, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Parisian Sketches

Regular readers of The Journal are doubtless quite familiar with two of my favorite authors falling more or less under the umbrella encompassing varations on the literary and philosophic aesthetic of Decadence: Theophile Gautier and J.K. Huysmans.

While I can hardly count myself among the man’s admirers, I am also inclined to rest in firm assurance that all and sundry in attendance here will be similarly familiar with the Poet Laureate of Decadence, the esteemed Charles Baudelaire of Fleurs du Mal infamy.

What I’m sure most of you would not be expecting is a discussion of the short subjects, essays and impressions provided by each member of this troika of literary leading lights as contained in the two works under discussion tonight: Dedalus’ Parisian Sketches and Alma Classics’ Hashish, Wine, Opium.

Hashish Wine Opium

First, we speak to Alma Classics’ unusual little offering, Hashish, Wine, Opium, which features both Theophile Gautier and the redoubtable Charles Baudelaire – an unusual pairing if there ever was one.  But hang in there – the choice is more apropos than might at first seem apparent.

An entertaining if overpriced little booklet running just over a hundred pages en toto (and with fairly large double spaced text at that), the entire text is devoted to three excellent and typically evocative flights of fancy from the great Theophile Gautier, which actually come closest to approximating En Rade-style Naturalism of anything in his oeuvre.


While “The Opium Pipe” and “Hashish” are amusing enough, each serve as a sort of warmup exercise to the justifiably feted piece “The Club of Assassins”.  Suffused with pulp inflected Gothic atmosphere, this 35 page descriptive essay cum short story concerns the author’s visit to a ruined chateau hidden away in “a remote quartier” smack dab in the middle of Paris.

Granted admittance through a seemingly untended locked gate by an aged caretaker who beckons with gnarled hand.  Led through an open courtyard festooned with mossy statuary and damp cobblestones bedecked with unchecked vegetative growth, he proceeds up stone stairs guarded by a carved chimera bearing an armed warrior of marble.

Upon entering the mansion, he again ascends past walls bearing copies of artistic masterworks until he arrives at his destination, a domed ceilinged dining area marked by frescoes and further portraiture, where he meets his fellow gathered psychonauts for a lavish feast.

A brief explication of the origin of the drug and its use among the Thuggee “hashischin” cult (from which we derive the  contemporary definition of the term “assassin”) follows, as well as a discussion of the state known as “kief”, a point of dissociation between mind and body which the drug is given to produce in those who indulge thereof.

After partaking of the titular substance, they all withdraw to the drawing room, filled with tapestried couches and furnishings, gilt carvings, and painted friezes, as well as a piano which plays a part in his narrative recollections thereafter.


While all three pieces from Gautier are at core a descriptive relation of the subjective experience of his experiments with illicit substances, his very effusiveness as a writer and his typical stylistic flourishes serve to bring “Hashish”, “The Opium Pipe” and particularly “The Club of Assassins” well beyond the sort of low rent evocations we’d become accustomed to as part of the popularization of drug culture in the 60’s and 70’s, and into a more purely literary form.  Never has ‘tripping’ been described so aesthetically or imaginatively as in these three all too brief pieces.

Baudelaire, likely included herein with the twin aims of increasing the page count to a more acceptable range and the utilization of his international notoriety to sell what is more accurately another entry in the Gautier library, delivers a comparatively dry, wistful polemic singing to one extent or another the praises of wine, while admonishing against the use of hashish.


Unlike Gautier, who keeps things more or less personal and documentarian (if such a term can be applied to the flights of fancy endemic to the author of such works as Spirite and “the Mummy’s Foot“), Baudelaire peppers his assertions with undocumented parables of a sort, such as a lengthy tale of an unknown Spanish guitarist who toured local villages with none other than the infamous “diabolical” virtuoso of the violin, Nicolo Paganini…through some spurious twists and turns, it becomes a celebration of how wine makes everything seem better among those who imbibe, particularly in convivial group settings.

In the end, Baudelaire’s style here is much like the sermon of a Catholic priest, for those who grew up under the aegis of that religion: many insipid and lengthy circumlocutions to get to a very basic point (which generally has little or nothing to do with all the babbling which prefaced same).

There is a further commonality between the two authors in their stated aims: a search for transcendence, a more vivid taste of the divine, the ideal, that which lies beyond workaday human experience and ken.  Gautier notes in “Hashish” that:

“The thirst of the Ideal is so strong in man that he must strive, as far as lies in his power, to relax the bonds that fetter the soul to the body, and as ecstasy is not within the reach of every nature, he will drink gaiety, smoke forgetfulness and eat madness in the form of wine, tobacco and hashish.  What a strange paradox! …Serious people commit a thousand extravagances, a flood of words issues involuntarily from the mouths of the taciturn, the weeping…burst into laughter and the laughing…into tears.”

while Baudelaire concurs that

“the idea occurred to me to discuss wine and hashish in the same article because they do in fact have something in common…man’s frantic desire for every substance, be it healthy or dangerous, that will exalt his personality, is a witness to his grandeur.  He is ever aspiring to renew his hopes and to raise himself towards the infinite.”

Both authors appear to have approached their drug use as discussed herein as something of an intellectual exercise or experiment, and having obtained the results or information desired, seem to have cut it off thereafter, removing themselves to whatever degree from continued usage or involvement therein.  As quoted in the introduction, Gautier asserts that “after some ten experiments, we renounced once and for all this intoxicating drug…because the true literateur has need only of natural dreams, and does not wish his thoughts to be influenced by any outside agency”.


Baudelaire affirms this sentiment quite openly in his essay here, stating that in comparison of wine to the drug,

“on the one hand you have a beverage which activates the digestion…and enriches the blood.  Even when taken in large quantities, it will cause only passing disorders.  On the other hand is a substance which…enfeebles the limbs and is capable of causing an intoxication lasting 24 hours.  Wine exalts the will, hashish annihilates it…Wine makes one kind and sociable.  Hashish isolates.”

and further, he quotes a professorial acquaintance in closing:

“I do not understand why a rational and intelligent man should  make use of artificial means to attain poetic ecstasy when enthusiasm and willpower will suffice…poets, philosophers and prophets are beings who, by the pure and free use of the will, reach a state in which they are at one and the same time cause and effect, subject and object, mesmerist and somnambulist…I concur with him entirely.”

While Gautier’s efforts are markedly superior in style and tone to that of the more didactic (and strangely, for one of the reputed “fathers” of Decadence, moralizing) Baudelaire, the artists among us of any wisdom or experience will likely concur with the ultimate statements offered herein on behalf of both authors.

While time and time again some measure of stimulation of the senses has proven to be beneficial to the arts, whether in opening the mind to a heretofore unrealized state of awareness and appreciation of more important things in life than the mindless pursuit of commerce and reproduction for its own sake (which leaves man, for all his exalted potential and unique status among the fauna as the only created being capable of metacognitive reflection, no higher than the level of the rutting beast, instinctively continuing its line and genetic heritage without even understanding why), it has also been shown by thousands of examples throughout the centuries that continued overstimulation by outside and artificial means in fact deadens the senses, debilitating the user and destroying both art and man.

For this alone, if no more, we must salute these men of arts and seekers of truth for their (however unexpected) insight and wisdom, a full century before science and psychology caught up to their findings and proved them true.


Next we come to a mildly interesting slice of the early Naturalist period of the great Joris Karl Huysmans.  While apparently revised and added to subsequent to the publication of A Rebours and his newfound conversion to and spearheading of the Decadent movement of fin de siecle French literature, Parisian Sketches bears little relation to works like the aforementioned or La Bas, and hardly carries with it the sort of transcendent hybridiziation that marked En Rade.

That said, there are some points worthy of discussion herein.  First, the nigh-obsessive descriptiveness of Huysmans’ later work is never so direct and personal as it appears herein.  The introduction by translator Brendan King notes that Huysmans “wrote on more than one occasion that he wanted to do with the pen what great artists had done with the brush, and this theme was reiterated throughout his early work: his first major commission as a journalist was a series of descriptive pieces…(later) Le Drageoir a Epices…described the book’s contents as a ‘selection of faded pastels, etchings and old prints,” which is effectively what Parisian Sketches is comprised of.

He was the sort of man who deliberately exposed himself to new experience, however far outside the bourgeoise norm and despite what intrinsic dangers it may hold:

“he had an especial fondness for the Bievre (river) and its surroundings…long since become a byword for decay and neglect, as well as the insalubirous districts around (the area).  It was here, in some of the lowest haunts of Paris, that he observed (and as his excellent biography by Robert Baldick informs us, interacted with) the drunkards, prostitutes and petty criminals who would eventually find their way into Parisian Sketches.  Such expeditions had their risks…those who tried to trace (his steps) armed with their cameras and notebooks, had been attacked and set on by suspicious residents.”

Subsequent to an outbreak of violent radical activists in Paris during 1871, he “came back sickened by the stories of carnage he heard and aghast at the damage that had been inflicted on the city.  As a consequence, the sight of working class poverty was forever associated with the threat of social rebellion…”

though on the opposite end of the politicosocial spectrum, he notes that

“he also detested the mediocrity and complacency of the bourgeois who kept the system in place…(his) contempt for the middle class and distaste for the working class left him no place to go…this explains the attraction…of various forms of ‘elite’ communities, whether the intellectual elitism of the bibliophile, the satanic elitism of the occult initiate, or the monastic elite of the religious order,” a dilemma many similarly minded intelligentsia and aesthetes find themselves in amidst the increasingly heated, ever more antagonistic to basic individual and human rights politicosocial climate we find ourselves in today.


It is truly astonishing to note the level to which Huysmans is inclined to relate the minutiae of the situations, persons and places of which he finds himself accompanied: today his highly personal assessments mixed with intensely detailed description would likely strike the casual reader, accustomed to the sort of dry documentarianism lionized by self appointed arbiters of scholarship and (God help us) “taste” as somewhat odd (though regular Third Eye readers and listeners should find the style quite familiar, and indeed flatteringly so, given the author’s quite recent acquaintance with Huysmans and the Decadent literary movement per se – a clear case of synchronicity rather than influence).

For instance, in his description of a performance at “the Folies-Bergere in 1879”, more attention is paid to the atmosphere, location, fellow patrons and staff than the floorshow itself, to the point where he dedicates a full page to the ads adorning the back of the program!   Even in relation of something so mundane and tedious as this, Huysmans allows no chance to pass by wherein he could offer an apropos zinger:

“Only one thing disconcerts: an advert for a sewing machine.  It’s easy to understand why there’s one for a fencing school, there are a lot of stupid men about!  But…the “Singer” aren’t tools you’d normally associate with the working girls who come here; unless this advert was placed here as a symbol of respectability, as an inducement to chaste labours…one of those moral tracts that the English distribute to lead creatures of vice back to virtue.  Imagination is…a very good thing; it allows you to credit people with ideas even more stupid than those they undoubtedly already have.”

But in the end, resignation always manages to creep in, even in this popular temple to debauchery:

“this theatre, with its auditorium whose faded reds and tarnished golds clash with the brand new luxury of the faux jardin, is the only place in Paris that stinks so deliciously of the make-up of bought caresses and the desperation of depravities that fail to excite.”

Proof that puritanical conservatism remains as hypocritical today as it’s ever been is elicited in “the Streetwalker”, where he notes that after a session,

“the benevolent bank clerk gives her up and returns to his family, where he reproaches his sons daily about the laxity of their morals.”

hmm…sounds awful familiar, no?

The parallels and intersection between Gothicism and Decadence are made quite clear in “the Bievre”, where Huysmans notes that

“Nature is interesting only when sickly and distressed…I confess that I don’t experience before (Nature in its prime and health) that pitiful charm that a rundown corner of a great city, a ravaged hillside or a ditch of water trickling between two lank trees inspires in me.  Fundamentally, the beauty of a landscape consists in its melancholy.”

He later notes the worthlessness and emptiness of the one night stand (or even more directly to his experience, patronization of the prostitute) in “Damiens”, wherein he compares himself to a portrait depicting the quartering of the like monikered would-be assassin of Louis XV, noting that

“had I not (similarly) been pulled and jerked on a spiritual Place de Greve by four differing reflections…firstly by thoughts of contemplative lust, then by an immediate disillusion of desire on entering the room, next by penitential regret for the money spent, and finally by that expiatory feeling of anguish these fraudulent sensual contracts, once committed, inevitably induce.”


One of the most interesting pieces here is a bit different from the rest in the collection, leaning a bit more towards the erotic end of the equation.  “The Armpit” is, as one might surmise from the title, an interesting ode to the cassolette (or if you prefer, the fragrance exuded by the female armpit sans artificial attempts to mask the natural scent), wherein Huysmans points out variation in eau concomitant with hair color and sagely notes that a little kink can spice up the longest standing and most faithful of marriages, noting that:

“it has to be admitted that mother nature is provident and far-sighted, she has distributed these spice-boxes in order to salt and season the stew of love, which habit renders so tasteless and indigestible even to those…who have knowingly consented to surrender to the marriage bed their positive preference for peace and a regular diet.”

He follows this with a likeminded (if firmly tongue in cheek) dissertation on the sizes, shapes, and aesthetic value (or lack thereof) of various types of the female breast in “Low Tide”, but the catch is that he’s actually referring to and expositing from a coutiere’s array of shop mannequins!

But perhaps his most bitter of indictments against the antipathy between art and commerce (or the inability of the creator to ply his art for concomitant financial gain without prostituting it into unrecognizability and twisting it into an ill-fitting straitjacket of corporate endeavor) comes in “Obsession”.

While vacationing at some undisclosed location, the banal headlines and typically absurd advertisements in the newspaper remind him of the fact that he must return to the city and the daily grind:

“Fatally, I count the days.  Another week and I’ll have to (return)…there’ll be the deafening grain hopper of a railway carriage, stuffed with a mass of creatures whose faces fill one with repugnance…

the return to Paris, and the following day, after a disoriented sleep, will begin again all the disgusts of a life battered by the painful prostitution of one’s ideas…and by the lively antipathies one has to try and overcome in order to eat and pay the rent.

The poor Now (his time away from daily working life)…has already passed; the siesta of my suffering is over and all the odium, all the contempt with which I’ve been showered awakes and sounds a furious reveille; and all the while I”m beset and dominated by the headlines of that odious newspaper…

Consolidateds are up, industrial securities holding…dry-nurse seeks employment.  An end to baldness!  Fresh growth guaranteed or your money back.  Judge for yourself!  Secret afflictions, ulcers, discharges, dandruff…!”

And any of us out there who recognize the futility and abject pointlessness of the bourgeois working life, slaving away for someone else’s benefit at the expense of not merely our own time, but our long held and most cherished dreams, aspirations…even our very soul, can only nod in agreement, while our inmost being bellows forth a resonant and foundation shaking cri du coeur, de profundis, in response to the truth which we both as a society and individually seem to strive in futility to quash or silence by means of a succession of expenditures, substances and obsessive distractions, but which is expressed herein in all plainness and honesty for those who have ears to hear.