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La Bas

As this has become something of a running feature on my personal blog over the past month, I’ve decided to transpose some of this material over to the website for a greater audience.  Keep in mind this was written in a more impersonal style for a smaller group of friends and literati; nonetheless, these may prove of some small interest to the more high minded philosophers and aesthetes among us.

This is, by definition, hardly the last word on the subject, and more or less picks up in the middle – those whose interest may be piqued by the contents herein are well advised to seek out Emanuelle by Emanuelle Arsan, L’Histoire D’O by Pauline Reage, perhaps Venus in Furs by Leopold Sacher-Masoch and, at the very least, the excellent Grove Press reprint of Sade’s Justine (which also contains the important short tale Eugenie de Franval, freely adapted several times by Jesus Franco Manera (aka “Jess Franco”), with the best version being the intimate and extremely decadent Eugenie de Sade (aka Eugenie ’70) with Paul Muller and Soledad Miranda), all of which equal or prove far superior to the majority of the books discussed herein.

So with that being duly noted, let’s begin:

1.  La-Bas – Joris-Karl Huysmans
Just finished this excellent and bizarrely contemporary novel by the great J.K. Huysmans.

While its actual contenu scandaleux is fairly minimal by today’s standards, it’s an interesting and intellectually gripping mix of philosophy, discontent with contemporary culture, illicit affairs and the intersection of the black arts and Catholicism whose statements (particularly in terms of his views on the decline of society), while directed at the fin de siecle zeitgeist, are uniquely applicable to what’s going on today (I demurred on numerous occasions from sharing quotes from this book, which sound just like the things we often discuss on (another blog radio show I’m involved with).

I can honestly say that I have not read a fiction book I’ve enjoyed this much since I read Emanuelle Arsan’s deliciously decadent eponymously titled “biographical” opus of philosophy of excess and perversion (mind you, Huysmans is much drier and more high minded than that book, which falls firmly in the realm of intelligent, philosophical erotica ala Sade, Reage and Sacher Masoch, so don’t expect arousal here – only a delicious cornucopia of ideas and stimulating thought).

Highly recommended in the Dedalus edition – as the version I have is apparently out of print (and currently selling for an absurd price on Amazon), I’ve also put the Kindle link for those with some beef against paper and being able to keep something they paid for in perpetuity.


2.  Le Calvaire – Octave Mirbeau
Once again I am struck by just how timely and apropos the French Decadents are to this day and age. Like Huysmans’ La Bas, Octave Mirbeau’s Le Calvaire is essentially autobiographical, and peppered with observations and extrapolations about the meaning of life and existence based on the events we go through, and society and humanity in general. For example, anyone who still falls for the old BS about the “heroism” and “glory” of the military is STRONGLY directed to read chapter 2 of this book, ASAP.

But there are gentler observations and truisms as well: this in particular is something I’ve discovered to be truth in my own life, from how I met my wife, to friends (and situations) I’ve been meeting (or falling into) through other friends I’ve reconnected with via various social media, right down to the car I just happened to stumble across on the exact day my wife’s died forever (despite 2 1/2 years of serious looking, and dozens of fruitless test drives and car dealership negotiations before).

I find that I need to relearn what I used to know, that despite what they try to force feed you in the business world (or American thought in general), good things do not come to those “with a plan”, who actively strive towards a goal…they come to you seemingly by accident, and almost at random. The key is to be open to them when they arrive.

“is it not disturbing to think that our best friendships, which ought to result from long deliberation…which only a logical chain of circumstances ought to give rise to, are mostly just the instant result of chance? You are are home in your study, sitting quietly in front of a book. Outside, the sky is grey and the air cold. It’s raining, the wind is blowing, the street is dreary and muddy. Consequently, you have every good reason in the world not to stir from your armchair…yet you go out, driven by boredom, the want of something to do, you know not what reason, nothing at all…and a hundred paces on, you’ve encountered the man, woman, carriage, stone, orange peel, puddle of water that is going to turn your existence upside down. In my most agonizing moments, I have often thought of these things, and often have I said to myself, “yet if I had stayed at home, working, dreaming or sleeping on the evening when I met…in that…place where I had no business to be…none of what has happened to me would ever have occurred.”.

As this was initially posted elsewhere, a friend replied that he had just been having a discussion with someone about this very same topic the other night.  He noted that the next question is: is this fate, chance or some guiding hand?

My reply was such:

That’s where things get a bit more metaphysical and touch on much larger issues – i.e., even if 2 people got together and decided “this must be the hand of God”, one could be Calvinist/deterministic in orientation, while the other could be more spontaneous, and cite “the power of prayer” – and that’s if both subscribe to that orientation in the first place.

You get the idea how many directions and tangents this could go in, when you bring in the various philosophical or religious standpoints and/or baggage people bring to the table with them. But regardless, I’ve always found this to be true, and the extent to which I’ve changed for the worse over the years is the extent to which my job(s) have pushed me towards that fruitless pursuit mentality, the “action” thing where you plot and scheme your way to imagined success (generally winding up beating your head against the wall and stressing yourself and loved ones out for little or nothing).

As I noted, perhaps it’s time to go back to some earlier Taoist roots, and become the more easy going man I used to be…because it STILL always comes down to being open to seemingly random chance and opportunity, mostly independent of my efforts.  I’m sure I’m not the only one out there.

Get it here.


3.  Monsieur Venus – Rachilde
By far the strangest Decadent novel I’ve read to date. I am reminded strongly of Ashlee Simpson’s marriage to Pete Wentz of emo whiners Fall Out Boy. He was so effeminate, and she so masculine and testosterone fueled, I regularly referred to them as “Ashlee and her wife”.

I’ve seen glowing reviews of this one (from Goodreads, among other sources), but found myself quite disappointed in the end – the writing style was a bit disjointed, if in the right ballpark, but the subject matter (and a few huge leaps in narrative, where people change motivations and persona just like that) was both timely (I’m seeing a lot of this gender reversal with younger couples of late) and head scratchingly odd (hey, whatever floats your boat…but I kept expecting a domme/sub thing and wound up with “willing sissy and capricious girl” instead). Reader discretion is advised…I can point you to much better if interested in good Decadent literature.

Teen girls with a thing for sissy maids apply here.


4.  Senso – Camillo Boito
Misattributed as being part of the (Italian) Decadents, Boito is actually a maestro of the macabre short story, along the lines of Robert Aickman or better yet, a far less florid, feverish Edgar Allan Poe.

Effectively, if Poe could actually write (see also: the equally lionized, similarly feverish Nathaniel Hawthorne) rather than just having interesting concepts and an unusually morbid focus, he’d probably read like Camillo Boito.

Best stories fall to the first few in the collection, in particular Senso and The Body.  Check them out here.


5.  Angels of Perversity – Remy de Gourmont
And if Camillo Boito weren’t grim enough for you, we have the positively morose Remy de Gourmont.

An associate of a number of French Decadent literati, he was apparently stricken with some sort of disfiguring disease and went into seclusion partway through his writing career. What resulted were some very dark, very short stories focusing on the idea of sehnsucht (“something infinitely desirable just beyond our grasp…”) in terms of the erotic impulse: how reality seldom lives up to our fantasies, how quickly the flame of passion can fade for a particular lover, and so forth.

And if that weren’t dark enough for you, he seldom fails to associate this with death, morbidity, chaste unions between the aged and the young, and implied impotency. Fun, fun, fun. I think I’ll stick with Huysmans, Mirbeau, Rachilde, Reage, Arsan and Sade, thank you very much…but if your (morbid) curiosity is piqued

6.  Child of Pleasure – Gabriele D’Annunzio
well, just polished off another one from the Dedalus library, and it seems like I’ve been blowing through a bad batch of late. Boito was OK – certainly a good writer, though hardly a true decadent; de Gourmont was just morose and somewhat depressing; and now we have this one – the misleadingly titled  Child of Pleasure from Gabriele D’Annunzio.

To be fair, I understand this is an import of a widespread (mis)translation done earlier in the century by one Georgina Harding, who was apparently a damn prude (not the right choice if you’re translating Decadent literature). I’ll post a few choice comments from other reviews below, so you get the idea. Why Dedalus (not to mention other publishers before and since) haven’t gotten off their lazy @$$es and hired a proper translator rather than just perpetuating this frippery is beyond me. Hell, they didn’t even bother putting in their usual excellent historical/background introduction!

Nonetheless, it was 50/50 – somewhat floridly written, but what I really found annoying and bizarre about it may have been more the fault of the prim Ms. Harding than D’Annunzio himself: the fact that this guy goes around falling for widows (with or without spawn), throwing himself into this passionately (to the point of religious ecstasy) until they reciprocate…and yet nothing more happens than a look, a touch of a gloved hand, perhaps a kiss. Yeah, right.

And then he gets burned by the one, and hardens up, decides to seduce them both…sort of succeeds…and again, nothing happens, and he winds up left alone at the end after telling the 2nd one (who really falls for him) that he’s still got the hots for the 1st one (who not only remarried in the meantime, but is boffing a third guy now in his place). Again: yeah, right. Decadence, 1950’s sitcom style. I was expecting separate beds, a kid, and no toilet. F*** you, Georgina Harding. And F*** you, Dedalus. Lucky for you your Huysmans, Mirbeau and Rachilde are so worthy (and that I have more from each of those folks on the menu next)…

Now if someone can only find me a reasonably priced copy of this one, they’ll forever have my gratitude:

Oh, and here’s those other reviews (all credit due to the initial posters of same):

“…a notoriously unfaithful translation of D’Annunzio’s first novel. Harding cut out most of the sex and all the philosophy in order to make the novel suit middlebrow late Victorian taste. The result is a travesty.”

“The translation really does not do justice to the story which evokes the decadent aristocratic life of Andrea Sperelli: torn between loving 2 very different women!”

All prim and proper Decadents rein in their impulses in a socially acceptable manner here.