brain of the woman, reading his
own desires repeated in the fixed smile that hovered on the lips of the
performer turning on her trapeze.
One fine evening, he made up his mind to open the campaign. Miss
Urania deemed it necessary not to yield without some preliminary
courting. Still she showed herself not very exacting, knowing from
common report that Des Esseintes was wealthy and that his name was a
help towards starting woman on a successful career.
But no sooner were his wishes granted than his disappointment
passed all bounds. He had pictured the pretty American athlete to be as
stolid and brutal as the strong man at a fair, but her stupidity, alas!
was purely feminine in its nature. No doubt she lacked education and
refinement, possessed neither good sense nor good wit, while at table
she gave tokens of a brutish greediness but all the childish weaknesses
of a woman were there in full force; she had all the love of chatter
and finery that marks the sex specially given up to trivialities; any
such thing as a transmutation of masculine ideas into her feminine
person was a pure figment of the imagination.
Besides, she was quite a little Puritan and was altogether innocent
of those rude, athletic caresses Des Esseintes at once desired and
dreaded; she was not subject, as he had for a moment hoped she might
be, to any morbid perversities of sex. Possibly, on searching the
depths of her temperament, he might yet have discovered a penchant for
a dainty, delicate, slimly-built paramour, for a nature precisely the
opposite of her own; but in that case, it would have been a preference
not for a young girl at all, but for some merryhearted little shrimp of
a man; for some skinny, queer-faced clown.
Inevitably Des Esseintes resumed his part, momentarily forgotten,
as a man; his impressions of femininity, of feebleness, of a sort of
protection bought and paid for, of fear even, disappeared entirely. He
could deceive himself no longer; Miss Urania was just a mistress like
any other, not justifying in any way the cerebral curiosity she had
Though, just at first, the freshness and splendour of her beauty
had surprised Des Esseintes and kept him captivated, it was not long
before he sought to sever the connexion and bring about a speedy
rupture, for his premature impotency grew yet more marked when
confronted with the icy woman's caresses and prudish passivity.
Nevertheless, she was the first to halt before him in the unbroken
procession of these wanton memories; but, at bottom, if she had made a
deeper impression on his mind than a host of other women whose
allurements had been less fallacious and the pleasures they gave less
limited, this came of the smell she exhaled as of a sound and wholesome
animal. Her redundant health was the very antipodes of the anaemic,
perfumed savour, whose delicate fragrance breathed from Siraudin's
By sheer contrast of fragrance, Miss Urania was bound to hold a
foremost place in his memory, but almost immediately, Des Esseintes,
startled for a moment by the unexpectedness of a natural,
unsophisticated aroma, came back to more civilized scents and began
inevitably to think of his other mistresses. They trooped across the
field of memory in crowds; but, above them all, stood out the woman
whose monstrous gift had for months given him such contentment.
She was a brunette, a little lean woman, with black eyes and black
hair worn in tight bandeaux, that looked as if they had been plastered
on her head with a brush, and parted on one side near the temple like a
boy's. He had made her acquaintance at a café-concert, where she was
giving performances as a ventriloquist.
To the amazement of a crowded audience who were half frightened at
what they heard, she would give voices, turn and turn about, to half a
dozen dolls of graduated sizes seated on chairs like a row of Pandean
pipes; she would hold conversations with the little figures that seemed
all but alive, while, in the auditorium itself, flies could be heard
buzzing about the chandeliers and the spectators whispering on the
benches though they had never opened their mouths. Then a string of
imaginary carriages would roll up the room from the door to the stage,
seeming almost to graze the elbows of the seated audience, who started
back, instinctively surprised to find themselves there at all.
Des Esseintes had been fascinated; a crowd of new thoughts coursed
through his brain. To open the campaign, he made all haste to reduce
the fortress by the battery of bank notes, the ventriloquist catching
his fancy by the very fact of the utter contrast she presented to the
fair American. This brown beauty reeked of artfully prepared perfumes,
heady and unhealthy scents, and she burned like the crater of a
volcano. In spite of all his subterfuges, Des Esseintes' vigour was
exhausted in a few hours; none the less he persisted in allowing
himself to be drained dry by her, for more than the woman as a woman,
her phenomenal endowments attracted him.
In fact, the plans he had proposed to himself to carry out were
ripe for execution. He resolved to accomplish a project hitherto
impossible of realization.
One night, he had a miniature sphinx brought in, carved in black
marble, couched in the classic pose with outstretched paws and the head
held rigid and upright together with a chimaera, in coloured
earthenware, flourishing a bristlingmane, darting savage glances from
ferocious eyes, lashing into furrows with its tail its flanks swollen
like the bellows of a forge. He placed these monsters, one at each end
of the room, put out the lamps, leaving only the red embers glowing on
the hearth, to throw a vague and uncertain illumination about the
chamber that exaggerated the apparent size of objects half lost in the
This done, he stretched himself on the bed beside his mistress,
whose unsmiling face was visible by the faint glow from the fireplace,
and awaited developments. With weird intonations which he had made her
long and patiently rehearse beforehand, she gave life and voice to the
two monsters, without so much as moving her lips, without even a glance
in their direction.
Then, in the silence of the night, began the wondrous dialogue of
the Chimæra and the Sphinx, spoken in deep, guttural tones, now hoarse,
now shrill, like voices of another world.
"Here, Chimaera, stop, I say."
Under the spell of Flaubert's marvellous prose, he listened
trembling to the dreadful pair and a shudder shook his body from head
to foot, when the Chimæra uttered the solemn and magic sentence:
"I seek new perfumes, ampler blossoms, untried pleasures."
Ah! it was to himself this voice, mysterious as an incantation,
spoke; it was to him she told of her feverish desire for the unknown,
her unsatisfied longing for the ideal, her craving to escape the
horrible reality of existence, to overpass the confines of thought, to
grope, without ever reaching it, after a certainty, in the mists of the
regions beyond the bounds of art! All the pitifulness of his own
efforts filled his heart with sick disgust. Softly he. pressed to his
breast the silent woman by his side, clung to her for comfort like a
frightened child, never even seeing the sulky looks of the actress
forced to play a part, to exercise her craft, at home, in her hours of
rest, far away from the footlights.
Their liaison went on, but before long Des Esseintes' feebleness
grew more pronounced; the effervescence of his mental activities could
no longer melt the icy fetters that held his bodily powers; the nerves
refused to obey the mandates of the will; the lecherous caprices that
appeal to old men dominated him. Feeling himself growing more and more
inefficient as a lover, he had recourse to the most powerful stimulus
of aged voluptuaries uncertain of their powers—fear.
While he held the woman clasped in his arms, a hoarse, furious
voice would burst out from behind the door: "Let me in, I say! I know
you have a lover with you. Just wait a minute, and I'll let you know,
you trollop."—Instantly, like the libertines whose passions are
stimulated by terror of being caught in flagrante delicto in the open
air, on the river banks, in the Tuileries Gardens, in a summer-house or
on a bench, he would temporarily recover his powers, throw himself at
the ventriloquist, whose voice went storming on outside the room, and
he found an abnormal satisfaction in this rush and scurry, this alarm
of a man running a risk, interrupted, hurried in his fornication.
Unhappily these sittings soon came to an end. In spite of the
extravagant prices he paid, the ventriloquist sent him about his
business, and the same night gave herself to a good fellow whose
requirements were less complicated and his back stronger.
Des Esseintes had regretted the woman, and when he recollected her
artifices, other women seemed devoid of flavour; the affected graces of
depraved children even appeared insipid, and so profound became his
contempt for their monotonous grimaces that he could not bring himself
to put up with them any more.
Still chewing the bitter cud of his disillusionment, he was walking
one day all alone in the Avenue de Latour-Maubourg when he was accosted
near the Invalides by a young man, almost a boy, who begged him to tell
him the shortest way to go to the Rue de Babylone. Des Esseintes
indicated his road and, as he was crossing the Esplanade too, they set
The lad's voice, insisting, it seemed to his companion quite
needlessly, on fuller instructions as to the way;—"Then you think, do
you? that by turning left, I should be taking the longer road; but I
was told that if I cut obliquely across the Avenue, I should get there
all the quicker,"—was timid and appealing at the same time, very low
and very gentle.
Des Esseintes looked him up and down. He seemed to have just left
school, was poorly dressed in a little cheviot jacket tight round the
hips and barely coming below the break of the loins, a pair of
close-fitting black breeches, a turn-down collar cut low to display a
puffed cravat, deep blue with white lines, La Vallière shape. In his
hand he carried a class book bound in boards, and on his head was a
brown, flat-brimmed bowler hat.
The face was at once pathetic and strangely attractive; pale and
drawn, with regular features shaded by long black locks, it was lit up
by great liquid eyes, the lids circled with blue, set near the nose,
which was splashed with a few golden freckles and under which lurked a
little mouth, but with fleshy lips divided by a line in the middle like
a ripe cherry.
They examined each other for a moment, eye to eye; then the young
man dropped his and stepped nearer; soon his arm was rubbing against
Des Esseintes',who slackened his pace, gazing with a thoughtful look at
the lad's swaying walk.
And lo! from this chance meeting sprang a mistrustful friendship
that nevertheless was prolonged for months. To this day, Des Esseintes
could not think of it without a shudder; never had he experienced a
more alluring liaison or one that laid a more imperious spell on his
senses; never had he run such risks, nor had he ever been so well
content with such a grievous sort of satisfaction.
Among all the memories that pressed upon him in his solitude, the
recollection of this attachment dominated all the rest. All the leaven
of insanity that can torment a brain over-stimulated by nervous
excitation was fermenting within him; moreover, to complete the
satisfaction he found in these reminiscences, in this morose pleasure,
as Theology names this recurrence of old doings of shame, he combined
with the physical visions, spiritual ardours roused by his former
readings of the casuists, writers like Busenbaum and Diana, Liguori and
Sanchez, treating of sins against the Sixth and Ninth Commandments of
While giving birth to an extra-human ideal in this soul which it
had impregnated and which a hereditary tendency dating from the reign
of Henry III. perhaps predisposed in the same direction, Religion had
at the same time roused an illegitimate ideal of licentious pleasures;
libertine and mystic obsessions haunted, in an inextricable union, his
brain that thirsted with an obstinate craving to escape the vulgarities
of life; to plunge, utterly regardless of revered usages, into new and
original ecstasies; into excesses celestial or accursed, but equally
ruinous in the waste of phosphorus they involve.
As a matter of fact, he issued from these reveries utterly
exhausted, half dying; then he would at once kindle the candles and
lamps, flooding the room with light, thinking in this way to hear less
distinctly than in the darkness the dull, persistent, intolerable
beating of the arteries that throbbed and throbbed unceasingly under
the skin of the neck.
IN the course of that singular malady which plays such havoc with
races of exhausted vitality, sudden intervals of calm succeed the
crises. Without being able to explain the reason, Des Esseintes awoke
quite strong and well one fine morning; no more hacking cough, no more
wedges driven with a hammer into the back of the neck, but an ineffable
sensation of well-being and a delightful clearness of brain, while his
thoughts became cheerful; and instead of being opaque and dull, grew
bright and iridescent, like brilliantly coloured soap bubbles.
This lasted some days; then in a moment, one afternoon,
hallucinations of the sense of smell appeared.
His room was strong of frangipane. He looked to see if perhaps
there was a bottle of the perfume lying about anywhere uncorked; but
there was no such thing in the place. He visited his working-room and
then the dining-room; the smell was there too.
He rang for his servant. "Don't you smell something?" he asked, but
the man, after sniffing the air, declared he noticed nothing. Doubt was
impossible; the nervous derangement was come again, taking the form of
a fresh delusion of the senses.
Wearied by the persistency of this imaginary aroma, he resolved to
plunge himself in a bath of real perfumes, hoping that his nasal
homeopathy might cure him or, at any rate, moderate the force of the
He betook himself to his study. There, beside an ancient font that
served him as a wash-hand basin, under a long looking-glass in a frame
of wrought iron that held imprisoned like a well-head silvered by the
moonlight the pale surface of themirror, bottles of all sizes and
shapes were ranged in rows on ivory shelves.
He placed them on a table and divided them into two series,—
first, the simple perfumes, extracts and distilled waters; secondly,
composite scents, such as are described under the generic name of
He buried himself in an armchair and began to think.
Years ago he had trained himself as an expert in the science of
perfumes; he held that the sense of smell was qualified to experience
pleasures equal to those pertaining to the ear and the eye, each of the
five senses being capable, by dint of a natural aptitude supplemented
by an erudite education, of receiving novel impressions, magnifying
these tenfold, coordinating them, combining them into the whole that
constitutes a work of art. It was not, in fact, he argued, more
abnormal than an art should exist of disengaging odoriferous fluids
than that other arts should whose function is to set up sonorous waves
to strike the ear or variously coloured rays to impinge on the retina
of the eyes; only, just as no one, without a special faculty of
intuition developed by study, can distinguish a picture by a great
master from a worthless daub, a motif of Beethoven from a tune by
Clapisson, so no one, without a preliminary initiation, can avoid
confounding at the first sniff a bouquet created by a great artist with
a pot-pourri compounded by a manufacturer for sale in grocers' shops
and fancy bazaars.
In this art of perfumes, one peculiarity had more than all others
fascinated him, viz, the precision with which it can artificially
imitate the real article.
Hardly ever, indeed, are scents actually produced from the flowers
whose name they bear; the artist who should be bold enough to borrow
his element from Nature alone would obtain only a half-and-half-result,
unconvincing, lacking in style and elegance, the fact being that the
essence obtained by distillation from the flowers themselves could at
the best present but a far-off, vulgarized analogy with the real aroma
of the living and growing flower, shedding its fragrant effluvia in the
So, with the one exception of the jasmine, which admits of no
imitation, no counterfeit, no copy, which refuses even any
approximation, all flowers are perfectly represented by combinations of
alcoholates and essences, extracting from the model its inmost
individuality while adding that something, that heightened tone, that
heady savour, that rare touch which makes a work of art.
In one word, in perfumery the artist completes and consummates the
original natural odour, which he cuts, so to speak, and mounts as a
jeweller improves and brings out the water of a precious stone.
Little by little, the arcana of this art, the most neglected of
all, had been revealed to Des Esseintes, who could now decipher its
language,—a diction as varied, as subtle as that of literature
itself, a style of unprecedented conciseness under its apparent
vagueness and uncertainty.
To reach this end, he had, first of all, been obliged to master the
grammar, to understand the syntax of odours, to grasp the rules that
govern them; then, once familiarized with this dialect, to study and
compare the works of the divers masters of the craft, the Atkinsons and
Lubins, the Chardins and Violets, the Legrands and Piesses, to analyze
the construction of their sentences, to weigh the proportion of their
words and the disposition of their periods.
Next, in this idiom of essences, it was for experience to come to
the assistance of theories too often incomplete and commonplace.
The classic art of perfumery was, in truth, little diversified,
almost colourless, uniformly run in a mould first shaped by old-world
chemists; it was in its dotage, hide-bound in its ancient alembics,
when the Romantic epoch dawned and took its part in modifying, in
rejuvenating it, in making it more malleable and more supple.
Its history followed step by step that of the French language. The
Louis XIII. style, perfumed and full-flavoured, compounded of elements
costly at that date, of iris powder, musk, civet, myrtle water, already
known by the name of Angels' Water, barely sufficed to express the rude
graces, the rather crude tints of the time which certain sonnets of
Saint-Amand's have preserved for us. Later on, with the introduction of
myrrh, frankincense, the mystic scents, powerful and austere, the pomp
and stateliness of the Grand Siècle, the redundancy and artificiality
of the orator's art, the full, sustained, wordy style of Bossuet and
the great preachers became almost possible; later on again, the
well-worn, sophisticated graces of French society under Louis XV. found
a readier interpretation of their charm in the frangipane and
maréchale, which offered in their way the very synthesis of the period.
Then finally, after the indifference and incuriousness of the First
Empire, which used Eau de Cologne and preparations of rosemary to
excess, perfumery ran for inspiration, in the train of Victor Hugo and
Gautier, to the lands of the sun; it created Oriental essences, selams
overpowering with their spicy odours; invented new savours; tried and
approved old tones and shades now rediscovered, which it made more
complex, more subtle, more choice; definitely repudiating once for all
the voluntary decrepitude to which the art had been reduced by the
Malesherbes, the Andrieux, the Baour-Lormians, the vulgar distillers of
Nor had the language of perfumes remained stationary since the
epoch of 1830. Again it had progressed and following the march of the
century had advanced side by side with the other arts. It, too, had
complied with the whims of amateurs and artists, flying for motives to
China and Japan, inventing scented albums, imitating the flowery
nosegays of Takeoka; by a mingling of lavender and clove obtaining the
perfume Rondeletia; by a union of patchouli and camphor, the singular
aroma of India-ink; by compounding citron, clove and neroli (essence of
orange blossoms), the odour, the Hovenia of Japan.
Des Esseintes studied, analyzed the soul of these fluids, expounded
these texts; he took a delight, for his own personal satisfaction, in
playing the part of psychologist, in unmounting and remounting the
machinery of a work, in unscrewing the separate pieces forming the
structure of a complex odour, and by long practice of this sort, his
sense of smell had arrived at the certainty of an almost infallible
Just as a wine-merchant knows the vintage by imbibing a single
drop; as a hop-dealer, the instant he sniffs at a bag, can there and
then name its precise quality and price; as a Chinese trader can
declare at once the place of origin of the teas he examines, say on
what farms of the Bohea mountains, in what Buddhist Monasteries, each
specimen was grown, and the date at which its leaves were gathered, can
state precisely the degree of heat used and the effect produced by its
contact with plum blossom, with the Aglaia, with the Olea fragrans,
with all or any of the perfumes employed to modify its flavour, to give
it an added piquancy, to brighten up its rather dry savour with a whiff
of fresh and alien flowers; even so could Des Esseintes, by the merest
sniff at a scent, detail instantly the doses of its composition,
explain the psychology of its blending; all but quote the name of the
particular artist who wrote it and impressed on it, thepersonal mark of
Needless to say, he possessed a collection of all the products used
by perfume-makers; he had even some of the true Balm of Mecca, a very
great rarity, to be procured only in certain regions of Arabia Petræa
and guarded as a monopoly of the Grand Turk.
Seated now in his study at his working table, he was pondering the
creation of a new bouquet, and had reached that moment of hesitation so
familiar to authors who, after months of idleness, are preparing to
start upon a fresh piece of work.
Like Balzac, who was haunted by an imperious craving to blacken
reams of paper by way of getting his hand in, Des Esseintes felt the
necessity of recovering his old cunning by dint of executing some task
of minor importance. He determined to make heliotrope, and measured out
the proper quantities from phials of almond and vanilla; then he
changed his mind and resolved to try sweet-pea.
The phrases, the processes had escaped his memory. So he made
experiments. No doubt in the fragrance of that flower, orange blossom
was the dominant factor, he tried a number of combinations and ended by
getting the right tone by blending the orange with the tuberose and
rose, binding the three together with a drop of vanilla.
All his uncertainties vanished; a fever of eagerness stirred him,
he was ready to set to work in earnest. He compounded a fresh brew of
tea, adding a mixture of cassia and iris; then, sure of himself, he
resolved to march boldly forward, to strike a thundering note, the
overmastering crash of which should bury the whisper of that
insinuating frangipane which still stealthily impregnated the room.
He handled amber; Tonquin musk, with its overpowering scent;
patchouli, the most pronounced of all vegetable perfumes, whose
blossom, in the natural state, gives off an odour compounded of wet
wood and rusty iron. Do what he would, the associations of the
eighteenth century haunted him, gowns with paniers and furbelows
hovered before his eyes; memories of Boucher's "Venus," all flesh,
without bones, stuffed with pink cotton-wool, beseiged him;
recollections of the novel Thémidore and the exquisite Rosette with
skirts high lifted in a fire-red despair, pursued him. In a rage, he
sprang up and, to shake himself free from the obsession, sniffed in
with all his might that unadulterated essence of spikenard that is so
dear to Easterns and so disagreeable to Europeans, by reason of its
over-strong savour of valerian. He staggered under the violence of the
shock; as if crushed under the blow of a mallet, the delicate fibrils
of the dainty scent disappeared. He took advantage of the moment's
respite to escape from the dead centuries, the old-time emanations, to
enter, as he had been used to do in other days, on creations less
limited in scope and more modern in fashion.
Of old, he had loved to soothe his spirit with harmonies in
perfumery; he would use effects analogous to those of the poets, would
adopt, in a measure, the admirable metrical scheme characterizing
certain pieces of Baudelaire's, for instance "l'Irréparable" and "le
Balcon," where the last of the five lines composing the strophe is the
echo of the first, returning like a refrain to drown the soul in
infinite depths of melancholy and languor.
He wandered, lost in the dreams these aromatic stanzas called up in
his brain, till suddenly recalled to his starting point, to the
original motif of his meditations, by the recurrence of the initial
theme, re-appearing at studied intervals in the fragrant orchestration
of the poem.
For the actual moment, he was fain to roam in freedom amid a
landscape full of surprises and changes, and he began by a simple
phrase,—ample, sonorous, at once opening a view over an immense
stretch of country.
With the help of his vaporizers, he injected into the room an
essence composed of ambrosia, Mitcham lavender, sweet-pea, compound
bouquet,—an essence which, if distilled by a true artist, well
deserves the name bestowed on it of "extract of meadow flowers"; then,
into this meadow, he introduced a carefully modulated infusion of
tuberose, orange and almond blossom, and instantly artificial lilacs
came into being, while lindens swayed in the breeze, shedding on the
ground about them their pale emanations, mimicked by the London extract
This scene, once arranged in a few imposing lines, melting to the
horizon under his closed eyes, he insinuated a light rain of human, not
to say half feline, essences, smacking of the petticoat, announcing
woman powdered and painted,— the stephanotis, the ayapana, the
opoponax, the chypre, the champaka, the sarcanthus, over which he
superimposed a dash of seringa, to suggest, amid the factitious life of
make-up and make-belief which they evoked, a natural flower ofhearty,
uncontrolled laughter, of the joys of existence in the eye of the sun.
Then he let these fragrant waves escape by a ventilator, keeping
only the country scent, which he renewed and reinforced, strengthening
the dose so as to force it to recur like the burden of a song at the
end of each strophe. Little by little, the feminine aroma disappeared,
the country was left without inhabitants. Then, on the enchanted
horizon, rose a row of factories whose tall chimneys flamed at their
tops like so many bowls of punch.
A breath as of manufactories, of chemical works now floated on the
breeze which he raised by waving fans, though Nature still continued to
sweeten with her fragrant emanations this foulness of the atmosphere.
Des Esseintes proceeded to turn about and warm between his hands a
ball of styrax, and a very curious odour filled the room, a smell at
once repugnant and exquisite, blending the delicious scent of the
jonquil with the filthy stench of guttapercha and coal tar. He
disinfected his hands, shut away his resin in a box hermetically
sealed, and the stinking factories vanished in their turn. Then, he
tossed amid the revivified vapours of lindens and meadow-grass some
drops of "new mown hay," and on the magic spot, instantly bared of its
lilacs, rose mounds of hay, bringing with them a new season, scattering
their delicate odours reminiscent of high summer.
Last of all, when he had sufficiently savoured the sight, he
hurriedly scattered about exotic perfumes, exhausted his vaporizers,
concentrated his strongest essences, gave the rein to all his balms,
and lo! the stifling closeness of the room was filled with an
atmosphere, maddening and sublime, breathing powerful influences,
impregnating with raging alcoholates an artificial breeze,—an
atmosphere unnatural, yet delightful, paradoxical in its union of the
allspice of the Tropics, the pungent savours of the sandalwood of China
and the hediosmia of Japan with native odours of jasmine, hawthorn and
vervain, forcing, to grow together, in despite of seasons and climates,
trees of diverse essences, flowers of colours and fragrances the most
opposite, creating by the blending and shock of all these tones one
common perfume, unknown, unforeseen, extraordinary, wherein re-appeared
at intervals as a persistent refrain, the decorative phrase of the
opening, the odour of the broad meadows breathed over by the lilacs and
Suddenly a sharp agony assailed him; it felt as though a centre-bit
were boring into his temples. He opened his eyes, to find himself once
more in the middle of his study, seated before his working table; he
got up and walked painfully, half-stunned, to the window, which he
threw part open. A current of fresh air sweetened the stifling
atmosphere that enveloped him; he marched up and down the room to
recover the proper use of his limbs, going to and fro, his eyes fixed
on the ceiling on which crabs and seaweed powdered with sea salt stood
out in relief from a grained background, yellow as the sand of a beach.
A similar design decorated the plinths bordering the panels, which in
their turn were covered withJapanese crape, a watery green in colour
and slightly waved to imitate the ripple of a wind-blown river, while
down the gentle current floated a rose leaf round which frolicked a
swarm of little fishes dashed in with two strokes of the pen.
But his eyes were still heavy; he left off pacing the short length
of floor between the font and the bath and leant his elbows on the
window sill. Presently his dizziness ceased, and after carefully
recorking the bottles of scents and essences, he seized the opportunity
to tidy his apparatus for making up the face,—his paints and powders
and the like. He had not touched these things since his arrival at
Fontenay, and he was almost astonished now at the sight of this
collection once visited by so many women. One on top of the other,
phials and porcelain pots littered the table confusion. Here was a
china box, of the green sort, containing schnouda, that marvellous
white cream which, once spread on the cheeks, changes under the
influence of the air to a tender pink, then to a scarlet so natural
that it gives an absolutely convincing illusion of a complexion
mantling with red blood; there, jars incrusted with mother-o'-pearl
held Japanese gold and Athens green, coloured like the wing of the
cantharides beetle, golds and greens that blend into a deep purple
directly they are moistened; beside pots full of filbert paste, of
serkis of the harem, of emulsions of Cashmere lilies, of lotions of
strawberry and elderfiower for the skin, beside little phials of
solutions of India-ink and rose-water for the eyes, lay a host of
different instruments, of mother-o'-pearl, of ivory and of silver,
mixed up with dainty brushes for the teeth and gums,—pincers,
scissors, strigils, stumps, crimpers, powder-puffs, back-scratchers,
patches and files. He handled all this elaborate apparatus, bought in
former days to please a mistress who found an ineffable pleasure in
certain aromatics and certain balms, an ill-balanced, nerve-ridden
woman, who loved to have her nipples macerated in scents, but who only
really experienced a genuine and over-mastering ecstasy when her head
was tickled with a comb and she could, in the act of being caressed by
a lover, breathe the smell of chimney soot, of wet plaster from a house
building in rainy weather, or of dust churned up by the heavy thunder
drops of a summer storm.
He pondered these recollections, recalling particularly an
afternoon spent, partly for want of anything better to do, partly out
of curiosity, in this woman's company at her sister's house at Pantin,
the memory of which stirred in his breast a whole forgotten world of
long-ago thoughts and oldtime scents. While the two women were
chattering and showing each other their frocks, he had gone to the
window and, through the dusty panes, had looked out on the long, muddy
street and heard its pavements echo under the incessant beat of heavy
boots trampling through the puddles.
The scene, now far away in the past, suddenly stood out before him
with extraordinary vividness. Pantin lay there in front of his eyes,
bustling and alive, imaged in the green, dead water of the mirror into
which his eyes involuntarily gazed. A hallucination carried him far
away from Fontenay; the looking-glass reproduced for him the same
reflections the street had once presented to his bodily eye, and buried
in a dream, he said over the ingenious, melancholy yet consoling,
anthem he had noted down on that former occasion on getting back to
"Yes, the time of the great rains is come; behold, the gutter-pipes
vomit their drippings on to the pavements, with a song of many waters,
and the horse-dung lies fermenting in the puddles that fill the holes
in the macadam with a coffee-coloured fluid; everywhere, for the humble
wayfarer, are foot-baths full to overflowing.
"Under the lowering sky, in the dull air, the walls of the houses
drip black sweat and the cellar-openings stink; loathing of life is
strong within the soul and the spleen is a torment to the flesh; the
seeds of filthiness that every man has in his heart begin to bud;
cravings for foul pleasures trouble the austerest and in the brain of
respectable folks criminal desires spring up.
"And yet, there I am, warming myself before a blazing fire, while a
basket of blowing flowers on a table fills the room with a sweet savour
of benzoin, geranium and bent-grass. In mid November, it is still
spring-time at Pantin, in the Rue de Paris, and I find myself laughing
in my sleeve to think of the timorous family parties that, in order to
avoid the approach of winter, fly to Antibes or Cannes as fast as steam
will take them.
"Inclement Nature goes for nothing in this strange phenomenon; it
is to industry, to commerce, and that alone, be it said, that Pantin
owes this artificial spring.
"The truth is, these flowers are of lustring, mounted on
brass-wire, and the spring-like fragrance floating in through the
cracks of the window-frame, is exhaled by the neighbouring factories
where Pinaud and Saint-James make their perfumes.
"For the artisan exhausted by the hard labour of the workshops, for
the small clerk, alas! only too often a father, the illusion of a
breath or two of good air is a possibility—thanks to these
"Indeed, out of this scarce believable illusion of the country may
be developed a quite rational medical treatment. Fast livers affected
by chest complaints who are now carted off to the South mostly die,
broken down by the rupture of all their habits of life, by the homesick
craving to return to the Parisian pleasures that have brought them to
this pass by their excess. Here, in an artificial climate, heated and
regulated by stoves, libertine recollections will return, gently and
harmlessly, along with the languishing feminine emanations given off by
scent factories. In lieu of the deadly dreariness of provincial
existence, the physician can by this device supply his patient
platonically with the longed-for atmosphere of Parisian boudoirs, of
Parisian haunts of pleasure.
"In the majority of cases, all that will be required to complete
the cure is for the sick man to possess a little touch of imagination.
"Now, seeing that, in these times of ours, there is no single thing
really genuine to be found; seeing that the wine we drink and the
liberty we acclaim are equally adulterate and derisory; considering how
remarkable a dose of credulity it takes to suppose the governing
classes to deserve respect and the lower to be worthy either of relief
or commiseration, it appears to me," concluded Des Esseintes, "neither
more absurd nor more insane to demand of my neighbour a sum total of
illusion barely equal to that he expends every day in his life for
quite idiotic objects, that he may successfully persuade himself that
the town of Pantin is an artificial Nice, a factitious Menton."
* * *
"All which," he exclaimed, rudely interrupted in his reflexions by
a sudden failure of all his bodily powers, "does not alter the fact
that I must beware of these delicious and abominable experiments that
are killing me." He heaved a sigh: "Well, well, more pleasures to
moderate, more precautions to take,"—and he retired for refuge to his
study, thinking in this way to escape more easily from the haunting
influence of the perfumes.
He threw the window wide open, delighted to enjoy an air bath; but
next moment, the wind seemed to bring with it a vague breath of essence
of bergamot, mingled with a smell of jasmine, cassia and rose-water. He
shuddered, asking himself if he was not surely under the tyranny of one
of those possessions by the devil that the Priests used to exorcise in
the Middle Ages. Soon the odour changed and altered, however. An
uncertain savour of tincture of tolu, balm of Peru, saffron, blended
together by a few drops of amber and musk, now floated in from the
sleeping village at the bottom of the hill; then, suddenly, in an
instant, the metamorphosis was wrought, the scent of frangipane, of
which his nostrils had caught the elements and were so familiar with
the analysis, filled all the air from the valley of Fontenay away to
the Fort, assailing his exhausted sense of smell, shaking afresh his
shattered nerves, prostrating him to such a degree that he fell
swooning and half dying across the window sill.
THE terrified domestics hurried off in search of the Fontenay doctor,
who did not understand one word of Des Esseintes' condition. He
muttered sundry medical terms, felt the invalid's pulse and examined
his tongue, tried in vain to make him speak, ordered sedatives and
rest, promised to come back next day, and on Des Esseintes shaking his
head,—he had regained strength enough to disapprove his servant's
zeal and send the intruder about his business,—took his departure and
went off to describe to every inhabitant of the village the
eccentricities of the house, the furniture and appointments of which
had struck him with amazement and frozen him where he stood.
To the astonishment of the servants, who dared not stir from their
quarters, their master recovered in a day or two, and they came upon
him drumming on the window-panes and gazing up anxiously at the sky.
One afternoon, the bells rang a peremptory summons, and Des
Esseintes issued orders that his trunks were to be got ready for a long
While the old man and his wife were selecting, under his
superintendence, such articles as were necessary, he was pacing
feverishly up and down the cabin of his dining-room, consulting the
time tables of steamers, going from window to window of his study,
still scrutinizing the clouds with looks at once of impatience and
For a week past the weather had been atrocious. Sooty rivers
pouring unceasingly across the grey plains of the heavens rolled along
masses of clouds that looked like huge boulders torn up from the earth.
Every few minutes storms of rain would sweep down and swallow up
the valley under torrents of wet.
But that day the firmament had changed its aspect. The floods of
ink had dried up, the rugged clouds had melted; the sky was now one
great flat plain, one vast watery film. Little by little this film
seemed to fall lower, a moist haze wrapped the face of the land; no
longer did the rain descend in cataracts, as it had the day before, but
fell in a continuous drizzle, fine, penetrating, chilling, soaking the
garden walks, churning up the roads, confounding together earth and
sky. The daylight was darkened, and a livid gloom hung over the village
now transformed into a lake of mud speckled by the rain-drops that
pitted with spots of silver the muddy surface of the puddles. In the
general desolation, all colour had faded to a drab uniformity, leaving
only the roofs glittering with wet above the lifeless hues of the
"What weather!" sighed the old servant, depositing on a chair the
clothes his master had called for, a suit ordered some time before from
The only answer Des Esseintes vouchsafed was to rub his hands and
take his stand before a glass-fronted bookcase in which a collection of
silk socks was arranged in the form of a fan. He hesitated a while over
the best shade to choose, then rapidly, taking into consideration the
gloom of the day and the depressing tints of his coat and trousers, and
remembering the object he had in view, he selected a pair of drab silk
and quickly drew them on. Next he donned lace-up, brogued, shooting
boots; put on the suit, mouse-grey with a check of a lighter grey and
whitey spots, clapped a little round hat on his head, threw an
inverness-cape round his shoulders, and followed by his servant
staggering under the weight of a trunk, a collapsible valise, a carpet
bag, a hat-box and a travelling rug wrapped round umbrellas and sticks,
he made for the railway station. Arrived there, he informed the
domestic that he could fix no definite date for his return, that he
might be back in a year's time, next month, next week, sooner perhaps,
gave orders that nothing should be changed or moved in the house during
his absence, handed over the approximate sum required to keep up the
establishment, during his absence, and got into the railway carriage,
leaving the old fellow dumbfounded, arms dangling and mouth wide open,
behind the barrier beyond which the train got into motion.
He was alone in his compartment; a blurred, murky landscape,
looking as if seen through the dirty water of an aquarium, whirled past
the flying, rain-splashed train. Buried in his thoughts, Des Esseintes
closed his eyes.
Once more, this solitude he had so ardently desired and won at last
had resulted in poignant distress; this silence that had once appealed
to him as a consolation for all the fools' chatter he had listened to
for years, now weighed upon him with an intolerable burden. One
morning, he had awoke as frenzied in mind as a man who finds himself
locked up in a prison cell; his trembling lips moved to cry out, but no
sound came, tears rose to his eyes, he felt choked like one who has
been sobbing bitterly for hours.
Devoured by a longing to move, to see a human face, to talk with a
fellow human being, to mingle with the common life of mankind, he
actually asked his servants to stay with him, after summoning them to
his room on some pretext or other. But conversation was impossible;
besides the fact that the two old people, bowed and bent under the
weight of years of silence and broken in to the habits of sick-nurses,
were next door to dumb, the distance which Des Esseintes had always
maintained between himself and his dependents was not calculated to
make them anxious to unclose their lips. Their brains, too, had grown
sluggish and inert, and refused to supply more than monosyllabic
answers to any questions they might be asked.
There was nothing therefore to be hoped for from them in the way of
relief or solace. But now a fresh phenomenon came to pass. The reading
of Dickens which he had in the first instance carried out with the
object of composing his nerves, but which had produced just the
opposite effect to what he had looked for in the matter of benefitting
his health, now began to act little by little in an unexpected
direction, inducing visions of English life over which he sat pondering
for hours; gradually into these fictitious reveries came creeping
notions of turning them into a positive reality, of making an actual
voyage to England, of verifying his dreams, engrafted on all which was
further a growing wish to experience novel impressions and so escape
the divagations of a mind dizzied with grinding, grinding at nothing,
which had so disastrously sapped his strength.
Then the abominable weather with its everlasting fog and rain
helped on his purpose, confirming as it did what he remembered from his
reading, keeping constantly before his eyes a picture of what a land of
mist and mud is like, and in this way focussing his ideas and holding
them to their original starting point.
He could resist no more, and one day had quite suddenly made up his
mind. So great was his hurry to be off that he fled precipitately,
impatient to be done with his present life, to feel himself hustled in
the turmoil of a crowded street, in the crush and bustle of a railway
"I can breathe now," he said to himself as the train slowed down in
its dance and came to a halt in the rotunda of the Paris terminus of
the Sceaux Railway, its last pirouettes accompanied by the crashes and
jerks of the turn-tables.
Once out in the street, on the Boulevard d'Enfer, glad to be
encumbered as he was with his trunks and rugs, he hailed a cabman. By
the promise of a generous pourboire he soon came to an understanding
with the man of the drab breeches and red waistcoat. "By the hour"; he
ordered, "drive to the Rue de Rivoli and stop at the office of
Galignani's Messenger"; his idea was to purchase before starting a
Baedeker's or Murray's Guide to London.
The conveyance blundered off, throwing up showers of mud from the
wheels. The streets were like a swamp; under the grey sky that seemed
to rest on the roofs of the houses, the walls were dripping from top to
bottom, the rain-gutters overflowing, the pavements coated with mud of
the colour of gingerbread in which the passers-by slipped and slid. On
the side-walks, as the omnibuses swept by, people would stop in crowded
masses, and women, kilted to the knees and bending under sodden
umbrellas, would press against the shop windows to escape the flying
The wet was coming in at the windows; so Des Esseintes had to put
up the glass, which the rain streaked with little rivulets of water,
while clots of mud flew like a firework in all directions from the
moving vehicle. To the monotonous accompaniment of the storm beating
down with a noise like a sack of pears being shaken out on his luggage
and the carriage roof, Des Esseintes dreamed of his coming journey; it
was already an instalment on account of rainy London he was now
receiving at Paris in this dreadful weather; the picture of a London,
fog-bound, colossal, enormous, smelling of hot iron and soot, wrapt in
a perpetual mantle of smoke and mist, unrolled itself before his mind's
eye. Vistas of endless docks stretched farther than eye could see,
crowded with cranes and capstans and bales of merchandise, swarming
with men perched on masts, a-straddle across ship's yards, while on the
quays myriads of others were bending, head down and rump in air, over
casks which they were storing away in cellars.
All this activity he could see in full swing on the riverbanks and
in gigantic warehouses bathed by the foul, black water of an imaginary
Thames, in a forest of masts, in vast entanglements of beams piercing
the wan clouds of the loweringfirmament, while trains raced by, some
tearing full steam across the sky, others rolling along in the sewers,
shrieking out horrid screams, vomiting floods of smoke through the
gaping mouths of wells, while along every avenue and every street,
buried in an eternal twilight and disfigured by the monstrous, gaudy
infamies of advertising, streams of vehicles rolled by between marching
columns of men, all silent, all intent on business, eyes bent straight
ahead, elbows pressedto the sides.
Des Esseintes shuddered deliciously to feel himself lost in this
terrible world of men of business, in this isolating fog, in this
incessant activity, in this ruthless machine grinding to powder
millions of the poor and powerless, whom philanthropists urged, by way
of consolation, to repeat verses of the Bible and sing the Psalms of
Then, in a moment, the vision vanished as the vehicle gave a jolt
that made him jump on the seat. He looked out of the window. Night had
fallen; the gas lamps were winking through the fog, each surrounded by
a dirty yellow halo; ribands of fire swam in the puddles and seemed to
circle round the wheels of the carriages that jogged on through a sea
of liquid, discoloured flame. He tried to see where he was, caught
sight of the Arc du Carrousel, and in an instant, without rhyme or
reason, perhaps simply from the reaction of his sudden fall from the
high regions where his imagination had been roaming, his thoughts fell
back on a quite trivial incident he now remembered for the first time,
- how, when he stood looking on at his servant packing his trunks, the
man had forgotten to put in a tooth-brush among his other toilet
necessaries. Then he mentally reviewed the list of objects included;
yes, they had all been duly arranged in his portmanteau, but the
annoyance of this one omission pursued him obstinately till the
coachman pulled up his horse and so broke the current ofhis
reminiscences and regrets.
He was now in the Rue de Rivoli, in front of Galignani's Messenger.
On either side of a door of frosted glass, the panels covered with
lettering and hung with Oxford frames containing cuttings from
newspapers and telegrams in blue wrappers, were two broad windows
crammed with books and albums of views. He came nearer, attracted by
the look of these volumes, some of them in paper covers, butcher's-blue
and cabbage-green, lavishly decorated with gold and silver patterning,
others bound in cloth of various colours, carmelite blue, leek green,
goose yellow, current red, cold tooled on back and sides with black
lines. All this had an anti-Parisian touch, a mercantile flavour, more
vulgar but yet less cheap and tawdry than the way the book-hawkers'
wares are got up in France; here and there, among open albums showing
comic scenes by Du Maurier and John Leech or chromos of mad gallops
across country by Caldecott, appeared a few French novels, tempering
this riot of discordant colours with the plain and soothing commonplace
of their yellow backs.
At last, tearing himself away from this display, he pushed open the
door and entered a vast library, crowded with people. Foreign females
sat examining maps and jabbering remarks to one another in strange
tongues. A clerk brought Des Esseintes a selection of guide-books. He,
too, sat down and fell to turning over the volumes, whose flexible
covers bent between his fingers. He glanced through them, but was
presently arrested by a page of Baedeker describing the London Museums.
His interest was roused by the brief, precise details supplied by the
Guide; but it was not long before his attention wandered from the works
of the old English painters to those of the new school which appealed
to him more strongly. He recalled certain examples he had seen at
International Exhibitions, and he thought that very likely he would see
them again in London,—pictures by Millais, the "Eve of St. Agnes,"
with its moonlight effect of silvery green; pictures by Watts, with
their strange colouring, speckled with gamboge and indigo; works
sketched by a Gustave Moreau fallen sick, painted in by a Michael
Angelo gone anaemic, and retouched by a Raphael lost in a sea of blue.
Among other canvases he remembered a "Cure of Cain," an "Ida," and more
than one "Eve," wherein, under the weird and mysterious amalgamation of
these three masters, lurked the personality, at once complex and
essentially simple, of an erudite and dreamy Englishman, unfortunately
haunted by a predilection for hideous tones.
All these pictures came crowding into his head at once. The
shopman, surprised to see a customer sitting at a table lost in a brown
study and quite oblivious of his surroundings, asked him which of the
Guides he had chosen. Des Esseintes looked up in a dazed way, then,
with a word of excuse for his absence of mind, purchased a Baedeker and
left the shop. The cold wind froze him to the bone; it was blowing
crosswise, lashing the arcades of the Rue de Rivoli with a pelting
rain. "Drive there," he cried to the cabman, pointing to a shop at the
end of a section of the arcade standing at the corner of the street he
was in and the Rue de Castiglione. With its shining panes lighted from
within, it looked like a gigantic lantern, a beacon fire amid the
perils of the fog and the horrors of the vile weather.
It was the "Bodega." Des Esseintes stood wondering to find himself
in a great hall that ran back, like a broad corridor, the roof carried
by iron pillars and lined along the walls on either side with tall
casks standing up-ended on stocks.
Hooped with iron, and having round their waist a miniature line of
battlements resembling a pipe-rack in the notches of which hung
tulip-shaped glasses upside down, with a hole drilled in the lower part
in which was fixed an earthenware spigot, these barrels, blazoned with
a Royal shield, displayed on coloured cards the name of the vintage
each contained, the amount of liquor they held and the price of the
same, whether by the hogshead, in bottle, or by the glass.
In the passage-way left free between these rows of casks, under the
gas jets that flared noisily in a hideous chandelier painted iron-grey,
ran a long counter loaded with baskets of Palmer's biscuits, stale,
salty cakes, plates piled with mince-pies and sandwiches, hiding under
their greasy wrappers great blotches of miniature mustard-plasters.
Beside this stood a double row of chairs extending to the far extremity
of this cellar-like room, lined all along with more hogsheads having
smaller barrels laid across their tops, these last lying on their sides
and having their names and descriptions branded with a hot iron in the
A reek of alcohol assailed his nostrils as he took a seat in this
room where so many strong waters were stored. He looked about him.
Here, the great casks stood in a row, their labels announcing a whole
series of ports, strong, fruity wines, mahogany or amaranth coloured,
distinguished by laudatory titles, such as"Old Port," "Light Delicate,"
"Cockburn's Very Fine," "Magnificent Old Regina"; there, rounding their
formidable bellies, crowded side by side enormous hogsheads containing
the martial wine of Spain, the sherries and their congeners, topaz
coloured whether light or dark,—San Lucar, Pasto, Pale Dry, Oloroso,
Amontillado, sweet or dry.
The cellar was crammed. Leaning his elbow on the corner of a table,
Des Esseintes sat waiting for the glass of port he had ordered of a
"gentleman" busy opening explosive sodas in egg-shaped bottles that
reminded one, on an exaggerated scale, of those capsules of gelatine
and gluten which chemists use to mask the taste of certain nauseous
All round him were swarms of English,—ungainly figures of
pale-faced clergymen, dressed in black from head to foot, with soft
hats and monstrously long coats decorated down the front with little
buttons, shaven chins, round spectacles, greasy hair plastered to the
head; laymen with broad pork-butcher faces and bulldog muzzles,
apoplectic necks, ears like tomatoes, wine-sodden cheeks, bloodshot,
foolish eyes, beards and whiskers joining in a collar like some of the
great apes. Further off, at the far end of the wine-shop, a tall, thin
man like a string of sausages, with towy locks and a chin adorned with
straggling grey hairs like the root of an artichoke, was deciphering
with a microscope the small print of an English newspaper; more to the
front, a sort of American commodore, short and stout and round-about,
with a smoke-dried complexion and a bottle nose, sat half asleep, a
cigar stuck in the hairy orifice of his mouth, staring at the placards
on the walls advertising champagnes, the trademarks of Perrier and
Roederer, Heidsieck and Mumm, and a hooded monk's head with the name in
Gothic lettering of Dom Pérignon, Rheims.
A feeling of lassitude crept over Des Esseintes in this rude,
garrison-town atmosphere; deafened by the chatter of these English folk
talking to one another, he fell into a dream, calling up from the
purple of the port wine that filled their glasses a succession of
Dickens' characters, who were so partial to that beverage, peopling in
imagination the cellar with a new set of customers, seeing in his
mind's eye here Mr. Wickfield's white hair and red face, there, the
phlegmatic and astute bearing and implacable eye of Mr. Tulkinghorn,
the gloomy lawyer of Bleak House. Perfect in every detail, they all
stood out clear in his memory, taking their places in the Bodega, with
all their works and ways and gestures; hisrecollections, lately revived
by a fresh perusal of the stories, were extraordinarily full and
precise. The Novelist's town, the well lighted, well warmed house, cosy
and comfortably appointed, the bottles slowly emptied by Little Dorrit,
by Dora Copperfield, by Tom Pinch's sister Ruth, appeared to him
sailing like a snug ark in a deluge of mire and soot. He loitered idly
in this London of the imagination, happy to be under shelter, seeming
to hear on the Thames the hideous whistles of the tugs at work behind
the Tuileries, near the bridge. His glass was empty; despite the mist
that filled the room over-heated by the smoke of pipes and cigars, he
experienced a little shudder of disgust as he came back to the
realities of life in this moist and foul smelling weather.
He asked for a glass of Amontillado, but then, as he sat before
this pale, dry wine, the nerve-soothing stories, the gentle lenitives
of the English author were scattered and the harsh revulsives, the
cruel irritants of Edgar Allan Poe rose in their place. The chill
nightmare of the cask of Amontillado, the story of the man walled up in
an underground chamber, seized upon his fancy; the kindly, commonplace
faces of the American and English customers who filled the hall seemed
to him to reflect uncontrollable and abominable cravings, odious and
instinctive plans of wickedness. Presently he noticed he was nearly the
last there, that the dinner hour was close at hand; he paid his score,
tore himself from his chair and made dizzily for the door. He got a wet
buffet in the face the instant he set foot outside; drowned by the rain
and driving squalls, the street lamps flickered feebly and gave hardly
a gleam of light; the clouds ruled lower than ever, having come down
several pegs, right to the middle of the house fronts. Des Esseintes
looked along the arcades of the Rue de Rivoli, bathed in shadow and
dripping with moisture, and he thought he was standing in the dismal
tunnel excavated beneath the Thames. But the cravings of hunger
recalled him to reality; he went back to his cab, threw the driver the
address of the tavern in the Rue d'Amsterdam, near the Saint-Lazare
railway station, and looked at his watch,—it was seven o'clock. He
had just time enough to dine; the train did not start till eight-fifty,
and he fell to counting up the time on his fingers, calculating the
hours required for the crossing from Dieppe to Newhaven, and telling
himself,—"If the figures in the railway-guide are right, I shall be
in London tomorrow on the stroke of halfpast twelve noon.
The vehicle stopped in front of the tavern, once more Des Esseintes
left it and made his way into a long hall, with drab wills innocent of
any gilding, and divided by means of breast-high partitions into a
series of compartments like the loose-boxes in a stable. In this room,
which opened out into a wider space by the door, rows of beer engines
rose along a counter, side by side with hams as brown as old violins,
lobsters of a bright metallic red, salted mackerel, along with slices
of onion, raw carrots, pieces of lemon peel, bunches of bay leaves and
thyme, juniper berries and coarse pepper swimming in a thick sauce.
One of the boxes was unoccupied. He took possession of it and
hailed a young man in a black coat, who nodded, muttering some
incomprehensible words. While the table was being laid, Des Esseintes
examined his neighbours. It was the same as at the Bodega; a crowd of
islanders with china blue eyes, crimson faces and pompous, supercilious
looks, were skimming through foreign newspapers. There were some women
amongst the rest, unaccompanied by male escort, dining by themselves,—
sturdy English dames with boys' faces, teeth as big as tombstones,
fresh, apple-red cheeks, long hands and feet. They were attacking with
unfeigned enthusiasm a rumpsteak pie,—meat served hot in mushroom
sauce and covered with a crust like a fruit tart.
After his long loss of appetite, he looked on in amazement at these
sturdy trencherwomen, whose voracity whetted his own hunger. He ordered
a plate of oxtail, a soup that is at once unctuous and tasty, fat and
satisfying; then he scrutinized the list of fish, asked for a smoked
haddock, which struck him as worthy of all praise, and seized with a
rabid fit of appetite at the sight of other people stuffing themselves,
he ate a great helping of roast beef and boiled potatoes and absorbed a
couple of pints of ale, his palate tickled by the little musky,
cow-like smack of this fine, light-coloured beer.
His hunger was nearly satisfied. He nibbled a bit of blue Stilton,
a sweet cheese with an underlying touch of bitter, pecked at a rhubarb
tart, and then, to vary the monotony, quenched his thirst with porter,
that British black beer which tastes of liquorice juice from which the
sugar had been extracted.
He drew a deep breath; for years he had not guzzled and swilled so
much. The change of habits, the choice of unexpected and satisfying
viands had roused the stomach from its lethargy. He sat back in his
chair, lit a cigarette and prepared to enjoy his cup of coffee, which
he laced with gin.
The rain was still falling steadily; he could hear it rattling on
the glass skylight that roofed the far end of the room and running in
torrents along the gutters. Nobody stirred a finger; all were dozing;
comfortable like himself with liqueur glasses before them.
Presently tongues were lossened; as nearly everyone looked up in
the air in talking, Des Esseintes concluded that these Englishmen were
all discussing the weather. No one ever laughed, and all were dressed
in suits of grey cheviot with nankin-yellow and blotting-paper red
stripes. He cast a look of delight at his own clothes, the colour and
cut of which did not sensibly differ from those of the people round
him, highly pleased to find himself not out of tone with his
surroundings, glad to be, in a kind of superficial way, a naturalized
citizen of London. Then he gave a start,—"but what of the train
time?" he asked himself. He consulted his watch,—ten minutes to
eight; he had still nearly half-an-hour to stay there, he told himself,
and once more he fell to thinking over the plan he had framed.
In the course of his sedentary life two countries only had tempted
him to visit them, Holland and England.
He had fulfilled the first of these two wishes; attracted beyond
his power to resist, he had left Paris one fine day and inspected the
cities of the Low Countries one by one.
The general result of the journey was a series of bitter
disappointments. He had pictured to himself a Holland after the pattern
of Teniers' pictures and Jan Steen's, Rembrandt's and Ostade's,
fashioning beforehand for his own particular use and pleasure Jewries
as richly sun-browned as pieces of Cordova leather, imagining prodigal
kermesses, everlasting junketings in the country, expecting to see all
that patriarchal goodfellowship, that riotous joviality limned by the
No doubt Haarlem and Amsterdam had fascinated him; the common folk,
seen in their unpolished state and in true rustic surroundings were
very much as Van Ostade had painted them with their unlicked cubs of
children and their old gossips as fat as butter, big-bosomed and
huge-bellied. But of reckless merrymakings and general carousings not a
sign. As a matter of fact, he found himself forced to admit that the
Dutch School as represented in the Louvre had led him astray; it had
merely supplied him with a spring-board, as it were, to start him off
on his fancies; from it he had leapt off on a false trail and wandered
away into an impossible dreamland, never to discover anywhere in this
world the land of faery he had hoped to find real; nowhere to see
peasants and peasant-maidens dancing on the greensward littered with
wine-casks, crying with sheer happiness, shouting with joy, relieving
themselves under stress of uncontrollable laughter in their petticoats
and their trunks!
No, decidedly, nothing of the sort was to be seen; Holland was a
country like any other, and to boot, a country by no means simple and
primitive, by no means specially genial, for the Protestant faith was
rampant there with its stern hypocrisies and solemn scruples.
This past disillusionment recurred to his memory; again he
consulted his watch,—there was then some minutes more before his
train left. "It is high time to ask for my bill and be going," he
muttered to himself. He felt an extreme heaviness of stomach and an
overpowering general lethargy. "Come now, he exclaimed, by way of
screwing up his courage, "let's drink the stirrup cup,"—and he poured
himself out a glass of brandy, while waiting for his account. An
individual in a black coat, a napkin under one arm, a sort of
major-domo, with a pointed head very bald, a harsh beard turning grey
and a shaved upper lip, came forward, a pencil behind his ear, took up
a position, one leg thrown forward like a singer on the platform, drew
a paper-book from his pocket, and fixing his eyes on the ceiling
without once looking at his writing, scribbled out the items and added
up the total. "Here you are, sir," he said, tearing out the leaf from
his book and handing it to Des Esseintes, who examined it curiously, as
if it had been some strange animal. "What an extraordinary specimen,
this John Bull," he thought, as he gazed at this phlegmatic personage
whose clean-shaven lips gave him a vague resemblance to a helmsman of
the American mercantile marine.
At that moment, the door into the street opened, and a number of
people came in, bringing with them a stench of drowned dog mingled with
a smell of cooking which the wind beat back into the kitchen as the
unlatched door banged to and fro. Des Esseintes could not stir a limb;
a soothing, enervating lassitude, was creeping through every member,
rendering him incapable of so much as lifting his hand to light a
cigar. He kept telling himself: "Come, come now, get up, we must be
off"; but instantly objections occurred to him in contravention of
these orders. What was the good of moving, when a man can travel so
gloriously sitting in a chair? Was he not in London, whose odours and
atmosphere, whose denizens and viands and table furniture were all
about him? What could he expect, if he really went there, save fresh
disappointments, the same as in Holland?
He had only just time enough left now to hurry to the station, and
a mighty aversion for the journey, an imperious desire to stay quiet,
came over him with a force that grew momentarily more and more powerful
and peremptory. He sat dreaming and let the minutes slip by, thus
cutting off his retreat, telling himself: "Now I should have to dash up
to the barriers,, hustle with the luggage; how tiresome, what a
nuisance that would be!"—Then, harking back, he told himself over
again: "After all, I have felt and seen what I wanted to feel and see.
I have been steeped in English life ever since I left home; it would be
a fool's trick to go and lose these imperishable impressions by a
clumsy change of locality. Why, surely I must be out of my senses to
have tried thus to repudiate my old settled convictions, to have
condemned the obedient figment of my imagination, to have believed like
the veriest ninny in the necessity, the interest, the advantage of a
trip abroad?—There," he concluded, glancing at his watch, "the time
is ripe to go back home again." And this time he did get to his feet,
left the tavern and ordered the cabman to take him back to the Gare de
Sceaux; thence he returned with his trunks, his packages, his
portmanteaux, his rugs, his umbrellas and walking-sticks to Fontenay,
feeling all the physical exhaustion and moral fatigue of a man restored
to the domestic hearth after long and perilous journeyings.
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
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
evenornamented by Gruel-Engelmann in oxydized silver and transparent
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
theart 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
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
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
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
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
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'
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
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
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.
THE weather went from bad to worse. That year the seasons seemed to
have changed places; after a long succession of rain-storms and fogs,
blazing skies, like sheets of white-hot metal, now hung over the earth
from horizon to horizon. In two days, without any transition whatever,
cold, wet mists and lashing showers were followed by a torrid heat, an
atmosphere as heavy as lead. As if stirred to a fiery fury with giants,
the sun glared,—a glowing furnace-mouth shooting forth an almost
white light that scorched the eyes; a dust of flame rose from the
burnt-up roads, grilling the parched trees, frying the dry grass. The
reverberation from the white-washed house-walls, the flames thrown back
from the zinc of roofs and panes of windows, blinded the sight; the
temperature of a smelting-house in full blast weighed on Des Esseintes'
Half stripped, he threw open a casement, to receive full in the
face a puff of wind as hot as if coming from an oven; the dining-room,
whither he fled for refuge, was burning, the rarefied air seemed to
boil. In utter exhaustion, he sat down, for the excitement that had
kept his mind active with dreams and fancies during the time when he
was arranging his books had come to an end.
As is the case with all sufferers from nervous disorders, the heat
undermined his strength terribly; his anaemia, checked for the time
being by the cold, recurred, exhausting a body debilitated by copious
With shirt clinging to his moist back, perspiring perineum,
dripping arms and legs, brow streaming with salt drops that poured down
his cheeks, Des Esseintes lay back half fainting in his chair. The
sight of the food on the table sickened him; he ordered it to be taken
away and boiled eggs brought instead. He tried to swallow sippets of
toast dipped in the yolk, but they stuck in his throat. He turned sick
and drank a few drops of wine, but it seemed to burn his stomach like
fire. He mopped his face; the sweat, hot just now, was now cold as it
trickled from his temples; he tried sucking bits of ice to relieve the
feeling of nausea,—but all to no purpose. An infinite lassitude glued
him to his chair by the table; at last he got up, longing for air, but
the sippets of toast had swelled and risen in his throat till they came
near choking him. Never before had he felt so oppressed, so feeble, so
ill at ease; his eyes, too, were affected, he saw things double and
turning round and round; soon the sense of distance grew confused, his
glass seemed to be a mile away from his hand. He told himself he was
the victim of an optical delusion, but he could not throw off the
sensation. Finally, he went and lay down on the sofa in the
drawing-room; but then the rolling of a ship at sea began, increasing
his nausea still further. He sprang up again, resolved to take a
digestive to settle the eggs in his stomach.
He returned to the dining-room and sadly compared himself, in his
cabin, to passengers on a vessel attacked by seasickness. With
staggering steps he made his way to the cupboard that contained his
"mouth-organ," and examined the latter, but without opening it he
reached instead up to a higher shelf for a bottle of Bénédictine, which
he selected to keep by him because of its shape which struck him as
suggestive of ideas at once pleasantly festive and vaguely mystical.
But for the moment, he remained indifferent, looking with a dull
eye at the thick-set flagon of dark green glass which was wont at other
times to call up before his mind's eye the Priors of the mediaeval
Monastery as he looked at its antique monkish paunch, its head and neck
wrapped in a parchment cowl, its stamp of red wax quartered with three
silver mitres on a field azure, the cork tied over and sealed with lead
like a Papal bull, and the label written in sonorous Latin, on paper
yellowed and faded as if by age,—liquor Monachorum Benedictinorum
Abbatiae Fiscanensis (Liqueur of the Benedictine Monks of the Abbey of
Under this full monastic habit, certified by a cross and certain
ecclesiastical initial letters,—P. O. M., within these parchments and
bands that guarded it like an authentic charter, slumbered a
saffron-coloured liquor of an exquisite delicacy. It distilled an aroma
of the quintessence of angelica and hyssop mingled with sea-shore herbs
rich in iodines and bromines disguised by sugary matters; it stimulated
the palate with a spirituous heat dissimulated under a toothsomeness
altogether virginal and innocent; flattered the nose with a smack of
rankness enwrapped in a soothing savour at once childlike and pious.
This hypocrisy resulting from the startling discrepancy between the
containing vessel and its contents, between the liturgical form of the
bottle and the soul inside it, so feminine, so modern, had before now
set him dreaming; he had indeed fallen many a time into a brown study
as he sat before this liqueur, thinking of the monks who sold it, the
Benedictines of the Abbey of Fécamp who, while belonging to the
Congregation of Saint-Maur, famous for its researches in History,
served under the rule of St. Benedict, yet did not follow the
observances of the white monks of Citeaux and the black monks of Cluny.
Irresistibly they came crowding before his mind's eye, in their daily
life as they lived in the Middle Ages, cultivating simples, heating
retorts, distilling in alembics sovereign panaceas, infallible
He drank off a drop of the liqueur and felt a relief that lasted a
minute or two; but very soon the same fire that a mouthful of wine had
before kindled in his inwards burned there again. He tossed away his
napkin and went back into his study, where he began pacing up and down;
he felt as if he were under the bell of an air-pump in which a vacuum
was being gradually produced, and a sensation of faintness, at once
soothing and excruciating, ran from his brain down every limb. He
pulled himself together and, unable to bear more, for the first time
perhaps since his arrival at Fontenay, fled for refuge to his garden,
where he found shelter in the ring of shadow cast by a tree. Seated on
the turf, he gazed with a dazed look at the beds of vegetables the
servants had planted. But it was only after an hour had elapsed that
his eyes saw what he was looking at, for a greenish mist floated before
his eyes and prevented his making out more than the blurred images, as
if viewed through deep water, of objects, whose appearance and colour
kept continually changing.
In the end, however, he recovered his balance and found himself
able to distinguish clearly onions and cabbages, further off a broad
patch of lettuce and in the background, all along the hedge, a row of
white lilies standing motionless in the heavy air.
A smile flitted over his lips, for suddenly he remembered a quaint
comparison old Nicander makes, likening, from the point of view of
shape, the pistil of a lily to an ass's genitals, while a passage from
Albertus Magnus also occurred to him where that miracle-worker gives a
singular formula for discovering by the use of a lettuce whether a girl
is still virgin.
These recollections gave him a moment's merriment. Then he fell to
examining the garden, marking how the plants lay withered by the heat
and the ground smoked in the glare of the dusty sunbeams. Presently,
above the hedge separating the garden which lay at a lower level from
the raised roadway leading up to the Fort, he caught sight of a band of
young rascals tumbling over each other in the blazing sunshine.
His attention was still concentrated on them when another village
lad appeared, a smaller mite than the rest. He was a squalid object;
his hair looked like sea-weed sodden with sand, his nose was filthy,
his mouth was disgusting, the lips smeared with a white paste from what
he had been nibbling at,—skim-milk cheese spread on a piece of bread
and sprinkled over with slices of raw green onion.
Des Esseintes sniffed the air; a sudden longing, a perverse craving
seized him; the nauseous dainty brought the water to his mouth. He
thought somehow that his stomach, that rebelled against all food, would
digest this horrid repast and his palate enjoy it like a royal feast.
He sprang up, ran to the kitchen and gave instant orders to send to
the village for a round loaf, some white cheese and a raw onion,
directing that they should make him a meal exactly like what he had
seen the child gnawing at. This done, he went back and resumed his seat
under the tree.
The lads were fighting now, snatching scraps of bread out of each
other's hands, shoving them into their mouths and then licking their
fingers. Kicks and fisticuffs were freely exchanged, and the weaker
vessels got tumbled over in the road, where they lay squalling as the
jagged stones scraped their backsides.
The sight gave new life to Des Esseintes; the interest he took in
the combat diverted his thoughts from his own miseries. Looking on at
the fury of these naughty youngsters, he reflected on the cruel and
abominable law of the struggle for existence, and ignoble as the
children were, he could not help sympathizing with their lot and
concluding it would have been better for them had their mother never
In fact, what was it all but scald-head, colics, fevers, measles,
kicking and cuffings in infancy, hard knocks and degrading jobs of work
at thirteen or so, women's trickeries, vile diseases and wives'
unfaithfulness in manhood; then, in declining years, infirmities and a
painful death in a workhouse or a hospital.
When all was said and done, the future was the same for all, and
neither one nor the other class, if they had had a particle of common
sense, could possibly have desired it. For the rich, it was, in
different surroundings, the same passions, the same vexations, the same
sorrows, the same diseases, and likewise the same poor satisfactions,
whether these were alcoholic, literary or carnal. There was even a
vague compensation for all the sufferings, a kind of rude justice that
restored the balance of misery as between the classes, enabling the
poor to endure more easily the physical sufferings that broke down more
mercilessly the feebler and more emaciated bodies of the rich.
What madness to beget children! reflected Des Esseintes. And to
think that ecclesiastics, who have taken a vow of sterility, have
actually pushed unreason so far as to canonize St. Vincent de Paul
because he saved innocent little ones for useless torments!
Thanks to his odious precautions, he had postponed for years the
death of beings, devoid of intelligence and feeling, in such wise that,
having in time grown almost understanding and at any rate capable of
pain, they could foresee the future, could expect and dread the death
they had hitherto not known so much as the name of; that they could,
some of them, even call upon it to come, in very hatred of the
condemnation to live he inflicted on them in virtue of an illogical
code of Theology.
Yes, and since the old Saint's death, his ideas had come to govern
the world; children abandoned to die were rescued, instead of being
left to perish quietly without their being conscious of aught amiss;
while, at the same time, the life they preserved them for was growing
day by day harsher and more barren! Under pretext of liberty and
progress, Society had discovered yet another means of aggravating the
miseries of man's existence, by dragging him from his home, tricking
him out in an absurd costume, putting specially contrived weapons in
his hands, brutalizing him in a slavery identical with that from which
they had, out of compassion, enfranchised the negro, and all this
merely to put him in a condition to slaughter his fellows without
risking the scaffold, as common murderers do who work in units, without
uniform, with arms less noisy and less swift to kill.
What a strange epoch, Des Esseintes told himself, is this, which,
while invoking the sacred name of humanity, and striving to perfect
anaesthetics to abolish physical pain, at the very same time provides
such irritants to aggravate moral agonies!
Ah! if ever, in the name of pity, useless procreation should be
abolished, that time was now! But here, again, the laws promulgated by
men like Portalis and Homais appeared, ferocious and
Justice deemed quite natural the ways men use to trick Nature in
the marriage bed; it was a recognized, admitted fact; there was never a
household, no matter how well-to-do, that did not employ means to
hinder procreation, use contrivances to be bought openly in the shops,
- all artifices it would never occur to anybody to disapprove. Yet, if
these means, these subterfuges proved ineffectual, if the trickery
failed, and to make good the failure, recourse was had to more certain
methods, there were not prisons and gaols and penal settlements enough
to hold in durance vile people condemned to this punishment by judge
and jury, who the same night in the conjugal bed used every trickery
they could devise not to beget youngsters of their own.
The trickery itself therefore was no crime, but to make good its
failure was one!
In a word, Society regarded as a crime the act that consisted in
killing a creature endowed with life; and yet, in expelling a foetus,
the operator was surely destroying an animal, less fully formed, less
alive and certainly less intelligent and more ugly than a dog or a cat,
which may be strangled at birth without penalty.
It is right to add, thought Des Esseintes, for further proof how
monstrous the injustice is, that it is not the unskilful operator, who
generally makes off with all haste, but the woman, victim of his
awkwardness, who pays the penalty for saving an innocent being from the
burden of life.
Verily the world must be extraordinarily prejudiced to want to
suppress manoeuvres so natural that primitive man, that the very
savages of the South Seas have been led to practise them by the mere
action of their own instinct.
At this moment, his servant interrupted these charitable reflexions
of his master by bringing Des Esseintes a silver-gilt salver on which
lay the nauseous dainty he had asked for. A spasm of disgust shook him;
he had not the courage to touch the thing, for the morbid craving had
now ceased. A sensation of extreme malaise returned; he was forced to
rise from where he sat; the sun, in moving westwards was little by
little encroaching on the place, the air becoming more oppressive and
the heat more scorching.
"Go and pitch the thing," he ordered the man, "to those children
yonder fighting in the road; I hope the weakest ones will be maimed and
never get a scrap and, what's more, be soundly whipped by their parents
when they get back home with trousers torn and eyes blackened; that
will give them a foretaste of the merry life that awaits them!" Then he
returned to the house, where he sank half fainting in an armchair.
"Still I must try and eat something," he sighed,—and he proceeded
to soak a biscuit in a glass of old Constantia (J. P. Cloete brand), a
few bottles of which were still left in his cellar.
This wine, the colour of onion skins slightly burnt, smacking of
old Malaga and Port, but with a sugary bouquet of its own and an
after-taste of grapes whose juices have been condensed and sublimated
by burning suns, had often comfortedhis stomach and given a fillip to
his digestion enfeebled by the forced fasts he was compelled to
undergo; but the cordial, generally so efficacious, failed of its
effect. Then, hoping an emollient might cool the hot irons that were
burning his intestines, he had recourse to Nalifka, a Russian liqueur,
contained in a flask patterned over with dead-gold filigree; but this
unctuous, fruity syrup was equally ineffective. Alas! the days were
long past when Des Esseintes, still in the enjoyment of robust health,
would, in the middle of the dog-days, mount a sledge he had at home,
and then, closely wrapped in furs which he would pull up to his chin,
force himself to shiver as he told himself through teeth that chattered
of set purpose: "Ah! but the cold is Arctic; it's freezing, freezing
hard!" till he actually persuaded himself it was cold weather!
Alas! suchlike remedies were of no avail now that his sufferings
With all this, it was useless for him to have recourse to laudanum;
instead of acting as a sedative, that drug only irritated his nerves
and robbed him of sleep. In former times he had resorted to opium and
haschisch in order to see visions, but the only result had been to
bring on vomiting and intense nervous disturbances; he had been obliged
forthwith to give up their use and without the help of these coarse
excitants to ask his brain of itself alone to bear him far away from
everyday life into the region of dreams.
"What a day!" he moaned to himself on this occasion, as he sponged
his neck, feeling as if every ounce of strength he had left was melting
away in a fresh access of perspiration. A feverish restlessness still
made it impossible for him to stay in one place; again he set off
roaming through his rooms, trying all the seats one after the other.
Wearied out at last, he presently sank down before his writing-desk,
and resting his elbow on the table, fell mechanically and without any
ulterior motive to turning about in his hands an astrolabe, lying as a
paper-weight on a heap of books and memoranda.
He had purchased the instrument, which was of copper engraved and
gilt, of German workmanship and dating from the seventeenth century, at
a bric-à-brac shop in Paris, after a visit he had paid one day to the
Musée de Cluny, where he had stood for hours enraptured before a
wonderful astrolabe of carved ivory, the cabalistic look of which had
The paper-weight in question stirred up in him a whole crowd of
reminiscences. Influenced by the associations evoked by the sight of
the little ornament, his thoughts flew from Fontenay to Paris, to the
old curiosity shop where he had bought it, then returned to the Musée
des Thermes, where he called up the mental picture of the ivory
astrolabe, while his eyes still continued to dwell, but without seeing
it, on the copper astrolabe on his writing table.
Then, still led by memory, he quitted the Museum and, without
leaving town, strolled up and down the streets. After roaming along the
Rue Sommerard and the Boulevard Saint-Michel, he struck off into the
adjoining streets and came to a halt in front of certain establishments
whose frequency and peculiar character had often struck him.
Beginning with the astrolabe, this mental excursion ended by
leading him to the beer-halls of the Quartier Latin.
He recalled the great number of these places all along the Rue
Monsieur-le-Prince and at the end of the Rue Vaugirard adjoining the
Odéon; sometimes they stood cheek by jowl like the old riddecks in the
Rue du Canal-aux-Harengs at Antwerp, stretching one after the other
down the side-walk, which they overlook with a row of signboards all
very much alike.
Through the half open doors and the windows only partially obscured
by coloured panes or curtains he could remember having caught glimpses
of women walking up and down with dragging step and out-thrust neck,
the way geese waddle; others lounging on benches were rubbing elbows on
marble-topped tables, dreaming away the hours or singing to themselves,
their heads drooped between their fists; yet others would be preening
themselves before the looking-glass, patting with the tips of their
fingers their false hair just dressed by a barber; others again would
be drawing out of reticules with broken fastenings piles of silver and
copper which they amused themselves by ranging methodically in little
The majority had massive features, hoarse voices, flaccid bosoms
and painted eyes, and all, like so many automata wound up at the same
time with the same key, uttered in the same tone the same invitations,
lavished the same smiles, talked in the same silly phrases, indulged in
the same absurd reflexions.
Thoughts began to crystallize in Des Esseintes' mind and he found
himself coming to a definite inference, now that he could look back in
memory and take a bird's-eye view, as it were, of these crowded taverns
He realized the meaning of these cafes, saw that they corresponded
to the state of mind and imagination of a whole generation; he gathered
from them material for the synthesis of the period.
Indeed, the symptoms were plain and unmistakable; the legalized
brothel was disappearing, and each time one of these closed its doors,
a beer-tavern opened.
This diminution of official prostitution, organized for the
satisfaction of clandestine amours, was evidently to be accounted for
by the incomprehensible illusions men indulge in from the carnal
Monstrous as this might seem, the fact was, the beer-tavern
satisfied an ideal.
True, the utilitarian tendencies transmitted hereditarily and
further developed by the precocious discourtesies and constant
brutalities of school and college had made the youth of the present day
singularly coarse and also singularly opinionated and cold-hearted, but
for all this, it had preserved, deep down in its heart, an
old-fashioned flower of sentiment, a vague, half decayed ideal of love.
So nowadays, when the blood was hot within, it could no more
consent just to march in, work its will, pay and go home again. This,
in its eyes, was a bestial thing, like a dog covering a bitch without
preliminary or preamble. Besides, vanity was in no sort of way
gratified in these official houses of vice where there was no pretence
of resistance on the woman's part, no semblance of victory on that of
the man, where no special preference was to be expected, nor even any
special liberality of favours from the prostitute who, as a tradeswoman
should, measured her caresses in proportion to the price paid. On the
other hand, to pay court to a girl at a beer-saloon was allowing for
all these sentimentalities, all the delicacies of love. There were
rivals in this case striving for her affection, and those to whom she
agreed, for a sufficient consideration, to grant a rendezvous, imagined
themselves, in all good faith, to have won a victory, to be the object
of a flattering preference, the recipient of a precious favour.
Yet, all the time, the creatures were every whit as stolid, as
mercenary, as base and degraded as those who ply their trade in the
houses with numbers. Like these, the tavern waitresses drank without
being thirsty, laughed without being amused, were mad after the
caresses of a fancy man from the streets, blackguarded each other and
quarrelled and fought on the slightest provocation. Yet, in spite of
everything, the young Parisian rake had never learned that the servant
wenches at these beer-halls were, from every point of view, whether of
personal good looks or attractive poses or pretty dresses, altogether
inferior to the women confined in the luxurious rooms of the other sort
of establishment! Great God! Des Esseintes could not help exclaiming,
what simpletons these fools must be who flutter round beer-halls, for,
to say nothing of their ridiculous self-deception, they have positively
brought themselves to ignore the danger they run from the low-class,
highly suspicious quality of the goods supplied, to think nothing of
the money spent in drinks, all priced beforehand by the landlady, to
forget the time wasted in waiting for delivery of the commodity,—a
delivery put off and put off continually in order to raise the price,
frittered away in delays and postponements endlessly repeated, all to
quicken and stimulate the liberality of the client.
This imbecile sentimentalism combined with ferocity in practice
seemed to represent the dominant feeling of the age; these same fellows
who would have gouged out their best friend's eye to make a sixpence,
lost all clearness of vision, all perspicacity, in dealing with the
disreputable tavern-wenches who bullied them without compunction and
exploited them without mercy. Workmen toiled, families cheated one
another in the name of trade, all to let themselves be swindled out of
money by their sons, who in their turn allowed themselves to be
plundered by these women, who in the last resort were drained dry by
their fancy lovers.
From end to end of Paris, East to West and North to South, it was
one unbroken chain of petty trickeries, a series of organized thefts
repeated continually from one to another,—all this simply because,
instead of satisfying lechers straight away, the suppliers of these
goods were artful enough to keep their clients dangling about and
waiting with what patience they might.
At bottom, human wisdom might be summed up in the precept,—drag
things out indefinitely, say no, then after a long time, yes; for
indeed there was no way of managing mankind half so good as
"Ah! if only the same held good of the stomach," sighed Des
Esseintes, seized with a sudden spasm of pain which instantly brought
his thoughts back to Fontenay, recalling them from the far-away regions
they had been roaming.
TWO or three days had jogged by more or less satisfactorily, thanks to
various devices for cheating the stomach's reluctance, when one morning
the highly spiced sauces which masked the smell of fat and savour of
blood that go along with flesh-meat stirred Des Esseintes' gorge, and
he asked himself anxiously whether his weakness, already alarming, was
not getting worse and likely soon to force him to take to his bed.
Suddenly, a gleam of light shone through his distress of mind; he
remembered how one of his friends, who had been very ill at one time,
had succeeded by using a "patent digester" in checking the anaemia,
stopping the wasting, keeping what was left him of vigour from further
He despatched his servant to Paris to procure the precious
apparatus, and in accordance with the directions the maker sent with
it, himself instructed the cook how to cut up the beef into little
bits, put it dry into the tin digester, to add a slice of leek and
carrot, then screw on the lid and set the whole thing to boil in a
hot-water pan for four hours.
At the end of that time, the threads of meat were squeezed dry, and
you drank a spoonful of the muddy, salty juice left at the bottom of
the pot. Then you felt something slip down that was like absorbing warm
marrow, something that soothed the stomach with a gentle, velvety
This quintessence of nourishment stopped the spasms and nauseas of
the empty stomach, stimulating its action till it no longer refused to
keep down a few spoonsful of soup.
Thanks to his "digester," Des Esseintes' nervous malady made no
further progress, and he told himself: "Well, that is something gained,
at any rate; perhaps the temperature will fall soon; the clouds will
modify the glare of that odious sun that wears me out, and I shall then
get along, without overmuch suffering, to the first fogs and frosts of
In his present state of apathy and the weariness of having nothing
to occupy his thoughts, his library, the re-arrangement of which still
remained uncompleted, got on his nerves; no longer stirring from his
chair, he had continually before his eyes the shelves appropriated to
profane literature with the books on them lying about in disorder,
propped up one against the other, piled up in heaps or tumbled like a
pack of cards flat on their sides. This confusion shocked him the more
when he contrasted it with the perfect order of his religious works,
carefully drawn up, as if on parade, along the walls.
He tried to remedy this confusion, but after ten minutes' labour he
found himself bathed in perspiration; the effort was too much for his
strength; he lay down exhausted on a couch and rang for his servant.
Following his directions, the old domestic set to work, bringing
him the books one by one, which he then examined and pointed out the
chosen place for each.
The task was quite a short one, for Des Esseintes' library
contained only a singularly limited number of non-religious books of
the present day.
By dint of passing them through the test of a severe mental review,
in the same way as the wire-drawer passes strips of metal through a
steel draw-plate from which they issue attenuated and light, reduced to
almost invisible threads, he hadfinally come to possess only books
which had proved capable of withstanding such a treatment and were
solid enough of frame to bear the second rolling-mill of perusal. By
this process of elimination, he had checked and pretty well sterilized
all pleasure in reading, accentuating yet further the irreconcilable
conflict between his ideas and those of the society in which chance had
ordained he should be born. It had come to this at last that he found
it impossible any longer to discover a book to satisfy his secret
aspirations; nay, he had even ceased to admire the very volumes that
had without a doubt done much to embitter his mind and fill it so full
of subtle suspicions.
Yet in literature and art, his opinions had started in the first
instance from a simple enough point of view. For him, there were no
such things as schools, only the writer's individual temperament
mattered, only the working of the creator's brain interested him,
whatever the subject treated of. Unfortunately, this true criterion of
appreciation, worthy of La Palisse, was as good as useless, for the
simple reason that, while desiring to be rid of prejudice, to refrain
from all passion, every man goes for choice to those works which
correspond most intimately with his own temperament and he ends by
relegating all the rest to the background.
This work of selection had gone on slowly. He had at one time
adored the great Balzac, but in proportion as his organism had lost
balance, as his nerves had gained the upper hand, his inclinations had
been modified and his preferences changed.
Soon even, and this although he was well aware of his injustice
towards the marvellous author of the Comédie Humaine, he had given up
so much as ever opening his books, the sturdy art of which irritated
him; other aspirations stirred him now, that were in a sense incapable
of precise definition.
By careful self-examination, however, he realized in the first
place that a book to attract him must bear the character of singularity
that Edgar Allan Poe craved; but Des Esseintes was ready and willing to
adventure further along this road, demanding strange flowers of
Byzantine fancy and complicated sophistries of diction; he preferred a
vague, vexing indefiniteness, that left him to brood meditatively over
it till he had made it, at will, yet more vague, or more firmly
outlined, according to the condition of his spirit at the moment. He
wanted, in one word, a work of art both for what it was in itself and
for what it allowed him to lend it of himself; he wanted to go along
with it, thanks to its support, helped on his way by it as if supported
by a friend's arm, as if borne forward by a vehicle, into a sphere
where the sublimated stress of sensation roused in him an unexpected
commotion, the exact causes of which he would strive long and even
vainly to unravel.
Lastly, ever since his leaving Paris, he shrunk more and more from
the realities of life and above all from the society of his day which
he regarded with an ever growing horror,-a detestation which had
reacted strongly on his literary and artistic tastes; he refused, as
far as possible, to have anything to do with pictures and books whose
subjects were in any way connected with modern existence.
Thus, losing the faculty of admiring beauty independently of the
shape, whatever that may be, under which it presents itself, he now
preferred, in Flaubert, the Tentation de Saint-Antoine to the Education
sentimentale; in De Goncourt, Faustin to Germinie Lacerteux; in Zola,
La Faute de l'Abbé Mouret to L'Assommoir.
This point of view seemed to him logical; these works, less direct
indeed, but equally thrilling, equally human, let him penetrate further
into the inmost secrets of temperament of these masters who displayed
with a more unfeigned frankness the most mysterious impulses of their
being, while at the same time they raised him also, higher than the
rest, out of that trivial life he was weary of.
Moreover, he could enter in reading them into complete community
ideas with the writers who had conceived them; because at the moment of
writing, the authors had been in a state of mind closely analogous to
The truth is, when the period at which a man of talent is condemned
to live is dull and stupid, the artist is, unconsciously to himself,
haunted by a sensation of morbid yearning for another century.
Unable to bring himself into harmony, save at rare intervals, with
the surroundings amid which he develops, ceasing to find in the study
of these surroundings and in the beings who are subjected to them
sufficient pleasures of observation and analysis to divert him, he
feels the birth and growth in himself of phenomena of a singular sort.
Confused cravings for a change of time and place spring up, which find
their satisfaction in reflexion and reading. Instincts, sensations,
preferences transmitted from his ancestors awake, grow more and more
precise and govern his thoughts as masters. He recalls memories of
persons and things he had never personally known, and there comes a
time when he escapes impetuously from the prison-house of his century,
and wanders forth, in freedom, in another epoch, with which, by a
crowning piece of self-deception, he believes he would have been in
In some cases, it is a return to past ages, to vanished
civilizations, to dead centuries; in others, it is an impulse towards
the fantastic, the land of dreams, it is a vision more or less vivid of
a time to come whose images reproduce, without his being aware, as a
result of atavism, that of by-gone epochs.
In Flaubert's case, it was, a series of vast and solemn pictures,
of grandiose and pompous spectacles, in the magnificent and barbaric
frame of which moved beings sensitive and delicate, mysterious and
proud, women endowed, in the perfection of their beauty, with sick and
suffering souls, wherein he discerned secret horrors of infatuation and
insane caprice, driven to desperation as they were even in their day by
the miserable inadequacy of the pleasures they could hope to enjoy.
The temperament of the great author was revealed in all its
brilliance in those incomparable pages of the Tentation de
Saint-Antoine and Salammbô in which, far from all associations of our
petty modern life, he called up the Asiatic splendours of far-off ages,
their mystic aspirations and discouragements, the morbid fancies of
their idleness, the ferocities springing from the oppressive ennui that
flows, even before its pleasures have been drained to the dregs, from
alife of opulence and prayer.
In De Goncourt, on the other hand, it was a longing for the
preceding century, a craving to return to the elegant trivialities of
the eighteenth century, never to be renewed.
The gigantic panorama of seas breaking upon piers of granite, of
deserts beneath blazing skies stretching farther than eye can see,
found no place in his work of imaginary reconstruction, which confined
itself, within the boundaries of a great noble's park, to a boudoir
warm with the alluring emanations of its fair occupant, a woman with a
tired smile, a discontented mouth, restless yet pensive eyes. The soul
wherewith he animated his characters was not now the soul Flaubert
breathed into his creations, a soul in revolt beforehand at thought of
the inexorable certainty that no new happiness was possible; rather was
it a soul driven to revolt after trial, after experience, after all the
fruitless efforts it had made to invent novel, less hackneyed liaisons,
to give a new spice to the one, world-old pleasure that is repeated
from age to age in the gratification, more or less ingeniously carried
out, of a pair of lovers' lust.
Albeit Faustin lived among us moderns and was body and soul of our
age; yet, by ancestral influences, she was a being of the by-gone
century, the captious heart and mental lassitude and sensual satiety of
which she shared in full.
This book of Edmond de Goncourt's was one of the volumes Des
Esseintes most delighted in. Indeed, that suggestiveness, that
invitation to dreamy reverie which he loved, abounded in this, work,
where underneath the written line peeped another visible to the soul
only, indicated rather than expressed, which revealed depths of passion
piercing through a reticence that allowed spiritual infinities to be
defined such as no idiom of human language could have encompassed. It
was very different from the diction of Flaubert, no doubt one of
inimitable magnificence; here the style was at once clear and morbid,
vigorous and deformed, careful to note the impalpable impression that
strikes the senses and determines sensation; a style expert to modulate
complicated shades of distinction of a period which was itself
extraordinarily complex. In a word, it was the phraseology inevitably
called for by decrepit civilizations which for the due expression of
their needs demand, to whatever age they belong, special acceptations,
special turns of phrase, novel moulds of sentences and words.
At Rome, expiring Paganism had modified its prosody, transmuted its
language, with Ausonious, Claudian, Rutilius, whose style, careful and
scrupulous, full-bodied and sonorous, presented, particularly in
passages descriptive of reflections, shadows, shades of meaning, an
inevitable analogy with that of the De Goncourts.
At Paris, a unique phenomenon in literary history had come about;
this perishing society of the eighteenth century, which had produced
painters, sculptors, musicians, architects, all influenced by its
predilections, imbued with its be. liefs, had never succeeded in
fashioning a veritable writer capable of rendering its dying
elegancies, or expressing the essential juice of its feverish
pleasures, that were to be so cruelly expiated. It had had to wait for
De Goncourt, whose temperament was made up of memories, of regrets
stirred to life by the grevious spectacle of the intellectual poverty
and the base aspirations of his own day, to resuscitate, not alone in
his books of history, but likewise in a retrospective work like
Faustin, the very soul of the epoch, to incarnate its nervous
daintinesses in his actress heroine, so painfully eager to torment
heart and head alike that she might savour to the verge of exhaustion
the cruel revulsives of love and art.
In Zola, the same feeling of neurotic longing, the craving to
overpass the bounds of the present day, took a different form. In him
there was no wish to travel to regions and systems of the past, to
worlds vanished in the darkness of by-gone ages. His temperament,
strong and powerful, enamoured of the luxuriances of life, of
full-blooded vigour, of moral sturdiness, deterred him from the
artificial graces, the painted and powdered pallors of the last
century, as likewise from thehieratic solemnity, the brutal ferocity
and the effeminate, dubious imaginations of the ancient East. The day
when he, too, in his turn, had been attacked by this same yearning,
this desire that is in essence poetry itself, to fly far from this
contemporary society he was studying, he had hastened to an ideal
country where the sap boiled in full sunshine; he had dreamed of
fantastic concupiscences of heaven, of long passionate swoonings of
earth, of fertilizing showers of pollen falling on the panting genitals
of flowers; he had arrived at a gigantic pantheism, had, all
unconsciously perhaps, created, in these surroundings where, as in a
Garden of Eden, he placed his Adam and Eve, a wondrous Hindu epic,
celebrating in a style whose broad colours, laid on unmixed, had a sort
of quaint brilliancy as of an Indian painting, the hymn of the flesh,
matter, animated, living, revealing to human beings by its very frenzy
of generation the forbidden fruit of love, its suffocating spasms, its
instinctive caresses, its natural attitudes.
With Baudelaire, these were the three masters who in all the range
of French literature, modern and profane, had most caught and moulded
Des Esseintes' tastes; but by dint of re-reading them, of saturating
his mind in their works, of knowing them by heart from end to end, he
had been constrained in order to gain the power of absorbing them
again, to force himself to forget them and leave them for a while
undisturbed on his bookshelves.
Accordingly, he barely opened them as the old servant handed them
to him one by one. He confined himself to pointing out the place they
were to occupy, taking care to see them arranged in good order and with
plenty of elbow room.
The domestic next brought him another series of books, which caused
him more trouble. These were works to which he had grown more and more
partial, works which by the very fact of their imperfection, relieved
the strain after the high perfections of writers of vaster powers. Here
again, in his refining way, Des Esseintes had come to look for and find
in pages otherwise ill put together occasional sentences which gave him
a sort of galvanic shock and set him quivering as they discharged their
electricity in a medium that had seemed at first entirely a
The very imperfections themselves pleased him, provided they did
not come from base parasitism and servility, and it may well be there
was a modicum of truth in his theory that the subordinate writer of the
decadence, the writer still individual though incomplete, distils a
balm more active, more aperitive, more acid than the author of the same
period who is really truly great, really and truly perfect. In his
view, it was in their ill-constructed attempts that the most acute
exaltations of sensibility were to be seen, the most morbid aberrations
of psychology, the most extravagant eccentricities of language pushed
to its last refusal to contain, to enclose the effervescent salts of
sensations and ideas.
So, in spite of himself, neglecting the masters, he now addressed
himself to sundry minor writers, who were only the more agreeable and
dear to him by reason of the contempt in which they were held by a
public incapable of understanding them.
One of these, Paul Verlaine, had already made his debut with a
volume of verse, the Poèmes Saturniens, a volume almost to be described
as feeble, in which imitations of Leconte de Lisle jostled against
experiments in romantic rhetoric, but which nevertheless revealed in
certain pieces, such as the sonnet entitled Un Rêve familier, the real
personality of the poet.
Going back to his antecedents, Des Esseintes discovered underlying
these attempts with their uncertain touch a talent already profoundly
affected by Baudelaire, whose influence subsequently became much better
marked, though without the contributions offered by the impeccable
master being too flagrantly plagiarisms.
Then later, some of his books, the Bonne Chanson, the Fêtes
Galantes, the Romances sans paroles and finally his last volume,
Sagesse, contained poems in which the original writer was revealed,
making his mark among the mass of his contemporaries.
Provided with rhymes contrived by using the tenses of verbs,
sometimes even by lengthy adverbs preceded by a monosyllable. from
which they fell as from a stone sill in a massive cascade of water, his
verse, divided by impossible caesuras,was often singularly obscure with
its daring ellipses and strange breaches of rule, that were yet not
without a certain grace.
Handling metre better than most, he had endeavoured to rejuvenate
the stereotyped forms of poetry, the sonnet, for instance, which he
turned about, tail in air, like those Japanese fish of variegated
earthenware we see which rest on their pedestai gills downwards. In
other cases, he had degraded its form, employing only masculine rhymes,
for which he seemed to show a predilection. Similarly and not
unfrequently he had adopted a quaint form, a strophe of three lines,
the middle one being left unrhymed, and a tercet, with one rhyme only,
followed by a single line by way of refrain and recurring as an echo of
itself, as in the popular pieces like "Dansons la Gigue." Yet other
rhymes were to be found whose half-heard ring was only faintly to be
caught in far-off strophes, like the distant sound of a bell.
But his individuality was mainly conspicuous in the fact that he
had known how to suggest vague and delicious secrets, in whispered
voices, in the dusk of twilight. He alone had had the art to half
reveal certain mysterious and troublous instincts of the soul, certain
whisperings of thought so soft and low, certain avowals so gently
murmured, so brokenly expressed, that the ear catching them was left
hesitating, passing on to the mind languors stirred by the mystery of
this breath of sound divined rather than heard. Verlaine's very spirit
is in those admirable lines of the Fêtes Galantes:—
Le soir tombait, un soir équivoque d'automne, Les belles se pendant
rêveuses à nos bras, Dirent alors des mots si spécieux tout bas, Que
notre âme depuis ce temps tremble et s'étonne.
Night was falling, a dubious night of Autumn; it was the hour when
fair ones hanging pensive on our arms said words so specious in
whispered tones that since that time our soul is lost in trembling and
It was not now the limitless horizon revealed through unforgettable
portals by Baudelaire, but rather, on a moonlit night, a chink half
opened upon a field of view more restricted and more intimate; in a
word, a field peculiar to the author. Indeed the latter, in verses that
Des Esseintes greatly savoured, had formulated his own poetic system:—
Car nous voulons la nuance encore, Pas la couleur, rien que la
nuance . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Et tout le reste est littérature.
For what we still desire is the shade of colour, not the colour,
nothing but the shade . . . and all the rest is literature.
Gladly Des Esseintes had followed him through the series of his
works, even the most diverse. After the publication of his Romances
sans paroles, issued from the printing-office of a local newspaper at
Sens, Verlaine had written nothing for a considerable interval; then,
in charming lines touched with the gentle, moving charm of Villon, he
had reappeared, celebrating the Virgin, "far from our days of carnal
spirit and dreary flesh." Often would Des Esseintes read and re-read
this book, Sagesse, and enjoy under its inspiration secret reveries,
imaginations ofan occult passion for a Byzantine Madonna, transmuting
at a given moment into a Cyprian goddess who had strayed into our
century. She was so mysterious and so troublous to the senses that none
could say whether she was craving for depravities of vice so monstrous
that, once accomplished they would become irresistible by mankind; or
whether she herself was immersed in a dream, an immaculate reverie,
where the adoration of the soul should float about her in a love for
ever unconfessed, for ever pure.
There were other poets, too, who enticed him to trust their
guidance. One was Tristan Corbière, who, in 1873, amid general
indifference, had launched a volume of verses of the wildest
eccentricity under the title of Les Amours Jaunes. Des Esseintes, who,
in his hatred of the trivial and commonplace, would have welcomed the
most unmitigated follies, the most grotesque extravagancies, spent some
agreeable hours with this book where the burlesque was strangely
combined with an inordinate vigour, where lines of a disconcerting
brilliance occurred in poems that were as a whole utterly
incomprehensible, such as the litanies in his Sommeil, which he himself
in one passage stigmatized as:—
Obscegrave;ne confesseur des dévotes mort-nées.
Obscene confessor of fair bigots still-born.
It was barely French; the author was talking negro, using a sort of
telegram language, passing all bounds in the suppression of verbs,
affecting a ribald humour, condescending to quips and quibbles only
worthy of a commercial traveller of the baser sort; then, in a moment,
in this tangle of ludicrous conceits, of smirking affectations, would
rise a cry of acute pain, like a violoncello string breaking. But with
all this, in this style, rugged, arid, fleshless, bristling with
unusual vocables and unexpected neologisms, flashed many a happy
expression, many a stray verse, rhymeless yet superb; finally, to say
nothing of his Poèmes Parisiens, from which Des Esseintes used to quote
this profound definition of woman-kind:—
Eternal féminin de l'éternel jocrisse.
Eternal feminine of the eternal clown.
Tristan Corbière had, in a style almost imposing in its
conciseness, sung the seas of Brittany, the mariners' seraglios, the
Pardon of St. Anne, and had even risen to the eloquence of hate in the
invective he hurled, in connexion with the Camp of Conlie, at the
individuals whom he reviled under the title of "mountebanks of the
Fourth of September."
This over-ripe flavour which Des Esseintes loved and which was
offered him by this poet of the contorted epithets and beauties that
are always of the rather suspect sort, he found likewise in another
poet, Théodore Hannon, a disciple of Baudelaire and Gautier, a writer
animated by a very special sense of far-sought elegancies and
Unlike Verlaine, who came direct, without cross, from the
Baudelaire breed, particularly on the psychological side, the whimsical
turn of his thought and the artful concentration of his sentiment,
Théodore Hannon derived from the master, mainly on the plastic side, by
his external envisagement of men and things.
His fascinating corruption bore a fatal correspondence with Des
Esseintes' predilections, and, in days of fog and rain, the latter
would shut himself up in the retreat imagined by this poet,
intoxicating his eyes with the glitter of his rich stuffs, with the
flash of his jewels, with his sumptuosities, exclusively material,
which all helped to excite the brain to frenzy and rose like a
cantharides powder in a cloud of hot incense towards a Brussels Idol
with painted face and belly tanned with perfumes.
With the exception of these and of Stéphane Mallarmé, whom he
directed his servant to set on one side, in order to give him a class
apart, Des Esseintes was only very moderately drawn to the poets.
For all his magnificence of technique, for all the impressive roll
of his verse which moved with so fine a stateliness that even Victor
Hugo's hexameters seemed in comparison flat and dull, Leconte de Lisle
could now no longer satisfy him. The ancient world, re-animated with so
marvellous a vigour by Flaubert, remained dead and cold in his hands.
There was no movement in his verse; it was all outside façade, with,
most part of the time, never an idea to prop it up; there was no life
in the dusty poems whose dull mythologies ended by chilling him.
On the other hand, after having long cherished him as a prime
favourite, Des Esseintes was coming to lose interest in Gautier's work;
his admiration for that incomparable painter of pictures had been
melting from day to day, and now he was more amazed than delighted
before his descriptions, in a way impersonal as they are. The
impression of objects had fixed itself on his eminently perceptive eye,
but there it had, so to say, localized itself, had penetrated no
further into brain and into body; like a marvellously contrived
reflector, it had confined itself to repeating all things about it with
an indifferent precision.
No doubt Des Esseintes still loved the works of these two poets in
the same way as he loved rare jewels, precious articles of dead matter,
but none of the variations of these accomplished instrumentalists could
any longer move him to ecstasy, for not one of them was conducive to
reverie, not one of them opened, at any rate for him, one of those
living outbursts that enabled him to speed the slow flight of the
He left their books hungry and the same was true of Victor Hugo's.
The Oriental and patriarchal side was too conventional, too empty to
retain his interest, while the other side, at once good-natured and
grandfatherly, got on his nerves. It was not till he came to the
Chansons des rues et des bois that he felt himself bound to applaud the
faultless jugglery of his metrical technique yet, when all was said and
done, how gladly would he have given all these tours de force for one
new poem of Baudelaire to match the old, for beyond a doubt the latter
was almost the only author whose verses contained beneath their shining
rind a really balsamic and nutritious kernel!
To leap from one extreme to the other, from form devoid of ideas to
ideas devoid of form, left Des Esseintes no less cold and circumspect
in his admiration. The psychological labyrinths of Stendhal, the
analytical divagations of Duranty attracted him; but their diction,
official, colourless, dry; their mercenary prose, at most good for the
ignoble consumption of the stage, repelled him. Besides, the
interesting intricacies of their analyses appealed, after all, only to
brains still stirred by passions that no longer moved him. Little he
cared for the common emotions of humanity, for the ordinary
associations of ideas, now that his mental reserve was growing more and
more pronounced; and he was sensitive to none but superfine sensations
and the doubts raised by Catholicism and sensual phenomena.
To enjoy a literature uniting, as he desired, with an incisive
style, a penetrating, feline power of analysis, he must resort to that
master of Induction, that strange, profound thinker, Edgar Allan Poe,
for whom, since the moment when he had begun to re-read him, his
predilection had suffered no possible diminution.
Better than any other writer perhaps, Poe possessed those close
affinities of spirit that fulfilled the demands Des Esseintes had
formulated in the course of his meditations.
While Baudelaire had deciphered in the hieroglyphics of the soul
the period of recurrence of feelings and thoughts, he had, in the realm
of morbid psychology, more particularly scrutinized the region of will.
In literature, he had been the first, under the emblematic title of
"The Demon of Perversity," to explore those irresistible impulses which
the will submits to without understanding their nature and which
cerebral pathology now accounts for with a fair degree of certainty;
again, he was the first, if not to note, at any rate to make generally
known, the depressing influence of fear acting on the will,like those
anaesthetics that paralyze sensibility and that curare that annihilates
the nervous elements of motion; it was on this point, this lethargy of
the will, that he had focussed his studies, analysing the effects of
this moral poison, pointing out the symptoms of its progress, the
troubles incidental to it, beginning with anxiety, proceeding to
anguish, culminating finally in terror which stupefies the powers of
volition, yet without the intelligence, however severely shaken,
actually giving way.
To death, which the dramatists had so lavishly abused, he had, in a
manner, given a new and keener edge, made it other than it was,
introducing into it an algebraic and superhuman element; yet, to say
truly, it was not so much the actual death agony of the dying he
depicted as the moral agony of the survivor, haunted before the bed of
suffering by the monstrous hallucinations engendered by pain and
fatigue. With a hideous fascination, he concentrated his gaze on the
effects of terror, on the collapse of the will; applied to these
horrors the cold light of reason; little by little choking the breath
out of the throat of the reader who pants and struggles, suffocated
before these mechanically reproduced nightmares of raging fever.
Convulsed by hereditary nervous disorders, maddened by moral
choreas, his characters lived only by the nerves; his women, the
Morellas, the Ligeias, possessed a vast erudition, deeply imbrued with
the foggy mists of German metaphysics and the cabalistic mysteries of
the ancient East; all had the inert bosoms of boys or angels, all were,
so to say, unsexual.
Baudelaire and Poe, whose minds have often been compared because of
their common poetical inspiration and the predilection they shared for
the examination of mental maladies, yet differed radically in their
conceptions of love,—and these conceptions filled a large place in
their works. Baudelaire's passion was a thirsty, ruthless thing, a
thing of cruel disillusion that suggested only reprisals and tortures;
Poe's a matter of chaste and ethereal amours, where the senses had no
existence, and the brain alone was stirred to erethism with nothing to
correspond in the bodily organs, which, if they existed at all,
remained for ever frozen and virgin.
This cerebral clinic where, vivisecting in a stifling atmosphere,
this spiritual surgeon became, directly his attention flagged, the prey
of his imagination, which sprayed about him, like delicious miasmas,
apparitions whether of nightmare horrors or of angelic hosts, was for
Des Esseintes a source of indefatigable conjectures. Now, however, when
his nerves were all sick and on edge, there were days when such reading
exhausted him, days when it left him with trembling hands and ears
strained and watchful, feeling himself, like the lamentable Usher,
seized by unreasoning pangs of dread, by a secret terror.
So he felt bound to moderate his zeal, to indulge sparingly in
these formidable elixirs, just as he could now no longer visit with
impunity his red vestibule and intoxicate himself with the sight of
Odilon Redon's gloomy paintings or Jan Luyken's representations of
And yet, when he was in these dispositions of mind, all literature
struck him as vapid after these terrible philtres imported from
America. Thereupon he turned his attention to Villiers de l'Isle-Adam,
in whose works he noted, here and there, observations equally
unorthodox, vibrations equally spasmodic, but which, at any rate, with
the exception of his Claire Lenoir, did not distil so overwhelming a
sense of horror.
First published in 1867 in the Revue des lettres et des arts, this
Claire Lenoir opened a series of romances included under the generic
title of Histoires moroses. On a background of obscure speculations
borrowed from old Hegel, moved a phantasmagoria of impossible beings, a
Doctor Tribulat Bonhomet, pompous and puerile, a Claire Lenoir, comic
and uncanny, wearing blue spectacles, as round and big as five franc
pieces, concealing her almost lifeless eyes.
The romance turned on an ordinary adultery, but ended on an
unspeakable note of horror, when Bonhomet, uncovering Claire's eyeballs
on her death-bed and searching them with hideous probes, beheld
distinctly reflected on the retina the picture of the offended husband
brandishing in his extended hand the severed head of the lover; and,
like a Kanaka savage, howling a war-song of triumph.
Based on the physiological fact, more or less surely verified, that
the eyes of some animals, oxen for instance, preserve till
decomposition sets in, in the same way as photographic plates, the
image of the persons and things lying at the instant of their death
within the range of their last look, the tale evidently derived from
those of Edgar Allan Poe, from whom he copied the meticulous and
appalling discussion of the details.
The same might be said of the Intersigne, subsequently incorporated
in the Contes cruels, a collection of stories displaying indisputable
talent, and in which occurred Vera, a romance Des Esseintes regarded as
a little masterpiece.
Here the hallucination was impressed with an exquisite tenderness;
there was nothing here of the gloomy imaginings of the American author,
it was a vision of warmth and gentleness, almost celestial in its
beauty. It formed, in an identical mode, the antithesis of Poe's
Beatrices and Ligeias, those sad, wan phantoms engendered by the
inexorable nightmare of black opium!
This romance likewise brought into play the operations of the will,
but it no longer treated of its enfeeblements and failures under the
action of fear. On the contrary, it made a study of its exaltations
under the impulse of a conviction become a fixed idea; it demonstrated
its power, which even came to saturate the atmosphere and impose its
faith on surrounding things.
Another book of Villiers', Isis, struck him as curious on other
grounds. The philosophical lumber of Claire Lenoir cumbered this book
no less than its predecessor, and it presented an incredible confusion
of verbose, chaotic observations and reminiscences of old-fashioned
melodramas, oubliettes, poniards, rope ladders, all those transpontine
situations Villiers was to prove himself unable to revivify in his Elen
and his Morgane, pieces long since forgotten, published by an obscure
local printer, Monsieur Francisque Guyon, of Saint-Brieuc.
The heroine of this book, a Marquise Tullia Fabriana, who was
supposed to have assimilated the Chaldean learning of Poe's women
together with the diplomatic wisdom of the Sanseverina-Taxis of
Stendhal, had into the bargain put on the enigmatic air of a Bradamante
added to an antique Circe These incompatible mixtures developed a smoky
vapour through which philosophical and literary influences elbowed each
other, without having been able to take order in the author's brain at
the time he was writing the prolegomena to this work, which was planned
to embrace not less than seven volumes.
But in Villiers' temperament there existed another side, altogether
more telling, more clearly defined, an element of grim pleasantry and
savage raillery; it was no longer, when this came into play, a case of
Poe's paradoxical mystifications, but rather. a cruel jeering, a gloomy
jesting, of the same sort as Swift's black rage against humanity. A
whole series of pieces, les Memoiselles de Bienfilâtre, l'Affichage
céleste, la Machine à gloire, le Plus beau dîner au monde, revealed a
gift of satirical banter singularly inventive and effective. All the
filth of utilitarian ideals, all the mercenary baseness of the century
were glorified in pages the bitter irony of which moved Des Esseintes
In this special class of serious and biting pleasantry no other
book existed in France; at most, a romance of Charles Cros, La Science
de l'amour, published originally in the Revue du Monde-Nouveau, might
well amaze readers by its wild eccentricities, its satiric humour, its
coldly comic observations, but the pleasure was no more than relative,
for the execution was fatally defective. Villiers' style, strong,
varied, often original, had disappeared to give place to a sort of
force-meat scraped from the shop-board of the first literary
pork-butcher to hand.
"Great God! how few books then there are that one can re-read,"
sighed Des Esseintes, watching the servant as he stepped off the stool
he had been perched on and drew aside to let his master cast a general
look along the shelves.
Des Esseintes nodded his approval. There now remained on his table
only two thin volumes. He beckoned the old man to leave the room, and
fell to skimming the pages of one of these, bound in wild ass's skin,
first glazed under a hydraulic press, dappled in water-colour with
silver clouds and provided with "end-papers" of old China silk, the
pattern of which, now rather dim with age, had that grace of faded
splendour that Mallarmé celebrated in a singularly delightful poem.
These pages, nine in all, contained extracts from unique copies of
the two earliest Parnasses, printed on parchment, and preceded by a
title-page bearing the words: Quelques vers de Mallaré, designed by a
wonderful calligrapher in uncial letters, coloured and picked out, like
the characters in an ancient manuscript, with points of gold.
Among the eleven pieces included in the collection some, Les
fentres, l'Epilogue, Azur, attracted him; but one of all the rest, a
fragment of the Hérodiade, mastered him like a veritable spell at
How many evenings, under the light of the lowered lamp flooding the
silent room, had he not felt his senses stirred by this same Herodias
who, in Gustave Moreau's masterpiece that, now half invisible in the
dimness, gleamed merely as a vaguely seen white statue in the midst of
a dull glowing brazier of jewels.
The darkness hid the blood, dimmed the flash of colours and gold,
buried in gloom the far corners of the temple, obscured the minor
actors in the murderous drama where they stood wrapped in sad-coloured
garments, sparing only the high lights of the painting, showing the
white figure of the woman emerging from her sheath of jewels and
accentuating her nakedness.
Involuntarily he lifted his eyes and looked. There gleamed the
never-to-be-forgotten outlines of her shape; she lived again, recalling
to his lips those weird, sweet words that Mallarmé puts in her mouth:
". . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . O miroir!
"Eau froide par l'ennui dans ton cadre gelée,
Que de fois, et pendant les heures désolée
Des songes et cherchant mes souvenirs qui sont
Comme des feuilles sous ta glace au trou profond,
Je m'apparus en toi comme une ombre lointaine!
Mais, horreur! des soirs, dans ta sévère fontaine,
J'ai de mon rêve épars connu ta nudité."
O mirror! chill water-pool frozen by ennui within thy frame, how
many times, and for hours long, tortured by dreams and searching my
memories that are like dead leaves under the glassy surface that covers
thy depths profound, have I seen myself in these like a far-off shadow!
But, horror! of evenings, in thy cruel fountain, have I known the bare
nudity of my broken vision!
He loved these verses as he loved all the works of this poet who,
in an age of universal suffrage and an epoch of filthy lucre, lived
aloof from literary society; sheltered against the folly of the world
about him by his fine scorn; finding joy, far from the crowd, in the
surprises of the intellect, the visions of his brain; refining on
thoughts already fine and specious, engrafting on them Byzantine
conceits, perpetuating them in deductions just lightly hinted,
deductions barely bound together by an imperceptible thread.
These thoughts, interwoven and precious, he knotted into one with
an adhesive diction, aloof and secret, full of contorted phrases,
elliptical turns of speech, audacious tropes.
Catching analogies the most remote, he would often designate by a
word that suggests by an effect of likeness at once form, scent,
colour, quality, brilliancy, the object or being to which he must have
appended a host of different epithets to indicate all its aspects, all
its lights and shades, if it had been merely referred to by its
technical name. He thus contrived to do away with the formal statement
of a comparison, which arose of itself in the reader's mind by analogy,
once he had comprehended the symbol, and avoided dissipating the
attention over each of the several qualities which might otherwise have
been presented one by one by a series of adjectives strung in a row,
concentrating it instead on one single word, on one whole, producing,
as an artist does in a picture, one unique and complete effect, one
The result was a sort of condensed literature, an essence of
nutriment, a sublimate of art. It was a device which Mallarmé after
first employing it only sparingly in his earlier works, had openly and
boldly adopted in a piece he wrote on Théophile Gautier and in the
l'Après-midi du faune, an eclogue in which the subtleties of sensual
joys were unfolded in mysterious, softly suggestive verses, broken
suddenly by this frantic, wild-beast cry of the Faun:
"Alors m'éveillerai-je à la ferveur première,
Droit et seul sous un flot antique de luminère,
Lys! et l'un de vous tous pour l'ingénuité."
Then shall I awake to the pristine fervour, standing upright and
alone under an old-world flood of light, Flower of the lily! and the
one of you all for innocence!
The last verse, which with its monosyllable "Lys" thrown back to
the beginning called up the idea of something rigid, tall, white, an
indication further strengthened by the noun "ingénuité" brought in as a
rhyme, expressed allegorically, in a single word, the passion, the
effervescence, the passing moment of excitement of the virgin Faun,
maddened to lust at sight of the Nymphs.
In this extraordinary poem, surprises, novel images, unexpected
conceptions awaited the reader in every line, as the poet went on to
describe the emotions and regrets of the goat-foot standing by the
marsh-side and gazing at the clumps of rushes still keeping a fleeting
impress of the rounded forms of the Naïds that had lain there.
Then Des Esseintes also found a fanciful delight in handling the
miniature volume, the covers of which, in Japanese felt, as white as
curdled milk, were fastened with two silk cords, one China pink, the
Concealed behind the binding, the black riband met the pink one,
which gave a note of velvety softness, a suspicion as of modern
Japanese rouge, a suggestion of love and licence, to the antique
severity of the pure white, the frankly natural tint of the book, which
it entwined, knotting together in a small rosette its combre hue with
the brighter tint of the other, suggesting a discreet intimation of the
Faun's regrets, a vague foreshadowing of the melancholy that succeeds
the transports of passion and the appeasing of the senses excited to
frenzy by desire.
Des Esseintes replaced on the table the Après-midi du faune, and
glanced through another thin volume which he had had printed for his
private use,—an anthology of prose poetry, a little shrine dedicated
to Baudelaire as patron saint and opening with one of his pieces.
The collection included selected passages from the Gaspard de la
nuit of that fantastic author Aloysius Bertrand who has transferred Da
Vinci's methods to prose and painted with his metallic oxides a series
of little pictures whose brilliant tints glitter like transparent
enamels. To these Des Esseintes had added the Vox populi of Villiers, a
piece superbly struck off in a style of gold recalling the type of
Leconte de Lisle and Flaubert, and some extracts from that delicious
trifle, the Livre de Jade, whose exotic perfume of ginseng and tea is
mingled with the fresh fragrance of water babbling in the moonlight
from cover to cover of the book.
But, in this selection, had likewise been gathered sundry pieces
rescued from dead and gone reviews:— le Demon de l'analogie, la Pipe,
le Pauvre enfant pâle, le Spectacle interrompu, le Phénomène futur, and
in particular the Plaintes d'automne et Frisson d'hiver. This last was
one of Mallarmé's masterpieces, one of the masterpieces of prose poetry
to boot, for they united a diction so magnificently ordered that it
lulled the senses, like some mournful incantation, some intoxicating
melody, with thoughts of an irresistible seductiveness, stirrings of
soul of the sensitive reader whose quivering nerves vibrate with an
acuteness that rises to ravishment, to pain itself.
Of all forms of literature that of the prose poem was Des
Esseintes' chosen favourite. Handled by an alchemist of genius, it
should, according to him, store up in its small compass, like an
extract of meat, so to say, the essence of the novel, while suppressing
its long, tedious analytical passages and superfluous descriptions.
Again and again Des Esseintes had pondered the distracting problem, how
to write a novel concentrated in a few sentences, but which shouldyet
contain the cohobated juice of the hundreds of pages always taken up in
describing the setting, sketching the characters, gathering together
the necessary incidental observations and minor details. In that case,
so inevitable and unalterable would be the words selected that they
must take the place of all others; in so ingenious and masterly a
fashion would each adjective be chosen that it could not with any
justice be robbed of its right to be there, and would open up such wide
perspectives as would set the reader dreaming for weeks together of its
meaning, at once precise and manifold, and enable him to know the
present, reconstruct the past, divine the future of the spiritual
history of the characters, all revealed by the flash-light of this
The novel, thus conceived, thus condensed in a page or two, would
become a communion, an interchange of thought between a magic-working
author and an ideal reader, a mental collaboration by consent between
half a score persons of superior intellect scattered up and down the
world, a delectable feast for epicures and appreciable by them only.
In a word, the prose poem represented in Des Esseintes' eyes the
concrete juice, the osmazone of literature, the essential oil of art.
This succulence, developed and concentrated in a drop, already
existed in Baudelaire, as also in those poems of Mallarmé's which he
savoured with so deep a delight.
When he had closed his anthology, Des Esseintes told himself, here
was the last book of his library, which would probably never receive
In fact, the decadence of a literature, attacked by incurable
organic disease, enfeebled by the decay of ideas, exhausted by the
excess of grammatical subtlety, sensitive only to the whims of
curiosity that torment a fever patient, and yet eager in its expiring
hours to express every thought and fancy, frantic to make good all the
omissions of the past, tortured on its deathbed by the craving to leave
a record of the most subtle pangs of suffering, was incarnate in
Mallarmé in the most consummate and exquisite perfection.
Here was to be found, pushed to its completest expression, the
quintessence of Baudelaire and Poe; here was the same powerful and
refined basis yet further distilled and giving off new savours, new
It was the dying spasm of the old tongue which, after a progressive
decay from century to century, was ending in a total dissolution, in
the same deliquium the Latin language had suffered, as it expired
finally in the mystic conceptions and enigmatic phrases of St. Boniface
and St. Adhelm.
For the rest, the decomposition of the French language had come
about at a blow. In Latin, a lengthy period of transition, a pause of
four hundred years, had intervened between the variegated and
magnificent phraseology of Claudian and Rutilius and the dialect of the
eighth century with its taint of decomposition. Not so in French; here
no interval of time, no long-drawn series of ages, occurred; the
variegated and magnificent style of the De Goncourts and the tainted
style of Verlaine and Mallarmé rubbed elbows at Paris, dwelling
together at the same time, in the same period, in the same century.
And Des Esseintes smiled to himself as he looked at one of the
folios lying open on his church reading-desk, thinking how the moment
might come when a learned scholar would compile for the decadence of
the French language a glossary like that in which the erudite Du Cange
has noted down the last stammering accents, the last spasmodic efforts,
the last flashes of brilliancy, of the Latin tongue as it perished of
old age, the death rattle sounding through the recesses of monkish
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
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
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
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
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
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 theviolence 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
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
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
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
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
DES ESSEINTES shut himself up in his bedroom and turned a deaf ear to
the knocking of the men's hammers who were nailing up the packing-cases
the servants had got ready; each stroke seemed to beat on his heart and
send a pang of pain through his flesh. The sentence pronounced by the
doctor was being executed; the dread of enduring all over again the
same sufferings he had borne before, the fear of an agonizing death,
had exercised a more powerful influence over Des Esseintes than his
hatred of the detestable existence to which the physician's orders
condemned him could counteract.
"And yet," he kept telling himself, "there are people who live
alone, without a soul to speak to, self-absorbed and utterly aloof from
society, like the Reclusionists and Trappists for instance, and there
is nothing to show that these unfortunates, these wise men, run mad or
These examples he had quoted to the doctor,—without effect; the
latter had merely repeated in a dry tone admitting of no reply, that
his verdict, confirmed moreover by all the writers on nervous diseases,
was that distraction, amusement, cheerfulness, were the only means of
benefitting this complaint which, on the mental side, remained
unaffected by any remedies in the nature of drugs. Finally, annoyed by
his patient's reproaches, he had once for all declared his refusal to
go on with his case unless he consented to take change of air and live
under altered conditions of hygiene.
Des Esseintes had immediately repaired to Paris, where he had
consulted other specialists and frankly submitted his case to them; all
had with one accord and unhesitatingly approved their colleague's
prescriptions. Thereupon, he had taken a flat still vacant in a
newly-built house; had returned to Fontenay and, white with rage, had
given his servant orders to pack his boxes.
Buried in his armchair, he was now pondering these express
directions of the faculty which upset all his plans, broke all the ties
binding him to his present life, made his future projects futile. So,
his time of bliss was over! This haven, that sheltered him from the
storms, he must abandon and put out again into the storm-tost ocean of
human folly that had battered and bruised him so sorely.
The doctors prated of amusement, of distraction; with whom, pray
with what, did they expect him to be blithe and gay?
Had he not deliberately put himself under a social ban? did he know
one single friend who would be willing to essay a life, like his, of
contemplation, of dreamy abstraction? did he know a single individual
capable of appreciating the delicate shades of a style, the subtle
joints of a picture, the quintessence of a thought, one whose soul was
so finely framed as to understand Mallarme and love Verlaine?
Where, when, in what depths must he sound to discover a twin soul,
a mind free of commonplace prejudices, blessing silence as a boon,
ingratitude as a solace, suspicion as a port of security, a harbour of
In the society he had frequented before he took his departure for
Fontenay?—Why, the majority of the clowns he associated with in those
times must, since that date, have yet further stultified themselves in
drawing-rooms, grown more degraded sitting at gaming tables, reached
lower depths in the arms of prostitutes. Nay, the most part must by now
be married; after having enjoyed all their life hitherto the leavings
of the street-loafers, it was their wives who at present owned the
leavings of the street-walkers, for, master of the first-fruits, the
vulgar herd was the one and only class that did not feed on refuse!
"What a pretty change of partners, what a gallant interchange, this
custom adopted by a society that still calls itself prudish!" Des
Esseintes growled to himself.
Yes, nobility was utterly decayed, dead; aristocracy had fallen
into idiocy or filthy pleasures! It was perishing in the degeneracy of
its members, whose faculties grew more debased with each succeeding
generation till they ended with the instincts of gorillas quickened in
the pates of grooms and jockeys, or else, like the once famous houses
of Choiseul-Praslin, Polignac, Chevreuse, wallowed in the mud of legal
actions that brought them down to the same level of baseness as the
The very mansions, the time-honoured scutcheons, the heraldic
blazons, the stately pomp and ceremony of this ancient caste had
disappeared. Its estates no longer yielded revenue, they and the great
houses on them had come to the hammer, for money ran short to buy the
smiles of women that bewitched and poisoned the besotted descendants of
the old families.
The least scrupulous, the least dull-witted, threw all shame to the
winds; they mixed in low plots, stirred up the filth of base finance,
appeared like common pickpockets at the bar of justice, serving at any
rate to set off the tact of human justice which, finding it impossible
to be always impartial, ended the matter by making them librarians in
This eagerness after gain, this itch for filthy lucre, had found a
counterpart also in another class, the class that had always leant for
support on the nobility,—the clergy to wit. Now were to be seen on
the outside sheets of the papers advertisements of corns cured by a
priest. The monasteries were transformed into apothecaries'
laboratories and distilleries. They sold recipes or manufactured the
stuff themselves; the Cistercians, chocolate, Trappistine, semolina,
tincture of arnica; the Marist Brotherhood, bisulphate of chalk for
medical purposes and vulnerary water; the Jacobines, anti-apoplectic
elixir; the disciples of St. Benedict, Bénédictine; the monks of St.
Business had invaded the cloisters, where, in lieu of
antiphonaries, fat ledgers lay on the lecterns. Like a leprosy, the
greed of the century devastated the Church, kept the monks bending over
inventories and invoices, turned the Fathers Superior into
confectioners and quacksalvers, the lay brothers and novices into
common packers and vulgar bottle-washers.
And yet, spite of everything, it was still only among ecclesiastics
that Des Esseintes could hope for relations congruent, up to a certain
point, with his tastes. In the society of the clergy, generally learned
and well educated men, he might have spent some affable and agreeable
evenings; but then he must have shared their beliefs and not be a mere
waverer between sceptical notions and spasms of conviction that came
surging from time to time to the surface, buoyed up by the memories of
He must needs have held identical views, refused to accept, as he
was ready enough to do in his moments of ardour, a Catholicism spiced
with a touch of magic, as under Henri III., and a trifle of Sadism, as
at the end of the eighteenth century. This special brand of
clericalism, this vitiated and artistically perverse type of mysticism,
towards which he was tending at certain seasons, could not even be
discussed with a priest, who would either have failed to understand
what he meant or would have excommunicated him there and then in sheer
For the twentieth time, the same insoluble problem tormented him.
He would fain this state of suspicion and suspense against which he had
struggled in vain at Fontenay should have an end; now that he was to
turn over an entirely new leaf, he would fain have forced himself to
possess faith, to seize it and clothe himself in it, to fasten it with
clamps in his soul, to put it beyond the reach of all the reasonings
that shake it and uproot it. But the more he desired it and the less
the emptiness of his mind was filled, the more the visitation of the
Saviour delayed its coming. Just in proportion, indeed, as his
religious faith increased, as he craved with all his strength, as a
ransom for the future and a help in the new life he was to lead, this
faith that showed itself in glimpses, though the distance still
dividing him from it appalled him, did doubts rise crowding his ever
excited brain, upsetting his ill-poised will, repudiating on grounds of
common sense, of mathematical demonstrations, the mysteries and dogmas
of the Church.
He should have been able to stop these discussions with himself, he
told himself with a groan; he should have been able to shut his eyes,
let himself be carried along with the stream, forget all the accursed
discoveries that have shattered the religious edifice from top to
bottom during the last two centuries.
"Yet, really and truly," he sighed, "it is neither the
physiologists nor the sceptics who destroy Catholicism, it is the
priests themselves, whose clumsy writings might well root up the most
firmly grounded convictions."
In the Dominican collection, was there not to be found a certain
Doctor of Theology, Révérend Père Rouard de Card, a Preaching Brother,
who in a brochure entitled:—"Of the Falsification of the Sacramental
Substances," has demonstrated beyond a doubt that the major part of
Masses were null and void, by reason of the fact that the materials
used in the rite were sophisticated by dealers?
For years, the holy oils had been adulterated with goose-grease;
the taper-wax with burnt bones; the incense with common resin and old
benzoin. But worse than all, the substances indispensable for the holy
sacrifice, the two things without which no oblation was possible, had
likewise been falsified,—the wine by repeated dilutings and the
illicit addition of Pernambuco bark, elder-berries, alcohol, alum,
salicylate, litharge; the bread, that bread of the Eucharist that must
be kneaded of the fine flour of wheat, by ground haricotbeans, potash
Nay, now they had gone further yet; they had dared to suppress the
wheat altogether and shameless dealers manufactured out of potato meal
nearly all the hosts!
Now God declined to come down and be made flesh in potato flour.
This was a surety, an indisputable fact; in the second volume of his
Moral Theology, His Eminence Cardinal Gousset had also dealt at length
with this question of adulteration from the divine standpoint, and,
according to the authority of this master which there was no
gainsaying, the celebrant could not consecrate bread made of oats,
buckwheat or barley, and though the case of rye-bread at least admitted
of doubt, no question could be raised, no argument sustained, when it
came to using potato meal, which, to employ the ecclesiastical
expression, was in no sense a substance competent for the Blessed
By reason of the easy manipulation of this meal and the good
appearance presented by the unleavened cakes made of this substance,
the unworthy and fraudulent substitution had become so widely prevalent
that the mystery of the transubstantiation could hardly be said to
exist any longer, and priests and faithful laymen communicated, all
unwittingly, with neutral elements!
Ah! the days were far away when Rhadegond, Queen of France, used
with her own hands to prepare the bread destined for the altars; the
days when, by the custom of Cluny, three priests or three deacons,
fasting, clad in alb and amice, after washing face and fingers, sorted
out the wheat grain by grain, crushed it in the hand-mill, kneaded the
dough with cold spring-water and baked it themselves over a clear fire,
singing psalms the while!
"All this," Des Esseintes told himself, "cannot hinder the natural
result, that this prospect of being constantly duped, even at the holy
table itself, is not of a sort to establish beliefs already tottering;
besides, how accept an omnipotence that is hindered by a pinch of
potato meal or a drop of alcohol?"
These thoughts still further darkened the aspect of his future
existence and rendered his horizon yet more dark and threatening.
Of a surety, no haven of refuge was open to him, no shore of safety
left. What was to become of him in Paris yonder, where he had neither
relatives nor friends? No tie bound him any more to the Faubourg
Saint-Germain that was now quavering in its dotage, scaling away in a
dust of desuetude, lying derelict—a worn-out, empty hull!—amid a
new society! And what point of contact could there be between him and
that bourgeois class that had little by little climbed to the top,
taking advantage of every disaster to fill its coffers, stirring up
every kind of catastrophe to make its crimes and thefts pass muster?
After the aristocracy of birth, it was now the turn of the
aristocracy of money; it was the Caliphate of the counting-house, the
despotism of the Rue du Sentier, the tyranny of commerce with its
narrow-minded, venal ideas, its ostentatious and rascally instincts.
More nefarious, more vile than the nobility it had plundered and
the clergy it had overthrown, the bourgeoisie borrowed their frivolous
love of show, their decrepit boastfulness, which it vulgarized by its
lack of good manners, stole their defects which it aggravated into
hypocritical vices. Obstinate and sly, base and cowardly, it shot down
ruthlessly its eternal and inevitable dupe, the populace, which it had
itself unmuzzled and set on to spring at the throat of the old castes!
Now the victory was won. Its task once completed, the plebs had
been for its health's sake bled to the last drop, while the bourgeois,
secure in his triumph, throned it jovially by dint of his money and the
contagion of his folly. The result of his rise to power had been the
destruction of all intelligence, the negation of all honesty, the death
of all art; in fact, the artists and men of letters, in their
degradation, had fallen to their knees and were devouring with ardent
kisses the unwashed feet of the high-placed horse-jockeys and low-bred
satraps on whose alms they lived!
In painting, it was a deluge of effeminate futilities; in
literature, a welter of insipid style and spiritless ideas. What was
a-lacking was common honesty in the business gambler, common honour in
the freebooter who hunted for a dowry for his son while refusing to pay
his daughter's, common chastity in the Voltairean who accused the
clergy of incontinence while he was off himself to sniff, like a dull
fool and a hypocrite, pretending to be the rake he was not, in
disorderly dens of pleasure, at the greasy water in toilet vessels and
the hot, acrid effluvium of dirty petticoats.
It was the vast, foul bagnio of America transported to our
Continent; it was, in a word, the limitless, unfathomable,
incommensurable firmament of blackguardism of the financier and the
self-made man, beaming down, like a despicable sun, on the idolatrous
city that grovelled on its belly, hymning vile songs of praise before
the impious tabernacle of Commerce.
"Well, crumble then, society! perish, old world!" cried Des
Esseintes, indignant at the ignominy of the spectacle he had conjured
up,—and the exclamation broke the nightmare that oppressed him.
"Ah!" he groaned, "to think that all this is not a dream! to think
that I am about to go back into the degraded and slavish mob of the
century!" He tried to call up, for the healing of his wounded spirit,
the consoling maxims of Schopenhauer; he said over to himself Pascal's
grievous axiom: "The soul sees nothing that does not afflict it when it
thinks of it"; but the words rang in his brain like sounds without
sense; his weariness of spirit disintegrated them, robbed them of all
meaning, all consolatory virtue, all effective and soothing force.
He realized, at last, that the arguments of pessimism were
powerless to comfort him; that the impossible belief in a future life
could be the only calmant.
A fit of rage swept away like a hurricane his efforts after
resignation, his attempts at indifference. He could deceive himself no
more, there was nothing, nothing left for it, everything was over; the
bourgeoisie were guzzling, as it might be at Clamart, on their knees,
from paper parcels, under the grand old ruins of the Church, which had
become a place of assignation, a mass of débris, defiled by unspeakable
quibbles and indecent jests. Could it be that, to prove once for all
that He existed, the terrible God of Genesis and the pale Crucified of
Golgotha were not going to renew the cataclysms of an earlier day, to
rekindle the rain of fire that consumed the ancient homes of sin, the
cities of the Plain? Could it be that this foul flood was to go on
spreading and drowning in its pestilential morass this old world where
now only seeds of iniquity sprang up and harvests of shame flourished?
Suddenly the door was unclosed; in the distance, framed in the
opening, appeared men carrying lights in their caps, with clean-shaven
cheeks and a tuft on the chin, handling packing-cases and shifting
furniture; then the door closed again after the servant, who marched
off with a bundle of books under his arm.
Des Esseintes dropped into a chair, in despair. "In two days more I
shall be in Paris," he exclaimed; "well, all is over; like a flowing
tide, the waves of human mediocrity rise to the heavens and they will
engulf my last refuge; I am opening the sluice-gates myself, in spite
of myself. Ah; but my courage fails me, and my heart is sick within me!
- Lord, take pity on the Christian who doubts, on the sceptic who would
fain believe, on the galley-slave of life who puts out to sea alone, in
the darkness of night, beneath a firmament illumined no longer by the
consoling beacon-fires of the ancient hope."