A portion of the shelves which lined the walls of his orange and blue study was devoted exclusively to those Latin works assigned to the generic period of "The Decadence" by those whose minds have absorbed the deplorable teachings of the Sorbonne.
The Latin written in that era which professors still persist in calling the Great Age, hardly stimulated Des Esseintes. With its carefully premeditated style, its sameness, its stripping of supple syntax, its poverty of color and nuance, this language, pruned of all the rugged and often rich expressions of the preceding ages, was confined to the enunciation of the majestic banalities, the empty commonplaces tiresomely reiterated by the rhetoricians and poets; but it betrayed such a lack of curiosity and such a humdrum tediousness, such a drabness, feebleness and jaded solemnity that to find its equal, it was necessary, in linguistic studies, to go to the French style of the period of Louis XIV.
The gentle Vergil, whom instructors call the Mantuan swan, perhaps because he was not born in that city, he considered one of the most terrible pedants ever produced by antiquity. Des Esseintes was exasperated by his immaculate and bedizened shepherds, his Orpheus whom he compares to a weeping nightingale, his Aristaeus who simpers about bees, his Aeneas, that weak-willed, irresolute person who walks with wooden gestures through the length of the poem. Des Esseintes would gladly have accepted the tedious nonsense which those marionettes exchange with each other off-stage; or even the poet's impudent borrowings from Homer, Theocritus, Ennius and Lucretius; the plain theft, revealed to us by Macrobius, of the second song of the _Aeneid, copied almost word for word from one of Pisander's poems; in fine, all the unutterable emptiness of this heap of verses. The thing he could not forgive, however, and which infuriated him most, was the workmanship of the hexameters, beating like empty tin cans and extending their syllabic quantities measured according to the unchanging rule of a pedantic and dull prosody. He disliked the texture of those stiff verses, in their official garb, their abject reverence for grammar, their mechanical division by imperturbable caesuras, always plugged at the end in the same way by the impact of a dactyl against a spondee.
Borrowed from the perfected forge of Catullus, this unvarying versification, lacking imagination, lacking pity, padded with useless words and refuse, with pegs of identical and anticipated assonances, this ceaseless wretchedness of Homeric epithet which designates nothing whatever and permits nothing to be seen, all this impoverished vocabulary of muffled, lifeless tones bored him beyond measure.
It is no more than just to add that, if his admiration for Vergil was quite restrained, and his attraction for Ovid's lucid outpourings even more circumspect, there was no limit to his disgust at the elephantine graces of Horace, at the prattle of this hopeless lout who smirkingly utters the broad, crude jests of an old clown.
Neither was he pleased, in prose, with the verbosities, the redundant metaphors, the ludicrous digressions of Cicero. There was nothing to beguile him in the boasting of his apostrophes, in the flow of his patriotic nonsense, in the emphasis of his harangues, in the ponderousness of his style, fleshy but ropy and lacking in marrow and bone, in the insupportable dross of his long adverbs with which he introduces phrases, in the unalterable formula of his adipose periods badly sewed together with the thread of conjunctions and, finally, in his wearisome habits of tautology. Nor was his enthusiasm wakened for Caesar, celebrated for his laconic style. Here, on the contrary, was disclosed a surprising aridity, a sterility of recollection, an incredibly undue constipation.
He found pasture neither among them nor among those writers who are peculiarly the delight of the spuriously literate: Sallust, who is less colorless than the others; sentimental and pompous Titus Livius; turgid and lurid Seneca; watery and larval Suetonius; Tacitus who, in his studied conciseness, is the keenest, most wiry and muscular of them all. In poetry, he was untouched by Juvenal, despite some roughshod verses, and by Persius, despite his mysterious insinuations. In neglecting Tibullus and Propertius, Quintilian and the Plinies, Statius, Martial, even Terence and Plautus whose jargon full of neologisms, compound words and diminutives, could please him, but whose low comedy and gross humor he loathed, Des Esseintes only began to be interested in the Latin language with Lucan. Here it was liberated, already more expressive and less dull. This careful armor, these verses plated with enamel and studded with jewels, captivated him, but the exclusive preoccupation with form, the sonorities of tone, the clangor of metals, did not entirely conceal from him the emptiness of the thought, the turgidity of those blisters which emboss the skin of the Pharsale.
Petronius was the author whom he truly loved and who caused him forever to abandon the sonorous ingenuities of Lucan, for he was a keen observer, a delicate analyst, a marvelous painter. Tranquilly, without prejudice or hate, he described Rome's daily life, recounting the customs of his epoch in the sprightly little chapters of the Satyricon.
Observing the facts of life, stating them in clear, definite form, he revealed the petty existence of the people, their happenings, their bestialities, their passions.
One glimpses the inspector of furnished lodgings who has inquired after the newly arrived travellers; bawdy houses where men prowl around nude women, while through the half-open doors of the rooms couples can be seen in dalliance; the society of the time, in villas of an insolent luxury, a revel of richness and magnificence, or in the poor quarters with their rumpled, bug-ridden folding-beds; impure sharpers, like Ascylte and Eumolpe in search of a rich windfall; old incubi with tucked-up dresses and plastered cheeks of white lead and red acacia; plump, curled, depraved little girls of sixteen; women who are the prey of hysterical attacks; hunters of heritages offering their sons and daughters to debauched testators. All pass across the pages. They debate in the streets, rub elbows in the baths, beat each other unmercifully as in a pantomime.
And all this recounted in a style of strange freshness and precise color, drawing from all dialects, borrowing expressions from all the languages that were drifting into Rome, extending all the limits, removing all the handicaps of the so-called Great Age. He made each person speak his own idiom: the uneducated freedmen, the vulgar Latin argot of the streets; the strangers, their barbarous patois, the corrupt speech of the African, Syrian and Greek; imbecile pedants, like the Agamemnon of the book, a rhetoric of artificial words. These people are depicted with swift strokes, wallowing around tables, exchanging stupid, drunken speech, uttering senile maxims and inept proverbs.
This realistic novel, this slice of Roman life, without any preoccupation, whatever one may say of it, with reform and satire, without the need of any studied end, or of morality; this story without intrigue or action, portraying the adventures of evil persons, analyzing with a calm finesse the joys and sorrows of these lovers and couples, depicting life in a splendidly wrought language without surrendering himself to any commentary, without approving or cursing the acts and thoughts of his characters, the vices of a decrepit civilization, of an empire that cracks, struck Des Esseintes. In the keenness of the observation, in the firmness of the method, he found singular comparisons, curious analogies with the few modern French novels he could endure.
Certainly, he bitterly regretted the Eustion and the Albutiae, those two works by Petronius mentioned by Planciade Fulgence which are forever lost. But the bibliophile in him consoled the student, when he touched with worshipful hands the superb edition of the Satyricon which he possessed, the octavo bearing the date 1585 and the name of J. Dousa of Leyden.
Leaving Petronius, his Latin collection entered into the second century of the Christian era, passed over Fronto, the declaimer, with his antiquated terms; skipped the Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius, his disciple and friend, — a clever, ferreting mind, but a writer entangled in a glutinous vase; and halted at Apuleius, of whose works he owned the first edition printed at Rome in 1469.
This African delighted him. The Latin language was at its richest in the Metamorphoses; it contained ooze and rubbish-strewn water rushing from all the provinces, and the refuse mingled and was confused in a bizarre, exotic, almost new color. Mannerisms, new details of Latin society found themselves shaped into neologisms specially created for the needs of conversation, in a Roman corner of Africa. He was amused by the southern exuberance and joviality of a doubtlessly corpulent man. He seemed a salacious, gay crony compared with the Christian apologists who lived in the same century — the soporific Minucius Felix, a pseudo-classicist, pouring forth the still thick emulsions of Cicero into his Octavius; nay, even Tertullian — whom he perhaps preserved for his Aldine edition, more than for the work itself.
Although he was sufficiently versed in theology, the disputes of the Montanists against the Catholic Church, the polemics against the gnostics, left him cold. Despite Tertullian's curious, concise style full of ambiguous terms, resting on participles, clashing with oppositions, bristling with puns and witticisms, dappled with vocables culled from the juridical science and the language of the Fathers of the Greek Church, he now hardly ever opened the Apologetica and the Treatise on Patience. At the most, he read several pages of De culta feminarum, where Tertullian counsels women not to bedeck themselves with jewels and precious stuffs, forbidding them the use of cosmetics, because these attempt to correct and improve nature.
These ideas, diametrically opposed to his own, made him smile. Then the role played by Tertullian, in his Carthage bishopric, seemed to him suggestive in pleasant reveries. More even than his works did the man attract him.
He had, in fact, lived in stormy times, agitated by frightful disorders, under Caracalla, under Macrinus, under the astonishing High Priest of Emesa, Elagabalus, and he tranquilly prepared his sermons, his dogmatic writings, his pleadings, his homelies, while the Roman Empire shook on its foundations, while the follies of Asia, while the ordures of paganism were full to the brim. With the utmost sang-froid, he recommended carnal abstinence, frugality in food, sobriety in dress, while, walking in silver powder and golden sand, a tiara on his head, his garb figured with precious stones, Elagabalus worked, amid his eunuchs, at womanish labor, calling himself the Empress and changing, every night, his Emperor, whom he preferably chose among barbers, scullions and circus drivers.
This antithesis delighted him. Then the Latin language, arrived at its supreme maturity under Petronius, commenced to decay; the Christian literature replaced it, bringing new words with new ideas, unemployed constructions, strange verbs, adjectives with subtle meanings, abstract words until then rare in the Roman language and whose usage Tertullian had been one of the first to adopt.
But there was no attraction in this dissolution, continued after Tertullian's death by his pupil, Saint Cyprian, by Arnobius and by Lactantius. There was something lacking; it made clumsy returns to Ciceronian magniloquence, but had not yet acquired that special flavor which in the fourth century, and particularly during the centuries following, the odor of Christianity would give the pagan tongue, decomposed like old venison, crumbling at the same time that the old world civilization collapsed, and the Empires, putrefied by the sanies of the centuries, succumbed to the thrusts of the barbarians.
Only one Christian poet, Commodianus, represented the third century in his library. The Carmen apologeticum, written in 259, is a collection of instructions, twisted into acrostics, in popular hexameters, with caesuras introduced according to the heroic verse style, composed without regard to quantity or hiatus and often accompanied by such rhymes as the Church Latin would later supply in such abundance.
These sombre, tortuous, gamy verses, crammed with terms of ordinary speech, with words diverted from their primitive meaning, claimed and interested him even more than the soft and already green style of the historians, Ammianus Marcellinus and Aurelius Victorus, Symmachus the letter writer, and Macrobius the grammarian and compiler. Them he even preferred to the genuinely scanned lines, the spotted and superb language of Claudian, Rutilius and Ausonius.
They were then the masters of art. They filled the dying Empire with their cries; the Christian Ausonius with his Centon Nuptial, and his exuberant, embellished Mosella; Rutilius, with his hymns to the glory of Rome, his anathemas against the Jews and the monks, his journey from Italy into Gaul and the impressions recorded along the way, the intervals of landscape reflected in the water, the mirage of vapors and the movement of mists that enveloped the mountains.
Claudian, a sort of avatar of Lucan, dominates the fourth century with the terrible clarion of his verses: a poet forging a loud and sonorous hexameter, striking the epithet with a sharp blow amid sheaves of sparks, achieving a certain grandeur which fills his work with a powerful breath. In the Occidental Empire tottering more and more in the perpetual menace of the Barbarians now pressing in hordes at the Empire's yielding gates, he revives antiquity, sings of the abduction of Proserpine, lays on his vibrant colors and passes with all his torches alight, into the obscurity that was then engulfing his world.
Paganism again lives in his verse, sounding its last fanfare, lifting its last great poet above the Christianity which was soon entirely to submerge the language, and which would forever be sole master of art. The new Christian spirit arose with Paulinus, disciple of Ausonius; Juvencus, who paraphrases the gospels in verse; Victorinus, author of the Maccabees; Sanctus Burdigalensis who, in an eclogue imitated from Vergil, makes his shepherds Egon and Buculus lament the maladies of their flock; and all the saints: Hilaire of Poitiers, defender of the Nicean faith, the Athanasius of the Occident, as he has been called; Ambrosius, author of the indigestible homelies, the wearisome Christian Cicero; Damasus, maker of lapidary epigrams; Jerome, translator of the Vulgate, and his adversary Vigilantius, who attacks the cult of saints and the abuse of miracles and fastings, and already preaches, with arguments which future ages were to repeat, against the monastic vows and celibacy of the priests.
Finally, in the fifth century came Augustine, bishop of Hippo. Des Esseintes knew him only too well, for he was the Church's most reputed writer, founder of Christian orthodoxy, considered an oracle and sovereign master by Catholics. He no longer opened the pages of this holy man's works, although he had sung his disgust of the earth in the Confessions, and although his lamenting piety had essayed, in the City of God, to mitigate the frightful distress of the times by sedative promises of a rosier future. When Des Esseintes had studied theology, he was already sick and weary of the old monk's preachings and jeremiads, his theories on predestination and grace, his combats against the schisms.
He preferred to thumb the Psychomachia of Prudentius, that first type of the allegorical poem which was later, in the Middle Ages, to be used continually, and the works of Sidonius Apollinaris whose correspondence interlarded with flashes of wit, pungencies, archaisms and enigmas, allured him. He willingly re-read the panegyrics in which this bishop invokes pagan deities in substantiation of his vainglorious eulogies; and, in spite of everything, he confessed a weakness for the affectations of these verses, fabricated, as it were, by an ingenious mechanician who operates his machine, oils his wheels and invents intricate and useless parts.
After Sidonius, he sought Merobaudes, the panegyrist; Sedulius, author of the rhymed poems and abecedarian hymns, certain passages of which the Church has appropriated for its services; Marius Victorius, whose gloomy treatise on the Pervesity of the Times is illumed, here and there, with verses that gleam with phosphorescence; Paulinus of Pella, poet of the shivering Eucharisticon; and Orientius, bishop of Auch, who, in the distichs of his Monitories, inveighs against the licentiousness of women whose faces, he claims, corrupt the people.
The interest which Des Esseintes felt for the Latin language did not pause at this period which found it drooping, thoroughly putrid, losing its members and dropping its pus, and barely preserving through all the corruption of its body, those still firm elements which the Christians detached to marinate in the brine of their new language.
The second half of the fifth century had arrived, the horrible epoch when frightful motions convulsed the earth. The Barbarians sacked Gaul. Paralyzed Rome, pillaged by the Visigoths, felt its life grow feeble, perceived its extremities, the occident and the orient, writhe in blood and grow more exhausted from day to day.
In this general dissolution, in the successive assassination of the Caesars, in the turmoil of carnage from one end of Europe to another, there resounded a terrible shout of triumph, stifling all clamors, silencing all voices. On the banks of the Danube, thousands of men astride on small horses, clad in rat-skin coats, monstrous Tartars with enormous heads, flat noses, chins gullied with scars and gashes, and jaundiced faces bare of hair, rushed at full speed to envelop the territories of the Lower Empire like a whirlwind.
Everything disappeared in the dust of their gallopings, in the smoke of the conflagrations. Darkness fell, and the amazed people trembled, as they heard the fearful tornado which passed with thunder crashes. The hordes of Huns razed Europe, rushed toward Gaul, overran the plains of Chalons where Aetius pillaged it in an awful charge. The plains, gorged with blood, foamed like a purple sea. Two hundred thousand corpses barred the way, broke the movement of this avalanche which, swerving, fell with mighty thunderclaps, against Italy whose exterminated towns flamed like burning bricks.
The Occidental Empire crumbled beneath the shock; the moribund life which it was pursuing to imbecility and foulness, was extinguished. For another reason, the end of the universe seemed near; such cities as had been forgotten by Attila were decimated by famine and plague. The Latin language in its turn, seemed to sink under the world's ruins.
Years hastened on. The Barbarian idioms began to be modulated, to leave their vein-stones and form real languages. Latin, saved in the debacle by the cloisters, was confined in its usage to the convents and monasteries.
Here and there some poets gleamed, dully and coldly: the African Dracontius with his Hexameron, Claudius Memertius, with his liturgical poetry; Avitus of Vienne; then, the biographers like Ennodius, who narrates the prodigies of that perspicacious and venerated diplomat, Saint Epiphanius, the upright and vigilant pastor; or like Eugippus, who tells of the life of Saint Severin, that mysterious hermit and humble ascetic who appeared like an angel of grace to the distressed people, mad with suffering and fear; writers like Veranius of Gevaudan who prepared a little treatise on continence; like Aurelianus and Ferreolus who compiled the ecclesiastical canons; historians like Rotherius, famous for a lost history of the Huns.
Des Esseintes' library did not contain many works of the centuries immediately succeeding. Notwithstanding this deficiency, the sixth century was represented by Fortunatus, bishop of Poitiers, whose hymns and Vexila regis, carved out of the old carrion of the Latin language and spiced with the aromatics of the Church, haunted him on certain days; by Boethius, Gregory of Tours, and Jornandez. In the seventh and eighth centuries since, in addition to the low Latin of the Chroniclers, the Fredegaires and Paul Diacres, and the poems contained in the Bangor antiphonary which he sometimes read for the alphabetical and mono-rhymed hymn sung in honor of Saint Comgill, the literature limited itself almost exclusively to biographies of saints, to the legend of Saint Columban, written by the monk, Jonas, and to that of the blessed Cuthbert, written by the Venerable Bede from the notes of an anonymous monk of Lindisfarn, he contented himself with glancing over, in his moments of tedium, the works of these hagiographers and in again reading several extracts from the lives of Saint Rusticula and Saint Radegonda, related, the one by Defensorius, the other by the modest and ingenious Baudonivia, a nun of Poitiers.
But the singular works of Latin and Anglo-Saxon literature allured him still further. They included the whole series of riddles by Adhelme, Tatwine and Eusebius, who were descendants of Symphosius, and especially the enigmas composed by Saint Boniface, in acrostic strophes whose solution could be found in the initial letters of the verses.
His interest diminished with the end of those two centuries. Hardly pleased with the cumbersome mass of Carlovingian Latinists, the Alcuins and the Eginhards, he contented himself, as a specimen of the language of the ninth century, with the chronicles of Saint Gall, Freculfe and Reginon; with the poem of the siege of Paris written by Abbo le Courbe; with the didactic Hortulus, of the Benedictine Walafrid Strabo, whose chapter consecrated to the glory of the gourd as a symbol of fruitfulness, enlivened him; with the poem in which Ermold the Dark, celebrating the exploits of Louis the Debonair, a poem written in regular hexameters, in an austere, almost forbidding style and in a Latin of iron dipped in monastic waters with straws of sentiment, here and there, in the unpliant metal; with the De viribus herbarum, the poem of Macer Floridus, who particularly delighted him because of his poetic recipes and the very strange virtues which he ascribes to certain plants and flowers; to the aristolochia, for example, which, mixed with the flesh of a cow and placed on the lower part of a pregnant woman's abdomen, insures the birth of a male child; or to the borage which, when brewed into an infusion in a dining room, diverts guests; or to the peony whose powdered roots cure epilepsy; or to the fennel which, if placed on a woman's breasts, clears her water and stimulates the indolence of her periods.
Apart from several special, unclassified volumes, modern or dateless, certain works on the Cabbala, medicine and botany, certain odd tomes containing undiscoverable Christian poetry, and the anthology of the minor Latin poets of Wernsdorf; apart from Meursius, the manual of classical erotology of Forberg, and the diaconals used by confessors, which he dusted at rare intervals, his Latin library ended at the beginning of the tenth century.
And, in fact, the curiosity, the complicated naivete of the Christian language had also foundered. The balderdash of philosophers and scholars, the logomachy of the Middle Ages, thenceforth held absolute sway. The sooty mass of chronicles and historical books and cartularies accumulated, and the stammering grace, the often exquisite awkwardness of the monks, placing the poetic remains of antiquity in a ragout, were dead. The fabrications of verbs and purified essences, of substantives breathing of incense, of bizarre adjectives, coarsely carved from gold, with the barbarous and charming taste of Gothic jewels, were destroyed. The old editions, beloved by Des Esseintes, here ended; and with a formidable leap of centuries, the books on his shelves went straight to the French language of the present century.
Last modified 15 April 2008