I believe I said “never say never”.
With available works of the fin de siecle Decadent movement in translation beginning to dwindle, I have indeed chosen to hesitantly dip my metaphorical toes into the murky waters of Huysmans’ later work. The logical choice, naturally, was to tackle what ultimately remains a transitional novel between Decadence and Catholic apologia, En Route.
Let’s be frank: of all Decadent works perused to date, bar the unreadable waste of paper known as Gustav Meyrink’s The Green Face (about which the less said, the better), this novel was in fact the hardest slog I’ve worked my way through in recent memory.
Even the Dickensian drudgery and prudish Puritanism of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre was offset by a strong penchant towards ardent individualism at the beginning and gothic romance towards the middle. While much of its dual-minded pandering to the supposed “propriety” of contemporary mores and stiff necked religiosity made long stretches of the novel quite hard to swallow, a vibrant assault on the hypocrisies of the bourgeoise and a nascent strain of proto-feminism brought to mind the far more satisfying memory of the semi- autobiographical Mary Barbe from Rachilde’s excellent Marquise de Sade.
But this book was something of a different matter, owing more to such unreadable tomes of philosophical explication and apologia as the collected works of St. Bonaventure, St. Augustine, or even the left field reinterpretations of Teilhard de Chardin. Even as a devoted amateur of Huysmans, I found certain passages left me with crossed eyes, zoning out, and wondering if I shouldn’t just skim forward a few dozen pages to get past all the Catholic mumbo jumbo and religious gibberish. Wasn’t this supposed to be a book banned and condemned for salaciousness at one point?
Thankfully, the portions that are still worth seeking out are classic Huysmans, marked by distaste (if not utter revulsion) towards the commonplace, the workaday, the bourgeoise. Attacks on hypocrisy, so eloquently phrased in his earlier works, are no less blunted here for being applied to himself and, in all directness, the church itself. Make no mistake, this is no flag waving, parade leading sales pitch for Catholicism.
Filled with occult experiences, sensual memories and asides, and all the doubts and dual mindedness of a man in search of a better way (and in bettering himself), this is one of the most honest, realistic records of the mindset and experiences one may encounter in such a period of transition, particularly when moving from the darker end of the metaphysical spectrum towards the light, that I personally have ever come across. No preaching here, no polemics, no bullshit. This is Huysmans’ experience, and he is unafraid to expose his own self doubt, his own obsessions, his own perversities, his own failings, page by grueling page.
And that in itself, while portions along the way do in fact prove quite obtuse, obscure, and even dull, makes En Route a more than worthy perusal for Decadents, fans of the author’s earlier works, and more importantly, those who find themselves “En Route” in any personal, spiritual, or existential sense…which at one time or another, means all of us.
The introductory essay draws some conclusions about the validity of Decadence to the anomie and existential crisis point we find ourselves collectively facing today, as we begin to realize with certainty that “progress” and faith in science and invention is proving quite unfounded, with its nigh-daily discoveries far less inclined to make our lives “better” than put us on the unemployment line and afflict us with obesity and a host of heretofore unseen diseases and destruction of entire ecosystems:
“A hundred years ago, it was easy to be sure about the future…to be confident that science and the march of progress would (establish a better, more utopian world). But the Decadents…are not so sure…
Huysmans sought refuge in a more distant past, while his contemporaries looked to a future made clean and safe by science. They were sure that the future would come and that it would be a better place. We wonder about tomorrow…whatever the future holds in store for us, it is most likely to be a run-down version of the way things are now.
..Science is an unreliable engine of progress…the rise of science has made the world a disenchanted place…people who were blinded by science are now searching for something more substantial. The contemporary recoil from science has all the trappings of a crisis of faith and we…(view) the promise that science will promote progress with irony and detachment…that suspension of belief is fostering a second wave of decadence.
..Science is beginning to look like just one more way of thinking dogmatically…a hundred years ago, the rise of science provoked a flight from religion…the literature of decadence…describes a familiar point of departure. Where we will end up is hard to say.”
Continuing the story of autobiographical analogue Durtal (last seen writing an historical biography of Gilles de Rais and exploring a simultaneous thesis on medievalism and the lore behind church bells and the rather more physical lusts of Mme. Chantelouve and the satanic mass), we find the man at something of a crossroads.
Having lost his companions Des Hermies and Carhaix to yellow fever and pneumonia respectively and having rejected Chantelouve and the debasement of his occult experience, Durtal finds himself at a loss as to any sense of meaning or direction to his existence. While he recognizes some measure of sanctuary in his presumed Catholic upbringing, he similarly holds a realistic if not cynical view of priests, parishoners and Rome itself, finding them petty, small minded, and falling far short of the more profound and immanent spiritual experience and relations he craves.
Right out of the gate, Huysmans comes out swinging, making the startlingly astute refutation of his formerly held belief in Pessimism, unmanning thereby a rather spurious argument against the existence (or at least immanence and attention) of God which is sadly still in common use to this day:
“The vaunted argument of Schopenhauer against the Creator, drawn from the misery and injustice of the world, is not irrefutable, for the world is not as God made it, but as man has refashioned it. Before accusing heaven for our ills… examine…what phases of consent, what voluntary falls (we have chosen to take), before ending in the gloomy disaster (we) deplore…
Curse the vices of our ancestors and our own passions which beget the greater part of the woes from which we suffer…loathe the civilization which has rendered life intolerable…and not the Lord, who…did not create us to be shot down…in time of war, to be cheated, robbed and stripped in time of peace, by the slave drivers of commerce and the brigands of the money market.”
Nonetheless, we are not talking polemics here, nor is Huysmans some erstwhile Augustine spewing forth an intolerable Pauline doctrine of abstention…at least not at this point, or in this book. True to his temperament as an intellectual and aesthete, he finds much of his disgust relates less to matters spiritual than the presence and fallibility of his fellow man, towards whose hypocrisy and pecadilloes Huysmans is (quite justifiably) as vicious and biting as ever.
The novel begins with his visit to a pair of local churches, well attended and recommended by the faithful, whose glossy, surface-hugging approximation of “spirituality” he finds utterly reprehensible if not laughable.
But when he discovers a less populous place of worship hidden at the end of an obscure alleyway in the poorer district of the city, he finds to his surprise some unexpected measure of comfort and that he views the place in an entirely new light:
“Durtal was therefore almost alone, and even the people who crossed his refuge were neither stupid nor hostile, like the faithful in other churches…”
Nonetheless, this is no simple conversion, no revelatory road to Damascus as it were. Huysmans is an intellectual and a poet, and the fact is that simple “solutions” could never do for a man of substance. He realizes that if he were to truly turn a new corner, it would demand a more profound change from the bottom up:
“He was still honest enough to say: ‘I am no longer a child; if I have faith…I cannot conceive of it as lukewarm and unfixed, warmed up again and again in the saucepan of a false zeal. I will have no…alternations of debauch and communions, no stages of licentiousness and piety…to change from top to bottom, or not change at all.”
But being intelligent, he recognizes that such a commitment also requires some rather ambiguous necessities of restraint in personal behavior, and implies being bound to one extent or another to the sort of puffed up Puritanical personages he detests:
“Then he drew back in alarm…’if I make up my mind…then I must bind myself to a heap of observances, bend to a series of rules…abstain…live like a bigot, and look like a fool.’
And then to help his revolt, he thought of the air, the look of people who frequented the churches; for two men who looked intelligent and clean, how many were without doubt rascals and impostors! Almost all had a side-long look, an oily voice, downcast eyes, immovable spectacles, clothes like sacristans…all hold thin beads ostentatiously, and with more strategy and knavery than the wicked, took toll from their neighbors on leaving God.
The devout women were still less reassuring…knocking against you without begging pardon, then they knelt down with much ado, in the attitude of contrite angels…and left the church more arrogant and sour than before. ‘It is not encouraging to have to mix with this flock of pious geese,’ he exclaimed.”
Eventually he finds a clerical advisor whom he respects, one less consumed by public prestige and petty ritual observances than a more profound approach to…well, archaic Medieval Catholic mysticism, at least. This prelate advises him to seek out a retreat, but Durtal has some cogent doubts about this course of action:
“The priests…will tell me I have no business with mystical ideas, and will give me in exchange the petty religion of rich women; they will wish to mix themselves up with my life, to inquire about the state of my soul, to insinuate their own tastes; they will try to convince me that art is dangerous, will sermonize me with imbecile talk…I know what I am; at the end of a couple of interviews, I shall rebel and become wicked.”
The old novitiate displays a dash of savvy, picking up on Durtal’s personality and that it may just be somewhat of a challenge to bring this man into the fold, as it were:
“It is quite certain…that art has been the principal means which the Saviour has used to make you absorb the faith. He has taken you on your weak side – or strong side, if you like that better. He has infused into your nature the chief mystical works…persuaded and converted you, less by the way or reason than the way of the senses…therefore…a disagreeable face, an unlucky word, antipathetic surroundings, a mere nothing would be enough to rout you – is it not so?”
Given the nature of the book and the circumstances of Huysmans’ own life and metacognitive and spiritual crises at the time, there is a strong focus on the inner workings of Durtal and his personal struggle in trying to hold the baby while throwing out all that filthy bathwater, as it were. There is an interesting section where he questions his own thoughts, drives, impulses and desires, and whether they come from sources infernal, divine, or merely rooted in his own carnality:
“I have a very horror of bigotry and pious polish, but…do not feel at all drawn towards the phenomena of mysticism…I have no pretension to become a saint, all that I desire is to atain the intermediate state, between goody-goodness and sanctity…in practice, it is the only one I am capable of attaining, and yet…if I am mistaken and obeying false impulses, I am…on the verge of madness. How…am I to know whether I am in the right way or walking in the dark towards the abyss?
…How can one be sure that this interior voice, these distinct words not heard with bodily ears, but percieved by the soul in a clearer fashion than if they came by the channels of sense, are true…that they emanate from God, not from our imagination or from the devil himself?”
Later his clerical advisor calms his fears of an orgiastic, satanized nunnery as noted in some more sensational texts of the era, noting that the only truly prevalent problem of the sequestered life lies in a rather more commonplace realm:
“the sin of zeal which causes the denunciation of our neighbor, gives scope to jealousy, creates spying to satisfy hate, that is the real sin of the cloister…”
He notes with exasperation that he is looking for something more of a retreat from himself, but the cleric realizes Durtal would not be an easy fit for the commonplace version of a retreat:
“I am not proud of my life, nor satisfied with my soul…I want at least a mitigated asylum…there must be…somewhere, hospitals for souls.’
‘I could only send you to the Jesuits, who make a specialty of retreats for men, but knowing you as I think I know you…you would not stay there two days. You would find yourself among amiable and very clever priests, but they would overwhelm you with sermons, wish to interfere with your life, mix themselves up with your art, examine your thoughts with a magnifying glass and you would be under treatment with young people whose unintelligent piety would horrify you, and you would flee in exasperation.”
Eventually, the cleric sets him up with a retreat among the Trappists, who would seem to be far more inclined to leave the supplicant to their own devices and only act on the direct request and leave of same. Still, Durtal balks, doubting he could ever possibly be accepted by the God he so vehemently rejected:
“My soul is out of gear, when I would pray, my senses go all astray…I do not love God enough…I am sure that…if I found myself in the presence of a certain person (a whore whom Durtal had become both a regular client and somewhat enamored of)…I should send religion to the devil, I should return eagerly to my own vomit. I only hold on because I am not tempted. I am no better than when I was sinning…”
The priest sets his mind at rest, noting:
“Your reasons are…weak…you say your prayers are distracted…but in fact you are just like everybody else. Even Saint Teresa declares that she was unable to (pray) without distraction…Again, you declare that if you met a certain person…you will succumb. How do you know that?…there is nothing more foolish and vain than to afflict ourselves about future things which may perhaps never happen. No, it is enough to occupy ourselves with the present…Finally, you say you do not love God…(but) the very fact that you desire to love Him.”
Finally, Durtal displays his ignorance at the true nature of a forgiving God, when he blurts out in desperation:
“Suppose the monk revolted at the long outrage of my sins, forbade me absolution?”
The abbe burst out laughing.
“You are mad! What is your notion of Christ?”
At the abbey retreat, Durtal discovers the simple fact that it is easiest to discover oneself and commune with higher forces when surrounded by nature:
“Traverse the woods in all directions, the forests will tell you more about your soul than books.”
Durtal later experiences a fearful night of hallucinatory or perhaps real trial and temptation, as he describes with a strong degree of familiarity and accuracy a visitation from the demonic spirit known as a succubus:
“it was an uninterrupted succession of sudden wakings and of nightmares (which surpassed) the limits of abomination…they were so special, so new to him, that when he woke Durtal remained trembling, almost crying out.
It was not at all that involuntary and well known act, the vision which ceases just at the moment when the sleeper clasps an amorous form; it was as and more complete than nature, long and accomplished, accompanied by all the preludes, all the details, all the sensations, and the orgasm took place with a singularly painful acuteness, an incredible spasm.
A strange fact which seemed to point the difference between this state and the unconscious uncleanness of night was, beyond certain episodes and caresses which could only follow each other in reality, but were united at the same moment in the dream, the sensation clear and precise of a being, of a fluid form disappearing…this being was felt near him so distinctly that the sheet, disarranged by the wind of the flight, was still in motion, and he looked at the empty place in terror.”
He manages to fall back asleep, but finds himself waking to another abortive visitation:
“He ended by falling asleep and dreamt again of impurity, but he came to himself in time to break the charm, experiencing again the impresion of a shadow evaporating before he could seize it in the sheets. He looked at his watch: it was two o’clock…
What seemed to him especially odious was the want of satisfaction left by the completed rape of these ghosts. Compared with their greedy tricks, the caresses of a woman only diffused a temperate pleasure…but with this succuba one remained in a fury at having clasped only the void, at having been the dupe of a lie, the plaything of an appearance of which one could not remember the form or features…
Durtal began to think of Florence; she at least quenched his desires and did not leave him thus, panting and feverish, in quest of he knew not what, in an atmosphere where he was surrounded, spied upon by an unknown whom he could not discern, by a phantom he could not escape.”
Later, he finds himself stricken by the urge to blaspheme the very religion he came to seek solace of:
“He passed along the chapel, entered it, and knelt before the altar of the Virgin; but at once the spirit of blasphemy filled him; he wished, whatever it cost him, to insult the Virgin. It seemed to him that he would experience a sharp joy, an acute pleasure in soiling her: but he restrained himself…he detested these abominations, he revolted against them, strove against them with horror, and the impulse became so irresistible that in order to keep silence he was obliged to bite his lips till they bled.”
Later Durtal finds acceptance for the “mystery of transusbstantiation” by comparing it to his own past mediumistic experiences:
“I have been present at spiritualistic experience, where no trickery was possible. It was quite evident that…(the spirit) expressed itself suddenly in (a foreign language), though no one spoke that language, then…addressing itself to me…told me…facts which I had forgotten, and I alone could know…then is it not more impossible, more surprising that Christ should substitute Himself for a piece of bread, than that a ghost should hide and brag in the foot of a table?
These phenomena equally put our senses to rout; but if one of them be undeniable, and spiritualistic manifestation certainly is so, what motives can we invoke to deny the other, which is moreover attested by thousands of saints?”
He again ponders the concept of divine justice and the difficulty of accepting the existence of same in an unjust world, noting that:
“It is after all idiotic to compare divine justice to man’s tribunals, for it is exactly the contrary. Human judgements are often so infamous that they attest the existence of another equity. Rather than the proofs of a theodicy, the magistrature proves God; for without Him, how can be satisfied that instinct of justice so innate in each of us that even the humblest beast possesses it?”
On his last evening at the retreat, Durtal experiences another infernal visitation, with a somewhat different bent, and of a somewhat greater authority among the legions of hell:
“He tried to keep his gaze on the statue of Saint Joseph…but his eyes seemed to revolve…and were filled with indecencies…he looked in spite of himself, unable to withdraw himself from the outrages imposed by these violations…but if the tricks only succeeded in suggesting to him disgust and horror, they made him suffer…all the days of his shameful existence came to the surface, all these enticements to greedy desires…a cold sweat bathed him from head to foot.
He was in agony, and suddenly, as though he had come to overlook his ministers and to see if his orders were carried out, the executioner himself entered on the scene. Durtal did not see him, but felt him, and it was indescribable. Since he had the impression of a real demonic presence, his whole soul trembled and desired to fly, like a terrified bird…
And suddenly all vanished. It seemed that the Demon had taken himself off, the wall of darkness which encompassed Durtal opened, and light issued from all parts; with an immense impulse the “Salve Regina” springing up from the choir swept aside the phantoms, and put the goblins to flight.”
When he relates his experience to the Abbe, the curate shows little surprise, and delivers a little advice for dealing with the devil:
“Yes, this agony, for there is no other word to define the horror of the state, is one of the most serious trials which God inflicts on us; it is one of the operations of the purgative life.’
‘God! But it was not He…who insinuated doubts about the faith…who raised in me that spirit of blasphemy, who caressed my face with disgusting apparitions.’
‘No, but He allows it…God conceals Himself…and Satan advances. He twists you about, places a microscope over your faults, his malice gnaws your brain like a dull file, and when to all this are joined, to try you to the utmost impure visions…
Satan is pride; despise him, and at once his audacity gives way. He speaks – shrug your shoulders and he is silent. You must not discuss with him; however good a reasoner you may be, you will be worsted, for he is a most tricky dialectician.
…There are two ways of getting rid of a thing which troubles you – to throw it far away, or let it fall. To throw it to a distance demands an effort of which one may not be capable; to let it fall imposes no fatigue, is simple…within the reach of all. To throw to a distance implies a certain interest…perhaps even a certain fear; to let it fall is indifference, complete contempt…use this means and Satan will fly.”
Unfortunately, the retreat, and Durtal’s ‘cleansing of the soul’ must come to an end, and the book ends rather abruptly. We are left with his concerns about returning to Paris and his old surroundings…and then, nothing.
Given that the book did little to disabuse me of the notion that Huysmans had effectively “jumped the shark” from the immediacy and relevance of Decadence into the dusty catacombs of the Vatican library and the apologia of Catholicism (or at least Catholic mysticism), I hold strong doubts towards ever following M. Durtal any further on his metaphysical journey. Like Dante, the good part is pretty much over once he makes his way past Hell…does anyone really care about the Purgatorio, much less the Paradisio anymore?
That noted, this wouldn’t be a discussion of Huysmans and his work without the novel being peppered with some interesting if not somewhat profound insights applicable to fellow seekers after truth, particularly those struggling with their spirituality in the face of the vapidity and banality of “the pious”, “the religious” and “the Bible thumper”. After all, how easy can it be to touch the hand of God, when the way appears to be barred by quite so many sanctimonious fools?
Unlike so many of his ostensible “peers”, Huysmans recognizes this, and tackles it full on, without ever making excuses or obesiance to the rigors of dogma and the demands of “propriety”. He dissects the hypocrisies, intolerable haughtiness, and simplemindedness of “the faithful” with equanimity to his psychoanalytic and existential soul searching of the self – or if you prefer, he recognizes his own failings just as much as those of others, and admits an answer resides in neither. And what is more Decadent in the true sense than that?
Ultimately, the story of En Route is the story of us all, at some point or another, in one way or another. Inevitably, whether publically acknowledged or not, every one of us comes to an existential crisis point, and must choose where we stand, the direction towards which the rest of our life’s actions must ultimately point.
Apart from all the misguided trappings of religiosity, Catholic mysticism and mumbo jumbo, and even the more spectacular metaphysical manifestations and visitations touched on throughout the course of the narrative, this is the tale of one man’s journey from Decadence and the unspoken underlying futility of existence in a world without meaning and peopled by idiots who rush, like lemmings, to their collective doom as both society and civilization as well as on an individual level, towards something higher.
What that something higher is, and the choice to pursue it, ultimately lies with the reader.