Review: Là-Bas (Down Below), J. K. Huysmans, trans. Keene Wallace, 1891, 1928.
While I’m told Huysmans’ À rebours (Against Nature) is considered a jewel of Decadent literature, it’s not clear if this novel is a work of Decadent fiction.
If I’m understanding its definition, Decadent literature, in its English and French varieties, portrays the present as decaying and advocates for enjoying the long fall of civilization with sex and drugs and outré experiences.
This novel votes yes on the decaying society part and no on the pursuit of strange aesthetic pleasures. Rather, it postulates that decay brings mysticism to the fore, and here that mysticism takes on two strains: Catholicism and Satanism.
“It is just at the moment when positivism is at its zenith that mysticism rises again and the follies of the occult begin.”
According to Wikipedia (I doubt Huysmans is sufficiently controversial these days for an editing war to be centered around his entry), a friend of Huysmans said, after À rebours was published, that Huysmans was going to have to eventually chose between “the muzzle of a pistol and the foot of the Cross”. Huysmans would eventually choose the latter, ending up as a Benedictine monk. This considered one of the great novels of “literary Satanism”, but Catholics of a conservative bent (it was one who recommended this book to me) also admire the Durtal trilogy.
Durtal’s progression from Decadent to monk is paralleled by three Huysmann novels featuring the writer Durtal, generally considered to be Huysman’s alter ego. Là-Bas is the first of that trilogy.
Durtal’s newest project is a biography of the infamous Gilles de Rais, French noblemen, defender and champion of Joan of Arc, Marshal of France – and raper, torturer, and killer of hundreds of children. The puzzle Durtal seeks to answer is why Rais, “a brave captain and a good Christian, all of a sudden became a sacrilegious sadist and a coward”. The novel will present the story of Rais throughout and conclude with Durtal’s ideas on the Marshal’s motivations.
Durtal’s friend, Dr. Des Hermies, is a man of amazing learning and equally broad cynicism. He doesn’t have a lot of faith in modern medicine or “alienists”. It’s not his peers he likes to hang out with but “astrologers, cabbalists, demonologists, alchemists, theologians, or inventors”.
Durtal is similar.
I learned long ago that there are no people interesting to know except saints, scoundrels, and cranks. They are the only persons whose conversation amounts to anything. Persons of good sense are necessarily dull, because they revolve over and over again the tedious topics of everyday life. They are the crowd, more or less intelligent, but they are the crowd, and they give me a pain.
As for their conversations, well, both men believe “Conversations which do not treat of religion or art are so base and vain”.
And there is a lot of talk about art and religion in this book including the art of bellringing and the symbols of church bells (material supplied by Hermies’ friend Carhaix, a devout Catholic and poor bellringer who also just happens to be an expert in heraldry), demon possessions, “alienist” explanations of said possessions, medicine, Paracelsus, a Third Kingdom of God proposed by a Catholic mystic, miraculous healing, and poisons. I have no idea how many things presented are real and how many are Huysmans’ inventions.
The plot involves Durtal realizing, to understand Rais’ transformation, he needs to understand Satanism. In conversations with Hermies, Durtal is told something of the history of Satanism with the startling revelation that it is very much alive in France. Its chief practitioner is a clergyman (as most of the leadings Satanists are) named Docre who has also committed several murders involving poison. A specialty of his is using sacrilegiously treated hosts to deliver his toxins.
A significant subplot is Durtal, a man of 40 years old who deems himself too old to pursue women any longer, developing an infatuation with an anonymous woman who professes, in letters, to be an admirer of his. He eventually meets the woman, and they have sex one time. He begins to wonder if she has been with an incubus (succubi and incubi are other things discussed at length). That suspicion is heightened when he learns she was a one-time lover and follower of Docre.
That connection will eventually allow Durtal to attend a Black Mass in modern Paris. Here is part of Docre’s mocking reference to Christ:
And thou, thou whom, in my quality of priest, I force, whether thou wilt or no, to descend into this host, to incarnate thyself in this bread, Jesus, Artisan of Hoaxes, Bandit of Homage, Robber of Affection, hear! Since the day when thou didst issue from the complaisant bowels of a Virgin, thou hast failed all thine engagements, belied all thy promises. Centuries have wept, awaiting thee, fugitive God, mute God!
Thou wast to redeem man and thou hast not, thou wast to appear in thy glory, and thou sleepest. Go, lie, say to the wretch who appeals to thee, ‘Hope, be patient, suffer; the hospital of souls will receive thee; the angels will assist thee; Heaven opens to thee.’ Impostor! thou knowest well that the angels, disgusted at thine inertness, abandon thee! Thou wast to be the Interpreter of our plaints, the Chamberlain of our tears; thou wast to convey them to the Father and thou hast not done so, for this intercession would disturb thine eternal sleep of happy satiety. “Thou hast forgotten the poverty thou didst preach, enamoured vassal of Banks! Thou hast seen the weak crushed beneath the press of profit; thou hast heard the death rattle of the timid, paralyzed by famine, of women disembowelled for a bit of bread, and thou hast caused the Chancery of thy Simoniacs, thy commercial representatives, thy Popes, to answer by dilatory excuses and evasive promises, sacristy Shyster, huckster God!
Durtal, Hermies, and Carhaix all have a low opinion of modern society and regard it as sick, only curable by God. That doesn’t seem to be the standard position of Decadent literature. Durtal and Hermies have a low opinion of naturalism in literature. Hermies says:
You shrug your shoulders, but tell me, how much has naturalism done to clear up life’s really troublesome mysteries? When an ulcer of the soul—or indeed the most benign little pimple—is to be probed, naturalism can do nothing. ‘Appetite and instinct’ seem to be its sole motivation and rut and brainstorm its chronic states. The field of naturalism is the region below the umbilicus. Oh, it’s a hernia clinic and it offers the soul a truss!
I tell you, Durtal, it’s superficial quackery, and that isn’t all. This fetid naturalism eulogizes the atrocities of modern life and flatters our positively American ways. It ecstasizes over brute force and apotheosizes the cash register. With amazing humility it defers to the nauseating taste of the mob. It repudiates style, it rejects every ideal, every aspiration towards the supernatural and the beyond.
But Durtal doesn’t think much of the Decadents either:
In France right now the purely corporal recipe has brought upon itself such discredit that two clans have arisen: the liberal, which prunes naturalism of all its boldness of subject matter and diction in order to fit it for the drawing-room, and the decadent, which gets completely off the ground and raves incoherently in a telegraphic patois intended to represent the language of the soul—intended rather to divert the reader’s attention from the author’s utter lack of ideas.
Huysmans certainly has ideas, and the major one is that the sinner and the saint are closely linked. Both seek transcendence through mystical means, the only way out of an oppressive society. (That a truly evil sinner is a seeker of dark ecstasies is an idea showing up in Arthur Machen’s “The White People”.)
‘Since it is difficult to be a saint,’ said Des Hermies, ‘there is nothing for it but to be a Satanist. One of the two extremes. ‘Execration of impotence, hatred of the mediocre,’ that, perhaps, is one of the more indulgent definitions of Diabolism.’
That hatred of the mediocre was, of course, a feature of Decadent thought.
Throughout the novel, it’s unclear what Des Hermies believes. He knows all sorts of lore about Satanism. But he isn’t a friend of the church. He rails against it.
Today it hates the poor, and mysticism dies in a clergy which checks ardent thoughts and preaches sobriety of mind, continence of postulation, common sense in prayer, bourgeoisie of the soul!
He hates ‘the jubilant priest” and their “paternal despotism”. Yet, towards the end of the novel, Hermies the doctor confesses that he believes in wonders:
‘I am uncertain about a good many things, myself,’ said Des Hermies, ‘and yet there are moments when I feel that the obstacles are giving way, that I almost believe. Of one thing I am sure. The supernatural does exist, Christian or not. To deny it is to deny evidence—and who wants to be a materialist, one of these silly freethinkers?’
A Decadent work? Perhaps not, but it seems to not only discuss the supernatural but, ultimately, to be a supernatural work.
I’ve never read anything like Huysmans’ novel with its mixture of philosophy on art, religion, Catholic symbolism; a biography of evil historical figure; and discussion of whether the supernatural exists. It’s that discussion rather than the plot that makes it remarkable.
when it comes to Catholicism, there’s probably a grain of truth in any statement made about them. They’ve been around a long time and done a lot of “stuff”.
With the quotes you have, one is in an archaic english and the other appears to be relatively modern. Why are there 2 different styles?
Do you mean the Black Mass quote? That’s just the way Abbe Docre conducts his Black Mass. The quotes from Durtal and Hermies are representative of the book’s main style.
Ok, thanks for clarifying. I couldn’t tell from just the quote and wondered if half the book was in that style. That would get old fast 😀