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’ house.
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 perspirations.
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 Fécamp).
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 cure-alls.
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 borne them.
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 self-contradictory.
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 were real.
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 fascinated him.
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 heaps.
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 and streets.
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 standpoint.
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 procrastination.
"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 dissipation.
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 caress.
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 Autumn."
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 his own.
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 better accord.
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 non-conductor.
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 amaze.
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 factitious pleasures.
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 hours.
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 tortures.
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 to ecstasy.
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 fen&ecic;tres, l’Epilogue, Azur, attracted him; but one of all the rest, a fragment of the Hérodiade, mastered him like a veritable spell at certain times.
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 general aspect.
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 other black.
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 single epithet.
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 another addition.
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 intoxications.
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 cloisters.