Monday, April 25, 2016
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“LA-BAS” by Joris-Karl Huysmans (first published 1891). (English translations usually titled “DOWN THERE”, but Penguin Classics call it “THE DAMNED”)
Well over a year ago, on this blog, I discussed A Rebours, the essential book of late-nineteenth-century Decadence, written by the Frenchman of Dutch parentage Charles-Marie-Georges Huysmans (1848-1907), who signed himself, Dutch-style, Joris-Karl Huysmans.
I told Huysmans’ story quite simply. As a novelist, Huysmans was at first a disciple of Emile Zola, turning out Naturalist novels on the proletariat and petite bourgeoisie. But he came to see this as a literary dead end and moved to Aestheticism in A Rebours, the tale of the solitary, aristocratic aesthete des Esseintes trying, and failing, to find ultimate truths through sensual satisfaction. For British decadents (Oscar Wilde and company) A Rebours became the seminal text – the “yellow book” mentioned in The Picture of Dorian Gray – and they took it as a guide to the way a proper aesthete should behave. But for Huysmans himself, A Rebours was no such thing. It was merely a staging post on his journey away from materialism towards religious belief. In A Rebours he was attempting – through des Esseintes – to see whether one could have spiritual experiences dependent wholly on the senses. His conclusion – in des Esseintes’ final defeat – was that one could not, and that pure aestheticism was also a dead end.
I still regard A Rebours as the most important thing Huysmans wrote – the real point of change in his life – but he had some way to go before he found fulfilment, and his next stop was a system of belief that could be seen as either preposterous nonsense or pure evil.
In La-Bas (serialised in a magazine before first being published in book form in 1891) he explored Satanism. The novel’s title is best translated as Down There, and clearly refers to Hell, but for no reason in particular Penguin Modern Classics have chosen unimaginatively to call it The Damned.
Like A Rebours, La-Bas is essentially a literary discussion, although its main character Durtal (read Huysmans) is not the solitary that des Esseintes is. Durtal does socialise and converse with many people. Indeed conversing at great length is what everybody does in this novel, so that events tend to be reported in dialogue rather than dramatised.
Durtal is researching a book on the medieval paedophile, rapist and mass-murderer of children Gilles de Rais, probably one of the inspirations for the folktale of “Bluebeard”, who was widely believed to have been a Satanist. Durtal’s research leads him to converse at great length with the doctor Des Hermies about Satanism and sympathetic magic; with the pious Carhaix, bell-ringer of Saint-Sulpice, about bells; and with the astrologer Gevingey.
Reading and conversing and moving between his apartment and Carhaix’s bell-tower are the main things that “happen” to Durtal. Most of what is conveyed (Gilles de Rais’ abominations; the Satanism of the modern priest Canon Docre and the “miraculous” cures of the defrocked Abbe Johannes) are experienced by Durtal (and us) at second hand. Once again, as in A Rebours, this gives Huymans’ work the double-textured, self-referencing quality, which was later picked up more clumsily by postmodernists, where our attention is directed to the strings that move the puppets.
However, there is an external narrative of events.
Durtal receives admiring letters from Hyacinthe Chantelouve, the wife of a Catholic historian and author of pious hagiographies. Durtal and Mme Chantelouve have an affair, though Durtal is soon disgusted by the cold calculation of the woman. It is she who takes him, late in the novel, to a luridly-described black mass, after which she seduces him into swyving her on a bed covered with consecrated hosts.
Then she disappears from the novel.
In the context of this novel, it is easy to talk about “objective correlatives”. The symbolism is loud and clear. Durtal’s narrow apartment and the streets of Paris are the modern world, especially as, at the time the narrative unfolds, the mob are howling democratically for the demagogic soldier Boulanger to lead them. This makes a stark contrast with the splendour and the piety of the Middle Ages, when the medieval crowd sang psalms when Gilles de Rais had repented of his crimes. The bell-ringing tower of Carhaix, the pious Catholic, is a refuge from the modern world, very vividly evoked with its bells and stones and the weather beating about it, and attractively cosy with the (fully-described) delicious meals that Mme. Carhaix keeps serving the four people who converse there. But Durtal (Huysmans) is not yet sure how he responds to this apparent refuge. Carhaix’s simple faith is admirable, but he is the novel’s simpleton, lacking the wit and learning of Durtal, Des Hermies and Gevingey. Perhaps Carhaix is the holy innocent. As for Hyacinthe Chantelouve, she is in some sense the novel’s “objective correlative” of Huysmans’ confused feelings about Catholicism – cuckolding her smug bourgeois Catholic husband seems to be the erotic equivalent of violating the Eucharist. That Huysmans chooses to depict such a woman in the bosom of the Catholic establishment is part of the novel’s implicit dualism, which evokes Manicheanism in its opening pages.
On the theological level, I find La-Bas to be even more of a work of literary dandyism than A Rebours is. By the time he wrote La-Bas, Huysmans already knew full well that his choice lay between materialism and religious belief, and his evocation of Satan seems more lurid and sensationalist than passionate and heartfelt. In a word, it is forced, as if by excess and artificiality he is trying to ward off his inevitable conversion.
Of course I note that these blasphemies flourish only in the context of what they deny. Without a high theology of the Eucharist, there would be no point in holding black masses and violating the Eucharist. Blasphemy always assumes belief, as Huysmans knew full well before he wrote this novel. In our current climate of neo-atheism, violent polemics against religion often read as anger against God rather than real denial of God. (Why be so angry about something that isn’t there?) But evocations of Satan nowadays are more in the nature of childish taunts than full-blooded blasphemy – Heavy Metal rockers giving the two-finger “horn” sign to piss off the parents of their younger fans; idiot polemicists saying they’re going to put up a monument to Satan if somebody puts the Ten Commandments in a public place etc. etc. This may have much to do with the fact that the Devil plays very little part in the theology of mainstream Christian churches now.
As a piece of writing, La-Bas has of course (as always with the later Huysmans) a vocabulary so filled with recherché words that I had to resort to an English translation to find my way through it. Surprisingly, there are some light touches, such as the detail of the messy and intrusive concierge Rateau, who cleans Durtal’s apartment. But the novel ends as its precursor did, with a sense of nausea and disgust at the triumph of the materialistic mass culture of the modern world. Just as des Esseintes could not yet be drawn to Catholicism by art, so can Durtal not yet be pushed to Catholicism by what Huysmans was later to call “the hooked claw of Satan.”
And yet Huysmans’ journey was not finished by La-Bas. I have easily equated Durtal with Huysmans throughout this notice for the simple reason that La-Bas, despite some elements of pure fiction, is in many respects a work of thinly-disguised autobiography. There has apparently been some controversy over the originals of some characters. It is fairly well-established that the blasphemous Canon Docre is based on a real priest, as is the defrocked Abbe Johannes; and Hyacinthe Chantelouve is apparently the amalgam of two women whom Huysmans knew. Then as now, there was a tiny subculture of Satanists holding black masses. More to the point, the path that Durtal follows in Huysmans next three novels - En Route, La Cathedrale and L’Oblat – was exactly the path that Huysmans followed: first admiration for medieval Gothic Catholic architecture, then conversion and formal reception into the Catholic Church, and finally becoming an “oblate”, or lay member of a Catholic religious order.
Huysmans did not come from a Catholic family and all his formal education had been in secular schools. He was not (like Baudelaire and possibly like Rimbaud) a “cradle” Catholic who eventually returned to the church. He was a complete stranger to the church, meaning that when he was finally converted, he had to make a first confession of his sins. This raises another interesting point. In La Cathedrale, Huysmans has Durtal confessing to having once attended a black mass. There has been some debate about whether Huysmans ever attended the type of black mass described in La-Bas. The confession which he has Durtal make would seem to suggest that he had.
Which brings me to one last but important point. A number of years ago, the late, great craft printer Ronald Holloway gave me a copy of La-Bas, basically telling me that he was happy to get rid of it as he regarded it as “trash”. Ron was a Catholic convert of a rather old-fashioned sort (he still went to mass but he resented the modernisation of liturgy in the 1960s). Clearly Ron found the ropier parts of La-Bas offensive and upsetting, and I don’t blame him. As Durtal researches the history of Gilles de Rais, we are given many explicit details of the paedophile-murderer’s hideous career. Then there is that black mass. It begins with a long, blasphemous invocation and (inevitably) ends up as an orgy of barking, howling, writhing and copulation in various orifices of both sexes. It reads as half pornographic and half infantile. This, in the end, is what all pornography does – it strips people of both their mature reason and their personhood. The dualist revolt against God becomes a revolt against reason, and the pushing of sensuality becomes the torture of excess.
This was doubtless Huysmans’ point and it is well taken. But after even 120 years, it is still hard to read the relevant sections of La-Bas.