And so we come to another installment of the early Octave Mirbeau; a further entry in his de facto trilogy of semi-autobiographical novels of doomed young men bearing some measure of the author’s own persona and past experience, albeit with each coming to some untoward early demise – a closure which the long lived Mirbeau himself would be spared.
Sebastien Roch follows the titular character, a sensitive, artistically inclined and intellectually curious young man whose only crime was to be born of a petty bourgeoise with aspirations to higher social status, through the course of a brief and tragic life – a life driven and hemmed in by the invisible fences of a ridiculous and hypocritical society and those who live by its mores.
Sebastien’s father, a widower and blacksmith (or ‘ironmonger’, as he is referred to herein) is a relatively successful small business owner who has attained some measure of standing among the townfolk of the small village the Rochs hail from.
While boastful, obtuse and prone to histrionics, things seem to run along a reasonable enough course until Roch is convinced by the petty prejudices of a similarly emptyheaded parish priest that his son could be his entree into higher social circles.
To accomplish this absurd if somewhat ubiquitous bourgeois desire, Sebastien is essentially railroaded into attending a Jesuit boarding school far from home, as the Jesuits were apparently seen as prestigious (any ideas that this odd conception rest solely in Roch’s own misguided mind are disproved by the fact that the school is in fact generally comprised of the progeny of nobility). But even beyond this going against any wishes or desires the boy might have for his own life and future, this proves a fatal mistake that determines the unhappy course of his entire life…
As the parental edict is handed down, Sebastien begins to see another side to the father he had formerly held in high filial esteem – one that repulses and distances him from his father for the first time:
“He felt his respect and affection for his father diminishing…he discovered that no exchange of similar emotions…was possible between them, so estranged were they from one another. Everything about his father’s actions disillusioned (him)…he noticed the way his father ate, greedily and messily…a host of tiny details…which revealed his lax habits and inconsistencies of behavior, so out of keeping with the rigid pomp of his principles…he suffered genuine physical pain seeing the degrading manner in which his father treated the boy apprentice…
The prestige of paternal authority…was gradually fading, destroyed bit by bit by…a thousand little intimate, debasing habits, whose ludicrousness and vulgarity no longer escaped him, afflicting him as if they had been his own. Hour by hour, the most precious parts of his own self perished…creating a new anguish, a bitterness and an unfamiliar sense of pity.”
When he moves in to the school, Sebastien quickly finds ostracism based entirely on his familial social stature. Mirbeau paints with vivid colors the raw, biting and long-lasting emotion of childhood rejection and clique:
“The voices and stares weighed heavily on little Sebastien, inflicting the physical pain of a multitude of needles stuck into his skin. He wished he could launch himself on this band of ferocious children and slap or kick them, or else soothe them with his gentleness, saying ‘you’re mad to laugh at me like that when I’ve done you no harm, when I so want to be friends.”
He quickly discovers the sorry fact that in the real world, the so-called ‘authorities’ offer no help in these sort of situations:
“The priest in charge…came up and joined the group. The boy felt he was saved: ‘He’s going to make them shut up and punish them,’ he thought. When the Jesuit had been told why everyone was laughing, he too began to laugh, but with a discreet, amused, patronizing laugh…Sebastien bent his head and moved away in despair.”
He recognizes in this unchecked if casual schoolyard bullying and ostracism a microcosm of society as a whole, recalling a friendly hunchback shoemaker from his hometown:
“The other lads laughed at him, following him through the streets: ‘Hey! Mr. Punch!” And the little hunchback fled on his short legs… Sebastien…(saw) analogies in their situation, similarities in their suffering now that he too was an outcast.
Poor hunchback! He was not spiteful or at all unpleasant either! Quite the contrary…so why that relentless assault…? He was obliging towards everyone, skilled and courageous; he liked to help and please others. He was always ready to lend a hand whenever anyone needed it…
Coudray, the carpenter, a sort of handsome giant, had hit the hunchback for no reason, for a laugh, to amuse the pretty girls, for they enjoyed cruel pranks that made him cry. He was so funny, his hump jolted so comically when he cried…and the huge fist of the carpenter…landed several blows on the hunchback’s hump. “Damn you, Mr. Punch!” “Why are you hitting me? You don’t even know why you’re hitting me. I suppose you think it’s clever, do you?” Then one morning, he had been found hanged in his workshop.”
He further finds the priests to be intrinsically both pompous and repellent:
“A monk crossed his path…he had a convict’s face, sly and begrimed…two other monks, thick-lipped, with the eyes of child-molesters, brushed by him…”
Sebastien gradually becomes accustomed to this daily mistreatment, but it still weighs on him profoundly:
“There was more harassment at school, but each episode became progressively less violent so that, in the end, it became a kind of intermittent, jovial raillery which made the pain more bearable. However, he felt very keenly the bitterness of social inequality in which he lived, acknowledged and persistent as it was. To be tolerated as a pauper and not accepted as an equal caused him great sorrow, a wound to his pride which did not heal, and he felt helpless to protect himself. The attitude in which the others left him made him more serious and thoughtful, almost old before his time…his eyes became shadowed, troubled.”
A painful, biting condemnation of the “status quo” results, one that all too many of us can find some degree of self-recognition in:
“Schools are miniature universes. They encompass, on a child’s scale, the same kind of domination and repression as the most despotically organized societies. A similar sort of injustice and comparable baseness preside over their choice of idols to elevate and martyrs to torment.
Sebastien was ignorant of the fact that there are conflicts of interest, rival appetites, which are innate and which cause all human societies to fight amongst themselves, but by observing and making comparisons, he soon determined his precise position in that world…motivated as it was by passions and concerns which, up until then, he had never even suspected. He found it deeply demoralizing.
His position was that of the underdog, a vanquished opponent…he understood that he must rely on himself alone, live a solitary, introverted life, act independently and seal himself off…but he also understood that such a renunciation was beyond his powers.
His generous, expansive, enthusiastic nature could not be confined within the narrow psychological limits which he would be obliged to impose on himself. It needed air, warmth, light, a broad expanse of sky. While waiting for this light to shine, for this sky to open up, Sebastien continued to watch life pass him by against a background of blurred images and inexorable darkness.”
He notes with incomprehension how the group gravitates to “leaders” based mainly on wealth and family connections if not force of will, and decides to adopt the only sane policy, namely active disdain:
“..that community of children in which, by example and education, every form of servility and tyranny was taken for granted. The vanities, ambitions and aspirations, secret or avowed, of this small, divided people, with its jealous coteries, all focused on his frail, awe-inspiring person…
Sebastien did not attempt to gain his sympathy by cowardly submission, nor to impose himself on him by means of revolt. He disdained him…and this made him cherish (his friends back home) all the more…He decided to keep out of the way of the teachers and…neither to seek their approval or arouse their sympathy…the priests’…ingratiating tone rang false to him. By their side he felt no sense of protection…they left him to his own devices in the recreation yard…where he wandered, usually alone and bewildered, wounded by the others’ joy, outraged by the roars of laughter exploding all around him as if to mock him all the more in his abandonment.”
Sebastien is eventually befriended by a sympathetic boy of noble extraction named Jean de Kerral, who nevertheless displays a disturbing lack of empathy at core, relating a “funny story” about his father:
“Do you know the story about Papa’s six hunting dogs and the baliff’s clerk?…Well, one day, my father was coming back from a hunt; he hadn’t caught a thing and was not at all pleased. As he got nearer (town), who should he see on the road but the baliff’s clerk. He’s a nasty clerk…he says bad things about priests, never goes to mass, and his family own a farm near the chateau, confiscated land bought cheap off us after the Revolution…a real nasty piece of work. Papa says to himself: ‘Since my dogs haven’t had a chance to hunt anything, I’m going to let them chase the baliff’s clerk.’
Funny, eh? He unleashes them, puts them on the scent, and the dogs are off…you can imagine…how the clerk bolted, feeling the dogs at his heels…he gets all tangled up in the reeds and brambles, rips his trousers, falls over, gets back on the road, his face all bloody, and escapes as fast as his legs can carry him towards (town). The dogs stick as close to him as if he was a hare….
Apparently it was really funny…he went into the church and barely had time to close the door behind him; he collapsed onto the flagstones and fainted away out of fear. Another second and he would have been caught and gobbled up by the dogs. They don’t mess about, you know those dogs…Well, the father of this nasty man took my papa to court and Papa was ordered to pay this nasty man 25 thousand francs because, after this joke of a hunt, his son had fallen ill and lost his mind. But Papa will get his revenge.”
Later, Jean invites Sebastien to his home for the holiday, which Sebastien’s father trumpets around town as a matter of pride. However, Jean’s father rejects the idea of letting a social inferior into their home, provoking this revelation:
“How he repented of having so obstinately nurtured that dream, not because longing for magnificence had eventually led to these ruins, but because a new emotion was penetrating his soul and overturning all his ideas: something strong and warm, like a draught of wine. He had just seen Monsieur de Kerral, and he hated him. He hated him and those like him.
To these men, living amongst other men like beasts of prey amidst game, and of whom his father had spoken and told him several times that they were to be admired and respected, he compared those of his own kind, who toil to meet their daily needs…side by side, helping one another, working together to achieve tomorrow’s hopes; and he felt proud to have been born amongst them…
He found greater nobility in his father’s overalls…than in the insolent gaiters, the whistling whip…of this Monsieur who had despised him, and along with him all of the little people, the humble folk…Faced with the image of inner decay evident in the chateau, which was collapsing stone by stone, and that soil, exhausted from having nourished men without pity or love…this created in him a profound sense of joy…this thought of justice…was roused from its atavistic slumber and burst forth in this child’s soul, which though…innocent, was large enough…to contain (both) an immense love and immense hatred on behalf of all mankind.”
This discovery brings about a change in his behavior, and he finally stands up for himself, or more specifically, on behalf of others suffering unjust abuses:
“Bolorec was still in the same place…two pupils nearby were pestering him…Sebastien could no longer control his precipitate emotions. He yelled at them: ‘Leave him be!…He hasn’t done anything to you!” One of them advanced, hands on hips, threatening: ‘What are you wittering on about…filthy ironmonger.’ Sebastien leaped on him in one bound, knocked him over and slapped him several times saying: ‘Every time you even think of insulting me, you will get the same…you and the others.’
The beaten child got up in a pitiful state. ‘Yes, my father is an ironmonger,’ confessed Sebastien. ‘And I’m proud of him…he doesn’t set dogs on poor unfortunates.”
Like most intelligent children, he finds the rote nature and banal curricula of schoolwork to be somewhat less than stimulating as well:
“As his intelligence broadened…as the desire to learn developed in him, he grew ever more disgusted with schoolwork and this disgust grew to the point where the mere sight of his books caused him pain and irritation…In children, who are by nature keen, passionate and curious, what is referred to as laziness is often merely an awakening of sensitivity, a psychological inability to submit to certain absurd duties, and a natural result of the distorted, unbalanced education given to them. This laziness, which leads to an insuperable reluctance to learn, is, contrary to appearances, sometimes proof of intellectual superiority and a condemnation of the teacher…
What he was forced to learn bore no relation to any of his latent aspirations…once his homework was hurriedly dispatched, his lessons recited, none of what remained in his memory made him think, interested him or seemed to concern him…he was happy just to forget it all…(lessons) which he found repellent and whose uselessness oppressed him…in the real world there were things which beguiled him, astonished him…he divined something of the inherent mystery in the world about him, delicious to unveil…but they were determined to shroud it all with the thickest and grimiest of shadows…”
Later he discovers the power of true literature on his own, comparing his education unfavorably thereto:
“This was like the revelation of a new world for him…What a difference between that warm, colorful, vibrant language…where every word lived, breathed and sprouted beating wings…compared with the cold, creeping, grudging language of his schoolbooks, whose enslaved words and dull ideas seemed deliberately positioned in order to block his desire to know, to feel, to be inspired, like surly park-keepers, forbidding entry to a garden full of…splendid flowers and subtle birds, where the radiant sky can be glimpsed through swaying branches.”
He also takes on the mentality of Manifest Destiny and all those who would claim God on their side in justification of their own mass murders, land grabs and domination of others, rejecting firmly any “god” who could stand behind such:
“They were always talking about battles, savage hordes on the march towards destruction, blood and ruin; they showed him the fearful faces of drunken heroes, undaunted brutes, terrible conquerors, odious and bloody puppets…who symbolized Duty, Honor, Glory, Country, Religion.
And over this whole abject, mad hurlyburly of brutal assassins…there was always the image of…God…a kind of maniacal, all-powerful bandit, whose greatest pleasure was to kill, and who…traveled howling across space or else lay in ambush…brandishing his thunderbolt in one hand and his sword in the other.
Sebastien refused to admit this bloodthirsty demon as his God, and continued to love his own God, a charming…pale, blond Jesus, his arms filled with flowers, his mouth wreathed in smiles, blessing children, his gaze constant in its boundless goodness and inexhaustible compassion.”
He is a man who feels life intensely, which can be equally wonderful as horrifying in its implications:
“There was not a thought, an action, a word, that Sebastien did not live passionately: the senses and passions were so strong in him that he experienced them like an illness…everything affected him much more than it did other people and had an impact on all his faculties. It was enough for one of his senses to be stimulated for all the others to participate…quadrupling it, prolonging it.”
Unfortunately, he falls under the spell of the sort of prelate making the headlines with due regularity these days. His instincts warn him of the priest’s ulterior motive:
“Why did Father de Kern’s presence cause him such violent embarrassment, a sort of strange, instinctive repugnance, a creeping of the skin, a nauseous fear, something abnormal, rather like the dizzying sensation he felt when he looked down into an abyss from the heights of a clifftop?”
Nevertheless, the older man seduces the boy by appealing to his desire to learn and his artistic leanings, teaching him music, reciting poetry and exposing him to the arts, until he lulls him into a false sense of security. One night, he achieves his goal, revealing the amazing hypocrisy and delusionality of a supposedly sacred institution that harbors and encourages these sort of situations:
“He had lured many others into that room…but none had made these deplorable scenes…little martyrs, little deflowered creatures, his startled prey, docile or anguished…Father de Kern approached Sebastien…in an imperious tone, (he said) ‘You know you’re taking communion tomorrow.’
The effect of this sentence was electric. Sebastien leaped up…now he would no longer be able to do so…he alone, like one of the damned…
‘But I can’t now!’
‘And who will stop you?’ snapped the priest…’am I not here? Can I not hear your confession?’
‘You!’ cried Sebastien with a surge of horror. ‘You!’…
‘Yes…I am a priest. I have the power to absolve you…however unworthy, culpable and criminal I might be. I have not lost the sacred character which allows me…to give you back peace of conscience and…purity of body.”
Scarred by his experience, Sebastien, still thwarted in his desire to learn music, makes this powerful analogy:
“Sebastien seizes the violin…plugs at the four strings, which emit shrill, discordant sounds…he stands foolishly before this violin, which in his hands, is no more than an inert, jangling instrument, and feels an infinite sadness at knowing that a soul lives in it…but that he will never be able to breathe life into that soul nor awaken that dream…Are you not like that violin?…have you not a soul, and do not dreams inhabit that void in your little brain? Who knows about that? Who cares?
Those who ought to make your soul resonate and your dreams take wing, have they not left you in a corner all alone like that violin abandoned on a chair, at the mercy of the first…passerby who, in order to amuse himself for a moment, takes hold of it and breaks forever the fragile wood which was made for eternal song?”
In a proactive attempt to cover for himself against any untoward revelations, the guilty priest spreads a false rumor of a homosexual relationship between Sebastien and his friend Bolorec, which gets him expelled from the school. The absurdity of logical appeals to established officialdom is seldom more amusingly put:
“If you wish, I can take you to confession.’
‘You are wrong…mark my words, there is nothing more revitalizing than a good confession. M. Juste Durand confessed at least 6 times in 4 days…but what consolation he found too!’
‘But he was expelled all the same.’
‘Yes, but what consolation he found!”
Later, he ponders about what must drive both priest and Church in situations like this:
“Although, in normal circumstances, he was a good man, he had only one thought at that moment: to prevent this terrible secret from getting out, even if that meant a flagrant injustice or the sacrifice of an innocent, unhappy boy. However unimportant the child…even if they managed to rewrite the story in their own favor, there would always be a lingering doubt, damaging the proud reputation of the Order. It was vital to avoid that…”
On departing from the school, he sums up his experience:
“Deceit everywhere, wearing a (cassock). No, little children like him, poor, humble wretches…with no position and no fortune had nothing to hope for from those young, pitiless boys, corrupted from birth by all the prejudices of a hateful education; nothing to expect from those loveless, servile teachers either, kneeling before wealth as before a god.
What had he learned? He had learned pain, and that was all. He had arrived ignorant and pure; they were expelling him, ignorant and defiled. He had arrived full of naive faith; they were driving him out full of troubling doubts. The peace of mind…he possessed on entering that accursed house were now replaced by a horrible, devouring void, a burden of remorse, disgust and constant anguish. And that had all been accomplished in the name of Jesus!
…Oh, he knew all about their kind of love, justice and forgiveness! To earn it, you had to be rich and noble. When a person was neither…there was no love, no justice, no forgiveness. You were expelled and no one told you why!”
Musing about his classmates and the eternal cycle of social abuse and rejection to be found in schoolyards everywhere, he surmises that:
“What were they saying about him and this sudden, unforseen separation? Probably nothing. A child arrives: everyone throws stones at him and insults him. A child leaves, and it’s all over. On to the next.”
Sebastien returns home to find his father first ranting and acting out, and later shutting down, and treating him as a stranger in his own home. Set adrift, without goals or aspirations, he watches the days pass in aimless reverie…
‘You must be so bored.’
‘Not really. I look, I think, and time passes. Yesterday…I watched an ants’ nest all day. You can’t imagine how beautiful and mysterious such a thing is…there’s the most extraordinary life going on in there, a great social structure that would be far more interesting to learn about…it’s another of the thousands of things they don’t teach you in school.’
…’That’s all very well…but you can’t go on living like this…people are beginning to whisper and say bad things about you…you must make up your mind to do something with your life.’
‘True,’ sighed Sebastien…’But what can I do? There’s nothing that interests me.’
He finally comes to the realization of why his life went the way it did, which comes down to the sad fact that parents will inevitably try to relive and redeem their failed lives through the hoped successes of their progeny:
“I was a stimulus to my father’s vanity, the promise of social elevation, the impersonal summation of his incoherent dreams and peculiar ambitions. I did not exist in myself; it was he who existed or rather re-existed through me. He did not love me; he loved himself in me.
Strange as it may seem, I am sure that by sending me to school, my father, in good faith, felt that he was going there himself…receiving the benefits of a good education which in his mind ought to lead to the highest positions in the land. From the day when it became clear that nothing of what he had dreamed for himself (not for me) could be realized…I no longer existed for him at all.”
Sebastien further notes how his upbringing and education has instilled in him a timidity of thought that binds him to social convention and the upholding of the status quo, even as all measure of reason and logic rejects same:
“I cannot conceive…of a moral system for the universe, free of all hypocrisies or religious, political, legal and social barbarities, without being instantly gripped by the same religious and social terrors inculcated in me at school. However brief the time I spent there, however apparently impervious I thought I was to that depressing and servile education…its terrors and slavery have soaked into my brain and poisoned my soul. They have made me too cowardly to think for myself…
As for priests, they make me shudder. I can see the deceit in what they preach, the deceit in the consolations they offer…I feel that priests are only here in society in order to keep man steeped in his intellectual filth and to create out of the enslaved multitudes a flock of brute idiots and cowards…”
Finally, Sebastien comes to realize the innate futility of trying to help those who will not accept that help and are unwilling to change, and arrives at a profound understanding of human nature and society as a whole:
“I too used to want to devote myself to others…through pity and reason. I soon realized it was absurd and pointless…everything I see makes me despair and feel sickened. Fundamentally, all these people hate and despise one another. The bourgeoise hate the workers, the workers hate the tramps, the tramps seek out (those) more wretched than themselves…to hate and despise.
Everyone struggles to maintain the fatal exclusivity of his own class, to make even narrower the prison cell in which he shakes his eternal chains. I…have occasionally tried to point out to the miserable wretches the injustice of their condition and their inalienable right to revolt, tried to direct their hatred not lower but higher, but they only became suspicious and turned their backs…
There is an inertia, strengthened by centuries of religious and authoritarian atavism, which it is impossible to overcome. Man would only have to stretch out his arms for his chains to fall away; he would only have to move his legs for his ball and chain to break; but he will never make that gesture towards freedom. He has been softened up, emasculated…trapped in his moral abjection and slavish submission.”
In due course, the Franco-Prussian War breaks out. Rather than stirring an appropriate horror throughout the land, however, this stirs something else entirely among the nation… The cluelessness and underlying bloodthirstiness of the general populace here has strong parallels with today:
“Today a regiment…passed through (town)…everyone looks forward to it in a way I can scarcely understand and which it is impossible to share, but which is no less strong for all that it resides in the vulgar heart of the multitude. It is curious how the people respond to only two stimuli: religion and war, the two greatest enemies of moral development.
…The crowd swells, filled by the same wild instinct. It really is a crowd now and it strikes me as absolutely hideous. It seems to me that I never before grasped so clearly the unerring stupidity of this human herd, the powerlessness of these creatures, so immune to natural beauty. To make them crawl out of their holes, to put those broad, atavistic, brutish smiles on their faces, they have to be promised barbarous spectacles, degrading pleasures aimed only at the lowest and meanest among them.”
Even his gentle, sexually curious and devoted girlfriend Marguerite joins in on the mob mentality, becoming quite excited and aroused by the pomp and circumstance of the parading troops.
“I have never seen her like this before, so impatient, her eyes aglow and her whole body trembling with excitement, except when such behavior is directed at me…her gaze, now stripped of any shame, is a mixture of cruelty, savagery and submission, which strikes fear into my heart…she has submitted (to the pageantry of war and the battlefield) sexually.”
But Sebastien finds to his dismay that the shadow of the neanderthal resides within the breast of every man:
“I am gripped by emotion despite myself. It is neither pride, nor admiration, nor a feeling of patriotism; it is a kind of vague, latent sense of heroism, and whatever there is in me of the bestial and savage is awoken…and I am just like the crowd I despise. The same soul that horrifies me is inside me, with all its brutishness, its love of violence and killing.”
He confronts one young boy entranced with the potent wine of jingoist sentiment:
“…are you glad to be going into the army?…do you know what your “Country” is?’ He stares at me in astonishment. Clearly he has never considered the question.
‘…your “Country” is a few rogues who have taken it upon themselves to make you into something less than a man, less than an animal or a plant: a number…In other words, for reasons of which you know nothing and which are nothing to do with you, they’ll take away your job, your love, your freedom, your whole life.”
After being forced to gaze into this collective abyss encompassing both his societal intimates and himself, Sebastien can no longer enjoy their company as he once did, and finds himself more alone than ever:
“Madame…is not as intelligent as I used to think. She is full of bourgeois prejudices and meanness of spirit and understands nothing of the feelings gnawing away at me…we speak of meaningless, random things, the only things she can talk about…it is terrible never to have…a simple, straightforward soul…to whom you could reveal yourself just as you are, and who would respond to what you feel and think, correct your errors, encourage you and direct you.”
Nevertheless, he has one passionate fling with his beloved Marguerite, whose love and honest communication with each other in a physical sense brings one brief, solitary ray of light to the narrative, as he muses in the afterglow:
“He sensed…a slow regaining of his own sanity, a slow return of the senses to peace, a place for his injured heart to rest in calm and purity, with no dark, constraining horizons. He suddenly experienced again old feelings of enthusiasm and generosity…and a boundless love for those who suffer…he had never before seen how clearly how empty, useless and guilty his life had been, how it was constantly threatened by the vice of inaction…
‘I’m twenty years old and I have done nothing with my life…I must make up my mind not to waste my manhood in the same way as I’ve wasted my adolescence.”
Unfortunately, he soon finds the destiny he had been unable to envision as a fait accompli, when he encounters a meaningless death on the battlefield of a pointless war.
Strong stuff indeed. With Sebastien Roch, Mirbeau delivers one of the angriest of his missives, all the more disturbing for bearing the mark of autobiographicality. Is it any wonder that a boy who suffered similar experience to that described herein would later bear the disgust for societal blindness and stupidity so brilliantly and savagely skewered in novels like Diary of a Chambermaid and Torture Garden?
Sebastien Roch ultimately works on two levels. As a narrative, it serves a tale by and for the outsider, the downtrodden, those who by choice or no stand outside the mainstream, the commonplace, those who fit into the petty cliques and live by and for the pettiness of accepted more. Those who envision a life beyond a continual striving up an imaginary ladder of achievement and “proof” that one is somehow “worthy” of ascension to the next level, culminating in a moderately “happy” marriage with a statistical 1.5 offspring, a modest house in the suburbs, dreams of a career in middle management and a sideline as a “soccer mom”. Those who understand that there’s a lot more to life than petty “ideals” such as these…
And as a manifesto of sorts, it delivers a resounding condemnation of such surprisingly contemporary topics as child abuse, exploitation, bullying, the whole overachiever culture that drives parents to push their children in extreme ways in the hopes of creating a sports hero or corporate leader, and the culpability of the Church and public authorities in allowing these sort of things to go on under its auspices (and in fact, actively covering them up for “the good of the Church”, to allow the institution to continue undaunted, retaining its imaginary “authority” and veneer of “respectability” at the cost of human lives and very souls).
In both of these respects, the book displays Decadence’s typically forward thinking and progressive (particularly for the time) understanding of human psychology, sociology, and politics – from the vagaries, conflicted desires and fallibility of the individual to the lowest common denominator atavism and abject stupidity of the group (ranging all the way from small social circles to society at large and as a whole), dissecting equally the self and other with a refreshing sense of honesty, fearlessness and existential authenticity so noticeably absent in the ‘literature’ of today, designed entirely for commercial purposes and filled with a vapid emptiness at core.
While hardly a pleasant read, this makes Sebastien Roch a book more relevant than ever, and one that needs to be read as a sort of assigned curriculum for prospective parents, teachers, and religious leaders – one whose lessons bear a perfect and direct applicability to the societal blights of our own day, and whose warnings must be hearkened to.