Burning at first like a rick on fire, his enthusiasm for the digester as quickly died out. Torpid at first, his nervous dyspepsia reappeared, and then this hot essence induced such an irritation in his stomach that Des Esseintes was quickly compelled to stop using it.
The malady increased in strength; peculiar symptoms attended it. After the nightmares, hallucinations of smell, pains in the eye and deep coughing which recurred with clock-like regularity, after the pounding of his heart and arteries and the cold perspiration, arose illusions of hearing, those alterations which only reveal themselves in the last period of sickness.
Attacked by a strong fever, Des Esseintes suddenly heard murmurings of water; then those sounds united into one and resembled a roaring which increased and then slowly resolved itself into a silvery bell sound.
He felt his delirious brain whirling in musical waves, engulfed in the mystic whirlwinds of his infancy. The songs learned at the Jesuits reappeared, bringing with them pictures of the school and the chapel where they had resounded, driving their hallucinations to the olfactory and visual organs, veiling them with clouds of incense and the pallid light irradiating through the stained-glass windows, under the lofty arches.
At the Fathers, the religious ceremonies had been practiced with great pomp. An excellent organist and remarkable singing director made an artistic delight of these spiritual exercises that were conducive to worship. The organist was in love with the old masters and on holidays celebrated masses by Palestrina and Orlando Lasso, psalms by Marcello, oratorios by Handel, motets by Bach; he preferred to render the sweet and facile compilations of Father Lambillotte so much favored by priests, the "Laudi Spirituali" of the sixteenth century whose sacerdotal beauty had often bewitched Des Esseintes.
But he particularly extracted ineffable pleasures while listening to the plain-chant [or plainsong] which the organist had preserved regardless of new ideas.
That form which was now considered a decrepit and Gothic form of Christian liturgy, an archaeological curiosity, a relic of ancient time, had been the voice of the early Church, the soul of the Middle Age. It was the eternal prayer that had been sung and modulated in harmony with the soul's transports, the enduring hymn uplifted for centuries to the Almighty.
That traditional melody was the only one which, with its strong unison, its solemn and massive harmonies, like freestone, was not out of place with the old basilicas, making eloquent the Romanesque vaults, whose emanation and very spirit they seemed to be.
How often had Des Esseintes not thrilled under its spell, when the "Christus factus est" of the Gregorian chant rose from the nave whose pillars seemed to tremble among the rolling clouds from censers, or when the "De Profundis" was sung, sad and mournful as a suppressed sob, poignant as a despairing invocation of humanity bewailing its mortal destiny and imploring the tender forgiveness of its Savior!
All religious music seemed profane to him compared with that magnificent chant created by the genius of the Church, anonymous as the organ whose inventor is unknown. At bottom, in the works of Jomelli and Porpora, Carissimi and Durante, in the most wonderful compositions of Handel and Bach, there was never a hint of a renunciation of public success, or the sacrifice of an effect of art, or the abdication of human pride hearkening to its own prayer.
At the most, the religious style, august and solemn, had crystallized in Lesueur's imposing masses celebrated at Saint-Roch, tending to approach the severe nudity and austere majesty of the old plain-chant.
Since then, absolutely revolted by these pretexts at Stabat Maters devised by the Pergolesis and the Rossinis, by this intrusion of profane art in liturgic art, Des Esseintes had shunned those ambiguous works tolerated by the indulgent Church.
In addition, this weakness brought about by the desire for large congregations had quickly resulted in the adoption of songs borrowed from Italian operas, of low cavatinas and indecent quadrilles played in churches converted to boudoirs and surrendered to stage actors whose voices resounded aloft, their impurity tainting the tones of the holy organ.
For years he had obstinately refused to take part in these pious entertainments, contenting himself with his memories of childhood. He even regretted having heard the Te Deum of the great masters, for he remembered that admirable plain-chant, that hymn so simple and solemn composed by some unknown saint, a Saint Ambrose or Hilary who, lacking the complicated resources of an orchestra and the musical mechanics of modern science, revealed an ardent faith, a delirious jubilation, uttered, from the soul of humanity, in the piercing and almost celestial accents of conviction.
Des Esseintes' ideas on music were in flagrant contradiction with the theories he professed regarding the other arts. In religious music, he approved only of the monastic music of the Middle Ages, that emaciated music which instinctively reacted on his nerves like certain pages of the old Christian Latin. Then (he freely confessed it) he was incapable of understanding the tricks that the contemporary masters had introduced into Catholic art. And he had not studied music with that passion which had led him towards painting and letters. He played indifferently on the piano and after many painful attempts had succeeded in reading a score, but he was ignorant of harmony, of the technique needed really to understand a nuance, to appreciate a finesse, to savor a refinement with full comprehension.
In other respects, when not read in solitude, profane music is a promiscuous art. To enjoy music, one must become part of that public which fills the theatres where, in a vile atmosphere, one perceives a loutish-looking man butchering episodes from Wagner, to the huge delight of the ignorant mob.
He had always lacked the courage to plunge in this mob-bath so as to listen to Berlioz' compositions, several fragments of which had bewitched him by their passionate exaltations and their vigorous fugues, and he was certain that there was not one single scene, not even a phrase of one of the operas of the amazing Wagner which could with impunity be detached from its whole.
The fragments, cut and served on the plate of a concert, lost all significance and remained senseless, since (like the chapters of a book, completing each other and moving to an inevitable conclusion) Wagner's melodies were necessary to sketch the characters, to incarnate their thoughts and to express their apparent or secret motives. He knew that their ingenious and persistent returns were understood only by the auditors who followed the subject from the beginning and gradually beheld the characters in relief, in a setting from which they could not be removed without dying, like branches torn from a tree.
That was why he felt that, among the vulgar herd of melomaniacs enthusing each Sunday on benches, scarcely any knew the score that was being massacred, when the ushers consented to be silent and permit the orchestra to be heard.
Granted also that intelligent patriotism forbade a French theatre to give a Wagnerian opera, the only thing left to the curious who know nothing of musical arcana and either cannot or will not betake themselves to Bayreuth, is to remain at home. And that was precisely the course of conduct he had pursued.
The more public and facile music and the independent pieces of the old operas hardly interested him; the wretched trills of Auber and Boieldieu, of Adam and Flotow and the rhetorical commonplaces of Ambroise Thomas and the Bazins disgusted him as did the superannuated affectations and vulgar graces of Italians. That was why he had resolutely broken with musical art, and during the years of his abstention, he pleasurably recalled only certain programs of chamber music when he had heard Beethoven, and especially Schumann and Schubert which had affected his nerves in the same manner as had the more intimate and troubling poems of Edgar Allen Poe.
Some of Schubert's parts for violoncello had positively left him panting, in the grip of hysteria. But it was particularly Schubert's lieders that had immeasurably excited him, causing him to experience similar sensations as after a waste of nervous fluid, or a mystic dissipation of the soul.
This music penetrated and drove back an infinity of forgotten sufferings and spleen in his heart. He was astonished at being able to contain so many dim miseries and vague griefs. This desolate music, crying from the inmost depths, terrified while charming him. Never could he repeat the "Young Girl's Lament" without a welling of tears in his eyes, for in this plaint resided something beyond a mere broken-hearted state; something in it clutched him, something like a romance ending in a gloomy landscape.
And always, when these exquisite, sad plaints returned to his lips, there was evoked for him a suburban, flinty and gloomy site where a succession of silent bent persons, harassed by life, filed past into the twilight, while, steeped in bitterness and overflowing with disgust, he felt himself solitary in this dejected landscape, struck by an inexpressibly melancholy and stubborn distress whose mysterious intensity excluded all consolation, pity and repose. Like a funeral-knell, this despairing chant haunted him, now that he was in bed, prostrated by fever and agitated by an anxiety so much the more inappeasable for the fact that he could not discover its cause. He ended by abandoning himself to the torrent of anguishes suddenly dammed by the chant of psalms slowly rising in his tortured head.
One morning, nevertheless, he felt more tranquil and requested the servant to bring a looking-glass. It fell from his hands. He hardly recognized himself. His face was a clay color, the lips bloated and dry, the tongue parched, the skin rough. His hair and beard, untended since his illness by the domestic, added to the horror of the sunken face and staring eyes burning with feverish intensity in this skeleton head that bristled with hair. More than his weakness, more than his vomitings which began with each attempt at taking nourishment, more than his emaciation, did his changed visage terrify him. He felt lost. Then, in the dejection which overcame him, a sudden energy forced him in a sitting posture. He had strength to write a letter to his Paris physician and to order the servant to depart instantly, seek and bring him back that very day.
He passed suddenly from complete depression into boundless hope. This physician was a celebrated specialist, a doctor renowned for his cures of nervous maladies "He must have cured many more dangerous cases than mine," Des Esseintes reflected. "I shall certainly be on my feet in a few days." Disenchantment succeeded his confidence. Learned and intuitive though they be, physicians know absolutely nothing of neurotic diseases, being ignorant of their origins. Like the others, this one would prescribe the eternal oxyde of zinc and quinine, bromide of potassium and valerian. He had recourse to another thought: "If these remedies have availed me little in the past, could it not be due to the fact that I have not taken the right quantities?"
In spite of everything, this expectation of being cured cheered him, but then a new fear entered. His servant might have failed to find the physician. Again he grew faint, passing instantly from the most unreasoning hopes to the most baseless fears, exaggerating the chances of a sudden recovery and his apprehensions of danger. The hours passed and the moment came when, in utter despair and convinced that the physician would not arrive, he angrily told himself that he certainly would have been saved, had he acted sooner. Then his rage against the servant and the physician whom he accused of permitting him to die, vanished, and he ended by reproaching himself for having waited so long before seeking aid, persuading himself that he would now be wholly cured had he that very last evening used the medicine.
Little by little, these alternations of hope and alarms jostling in his poor head, abated. The struggles ended by crushing him, and he relapsed into exhausted sleep interrupted by incoherent dreams, a sort of syncope pierced by awakenings in which he was barely conscious of anything. He had reached such a state where he lost all idea of desires and fears, and he was stupefied, experiencing neither astonishment or joy, when the physician suddenly arrived.
The doctor had doubtless been apprised by the servant of Des Esseintes' mode of living and of the various symptoms observed since the day when the master of the house had been found near the window, overwhelmed by the violence of perfumes. He put very few questions to the patient whom he had known for many years. He felt his pulse and attentively studied the urine where certain white spots revealed one of the determining causes of nervousness. He wrote a prescription and left without saying more than that he would soon return.
This visit comforted Des Esseintes who none the less was frightened by the taciturnity observed; he adjured his servant not to conceal the truth from him any longer. But the servant declared that the doctor had exhibited no uneasiness, and despite his suspicions, Des Esseintes could seize upon no sign that might betray a shadow of a lie on the tranquil countenance of the old man.
Then his thoughts began to obsess him less; his suffering disappeared and to the exhaustion he had felt throughout his members was grafted a certain indescribable languor. He was astonished and satisfied not to be weighted with drugs and vials, and a faint smile played on his lips when the servant brought a nourishing injection of peptone and told him he was to take it three times every twenty-four hours.
The operation succeeded and Des Esseintes could not forbear to congratulate himself on this event which in a manner crowned the existence he had created. His penchant towards the artificial had now, though involuntarily, reached the supreme goal.
Farther one could not go. The nourishment thus absorbed was the ultimate deviation one could possibly commit.
"How delicious it would be" he reflected, "to continue this simple regime in complete health! What economy of time, what a pronounced deliverance from the aversion which food gives those who lack appetite! What a complete riddance from the disgust induced by food forcibly eaten! What an energetic protestation against the vile sin of gluttony, what a positive insult hurled at old nature whose monotonous demands would thus be avoided."
And he continued, talking to himself half-aloud. One could easily stimulate desire for food by swallowing a strong aperitif. After the question, "what time is it getting to be? I am famished," one would move to the table and place the instrument on the cloth, and then, in the time it takes to say grace, one could have suppressed the tiresome and vulgar demands of the body.
Several days afterwards, the servant presented an injection whose color and odor differed from the other.
"But it is not the same at all!" Des Esseintes cried, gazing with deep feeling at the liquid poured into the apparatus. As if in a restaurant, he asked for the card, and unfolding the physician's prescription, read:
Cod Liver Oil . . . . . . . . 20 grammes
Beef Tea . . . . . . . . . . 200 grammes
Burgundy Wine . . . . . . . . 200 grammes
Yolk of one egg.
He remained meditative. He who by reason of the weakened state of his stomach had never seriously preoccupied himself with the art of the cuisine, was surprised to find himself thinking of combinations to please an artificial epicure. Then a strange idea crossed his brain. Perhaps the physician had imagined that the strange palate of his patient was fatigued by the taste of the peptone; perhaps he had wished, like a clever chef, to vary the taste of foods and to prevent the monotony of dishes that might lead to want of appetite. Once in the wake of these reflections, Des Esseintes sketched new recipes, preparing vegetable dinners for Fridays, using the dose of cod liver oil and wine, dismissing the beef tea as a meat food specially prohibited by the Church. But he had no occasion longer to ruminate on these nourishing drinks, for the physician succeeded gradually in curing the vomiting attacks, and he was soon swallowing, in the normal manner, a syrup of punch containing a pulverized meat whose faint aroma of cacao pleased his palate.
Weeks passed before his stomach decided to function. The nausea returned at certain moments, but these attacks were disposed of by ginger ale and Rivieres' antiemetic drink.
Finally the organs were restored. Meats were digested with the aid of pepsines. Recovering strength, he was able to stand up and attempt to walk, leaning on a cane and supporting himself on the furniture. Instead of being thankful over his success, he forgot his past pains, grew irritated at the length of time needed for convalescence and reproached the doctor for not effecting a more rapid cure.
At last the day came when he could remain standing for whole afternoons. Then his study irritated him. Certain blemishes it possessed, and which habit had accustomed him to overlook, now were apparent. The colors chosen to be seen by lamp-light seemed discordant in full day. He thought of changing them and for whole hours he combined rebellious harmonies of hues, hybrid pairings of cloth and leathers.
"I am certainly on the road to recovery," he reflected, taking note of his old hobbies.
One morning, while contemplating his orange and blue walls, considering some ideal tapestries worked with stoles of the Greek Church, dreaming of Russian orphrey dalmaticas and brocaded copes flowered with Slavonic letters done in Ural stones and rows of pearls, the physician entered and, noticing the patient's eyes, questioned him.
Des Esseintes spoke of his unrealizable longings. He commenced to contrive new color schemes, to talk of harmonies and discords of tones he meant to produce, when the doctor stunned him by peremptorily announcing that these projects would never be executed here.
And, without giving him time to catch breath, he informed Des Esseintes that he had done his utmost in re-establishing the digestive functions and that now it was necessary to attack the neurosis which was by no means cured and which would necessitate years of diet and care. He added that before attempting a cure, before commencing any hydrotherapic treatment, impossible of execution at Fontenay, Des Esseintes must quit that solitude, return to Paris, and live an ordinary mode of existence by amusing himself like others.
"But the pleasures of others will not amuse me," Des Esseintes indignantly cried.
Without debating the matter, the doctor merely asserted that this radical change was, in his eyes, a question of life or death, a question of health or insanity possibly complicated in the near future by tuberculosis.
"So it is a choice between death and the hulks!" Des Esseintes exasperatedly exclaimed.
The doctor, who was imbued with all the prejudices of a man of the world, smiled and reached the door without saying a word.
Last modified 28 February 2008