Regular readers of the Journal should be well aware that outside the storied J.K. Huysmans, probably my favorite author of the fin de siecle French Decadent movement is Octave Mirbeau, scribe of the unforgettable confessional Le Calvaire and the mind blowing social critique that is Torture Garden. But one work we had not yet addressed is perhaps the one he is best known for. This is a story which had been filmed twice, and by two much beloved directors of the French Nouvelle Vague; often considered his literary apotheosis by the powers that be.
And so, once again, we come to address the fallacy of general critical consensus. Because while quite intense and fiery in spirit and full of important philosophical and social commentary, this narratively motionless and thinly disguised polemic of a work doesn’t hold a dimming candle to his true masterwork, the aforementioned Torture Garden…
A surprisingly angry book, Diary of a Chambermaid is simultaneously if not incongrously quite amusing. Where both Le Calvaire and Torture Garden featured fascinating if not gripping narratives suffused with politicosocial and psychological insight, Chambermaid delivers dripping sarcasm on a modern scale, with a biting satire worthy of if not superior to that of Twain, Voltaire, Moliere and their ilk.
As the introduction notes, “In Mirbeau’s portrait of…the end of the 19th century we see a society…not so different from our own. The gap between rich and poor…is now writ large across the globe. The callousness of those who hold economic power is as vicious as ever.”
“Mirbeau…railed against…the arbitrary violence of the police and the parallel atrocities committed abroad in the…colonies… Everywhere he looked, evil was paraded as good. (Therefore) hypocrisy was his prime target.”
The framing story, such as it is, revolves around one Celestine, an earthy, lusty member of the working class who makes her way as chambermaid and servant to the well off, and her observations thereof. In the process, she comes to realize the inability of riches to buy happiness, and the sorry examples of humanity those who tend to bear the financial upper hand represent:
“…something inexpressibly sad, some unspeakable weight seemed to have descended on these two creatures, till I found myself wondering what purpose they really served by their presence here on earth.”
She also provides a mouthpiece for Mirbeau to speak to the folly of finery kept under lock and key, rather than being properly utilized and enjoyed. Moreover, he notes how this bizarre mindset cuts well beyond the rich to speak to any number of us, from the jewel and chinaware hiding middle class housewife right down to the peculiarly modern perversity of the average geek collector:
“Isn’t it curious the way people like this hide everything away? Bury their silver, their jewels, their wealth, their happiness, and instead of living happily and luxuriously, insist upon living as though they were hard up?”
Celestine comes to realize through her experience how impoverished the rich truly are when divorced of their possessions, which truly seem to sum up their entire being and raison d’etre:
“The sight of Madame, slumped over her empty cases, deader than if she had really died, because she was conscious of (it)…for what death could conceivably be more horrible, for a creature who had never in her life loved anything, but had always assumed that money could buy everything, even the things without price – pleasure, charity, love…”
And of course, she notes with derision the hypocrisy of the ostensibly “moral”, who make a huge show of shoving their supposed beliefs down everyone else’s throats, while their behaviors when they assume no one is looking show all this to be an abject lie:
“Since they are so fond of lecturing other people about their morals, and demand the most complete chastity from their servants, it is quite inconceivable that they should not be at greater pains to conceal the evidence of their own sexual manias…
How they infuriate me, these ‘respectable’ people, with their…savage contempt for any girl who happens to ‘go wrong’, and their everlasting nagging about our moral behavior…of course, none of this prevents the master, despite all his morality, pulling you on to a sofa or bed as soon as he gets a chance, and as often as not…leaving you with a child on your hands. Then, of course, it’s up to you to do what you can if you can…and if you can’t, then you and the child can just starve, for all they care. It’s no concern of theirs.”
“After a few banal…exchanges about the more futile events of the day, the conversation…settled down to a discussion of standards of propriety in society. All these poor devils, these pathetic men and women, forgetting the looseness of their own lives, displayed a relentless severity towards anyone whom they suspected…of having…show(n) too little respect for those social standards which they alone regarded as binding.”
As with Huysmans in A Rebours, Mirbeau notes here how the rich were able to exploit the poor through military service, and builds a biting net of social commentary therefrom:
“(draft) conscripts were chosen by lot. But the sons of wealthy parents, if they happened to be selected, could buy themselves out. They would get in touch…with an agency or some individual, who on payment of a premium…according to the risk involved, would find some poor devil who was prepared to take their place in the army…and if there happened to be a war, die for them.
In short, it wasn’t only in Africa that there was a slave trade…the same sort of thing is going on today. After all, what are our registry offices (modern equivalent: temp agencies and job placement agencies) and public brothels (modern equivalent: strip bars), if not markets for the sale of human flesh?”
In a direct nod to our current economic situation, where major multinational corporations making billions pay 0% on taxes, while what remains of a ‘middle class’ gets squeezed on all sides by overpriced commodities, diminishing salaries, benefits and public programs:
“I really believe…that if they could steal money from the poor they would do it with pleasure, without turning a hair.”
He also speaks to the frankly bizarre penchant for the everyday worker, and particularly the impoverished, to be dazzled by the sort of glittering idolatry of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, Keeping up with the Kardashians, et al:
“The most curious, and also the saddest, part of this story is that despite…all the infamous revelations (in the media)…the (common) people envy (the rich and powerful) even more than they look down on them. Despite…all the harm they do to society, despite everything that is crushed beneath the weight of their monstrous wealth, it is precisely their money that gives them a halo of respectability, even of importance.
People are prepared to bow down to them, to greet them more readily…if a visitor were to ask what places of interest there were to see in he neighborhood, I feel convinced…(they) would reply: ‘…we have (the rich and powerful)…they are atrocious people, but we are very proud of them.’
The worship of money is the lowest of all human emotions, but it shared not only by the bourgeoisie but also by the great majority of us…even those who are practically penniless.”
Similiarly bizarre is the penchant for the abused to throw vehement support behind their abusers, with a mouth frothing defense of conservatism and the upholding of the ‘status quo’, as evinced in the despicable child murdering anti-Semite monarchist footman Joseph. When Celestine contradicts him on one of his wild rants against the republic and the Jews, he merely
“refused to listen to a word I tried to say. He just scolded me for being unpatriotic and not loving my country, and…went off to bed.”
How little things have changed!
But still, she eventually falls for this rather sorry specimen of humanity, noting how one becomes acclimatized to any situation, however bad, inclusive of people:
“As a result of seeing him every day, I no longer find him so old and ugly. Habit has the same effect on people as on things: it is like a fog that gradually obliterates the features of a face and hides its defects. After a while you don’t seem to notice that a hunchback has got a hump!”
There’s an interesting if satirically accurate assessment of how religion and faith tends to be the last if not only desperate refuge of the helpless:
“Without being particularly devout, I nevertheless believe in religion…maybe the rich can do without it, but for people like us, it’s an absolute necessity. I know there are some people who make use of it in funny ways, and that there are plenty of priests and holy sisters who do very little credit to it. But that’s not the point. When you are unhappy – and in our job we have more than our share of unhappiness – there’s nothing like it for helping you to forget your troubles…religion and love.”
Later, this is amended by experience, and how far workaday reality and people around us are removed from the ideals represented by religion and faith:
“What a church! …All you could see were faces brutalized by ignorance and embittered mouths soured with hate. Nothing but wretched creatures who have only come there to pray for God’s help against someone else…a horrible chill seemed to envelop me.”
Sure enough, the villagers are as petty, vindictive, and seeking to exploit each other for personal gain as everyone seems to be in our own age:
“You may well imagine I advised her to sue the lawyer and his wife…if it had been me…I’d have made them cough up, all right, hundreds and thousands, 10,000 francs at least…heavens, fancy missing an opportunity like that!”
The rich are obviously no better, having little regard for the lives and well being of their charges, who are forced by economic desperation to submit to their abuses. Seldom has the exploitation of the poor by the rich been explored as angrily as here:
“Solitude is…living in other people’s houses…who have no interest in you, who regard you as being of less importance than the dogs…from whom all you get are useless, cast-off(s) and leftover(s) already going bad…
With every word, they express contempt for you, their very gestures treat you like dirt: but you must never say a word – just smile and be thankful, or else you area considered to be ungrateful and ill-natured.”
Later, she works for a famous novelist renowned for his psychological insight, who opines of the working poor that:
“I’m really not concerned with such people…they are too small minded, completely lacking in soul…they do not fall within the scope of my psychology.’
I realized at once that, in the circles in which he moved, no one with an income less than 100,000 francs a year was expected to have a soul.”
Through Celestine, Mirbeau addresses an issue quite familiar to part time workers, contract workers, consultants, temps or new hires, who are particularly stung by the lack of enforced allocation of sick and personal time:
“I’m always having to run up and down these confounded stairs just to satisfy the mistress’ whims. And before you’ve had time to sit down for a moment…ting-a-ling-a-ling, and off you go again. Even when you’re not well, the bell never stops. And when I’m like that, I get pains in my back that almost double me up, and tear my insides till I could almost shriek. But of course, that doesn’t matter to her…no time to be unwell, no right to be in pain. Illness is a luxury that’s reserved for our employers. As for us, we just have to keep going, and look snappy about it…keep going till we drop.”
When she protests at one employer’s attempt to get some “value added service” out of her by dumping unrelated extra work on her head without compensation:
“Your job, my girl,’ said the lady severely, ‘is to do what your employers tell you to…You seem to have a very rebellious nature.”
Just as with today’s labor market, agencies and employers see fit to attempt to brainwash their prospective employees into indentured servitude without complaint:
“People are quite wrong about the country,’ she insisted. ‘There are excellent situations to be found there.’
‘Excellent? That’s a good one,’ I interrupted. ‘In the first place, there’s no such thing as an excellent situation anywhere.’
…’I beg your pardon, Mme. Celestine…there’s no such thing as a bad situation.’
‘…only a bad employer (then).”
“Not at all…only bad (employees).”
And of course, as anyone who’s ever been in any tight spots knows, money buys influence, and trumps justice at any given turn:
“Alas, at the police station, they pretended it was nothing to do with them, and when I spoke to a magistrate about it, he advised me to forget all about it, because, as he explained:
“To start with, Mademoiselle, nobody is going to believe you. And quite right, too, I assure you. For whatever would become of society if servants started getting the better of their masters?”
In fact, the working class are so put upon, that Celestine develops a shock and emotional vulnerability at being treated like a proper human being, and notes with remarkable insight that in order to have true empathy for others, one needs to have been on the losing side at some point themselves:
“If anyone speaks kindly to me, if they do not regard me as a creature belonging to another world, something (akin to) a dog…I immediately feel as though I were once again a child. All my bitterness and hatred…disappears, and I feel nothing but unselfish affection towards those who speak to me with humanity.
I know from experience that only those who have themselves suffered can appreciate the suffering of others, even if they are socially inferior to them…there is always an element of insolence and remoteness in the kindness of those who have known nothing but happiness.”
The apotheosis of the book, it’s central premise and thrust, can be summed up in Celestine’s assessment of society and the place of the working man here:
“No one has any idea of all the worries that servants have to put up with, nor of the monstrous way in which they are continually exploited. If it’s not the employers, it’s the registry offices…not to mention your fellow servants, for some of them are pretty foul.
No one has the slightest concern for anyone else. Everybody lives, grows fat, amuses himself at the expense of someone more miserable and hard up than himself.
However much the scene may change or the background be transformed, however different…the social setting…whether it’s in a cramped, middle-class flat, or some banker’s luxurious townhouse, you find the same beastliness, the same inexorable fate.
When all’s said and done, the truth is that a girl like me is defeated even before she starts, wherever she may go and whatever she may do…poor human dung, nourishing…the rich (who) use (it) against us. There is supposed to be no more slavery nowadays. But that’s all rubbish…in practice, (the working class) are simply slaves, with all that slavery entails – the moral degradation…the spirit of revolt that breeds hatred…it is the masters who teach servants to be vicious. However pure and simple hearted they may be when they start…they are soon corrupted…day by day, they begin to adapt themselves to it, for far from being able to defend themselves against it, they find themselves on the contrary obliged to wait upon it, pamper it, respect it.”
But throughout all of the polemicizing, there is a strong undercurrent of surprisingly passionate emotion, particularly in regards to sex. Some choice reminiscences:
“I gave myself to him completely, with a zest that held nothing back, with that feverish, inventive delight that tames and overwhelms the strongest men till they beg for mercy.”
“I had no sooner got into the room and locked the door than he flung himself upon me, and threw me brutally on the bed, my skirts in the air…really, what a bitch one can be sometimes!”
“I submitted to every sensual caprice, accepting, even outstripping, his wildest fantasies…and God knows, some of them were as frightening as they were extraordinary…more inventive and ferocious in his depravity than…a satanic priest!”
In its own way, Diary of a Chambermaid is just as shocking and intentionally “scandalous” as Torture Garden. Suffused with frank eroticism and unusually blatant discussion of the sexual impulse in all its variations, we are given a more modern picture than one might expect from a novel of its vintage.
No unrealistic Sadean fantasias of doohickeys and unnatural if not impossible couplings and sordid doings here – Mirbeau speaks of what Frank Zappa once amusedly referred to as “lonely person devices” and the many varieties and quirks of the erotic impulse, with a keen attention and insight to the unspoken perversities we publicly reject; those thoughts and desires that flash through our minds which we often choose to suppress for fear of some very realistic consequences to our relationships with those around us.
Unfortunately, as with the aforementioned masterwork, there is also a grimmer, more “acceptable” (in puritanical American terms, anyway) undercurrent of violence and even animal cruelty.
While utilized with clear narrative purpose and appropriately symbolic of the baseness mankind is all too oft capable of descending to, I for one could certainly have done without Celestine’s cruel taunting of the Captain’s pride that led to his killing (and consumption) of his beloved and affectionate domesticated ferret, or the twisted rapist and child murderer Joseph, who takes sadistic pleasure in prolonging the necessary killings of livestock used for the foodstuff of the chateau and its denizens.
As with Torture Garden, this exceedingly ugly flaw mars the otherwise perfectly entertaining and quite incisive portrayal of a world so far removed from the divine Edenic ideal as to be a complete inversion of what we are capable of, and which the best of us actively strive towards attainment of.
Despite its increased reliance on humor and frank depictions of eroticism, Diary of a Chambermaid differs from both Le Calvaire and Torture Garden in its white hot rage against social injustice and the wide net of social dissolution that follows in direct relation to the measure of economic inequality a given society allows itself to bear.
As such, it is often a difficult read, particularly as it is a book in which little actually happens. In effect, Celestine goes from one depraved, abusive, hypocritical employer to the next, very much in the mold of Sade’s Justine – though being more of a Juliette in spirit, she does not fare half so poorly throughout.
As strong willed as Rachilde‘s Mary Barbe but marked by a measure of centrist acceptance of poor social conditions, Celestine bounces back and forth in time between descriptions of her final employers and those she supported previously, and when she runs out of things to say about herself and the many situations she finds herself in, she describes the horrors of the job placement agency and the less fortunate, weaker willed girls who find themselves in still worse straits thereby.
Amusing, but equally biting, and with little true progression in narrative if not character, it’s hard to truly like this book: it stands more as a sort of political manifesto than a proper novel. The personages who people the pages within drift by interchangeably, forgettable ciphers of a sort as Celestine drifts through her working life, and in the end, the only change in her persona is a negative one.
While well written and certainly humorous in a pointed satirical sense, think of Diary of a Chambermaid more as a particularly well done political cartoon than a proper Decadent novel, and its merits deserve to be judged on that measure alone. And in this respect, it’s a standout classic, more appropriate to our own times and where we’re allowing society to be taken than even the ones in which it was created.
In essence, what Mirbeau is telling us is what those of a certain generation and their children were sagely taught and instilled with, but which appears to have fallen entirely by the wayside in recent years due to some practiced psychological and politicosocial manipulation on the part of the powers that be, in order to cement and further their dominance and bring dissenters into line if not to heel with their insidious plans for our collective future under their absolute authority.
It’s a simple postulate, but one that demands centrality to the intelligent and rational among us, and any who would seek after personal and existential authenticity and autonomy.
And the rationale is even simpler.
Because you’re no better than I am.
Because when it comes down to it, we are all equals.
In retrospect, it’s easy to see why Bunuel gravitated to this of all Decadent novels. Simultaneously amusing and absurdist, anarchistic and droll, it skewers pretensions on all sides of the putative fence, slicing and dicing all comers with an equally sharp edge.
And yet, for all that, it’s a warm novel, one that demands an equal sense of philosophical detachment (in that whatever you are, and wherever you stand, be it politically, socially, economically or in terms of religion and belief, expect to be dissected mercilessly and exposed for all the ridiculousness of your chosen position) and emotional empathy.
Because for all everyone’s failings and foibles, be they the many bourgeoise and wealthy employers or the impoverished servants, staffers and villagers that wend their way through Celestine’s life and memories, there is an equal sense of understanding, an acceptance that we are all imperfect and make the same mistakes, driven and misled by crazy and misguided opinions, victims of our own confused psyche.
Mirbeau understands anarchism to a far greater degree than the general public or those lunatics who let revolutionary polemic and the weight of connotation carried by the idea of “direct action” get in the way of the real message and value of the mindset, which is that regardless of all the bullshit we’re fed, irrespective of the artificial barriers we build up to separate ourselves from one another through location, economic status or what beliefs, faiths and political allegiances we ascribe to, we’re all on equal ground, and are all of equal value (or lack thereof, if you buy into a more Hobbesian, Schopenaueresque, right wing or satanic mindset).
We’re humans first and foremost, and there isn’t a one of us who can dare to claim superiority to the rest, like it or not.
In the grand scheme of things, it is this, and not any mistaken pie in the sky dreams of some sort of social uprising somehow overturning oppression and revealing as if by magic some long dreamt of utopia, that makes anarchism so “dangerous” to the powers that be, and the one thing that makes the philosophy of any value whatsoever. For what Babelesque edifice of “authority” and longstanding sociocultural more can stand in the face of such a simple and honest truth?
And in the end, it is that, if nothing else, which makes Diary of a Chambermaid essential reading, and a true classic of fin de siecle literature.