Des Esseintes locked himself up in his bedroom, closing his ears to the sounds of hammers on packing cases. Each stroke rent his heart, drove a sorrow into his flesh. The physician's order was being fulfilled; the fear of once more submitting to the pains he had endured, the fear of a frightful agony had acted more powerfully on Des Esseintes than the hatred of the detestable existence to which the medical order condemned him.
Yet he told himself there were people who live without conversing with anyone, absorbed far from the world in their own affairs, like recluses and trappists, and there is nothing to prove that these wretches and sages become madmen or consumptives. He had unsuccessfully cited these examples to the doctor; the latter had repeated, coldly and firmly, in a tone that admitted of no reply, that his verdict, (confirmed besides by consultation with all the experts on neurosis) was that distraction, amusement, pleasure alone might make an impression on this malady whose spiritual side eluded all remedy; and made impatient by the recriminations of his patient, he for the last time declared that he would refuse to continue treating him if he did not consent to a change of air, and live under new hygienic conditions.
Des Esseintes had instantly betaken himself to Paris, had consulted other specialists, had impartially put the case before them. All having unhesitatingly approved of the action of their colleague, he had rented an apartment in a new house, had returned to Fontenay and, white with rage, had given orders to have his trunks packed.
Sunk in his easy chair, he now ruminated upon that unyielding order which was wrecking his plans, breaking the strings of his present life and overturning his future plans. His beatitude was ended. He was compelled to abandon this sheltering haven and return at full speed into the stupidity which had once attacked him.
The physicians spoke of amusement and distraction. With whom, and with what did they wish him to distract and amuse himself?
Had he not banished himself from society? Did he know a single person whose existence would approximate his in seclusion and contemplation? Did he know a man capable of appreciating the fineness of a phrase, the subtlety of a painting, the quintessence of an idea, — a man whose soul was delicate and exquisite enough to understand Mallarme and love Verlaine?
Where and when must he search to discover a twin spirit, a soul detached from commonplaces, blessing silence as a benefit, ingratitude as a solace, contempt as a refuge and port?
In the world where he had dwelt before his departure for Fontenay? But most of the county squires he had associated with must since have stultified themselves near card tables or ended upon the lips of women; most by this time must have married; after having enjoyed, during their life, the spoils of cads, their spouses now possessed the remains of strumpets, for, master of first-fruits, the people alone waste nothing.
"A pretty change — this custom adopted by a prudish society!" Des Esseintes reflected.
The nobility had died, the aristocracy had marched to imbecility or ordure! It was extinguished in the corruption of its descendants whose faculties grew weaker with each generation and ended in the instincts of gorillas fermented in the brains of grooms and jockeys; or rather, as with the Choiseul-Praslins, Polignacs and Chevreuses, wallowed in the mud of lawsuits which made it equal the other classes in turpitude.
The mansions themselves, the secular escutcheons, the heraldic deportment of this antique caste had disappeared. The land no longer yielding anything was put up for sale, money being needed to procure the venereal witchcraft for the besotted descendants of the old races.
The less scrupulous and stupid threw aside all sense of shame. They weltered in the mire of fraud and deceit, behaved like cheap sharpers.
This eagerness for gain, this lust for lucre had even reacted on that other class which had constantly supported itself on the nobility — the clergy. Now one perceived, in newspapers, announcements of corn cures by priests. The monasteries had changed into apothecary or liqueur workrooms. They sold recipes or manufactured products: the Citeaux order, chocolate; the trappists, semolina; the Maristes Brothers, biphosphate of medicinal lime and arquebuse water; the jacobins, an anti-apoplectic elixir; the disciples of Saint Benoit, benedictine; the friars of Saint Bruno, chartreuse.
Business had invaded the cloisters where, in place of antiphonaries, heavy ledgers reposed on reading-desks. Like leprosy, the avidity of the age was ravaging the Church, weighing down the monks with inventories and invoices.
And yet, in spite of everything, it was only among the ecclesiastics that Des Esseintes could hope for pleasurable contract. In the society of well-bred and learned canons, he would have been compelled to share their faith, to refrain from floating between sceptical ideas and transports of conviction which rose from time to time on the water, sustained by recollections of childhood.
He would have had to muster identical opinions and never admit (he freely did in his ardent moments) a Catholicism charged with a soupcon of magic, as under Henry the Third, and with a dash of sadism, as at the end of the last century. This special clericalism, this depraved and artistically perverse mysticism towards which he wended could not even be discussed with a priest who would not have understood them or who would have banished them with horror.
For the twentieth time, this irresolvable problem troubled him. He would have desired an end to this irresolute state in which he floundered. Now that he was pursuing a changed life, he would have liked to possess faith, to incrust it as soon as seized, to screw it into his soul, to shield it finally from all those reflections which uprooted and agitated it. But the more he desired it and the less his emptiness of spirit was evident, the more Christ's visitation receded. As his religious hunger augmented and he gazed eagerly at this faith visible but so far off that the distance terrified him, ideas pressed upon his active mind, driving back his will, rejecting, by common sense and mathematical proofs, the mysteries and dogmas. He sadly told himself that he would have to find a way to abstain from self-discussion. He would have to learn how to close his eyes and let himself be swept along by the current, forgetting those accursed discoveries which have destroyed the religious edifice, from top to bottom, since the last two centuries.
He sighed. It is neither the physiologists nor the infidels that demolish Catholicism, but the priests, whose stupid works could extirpate convictions the most steadfast.
A Dominican friar, Rouard de Card, had proved in a brochure entitled "On the Adulteration of Sacramental Substances" that most masses were not valid, because the elements used for worship had been adulterated by the manufacturers.
For years, the holy oils had been adulterated with chicken fat; wax, with burned bones; incense, with cheap resin and benzoin. But the thing that was worse was that the substances, indispensable to the holy sacrifice, the two substances without which no oblation is possible, had also been debased: the wine, by numerous dilutions and by illicit introductions of Pernambuco wood, danewort berries, alcohol and alum; the bread of the Eucharist that must be kneaded with the fine flour of wheat, by kidney beans, potash and pipe clay.
But they had gone even farther. They had dared suppress the wheat and shameless dealers were making almost all the Host with the fecula of potatoes.
Now, God refused to descend into the fecula. It was an undeniable fact and a certain one. In the second volume of his treatise on moral theology, Cardinal Gousset had dwelt at length on this question of the fraud practiced from the divine point of view. And, according to the incontestable authority of this master, one could not consecrate bread made of flour of oats, buckwheat or barley, and if the matter of using rye be less doubtful, no argument was possible in regard to the fecula which, according to the ecclesiastic expression, was in no way fit for sacramental purposes.
By means of the rapid manipulation of the fecula and the beautiful appearance presented by the unleavened breads created with this element, the shameless imposture had been so propagated that now the mystery of the transubstantiation hardly existed any longer and the priests and faithful were holding communion, without being aware of it, with neutral elements.
Ah! far off was the time when Radegonda, Queen of France, had with her own hands prepared the bread destined for the alters, or the time when, after the customs of Cluny, three priests or deacons, fasting and garbed in alb and amice, washed their faces and hands and then picked out the wheat, grain by grain, grinding it under millstone, kneading the paste in a cold and pure water and themselves baking it under a clear fire, while chanting psalms.
"All this matter of eternal dupery," Des Esseintes reflected, "is not conducive to the steadying of my already weakened faith. And how admit that omnipotence which stops at such a trifle as a pinch of fecula or a soupcon of alcohol?"
These reflections all the more threw a gloom over the view of his future life and rendered his horizon more menacing and dark.
He was lost, utterly lost. What would become of him in this Paris where he had neither family nor friends? No bond united him to the Saint-Germain quarters now in its dotage, scaling into the dust of desuetude, buried in a new society like an empty husk. And what contact could exist between him and that bourgeois class which had gradually climbed up, profiting by all the disasters to grow rich, making use of all the catastrophes to impose respect on its crimes and thefts.
After the aristocracy of birth had come the aristocracy of money. Now one saw the reign of the caliphates of commerce, the despotism of the rue du Sentier, the tyranny of trade, bringing in its train venal narrow ideas, knavish and vain instincts.
Viler and more dishonest than the nobility despoiled and the decayed clergy, the bourgeoisie borrowed their frivolous ostentations, their braggadoccio, degrading these qualities by its lack of savoir-vivre; the bourgeoisie stole their faults and converted them into hypocritical vices. And, authoritative and sly, low and cowardly, it pitilessly attacked its eternal and necessary dupe, the populace, unmuzzled and placed in ambush so as to be in readiness to assault the old castes.
It was now an acknowledged fact. Its task once terminated, the proletariat had been bled, supposedly as a measure of hygiene. The bourgeoisie, reassured, strutted about in good humor, thanks to its wealth and the contagion of its stupidity. The result of its accession to power had been the destruction of all intelligence, the negation of all honesty, the death of all art, and, in fact, the debased artists had fallen on their knees, and they eagerly kissed the dirty feet of the eminent jobbers and low satraps whose alms permitted them to live.
In painting, one now beheld a deluge of silliness; in literature, an intemperate mixture of dull style and cowardly ideas, for they had to credit the business man with honesty, the buccaneer who purchased a dot for his son and refused to pay that of his daughter, with virtue; chaste love to the Voltairian agnostic who accused the clergy of rapes and then went hypocritically and stupidly to sniff, in the obscene chambers.
It was the great American hulks transported to our continent. It was the immense, the profound, the incommensurable peasantry of the financier and the parvenu, beaming, like a pitiful sun, upon the idolatrous town which wallowed on the ground the while it uttered impure psalms before the impious tabernacle of banks.
"Well, then, society, crash to ruin! Die, aged world!" cried Des Esseintes, angered by the ignominy of the spectacle he had evoked. This cry of hate broke the nightmare that oppressed him.
"Ah!" he exclaimed, "To think that all this is not a dream, to think that I am going to return into the cowardly and servile crowd of this century!" To console himself, he recalled the comforting maxims of Schopenhauer, and repeated to himself the sad axiom of Pascal: "The soul is pained by all things it thinks upon." But the words resounded in his mind like sounds deprived of sense; his ennui disintegrated, lifting all significance from the words, all healing virtue, all effective and gentle vigor.
He came at last to perceive that the reasonings of pessimism availed little in comforting him, that impossible faith in a future life alone would pacify him.
An access of rage swept aside, like a hurricane, his attempts at resignation and indifference. He could no longer conceal the hideous truth — nothing was left, all was in ruins. The bourgeoisie were gormandizing on the solemn ruins of the Church which had become a place of rendez-vous, a mass of rubbish, soiled by petty puns and scandalous jests. Were the terrible God of Genesis and the Pale Christ of Golgotha not going to prove their existence by commanding the cataclysms of yore, by rekindling the flames that once consumed the sinful cities? Was this degradation to continue to flow and cover with its pestilence the old world planted with seeds of iniquities and shames?
The door was suddenly opened. Clean-shaved men appeared, bringing chests and carrying the furniture; then the door closed once more on the servant who was removing packages of books.
Des Esseintes sank into a chair.
"I shall be in Paris in two days. Well, all is finished. The waves of human mediocrity rise to the sky and they will engulf the refuge whose dams I open. Ah! courage leaves me, my heart breaks! O Lord, pity the Christian who doubts, the sceptic who would believe, the convict of life embarking alone in the night, under a sky no longer illumined by the consoling beacons of ancient faith."
Last modified 28 February 2008