Anyone even remotely familiar with the history of Western rock music has probably seen, at one point or another in their life, the cover art of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon album, which is widely considered to be one of the most recognizable and iconic album covers of all-time: a single beam of light entering a prism, said beam of light then refracting as a rainbow-colored spectrum of light. I think some of the best books are like that, with the initial beam of light serving as the reader’s attention, and the prism representing a book: that is, you go into a book with the intention of reading it, but sometimes you’ll discover things in that book that will send your attention (or focus) into a variety of new and unexpected directions. With this essay I intend to talk about J.K. Huysmans’ classic 1891 novel Là-Bas (often translated into English as either Down There or The Damned), which I often rank in my top-ten favorite novels ever written. But before I get into that, I would first like to briefly mention how I first came to learn about the novel, mainly to both illustrate and also to justify the verbose metaphor that I chose to begin this article with.
In the year 2004, during a time in my life in which I was a dabbler in the occult arts, I began to explore the books of Kenneth Grant, mainly his well-regarded Typhonian Trilogies, which at that time were widely out-of-print and hard to find at a low price (this was several years before Starfire Publishing began reprinting them). Having read Kenneth Grant’s Nightside of Eden earlier that year, I eventually got my hands on a copy of Cults of the Shadow that summer. Like Eden, Cults of the Shadow is a very fascinating book, presenting the reader with a panoramic examination of various cults of the Vama Marg (or Left Hand Path of occultism) throughout history, beginning with ancient African, Egyptian and Eastern Tantric sects before analyzing the work of assorted 20th-century occultists, including Aleister Crowley and Austin Osman Spare (two men that Grant had in fact been both acquainted with and a student of), Frater Achad, and the Chicago-based voodoo master Michael Bertiaux (whose Voudon Gnostic Workbook I would consider to be one of the most singularly bizarre tomes I’ve ever come across, even by the outré standards of occult texts). On the first page of the first of the two chapters that Grant devotes to Bertiaux’s so-called Black Snake Cult (or La Couleuvre Noire, to use its French name), Grant writes the following:
“With Michael Bertiaux, the Voodoo-Gnostic Master of the Cult of La Couleuvre Noire, we step into the heavily charged atmosphere that lingers on in the wake of the Mages of the French Decadence. The revenants of the Decadence live on, and their present-day equivalents in downtown Chicago are stalked by the shades of Joseph Péladan, Stanislas de Guaita, Pierre Vintras, J-K. Huysmans, and the sinister original of Canon Docre – the Abbé Boullan – with whom Bertiaux claims to be in direct astral communication. Yet this atmosphere of nostalgia surrounding The Monastery of the Seven Rays, which Bertiaux also directs, is redolent not only of the strange and diabolical rites performed by a Gaufridi, or by a Guibourg when he wove the sinister spells to which the evil fascination of Madame Montespan added its bouquet of morbid loveliness, but of a more vital and elemental power that enhances to its highest pitch the aetiolated atmosphere of the Decadence. I refer to the monstrous shadows conjured by the New England enchanter, Howard Phillips Lovecraft, for Michael Bertiaux claims to have established contact with the ‘Deep Ones’, the fearful haunters of Outer Spaces that Lovecraft has brought so close to earth in his terrifying fictions.”
In regards to a footnote to the name Canon Docre that appears on this same page (which is page 161 of the Starfire Publishing reprint), Grant writes, “He features in Là-Bas, the novel by J-K. Huysmans based on the author’s actual experience of the darker byways of occultism. See also p. 170, note 22, infra.”
(For the curious, note 22 on p. 170 states the following: “Another discarnate human spirit claimed by Bertiaux is the Abbé Boullan (1824-93), a French occultist whose name and activities would probably have remained unknown to the world at large but for the attention he received from J-K. Huysmans, who used Boullan as the model for ‘Dr. Johannes’ in his novel Là-Bas (q.v.) According to The Encyclopaedia of the Unexplained (Ed. Richard Cavendish, London, 1974), ‘Boullan believed that the path to salvation lay through sexual intercourse with arch-angels and other celestial beings.’”)
It was in the above passages that my acquaintance was first made with Là-Bas. Needless to say, at that point in my life those passages caused me to ask myself a lot of questions. What exactly was the French Decadence? Who were this Huysmans and Boullan? How did one have sex with angels? Who were Vintras, Gaufridi, and Guibourg and, for that matter, what the hell did the word ‘aetiolated’ mean (in regards to that latter question, it’s actually a British spelling of the American word ‘etiolated,’ the definition of which here is ‘…to cause to become weakened or sickly; drain of color or vigor’).
Still, at the time I first came across that passage, I was far more interested in reading about Bertiaux than I was in investigating the work of J.K. Huysmans. But it was always in the back of my mind. Fast-forward to the first week of July 2006. While doing a closing shift at the Barnes & Noble where I worked, I happened to spot, while returning another book to its proper place on the shelves, J.K. Huysmans’ Là-Bas on one of the shelves in Fiction. Remembering that passage from Kenneth Grant’s book, I took the book off the shelf and looked it over. It was the Dover Press edition (a 1972 unabridged republication based on the 1928 Keene Wallace English translation), the front cover featuring a recolored detail from an Odilon Redon lithograph (the lithograph being “Death: ‘It is I who makes you serious…,” which is No. 20 of the third series of his La Tentation de Saint-Antoine, 1896). Impressed by the suitably macabre and Gothic-looking cover art, I flipped the book over to read the novel’s description on the back. I here reprint the novel’s description in full, not to bore you to death with petty details (though it’s probably already too late for that), but simply because I think it’s one of the greatest book descriptions I’ve ever read, and I would probably have a hard time picturing someone reading such a book description and not being obsessed with reading the book in question as soon as possible:
“This novel is the classic of Satanism. It caused a sensation when it first appeared in 1891 because of its extraordinarily detailed and vivid descriptions of the Black Mass. These descriptions are also authentic, for J.K. Huysmans, who has been called the greatest of the French decadents, had first-hand knowledge of the satanic practices, witch cults and the whole of the occult underworld thriving in late nineteenth-century Paris.
At its center is Durtal, a writer obsessed with the life of one of the blackest figures in history, Gilles de Rais. The legendary crimes, trial and confession of this enormous and grotesque fifteenth-century child murderer, sadist, necrophile and practitioner of all the black arts unfold in episode after horrifying episode. Mystical thematic threads connect this greatest of all revelers in evil with Durtal’s own passionate pursuits, the reflection of a religious quest that was to lead Huysmans from uncertain agnosticism back to Catholicism.
Durtal, the mouthpiece for the strange personality of Huysmans, leads a hermit-like existence cloistered from his fashionable contemporaries. Surrounding him are others equally cut off, sharing a nostalgic longing for the Middle Ages. There is a simply religious bell-ringer, a learned astrologer, a medical doctor versed in homeopathy and occult lore, and a fourth person- a sheltered, unsatisfied bourgeoisie by day and mysterious succubus by night. They take refuge where they can from the forces of modern times- in a bell tower, in abstruse knowledge and in diabolism.
Huysmans’ ability to mesmerize his readers with torrents of sound and image is itself suspiciously akin to the magical arts. His intoxication with the abominable and the depraved is magnified by his extreme sensitivity. He combines grimly realistic detail with esoteric knowledge, and searches relentlessly for the divine in the depths of evil and in the furthest reaches of human experience. The republication of this novel, along with the previous publication of Against the Grain (Dover 22190-3) will make him accessible to the larger audience who will surely find him both important and fascinating, as have Oscar Wilde, Havelock Ellis, and many other major literary figures.”
I first read Là-Bas during the summer months of 2006, and while I loved it at the time, it still hadn’t become a true obsession. That all changed in 2008, when I became very interested not only in French literature, but in particular the literature that sprung forth from the 19th-century French Decadent movement. That year I began to read such writers as Remy de Gourmont, Jean Lorrain, Rachilde, Octave Mirbeau and, most pertinent of all, J.K. Huysmans. That year I also read, for the first time, a number of Huysmans’ other novels, including Against Nature, Downstream, En Rade, and En Route. I also re-read Là-Bas, and it was here that my obsession with the novel truly began. Curious to learn more about how the novel was written (as the Dover Press edition I owned had nothing in the way of an introduction or any sort of essays, footnotes or endnotes), I began to collect other editions of the book, including the Penguin Classics edition and the Dedalus Press edition (the latter having been translated by noted Huysmans scholar Brendan King). I also began collecting any other book I could find on Huysmans’ life, including Brian Banks’ The Image of Huysmans (AMS Press, 1990), The Road From Decadence: from Brothel to Cloister: Selected Letters of J.K. Huysmans (The Athlone Press, 1989, edited by Barbara Beaumont), and, most crucial of all, Robert Baldick’s celebrated The Life of J.K. Huysmans (which is still the definitive biography of Lovecraft’s life). Through these sources and others, I began to learn not only more about Huysmans’ life, but also how the book Là-Bas came to be written (indeed, the events that transpired around Huysmans’ life during the course of the writing of the novel are almost as bizarre in nature as the novel itself). Here, then, is the fruit of that labor. Following a brief summary of the novel, I will then go on to discuss how it came to be written, examine its characters (and the real-life people who influenced a few of them), and analyze the novel’s reception and aftermath. Much of this information has been taken from the books just listed above (in particular the Baldick biography), but for the sake of convenience I’ve grouped all that they have to say about Là-Bas here in one location.
Although I’ll be the first to admit that this tribute is a lengthy read, those who stick with it will encounter (I hope) a mesmerizing tale of demonic possession, Black Masses, occult warfare, astral sex, human sacrifice, conspiracy theories, secretive cults and sects, witchcraft, succubae, whores, STDS, and, ultimately, religious salvation. But first we must turn away from the everyday monotony of Modernism and, like the characters that populate Là-Bas, immerse ourselves in the nostalgias of the past. The place is Paris, the Poisoned City, and the time is the late 1800’s, specifically the latter years of the 1880s and the early years of the 1890s: the tail end of the fin de siècle. It is during this transitionary period, which originated with the Decadent movement and climaxed with the Catholic Revival, in which J.K. Huysmans penned the book with which we now concern ourselves.
Là-Bas is the first book in the series of four novels that has unofficially come to be classified as the Durtal tetralogy (the other books in the series are En Route, The Cathedral, and The Oblate of St. Benedict, in that order). Collectively, they chart the progress of a man’s soul, from the lowest depths of sin to the heights of Grace, the man in question being Durtal. The books are semi-autobiographical in that Durtal’s spiritual quest is almost virtually identical to that of Huysmans’. But it all started with Là-Bas. Essentially, Là-Bas is a book about a man writing a book. Such a thing is common in these times, but back in the 19th-century, this type of approach in fiction was still fairly fresh. The book takes place in Paris, France, sometime around the years 1889-1890 (the last chapter most likely is set in January of 1890, if the references to Boulanger’s victory of the election are anything to go by), and follows the exploits of Durtal, a middle-aged bachelor who is struggling to write a historical book on the life and crimes of the notorious Gilles de Rais. While researching the Satanism of the Middle Ages, he comes into contact with a strange cast of characters who reveal to him that not only does Satanism still exist in modern times, but that it is all but thriving in fin de siècle France. Durtal comes to be seduced by a mysterious woman who is herself a Satanist, and she eventually takes him to a Black Mass, which serves as the closest thing the novel has to a climax. So the book is really two books in one: one plotline dealing with Durtal’s researches in regards to Gilles de Rais, and the other being his investigations into the Satanic groups of modern times.
As Brian Banks noted in his book The Image of Huysmans, “The atmosphere of Paris, the novel’s setting, becomes almost Gothic, bathed in mists of sinister, almost evil, mystery. A modern Babylon, conjured up in a pungent style that has by no means dated. The historical data, excepting that upon Boullan, is true and real enough to send one into cobweb-libraries and shadow-castle ruins, in quest of the ghosts of such a rich, vibrantly alive tapestry.” To read this novel, then, is to immerse oneself into “…a twilight world of black magic and erotic devilry in fin de siècle Paris” (to quote the back cover of the Penguin Classics edition of Là-Bas).
If there’s one lesson I learnt from Huysmans as a writer, it is the importance of information overload (other writers I like who use this technique include Grant Morrison, Kenneth Grant, H.P. Lovecraft, and Thomas Pynchon): that is, blitzing the reader’s attention span with a seemingly unending spectrum of facts, dates, pseudohistory, documentation, scientific material, strange use of vocabulary, specialized occult jargon, and so on: in this way, the author can trick the reader’s psychic censor and slip ideas into their subconscious mind that they might not readily accept while in a more lucid frame of mind. To me Là-Bas is so much more than a mere novel: the reader who wanders through its pages will encounter many learned discussions on everything from the crimes of Gilles de Rais, the secrets of alchemy, the symbolism of church bells, the art of astrology, how to poison someone from long distance using white mice and desecrated communion wafers, the pros and cons of Naturalism as a literary genre, why the larvae that devour obese corpses differs from those that can be found in thin cadavers, the Spermatic Mass, how to boil a leg of lamb, why the penis of the incubus is two-pronged… the list goes on and on. Eventually, the reader has no choice but to submit to Huysmans and realize that he’s simply smarter and better read than they’ll ever be. Of course, one of the main reasons to read Huysmans is to see his style in action and to be amazed at his colorful use of vocabulary (as he applies the techniques of painting in the construction of his novels). But simply put, Là-Bas just has some very beautiful images and sentences. The following two sentences are some of my favorites in all of literature:
“Really, when I think about it, there’s only one reason for literature to exist, to save those who write it from the tedium of living!”
“Art should be like the woman one loves, out of reach, in another world, distant, because in the end, along with prayer, it’s the only proper expression of the soul.”
One final thing to note before we begin: if there’s one fact I want you to keep in mind about Huysmans as you read over this essay, it’s that he was extremely gullible, and would often believe things solely on the word of someone else, without exerting much effort to question the source.
“Satanism is based on the manipulation of energy and consciousness. These deeply sick rituals create an energy field, a vibrational frequency, which connects the consciousness of the participants to the reptilians and other consciousness of the lower fourth dimension. This is the dimensional field, also known as the lower astral to many people, which resonates to the frequency of low vibrational emotions like fear, guilt, hate and so on. When a ritual focuses these emotions, as Satanism does, a powerful connection is made with the lower fourth dimension, the reptilians. These are the ‘demons’ which these rituals have been designed to summon since this whole sad story began thousands of years ago. This is when so much possession takes place and the reptilians take over the initiate’s physical body. The leading Satanists are full-blood reptilians cloaked in human form. These rituals invariably take place on vortex points and so the terror, horror and hatred, created by them enters the global energy grid and affects the Earth’s magnetic field. Thought forms of that scale of malevolence hold down the vibrational frequency and affect human thought and emotion. Go to a place where Satanic rituals take place and feel the malevolence and fear in the atmosphere. What we call ‘atmosphere’ is the vibrational field and how it has been affected by human thought forms. Thus we talk about a happy, light or loving atmosphere, or a dark or foreboding one. The closer the Earth’s field is vibrationally to the lower fourth dimension, the more power the reptilians have over this world and its inhabitants.”
-David Icke, The Biggest Secret
Là-Bas: The Characters
Like many of Huysmans’ novels, many of the characters that populate Là-Bas are based on (or are composites of) real-life people that Huysmans knew or associated with. We will now look at the cast of characters of Là-Bas. When I read books, sometimes I have a tendency to keep count of how many pages each character appears on, so I can get an idea of which characters tend to appear the most. I did the same thing with Là-Bas upon re-reading it during the opening months of 2015, and I here rank the characters by the number of pages they appear on (using the Dedalus Press edition as the text in question).
DURTAL: Durtal is the main protagonist of Là-Bas, appearing in 270 of its 278 pages. Durtal, like Huysmans, is a novelist, specializing in the genre of Naturalism (though no details are given as to the names or subject matter of his previous books: it is revealed in the second chapter of Là-Bas that is has been two years since his last book was published). At the start of Là-Bas, Durtal has grown tired of the Naturalism genre and the Parisian literary scene in general (as Huysmans himself had become at the time), and is seeking to branch out into new literary territory. Repulsed by Modernity and inspired by the Middle Ages, he conceives of a new type of literature (“Spiritual Naturalism”), and begins work on a biography of Gilles de Rais (who he classifies as a ‘des Esseintes of the 15th century”). Durtal is a bachelor (his family had died long before the start of the novel), and he leads a lonely life in his 5th floor apartment (which costs him 800 francs a month) on the Rue du Regard in the Left Bank (the 6th arrondissement, I believe), his only company being his pet cat Mouche (a French word that means “fly,” as in the insect) and the occasional visit from his best friend des Hermies. Not much physical descriptions of Durtal are given, aside that he’s around 40 years of age, with a short figure, tired eyes, black hair, an untidy moustache, and a sad and thoughtful face. We learn that his favorite artists are the Flemish and Dutch Primitives, and that some of his preferred writers include Flaubert, the Goncourts, Zola, Dostoevsky, Balzac, Ernest Hello, Anne Emmerrich, Ruysbroeck, and Baudelaire. Although on one hand he finds himself drawn to Catholicism (and religious belief in general), at the same time his carnal appetite is quite strong, and he enjoys the occasional brothel visit every now and then.
Essentially, Durtal is an idealized version of J.K. Huysmans himself. Originally the character was to have been named Runan, though this was (obviously) eventually changed. One day, while lunching with a friend of his (Dr. Michel de Lezinier) at a restaurant in the Place Saint-Andre-des-Arts, Huysmans overheard his friend mention how his family name was that of a village that lay between Angers and La Flèche, near the town of Durtal. Huysmans instantly became fascinated with this name and ended up using it as the name for his main character (see pages 231-232 of the Dedalus edition of the Baldick biography for a more detailed explanation of this story).
DES HERMIES: a doctor of medicine and Professor of Science (though he has no faith in the accuracy of modern medicine), des Hermies is Durtal’s best friend and closest confidant, and he appears in around 115 pages of the book. He is described as fair-haired, tall, slender, and very pale, with close-set eyes of a deep blue color over a short and inquisitive nose. Or, as Huysmans writes, “He had about him the air of a sickly Norwegian and an acerbic Englishman.” Like Durtal, des Hermies also incorporates some aspects of Huysmans’ character (Huysmans could be describing himself when he writes the following about des Hermies: “He was methodical, watchful and as cold as an icicle in front of people he didn’t know; his superior and somewhat awkward attitude was matched by his hollow laughter and peremptory manner. At first sight, he could inspire a real apathy, which he would often justify by his venomous words, scornful silences and severe, mocking smiles. He was respected in the Chantelouve circle and feared still more, but when you came to know him, you discovered that beneath his frosty countenance lay a genuine kindness, an affection that, if not expansive, was capable of a certain heroism and could always be relied on”), though his main purpose in the book is mainly to serve as a sounding board to Durtal. Des Hermies is a very erudite man, “a prodigy who knew everything, who was familiar with the most ancient of old books, the most time-honoured of customs, and the most up-to-date discoveries,” a man who can always be found in the company of “astrologers and kabbalists, of demonologists and alchemists, of theologians and inventors.” He also has something of a dark side: in one scene he mentions visiting a restaurant every now and then and observing how, each time he visits it, the regulars of the place are slowly wasting away from the poisonous food being served, and how he plans to continue going there once a month to take in the spectacle of their slowly wasting away. In terms of religious belief, he doesn’t really believe in anything but leans towards the concept of Manicheanism. He lives on the Rue Madame.
LOUIS CARHAIX: the bell-ringer of the Church of Saint-Sulpice, a post he has held for 15 years. He appears on 61 of the book’s 278 pages. A close friend of des Hermies (who he has known for around ten years), he also becomes a friend of Durtal during the course of the book. Unlike Durtal and des Hermies, Carhaix is a staunch Roman Catholic. A Breton, he is described as having prominent blue eyes, a neat and Germanic moustache, and “the pallid, bloodless complexion of prisoners in the Middle Ages, a complexion now unknown, of a man imprisoned until the day of his death in a wet dungeon, in a dark, airless cell.” Born in Brittany, it was there that he attended a seminary, but upon deciding he was unworthy of being a priest Carhaix dropped out and moved to Paris, where he became a pupil of the master bell-ringer Father Cilbert at Notre-Dame, and it was there he learned the art of bell ringing, before becoming the bellringer of Saint-Sulpice. Carhaix’s primary passion in life are his bells, and he gives many lectures in the course of the book on the art and symbolism of bell ringing.
Carhaix’s real-life analogue is a man known only as Contesse, who was also the bell-ringer at Saint-Sulpice (having begun working there in 1878): like Carhaix, he too lived in the north tower of that church. Huysmans first met him in the winter months of 1888, and did visit him several times, but they never really became friends. Apparently this Contesse believed that the only real reason that Huysmans was visiting him was to court his daughter (“a strapping wrench of some twenty summers,” as Huysmans described her), and when he became convinced that Huysmans was merely toying with her affections, he ordered Huysmans to leave his apartment and never return. Carhaix’s lengthy discourses on the art of bells and bell-ringing are not attributed to anything said by this Contesse: Huysmans merely got the information from a book entitled Art de la sonnerie by Lamiral.
HYACINTHE CHANTELOUVE: the femme fatale of Là-Bas, Hyacinthe Chantelouve serves as Durtal’s portal into the world of modern-day Parisian Satanism. Appearing in 49 of the novel’s pages, she is the wife of Monsieur Chantelouve (who is actually her second husband: her first husband, a maker of church vestments, committed suicide under mysterious circumstances), and lives at the Rue de Bagneaux. She is 33 years of age, a small-boned, narrow-hipped, slender (though not too thin) and delicate woman with wild blonde hair, a woman who is, while not pretty, still striking, with a big nose, passive lips, superb mouse-like teeth (yes, Huysmans actually describes her teeth as mouse-like), and enigmatic and smoky eyes that are ash-gray in color. Hyacinthe enjoys seducing both writers and priests alike, and much of the middle portion of Là-Bas revolves around her relationship with Durtal: this relationship begins with a number of impassioned fan letters which she writes to him, until they eventually meet in person and, gradually, begin having sex with each other. Although Durtal is both intrigued and obsessed by her, his main interest in her is her friendship with Canon Docre (see below). Their relationship falls apart when she takes him to a Black Mass, and he realizes that beneath her air of sanctity she is a “truly nasty Satanic woman” (literally speaking: during the Black Mass scene she even describes Satan as her “Master”). Still, in the end, he decides that for all her diabolical quirks she’s still not as interesting as Gilles de Rais.
One of the real-life inspirations for the character of Hyacinthe was Berthe de Courrière (June 1852-June 14, 1916), an artist’s model and demimondaine of notorious reputation. Born in Lille, (a city in the north of France), she moved to Paris in 1872. Best known as the mistress of several notable French personalities of the late 19th-century, including the General Georges Boulanger and the sculptor (and son-in-law of George Sand) Auguste Clésinger (the latter of whom used her as the model for his bust of Marianne at the Sénat), Berthe aux grands pieds (“Bigfoot Bertha”) was also the mistress of the writer Remy de Gourmont, whom she met in 1886. When Huysmans befriended de Gourmont in 1889, he would begin to visit the flat in the Rue de Varenne which de Gourmont shared with Berthe. The interior decoration of her flat was half-Pagan and half-Catholic in its aesthetic sensibilities, and whenever Huysmans visited her she would discourse at great length on her experiences in the occult arts (these visits and conversations inspired the dinner scenes in Là-Bas, though in the novel they instead take place in the bell tower of Saint-Sulpice). One evening Huysmans even took part in a séance that was held at Berthe’s flat.
Berthe was notorious for her acts of sacrilege: she was known to seduce priests, and the writer Rachilde professed to once seeing Berthe take consecrated hosts out of her shopping bag and feeding them to stray dogs. She was also mentally unstable, and twice during the course of her life she was certified insane and committed to asylums. Oddly enough, despite her occult and satanic dabbling, she would play an instrumental role in Huysmans’ reversion to Catholicism, as will be seen below.
Another real-life woman who inspired the character of Hyacinthe was Henriette Maillat, whom once had a brief (and unhappy) love-affair with Huysmans (most likely around 1888/early 1889). Like Berthe, Maillat was also a dabbler in the occult and black magic. She also saw herself as a seducer of writers: one of her other literary conquests was Leon Bloy (she would also later on become a mistress for Péladan, one of Huysmans’ enemies). Many of the love letters she wrote to Huysmans ended up being incorporated into Là-Bas, which led to a bit of problems for Huysmans later on. A third influence on the character of Hyacinthe was Mme Charles Buet, the wife of Charles Buet (see below), though I’ve found little in the way of information in regards to this woman.
GEVINGEY: an astrologer and a “good Christian” who is a friend of Carhaix (he also eventually becomes a friend of both Durtal and des Hermies: in fact, he’s actually a patient of des Hermies). He appears in 37 of the book’s pages. Unlike most of the other characters in the book, he lives on the Right Bank of Paris, and is described as a short man with an egg-shaped head, faded brown hair, a shiny cranium, a hooked nose, a short chin, a toothless mouth, a thick mustache and goatee, close-set and slightly crossed eyes that resemble those of a startled bird, and a solemn voice. He dresses in a bizarre manner, and wears a number of large, strange rings on his hands. Though Durtal initially finds him pompous and conceited, he soon finds himself impressed by the man’s knowledge of astrology and that of incubi and succubae, along with other esoterica. His main function in the book (aside from letting Huysmans show off the fruits of his own research into astrology, incubi and succubae) is to describe the off-screen actions of Dr. Johannes and Canon Docre.
The real-life model for the character of Gevingey was Eugene Ledos, who was also an astrologer (as well as being a writer). I have found very little information about this man, aside from the names of some of his books and the above photograph. In the Baldick biography on Huysmans, there is but one mention of him in the entire book, and that’s only to let us know that Huysmans used to say (about Ledos) that “he looked as though he had been born with a three-legged stool fastened to his rump.” It is also believed by some that he once lived in an apartment above the Cabaret Voltaire.
DR. JOHANNES: a mystic, exorcist and doctor of theology. Dr. Johannes is a very interesting character. Even though he’s talked about a great deal in the text, he never actually physically appears, so all that we can rely on about him and his actions are the stories that other characters (chiefly Gevingey) tell Durtal about him. We learn that he lives in Lyons, that he preaches the coming of the Paraclete, that he’s a defrocked priest who specializes in curing “Satanic ailments,” and that he’s also mastered the lost art of ornithomancy (a form of divination involving the observation of the actions of birds). He is described as being a “super-being,” an ‘apostle animated by the Holy Spirit.”
Abbé Boullan, as has been previously noted, served as the primary model for Dr. Johannes. This was how Huysmans described Boullan to an unknown correspondent in early 1891: “He is a mystic of the wisest and most curious kind, preaching on the whole the dogmas of the early church of Lyons, of St. Ireanaeus and St. Pothinus, the coming of the Paraclete. He had devoted himself to the cure of evil spells, but had to give up, for not being a doctor of medicine but of theology he had trouble with both medics and ecclesiastics. Many stories have been told about him; he has been accused of black magic, etc. But I know the man sufficiently well to be able to affirm that they are absolutely false.” As we shall see, Huysmans was extremely wrong in this assessment of Boullan’s character, and appears to have been completely conned by the man and his followers.
CARHAIX’S WIFE: the wife of Carhaix, whose actual name is never given. She appears in 37 pages of the book, and is a somewhat minor character. An old woman from Landévennec, she lives with her husband in the bell tower of Saint-Sulpice, and like him she too is piously religious. Her main function in the novel is to cook and serve dinner to Durtal, des Hermies and Carhaix during their gatherings, though she does take part in some of the conversations as well (even more amazing is that her cooking finds favor with Durtal, who, like Huysmans, is a notoriously picky eater: here’s a description of one of his meals at a typical Paris restaurant of the time: “…he picked at a piece of stale fish, its flesh flabby and cold, dug out of its sauce some dead lentils, no doubt killed by insecticide. To finish, he savored some old prunes whose juice, smelling of mould, was both marshy and sepulchral.” And that’s from a restaurant that he found to be “fairly reliable.”!). Not much of a description of her is given; aside that she has a sickly and sincere face and candid and pitiful eyes.
CANON DOCRE: Canon Docre is the primary antagonist of Là-Bas, the ideological opposite of Dr. Johannes. Like Johannes, we learn more about him and his actions through the dialogue of other characters, so he’s mostly an off-screen presence: he appears in a mere six pages of the book, within the Black Mass chapter, and doesn’t speak a single word to Durtal. And yet his shadow looms large throughout the story. Hailing from Nîmes, Hyacinthe describes Docre as being 40 years old and “good-looking,” but when he finally appears he’s described as being tall, ungainly, and top-heavy, with course and sinuous features, including shining eyes like small black apple pips, lips and cheeks covered in a thick, dense stubble, and a quavering, high-pitched voice. A man who likes to spend money, he lives in a tidy house, with its own lab and an immense library (one book that he keeps in this library is his Missal of the Black Mass, which is printed on parchment and whose binding is made from the skin of a child who had died unbaptized: stamped onto the front cover in a dried-flower fashion is a large host that had been consecrated during a Black Mass). The confessor of Hyacinthe, she also claims that he’s clever and charming, a gentleman and a scholar, (and formerly the confessor of an unnamed Royal Highness), though other characters in the book refer to him as the “incarnation of Evil on Earth,” and a few don’t like to even speak his name aloud (shades of Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter books, that). Like Dr. Johannes, he too is a defrocked priest (he was literally excommunicated by Rome), though where that former character uses his powers for good, Canon Docre uses his own considerable powers for evil. Aside from being a master hypnotist who can mesmerize people into committing suicide, he is also a necromancer who can invoke the spirit of a dead person and send it to kill his victims, along with being a mad scientist who has mastered the art of poisons: Huysmans describes how the Canon creates poisons by feeding either white mice or fish with consecrated Communion hosts and poison, before stabbing them over a chalice and draining the oils and fluids, the end product being used as a poison to drive men to insanity. But Canon Docre is most notorious for his reputation as a Satanist, and it is said he has the visage of the crucified Christ tattooed on the soles of his feet. A celebrant of the Black Mass and an invoker of the Devil, he truly is a diabolical creation, and has the honor of presiding over the novel’s notorious Black Mass scene.
The real-life model for Canon Docre was a Belgian priest named Louis Van Haecke, Chaplain of the Holy Blood at Bruges: like Canon Docre, it was rumored that he had a cross tattooed on the soles of his feet, “…so that he may have the pleasure of continually walking upon the symbol of the Saviour.” During the researching of Là-Bas, Huysmans claimed to have witnessed a Black Mass, and during this Mass he said he spotted a cassocked priest also watching the event. Later on, he happened to spot a photograph of this same priest in the display window of an occult bookshop and recognized him as the man he thought he saw during the Black Mass. Huysmans would eventually confront Van Haecke and ask him what he was doing at a Black Mass, to which the priest replied, “Haven’t I the right to be inquisitive? And how do you know that I wasn’t there as a spy?” (It should be noted here that Van Haecke was supposedly an exceptionally inquisitive person with a strong interest in comparative religion).
MONSIEUR CHANTELOUVE: the husband of Hyacinthe, he only appears in six of the book’s 278 pages, though his name does come up quite often. A Catholic historian who lives in a spacious apartment on the Rue de Bagneaux, he prides himself on the fact that his drawing room parties attract all manner of characters from different stratums of society: clergy members, poets, journalists, artists, actresses, occultists, and so on: “a curious mix of the grotesque and the refined,” as Huysmans puts it. At the time frame in which Là-Bas takes place, he is writing a series dealing with the lives of the saints. Monsieur Chantelouve is described as a short and stout clean-shaven man with a huge pot belly, ruddy cheeks, and over-pomaded hair. It is said in the book that he is cordial, vigorous, generous, and good-natured, but at the same time he has a slightly sinister air about him: Durtal finds his eyes to be “sly and deceitful,” and that he has the look of a “scheming, cunning businessman who, despite his honeyed manner, was capable of the most underhand dealings.” Indeed, it is hinted that he is involved in some dodgy financial dealings on the side. Some of his books include a history of Poland and a biography on Pope Boniface.
The real-life model for Monsieur Chantelouve was Charles Buet (b. 1846, d. 1897), a Catholic historian and writer of historical novels that has been all but forgotten in today’s times. Like his fictional counterpart, Buet was well known for the literary salons he held at his place in the Avenue de Breteuil, these salons attracting such writers as Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, Leon Bloy, Jean Lorrain, and, of course, Huysmans himself. He seemed to have had a slightly sinister reputation as well: Jules Renard described Buet as “Catholicism at its greasiest and dirtiest.” Despite the highly unflattering portrayal of man that Huysmans paints in his novel, Buet evidently harbored no ill-will towards Huysmans, and the two remained friends for the rest of Buet’s life: Huysmans attended his funeral in 1897. Buet’s chief criticism of Là-Bas appears to have been his taking issue with Huysmans’ description of the notorious Cantianille affair that scandalized the city of Auxerre in 1865, a description that Buet pointed out was “altogether inaccurate” (to quote from a letter that Buet sent to Huysmans on April 15th, 1891, shortly after the book’s publication).
RATEAU: a drunken and elderly mustachioed lout who is also the concierge of Durtal’s apartment building, one of whose tasks includes cleaning Durtal’s apartment every week: ironically, by the time that Rateau finishes his cleaning the apartment is usually messier then before he began, which infuriates Durtal. Rateau only appears on 4 pages and essentially serves as a bit of comic relief.
“Guibourg’s efforts to convince La Reynie that he and la Voisin had seen very little of each other were undermined by the fact that Marie Montvoisin was able to conjure up the most lurid memories of things that he and her mother had done together. On 9 October she made her most sickening declaration to date. She said that she had been present when Guibourg had performed a black mass on Mme de Montespan and that, during this ceremony, her mother had instructed her to hand Guibourg a newly born baby. Guibourg had cut the child’s throat and collected its blood in a chalice. At the appropriate point in the ceremony he elevated this vessel and the blood took the place of the sacramental wine. When the mass was over, Guibourg had torn out the butchered infant’s entrails and given them to la Voisin so she could have them distilled. The blood had been poured into a phial and carried away by Mme de Montespan.”
-Anne Somerset, The Affair of the Poisons
Là-Bas: The Writing Process
Before I begin to examine in detail the construction of Là-Bas, it might be conductive to first offer a brief examination of Huysmans’ literary career up to the year 1887. Born in 1848, Huysmans made his literary debut at the age of 26 in 1874 when he self-published a collection of prose poems and short sketches entitled Le drageoir aux épices. I haven’t read this book myself yet (as far as I know it hasn’t been translated into English, though I might be mistaken here), though I’ve heard it owes a great debt to Charles Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen. Although this book was virtually ignored by the reading public of that time, it brought him to the attention of some of the leading literary figures of his day. In 1876 Huysmans began to befriend writers such as Zola and Guy de Maupassant (I have a confession to make here: I’ve never read a word of Zola), and soon enough he was hanging out with other writers such as Flaubert and the Goncourt brothers. 1876 also saw the publication of Marthe, histoire d’une fille, a short and downbeat novel about a Parisian prostitute that earned him a fair bit of notoriety. In 1879 Huysmans’ second (and most conventionally Naturalistic) novel, Les Soeurs Vatard, was published. This book revolved around the unhappy love lives of two female bookbinders, and of all the Huysmans novels that I’ve read I would classify it as perhaps his weakest work. In 1882 Huysmans’ last true Naturalistic novel, A Vau-l’Eau (Downstream in English), was released, this being a brief and gleefully pessimistic novel about the daily miseries of a clerk (it should be noted this book owes a lot to the philosophy of Schopenhauer: it should also be noted that in real life Huysmans himself was a clerk for the Ministry of the Interior, a national criminal investigative bureau, a position he would hold for 32 years. Incidentally, Là-Bas’ manuscript was written out on notepaper supplied by the Ministry, and that according to Remy de Gourmont Huysmans would often work on it during office hours).
Huysmans’ break with the Naturalist school of writing began in 1884, with the publication of A Rebours (Against Nature or Against the Grain in English), a book that is widely considered both a classic and Huysmans’ masterpiece, and which is so well-known today that little needs to be said on it (even if many people only know of it in a secondhand manner from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was heavily inspired by Huysmans’ novel and makes a number of thinly veiled allusions to it). It will suffice to say that in my opinion A Rebours is possibly the most groundbreaking, modern, and important book to come out of the 19th-century. One thing that amazes me about Huysmans is that, even though in some respects he was a little backwards (see his extreme misogyny), at the same time he was one of the first art critics to recognize (and champion) the importance of the Impressionist and Symbolist art movements; likewise, he was one of the first literary men of his day to acclaim the poetry of Verlaine and Mallarmé. I find it especially exciting that, in regards to his own work, Huysmans was well aware of the new ground that he was breaking in regards to the medium of the novel: during the writing of A Rebours, he wrote a letter to a friend boasting that his new novel was “a book that would astonish the world, a book beyond anything that had yet been conceived.” Early English translations of the book often made mention, on its cover, how it was “a novel without a plot!”
In 1886, Huysmans backpedaled a bit from the radical path he took with A Rebours with the publication of his sixth novel, the underrated and sadly neglected En Rade (A Haven or Stranded in English), which juxtaposed the story of Parisian city-dwellers visiting the countryside with bizarre and evocative dream scenes (that were largely influenced by Huysmans’ appreciation of the then vogue Symbolist art movement, in particular the work of Odilon Redon).
By the time he had finished En Rade, Huysmans found himself at a literary dead-end, sick of writing novels in the conventionally Naturalist vein but unsure in which direction he should go next. And thus did he begin investigating subjects such as the occult and alchemy, in the hope of finding something new to write about. As Édouard Dujardin once remarked about Huysmans’ 1887 period, “I was struck by the importance which Huysmans attached, not yet to things religious, but to what I shall call things of mystery – in other words, anything transcending the tangible and the rational. He used to tell us weird stories of secret cults, of werewolves and witchcraft and satanism; and he would usually conclude by saying, after a long pause: ‘It’s all very strange… very strange…’.” And in 1887, to his friend Gustave Guiches, Huysmans said, “…I want nothing more to do with that naturalistic filth! So what remains?… Perhaps there’s still occultism. I don’t mean spiritualism, of course – the cheap swindlers with their shady tricks, the mediums with their buffoonery, and the doddering old ladies with their table-turning antics. No, I mean genuine occultism – not above but beneath or beside reality! Failing the faith of the Primitive or the first communicant, which I should dearly love to possess, there’s a mystery there which appeals to me. I might even say that it haunts me…”
Huysmans’ growing fascination with the occult led him to explore some of the occult circles and bookstores of Paris (such as Edmond Bailly’s notorious occult bookshop Librairie de l’Art Indépendant, located at 9 Rue de la Chaussée-d’Antin: this bookstore was also a popular haunt for writers and artists such as Arthur Rimbaud, Gustave Moreau, Odilon Redon, and Stéphane Mallarmé), where he met a number of bizarre personalities, including the Marquis Stanislas de Guaita (a French poet, morphine addict and occult novelist who had revived the Rosicrucian Order in Paris, and who today is perhaps best known as the creator of the “goat pentagram”), Paul Adam (a novelist and member of the Supreme Council of the Rosy Cross), and Jules Bois (a young man who was just beginning to write a book entitled Le Satanisme et la magie). And it was these investigations that led him to the Naundorff cause. Charles Naundorff had appeared in the city of Paris in the year 1833, whence he claimed to be the son of Louis XVI (who had been beheaded in 1793) and also the Duke of Normandy. Such claims earned him the support of assorted occult groups, secret societies, and fringe members of the Bourbon legitimist movement.
On October 31st, 1887, Huysmans wrote to Zola that he was working on a novel dealing with “…the fringe of the clerical world and the followers of good King Charles XI… a set of cranks I’ve been watching for some years.” And on November 30th, 1887, Huysmans went into a bit of detail regarding his new book in a letter to the Belgian art critic and lawyer Jules Destrée: “I am immersed in an enormous job in preparation for my novel about the fringes of the clerical world and the cause of King Charles XI (Naundorff). You cannot imagine the reading I have had to do, hagiography, alchemy, Mattei’s medicine; the history of the later Roman Empire, stacks of brochures and newspapers on the survival of Louis XVII. I am exhausted by it. Now I have to put it all together, and get down to work. I sweat at the thought of it – but if I could bring it off, it would be a curious book, set in an uncharted world, a book with some very strange flights of imagination and some atrocious realities – the whole lot to be acclaimed as a flop, a huge flop, as far as the reading public is concerned.”
Very little information is known to us as to the details of this Naundorff novel, and no one has ever figured out his reasons for abandoning it (he most likely quit it in the fall months of 1888, or perhaps shortly before then, though this is conjecture on my part); all that is known was that it was supposedly to have been a “complex political novel, a tale of intriguing eccentrics, of plot and counterplot” (to use Robert Baldick’s description of it). It has been conjectured (again, by Baldick) that a primary reason could have been his adoption of a “new artistic formula” which he first adopted in 1888. That summer (in August, to be precise), Huysmans had discovered Matthias Grünewald’s Crucifixion in the Museum at Cassel, a work of art that inspired him to create what he came to call “Spiritual Naturalism” (also known as “supernatural realism”). Retaining the documentary technique of the Naturalists (while discarding what he saw as their “gross materialism”), Huysmans would eventually provide a definition of Spiritual Naturalism in the first chapter of Là-Bas:
“It was necessary to keep the accurate documentation, the precision of detail, the rich and vigorous style of the Realists; but it was also necessary to sink well-shafts into the soul, instead of trying to explain its every mystery by some malady of the senses. The novel, if that were possible, ought to be divided into two parts – that of the soul and that of the body – which would be welded together, or rather intermingled, as they are in life; and it should tell of their mutual reactions, their conflicts, their points of agreement. In a word, the novelist must follow the highway so strongly marked out by Zola; but he should also trace a parallel road in the air, a second highway reaching out to regions beyond and hereafter; he should, in fact, fashion a spiritual naturalism that would be far finer, more powerful, and more complete!”
(So impressed was Huysmans with Grünewald’s Crucifixion that he would later on write about it at length in the first chapter of Là-Bas: see below).
Sometime in-between April of 1888 and the start of 1889 Huysmans began to work on a new novel, this one set during the Middle Ages and dealing with the life and crimes of Gilles de Rais (in a letter to Jules Destrée written in April of 1888, Huysmans wrote, “Là-bas a été commencé, à pein,” which translates to something like “Là-Bas has been started,” thus indicating that this was Huysmans’ preferred name for the book from the very beginning). After many months of research (his main source in this regards was Eugène Bossard’s 1886 study Gilles de Rais, maréchal de France, dit “Barbe-Bleue”), Huysmans decided that a bit of field research was in order. During the summer months of 1889, when most of his peers in the civil service were no doubt vacationing in France’s assorted coastal resorts, Huysmans was spending his leisure time in the ruins of Gilles de Rais’ castle, the notorious Château de Tiffauges, ostentatiously for research purposes (this castle being located near the border of Brittany). In a letter he wrote to Odilon Redon on September 15th, 1889, Huysmans wrote, “The ruins of his castle are wonderful, and each dungeon one opens still contains the bones of children whom he raped and murdered whilst invoking the Devil! It is superb!” It should be noted here that Huysmans had a tendency to exaggerate his stories for dramatic effect, and this could be a good example of that. Here’s Edmond de Goncourt’s description of Huysmans’ time at Tiffauges: “Huysmans amused himself by troubling Poictevin’s feeble wits with his Mephistophelism, looking in the latrines of a ruined castle for the remains of children slaughtered by Gilles de Rais, and for want of better booty, carrying off a priest’s caecum which they found in a monastery graveyard.” In any case, this trip found Huysmans in an extremely jovial mood, though his happiness dispersed upon returning to Paris later that month (see his letters to Redon and Verlaine below).
Around this same period of time (late 1889), the novel that was to become Là-Bas underwent a further permutation, when Huysmans decided to adopt a binary structure for it (this ‘binary novel’ idea no doubt inspired by the 1889 book Un Caractere, by his friend Leon Hennique). Just as that book alternated scenes from two different eras, both past and present, so would Là-Bas now become a study of both contemporary and medieval Satanism, which he described as “…a parallel demonstration that the same spiritual phases occur in the same sequence – that they have not changed in character but have merely been cloaked by hypocrisy.” One reason why Huysmans adopted this plan was so that now he could make use of both his researches into the topic of Gilles de Rais (medieval Satanism) but also his researches into modern-day occultism (see the abandoned Naundorffist novel).
Determined to prove to himself that Satanism still existed in modern France, Huysmans began to meet practicing Satanists. He was also determined to witness a Black Mass. Whether Huysmans ever did witness such a thing has still yet to be proven, and it doesn’t help matters that at some points of his life Huysmans has said that he did, while at other times he has denied it. Remy de Gourmont has stated that the Black Mass chapter in Là-Bas was the product of Huysmans imagination, and Abbé Arthur Mugnier (Huysmans’ first spiritual director) also claimed that Huysmans had never witnessed an actual Black Mass (in March of 2015, I e-mailed Brendan King asking him a number of questions related to Là-Bas, chief among them being his own opinion as to if Huysmans had actually attended such a ceremony: personally, he doubted it himself). It might interest some people on this blog to know that Georges Bataille, in his book Eroticism: Death & Sensuality writes the following: “The Black Mass attended by Huysmans, described in Là-Bas, is indisputably authentic” (in his book The Occult, Colin Wilson also makes the following observation: “The black mass scene is obviously the high point of the novel. It has a remarkable feeling of authenticity”). Whatever the real case may be, it’s worth noting that the actual ceremony itself (as described in Là-Bas) is actually based on papers that Huysmans obtained through the Vintrasian archives (courtesy of Boullan) and also on famous historical Black Masses, such as those practiced by Guibourg and Madame Montespan during the Affair of the Poisons.
It is at this point now that Abbé Boullan enters the story.
Huysmans first became aware of Boullan’s name towards the end of 1889. By this point in time, Boullan had something of a notorious reputation in France, to the extent that Guaita summed him up thusly: “a pontiff of infamy, a base idol of the mystical Sodom, a magician of the worst type, a wretched criminal, an evil sorcerer, and the founder of an infamous sect.” Joseph-Antoine Boullan was born on February 18th, 1824, in the village of Saint-Porquier. At an early age, Boullan knew he wanted to become a priest, and after doing some of his studies at the local seminary he eventually traveled to Rome to earn his doctorate. Following that achievement, he joined the Missionaries of the Precious Blood and got involved with a number of missions in Italy before settling down in a Society house near Turckheim in 1853. In 1855, he became the superior of this establishment, only to leave in 1856 under mysterious circumstances. He then moved to Paris to serve as an independent priest, where he began editing his first periodical, Les Annales du Sacerdoce (Annals of the Priesthood). That same year he was entrusted with the spiritual direction of a nun named Adele Chevalier (who, in 1856, had undergone a miraculous cure that she credited to the intercession of Our Lady of La Salette).
In 1859, Boullan and Chevalier founded a religious community known as the Society for the Reparation of Souls at Bellevue. By this point in time, the relationship between Boullan and his protégé had turned sexual, and they began to carry out a number of sacrilegious practices. Supposedly on December 8th, 1860, Boullan ended a Mass by ritually sacrificing a child on the altar, this child having been born by Chevalier at the moment of Consecration. Though this crime was never reported to the police, a number of complaints about the Society came to the attention of the Bishop of Versailles, who put both Boullan and his mistress on trial for fraud and indecency in 1861. Found guilty on the first count, Boullan was sentenced to three years of prison, which he served at Rouen from December 1861-September 1864. He was imprisoned again in 1869, this time at Rome, in one of the cells of the Holy Office (which was the Inquisition’s name for itself at that time: intriguingly, Boullan went to them voluntarily). On May 26th, 1869, he began to write a confession of his crimes, and this document came to be known as the cahier rose. Little is known about this sinister document, other than that its contents have been described as “shocking” and “horrifying.” Huysmans himself would read it towards the end of the 19th-century, and it later fell into the hands of Professor Louis Massignon, who in turn delivered it to the Vatican in 1930. Today, it resides in that forbidden library known as the Archivum Secretum Apostolicum Vaticanum (Vatican Secret Archives), and all applications to see it are supposedly refused (well, according to the internet, that is, so take all of this with a grain of salt).
Upon being rehabilitated by the Holy Office, Boullan returned to Paris in the winter of 1869 and, in January 1870, began issuing a new periodical, Annales de la sainteté au XIXe siècle. Within this periodical he espoused a number of heretical views that brought him to the attention of the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris. Rumors had also begun to circulate that Boullan had begun indulging in his diabolical practices again, using his reputation as an exorcist as a cover: Boullan was often entrusted to convents to help exorcise nuns who complained of demonic visitations, but besides just exorcising said nuns, Boullan also “…taught them how, by means of auto-hypnosis and auto-suggestion, they could dream that they were having intercourse with the saints or with Jesus Christ, and showed them what postures and occult methods they should adopt to enable supernatural entities – and more particularly his own astral body – to visit and possess them…”
In 1875, the Archbishop of Paris summoned Boullan to his Palace. During this meeting, Cardinal Guibert condemned Boullan’s doctrines, placed him under a solemn interdiction, and ordered him out of the Palace. Boullan fruitlessly appealed to Rome to reverse this interdict, but the Vatican decided to uphold the Cardinal’s judgement. And thus did Boullan leave the Church in July of 1875. That very month, he entered into correspondence with Pierre Vintras, the so-called miracle worker of Tilly-sur-Seulle who claimed he was a reincarnation of the prophet Elijah (and who believed it was his mission in life to prepare Earth for the Era of the Paraclete, the coming of the Christ of Glory: it should also be observed here that he was a supporter of the Naundorff claim). They first met in person in Brussels on August 13th, 1875, and again on October 26th, 1875, this time in Paris. Their friendship didn’t last long, for Vintras passed away on December 7th, 1875. Boullan then announced that Vintras had chosen him to be his successor. And so he became high priest of the Vintrasian sect and leader of the Society of Mercy.
In February of 1876, Boullan moved to Lyons, mainly to study the papers left behind by Vintras and familiarize himself with its spiritual jargon. It was around this time that Boullan proclaimed himself as the reincarnation of John the Baptist, and to celebrate the occasion he had a cabbalistic pentagram tattooed at the corner of his left eye. However, his ascendency of the Vintras sect wasn’t without controversy, as a sizeable number of its members were suspicious of his speedy conversion: only 3 of the 19 pontiffs consecrated by Vintras accepted Boullan as their new leader. Indeed, I’ve recently read a number of conspiracy theories that put forth the notion that Boullan’s dismissal from the Church was a false story, and that, acting as a spy on behalf of the Vatican, he was tasked with infiltrating the Vintras sect and undermining it from within (certainly it seems slightly suspicious how Vintras died so quickly after making Boullan’s acquaintance). I suppose that would make Boullan some kind of secret agent of the clerical world. In any event, Boullan situated his headquarters in Lyons, in 1884, at No. 7 Rue de la Martiniere, which was the home of an architect named Pascal Misme, known in the Boullan sect (somewhat pompously) as ‘Pontiff of the Divine Melchizedean Chrism.’
Boullan’s teachings primarily revolved around the idea that, since it was sex that led to the Fall of Adam and Eve (and, following that train of thought, all of humanity), it was by sex that man could achieve salvation, mainly by having sexual intercourse with people on a higher spiritual level than oneself (which in turn would raise the celebrant to that same level). Or to use his own words, “…since the Fall of our first parents was the result of an act of culpable love, it was through acts of love accomplished in a religious spirit that the Redemption of Humanity could and should be achieved.” Which explains why the rites created by Boullan (known as his “Unions of Life”) involved hallucinatory sexual acts with Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the saints, angels, and so forth. And because Boullan was on a higher spiritual plane than the female members of his cult, he could often convince these woman to have sex with him, and thus elevate them to a higher spiritual level (this, of course, being a tried and true tactic of many cult leaders… just look at Charles Manson). As Robert Irwin notes in his afterward to the Dedalus edition of Là-Bas, “Boullan and his followers also experimented in astral sex with incubi and succubi, and Boullan was supposed to have coupled with half-human creatures on the astral plane in order to raise them to a fully human form.”
Although Boullan went to great lengths to shield these ‘unions’ from the eyes of the profane, in 1886 he made the mistake of taking into his confidence three strangers: Canon Roca (a socialist priest with an interest in the occult), Stanislas de Guaita, and Oswald Wirth, the latter being a Swiss occultist and Rosicrucian (and who today is best known for his creation of the ‘Arcanes du Tarot kabbalistique’ Tarot deck in 1889). Wirth spent a year under the tutelage of Boullan, shamelessly kissing ass until, in December of 1886, he managed to obtain a written statement of Boullan’s “secret doctrine.” He then left Boullan’s sect and wrote him a mocking letter telling him how he had been hoodwinked. Guaita and Wirth compared notes in early 1887, then enacted a tribunal of sorts that found Boullan “guilty.” They sent a letter to Boullan telling him that he was now a condemned man. Boullan took this as a death threat and concluded that the two occultists intended to assassinate him via magical methods. For their part, Wirth and Guaita claimed that they simply intended to expose Boullan’s secrets to the public, which they did in 1891 with the publication of their book Le Temple de Satan.
On February 2nd, 1890, Huysmans wrote a letter to Oswald Wirth, stating: “In connection with a book I am writing, I need certain information on the modern practices of Satanism. The Reverend Canon Roca, who is in the Pyrenees at the moment, expressly requests that I do not contact Fr Boullan directly, as he considers him dangerous, and he authorizes me to use his name in asking you for a meeting at which I could talk to you about this Satanist, with whom you had dealings at the same time as himself.” Oswald replied back that “…all the information I possess concerning the person you mention, being only too happy if I can help you to put our contemporaries on guard against the most dangerous of all human aberrations.” Huysmans met with Wirth at the latter’s flat on February 7th, 1890, but found himself unimpressed with both Wirth’s information and also Wirth himself. Although Wirth tried to dissuade Huysmans from contacting Boullan, little did he know that Huysmans had already sent out a letter to Boullan two days earlier, on the 5th of February (Berthe de Courrière, ever helpful, had supplied Huysmans’ with Boullan’s mailing address in Lyons).
In this letter to Boullan, Huysmans wrote the following: “Several times I heard your name pronounced in tones of horror – and this in itself predisposed me in your favour. Then I heard rumours that you were the only initiate in the ancient mysteries who had obtained practical as well as theoretical results, and I was told that if anyone could produce undeniable phenomena, it was you and you alone. This I should like to believe, because it would mean that I had found a rare personality in these drab times – and I could give you some excellent publicity if you needed it. I could set you up as the Superman, the Satanist, the only one in existence, far removed from the infantile spiritualism of the occultists. Allow me, then, Monsieur, to put these questions to you – quite bluntly, for I prefer a straightforward approach. Are you a satanist? And can you give me any information about succubi – Del Rio, Bodin, Sinistrari and Gorres being quite inadequate on this subject? You will note that I ask for no initiation, no secret lore – only for reliable documents, for results you have obtained in your experiments…”
On February 6th, 1890, Boullan wrote back to Huysmans, in which he refused the publicity offered by Huysmans and denied being a Satanist: lying through his teeth, he described himself as “an Adept who has declared war on all demoniacal cults.” He also (truthfully) claimed to be an authority on incubi and succubi, but steadfastly refused to give Huysmans any more information until Huysmans went into more detail on the purposes of his inquiries. He signed his letter “Dr. Johannes,” which was his “Adept’s name,” and which would also be the name that Huysmans would refer to him as in Là-Bas.
On February 7th (the same day that Huysmans met with Wirth), Huysmans wrote Boullan a second letter, assuring him that his book would not glorify Satanism, but instead prove its continued existence in the world: “It happens that I’m weary of the ideas of my good friend Zola, whose absolute positivism fills me with disgust. I’m just as weary of the systems of Charcot, who has tried to convince me that demonianism was just an old wives’ tale, and that by applying pressure to the ovaries he could check or develop at will the satanic impulses of the women under his care at La Salpêtrière. And I’m wearier still, if that be possible, of the occultists and spiritualists, whose phenomena, though often genuine, are far too often identical. What I want to do is teach a lesson to all these people – to create a work of art of a supernatural realism, a spiritual naturalism. I want to show Zola, Charcot, the spiritualists, and the rest that nothing of the mysteries which surround us has been explained. If I can obtain proof of the existence of succubi, I want to publish that proof, to show that all the materialist theories of Maudsley and his kind are false, and that the Devil exists, that the Devil reigns supreme, that the power he enjoyed in the Middle Ages has not been taken from him, for today he is the absolute master of the world, the Omniarch…”
Replying back on February 10th, 1890, Boullan now expressed satisfaction with Huysmans’ intentions, and agreed to help him in any way that he could. He wrote back, “I can put at your disposal documents which will enable you to prove that satanism is active in our time, and in what form and in what circumstances. Your work will thus endure as a monumental history of satanism in the nineteenth century.” On this last point, Boullan was certainly on the mark, for even today the cult of Là-Bas lives on! True to his word, Boullan began to mail a steady stream of documents to Huysmans’ flat, giving him a lot of information on succubi, the art of spellcasting, the Sacrifice of the Glory of Melchizedek, the Black Mass, and so on.
On February 13th, 1890, Wirth sent Huysmans a letter referring to passages from a book which dealt with the criminal activities of Boullan’s Society for the Reparation of Souls. A few weeks after that, Wirth and a friend would visit Huysmans office at work, where they described to him the obscene practices and ‘secret doctrine’ of Boullan’s sect in Lyons, but Huysmans refused to take them seriously. As Wirth later recalled: “He listened to us with a smile on his lips, and then remarked that if the old man had found a mystical dodge for obtaining a little carnal satisfaction, that surely wasn’t so stupid of him…”
On February 19th, 1890, Huysmans wrote a letter to the Dutch industrialist Arij Prins, writing, “I am in regular correspondence with that sacrilegious priest who invokes succubi in Lyons. He sends me documents on Satanism in our times; it is curious. I shall probably go and see him in the Easter holidays. I hope to use all this to produce a book that will embarrass our foolish contemporaries, for it emerges from our certified documents that black masses have continued to be said since the Middle Ages. In the seventeenth century, a certain Fr Guibourt celebrated it on the stomach of Mme de Montespan, and it is still going on today; there are sympathizers who indulge in sacrilege throughout Europe and even in America, where the poet Longfellow was head of a sect. All that gets rather involved with sodomy, as you can imagine. In this connection I have made a few sorties into the world of these ‘pearls,’ but despite everything, I do not find these mustachioed types seductive. Ah, if only your skater…! But he is already sufficiently perverted, from what you tell me.”
(Note: in Huysmans’ day, the word ‘pearl’ was a slang term for a homosexual. The ‘skater’ in this letter is an attractive young man that Prins was sexually obsessed with at that time, a topic that seemed to fascinate Huysmans himself. In another letter to Prins, Huysmans writes “Decidedly I am not a sodomite, a pederest maybe, with a young boy clean-shaven, but with these hulking mustachioed fellows 30 years old, nothing happens.” The reference to Longfellow is one of the mistakes that Huysmans made in the novel. In chapter V of Là-Bas, he writes, “There are now committees and sub-committees, a kind of Satanic court with jurisdiction over America and Europe, just like the Curia of the Pope. The largest of these societies, which dates from 1855, is the Society of Aristocratical Neo-Theurgists. It is split, despite an appearance of unity, into two camps: one aspiring to destroy the universe and reign over the ruins, and the other dreaming simply of imposing a demonic cult on the world, of which it would be the high priest. The society is based in America and was formerly under the direction of Longfellow, who styled himself the High Priest of New Evocative Magic, and for a long time now it has also had branches in France, Italy, Germany, Russia, Austria and even Turkey. At the present time, it’s pretty much on the wane or perhaps even defunct altogether, but another is on the way to being formed, the intention of which is to elect an anti-pope who will be the exterminating Antichrist.” Huysmans was under the mistaken believe that this was the poet Longfellow, rather than an occultist/Satanist of the same name!).
On June 15th, 1890, Huysmans wrote a letter to Arij Prins, reporting on the progress of his novel (among other subjects): “As for my book, I am working hard at it, terribly hard, but I am in despair. The warp is too close, the slotting together of Gilles de Rais and Satanism in our day is very simple, it does it all by itself. But… but… the frightening aspect is the grey tone of this book. It consists of conversation and dialogue. There are times when it takes on the appearance of theatre, and there is no way of doing it differently! It has not got the gleam of my other books at all; it is dull and cold. I have moments when I am discouraged by it. I do hope that this book, which is all episodic, will achieve a strange and curious whole, but that will be a question of chance, for nothing is less sure! Oh documentation! There is so much of it in this book, that there is no way I can turn it into art!” In this same letter he inquires again about Prins’ skater and encourages him to engage in a bit of anal sex: “Your little skater sometimes makes me dream. I should prefer him to the Countess. All the more so as he seems ripe for carnal sin. Come my friend, a little courage, deflower the mouth of Sodom!”
On July 24th, 1890, Huysmans once again sent a letter to Arij Prins, where he wrote: “…I have been condemned to death by the Rosicrucians, one of the recent Satanic sects founded in France!!! In magic any secret revealed is lost, and they are trying to stop my book coming out. Needless to say that, despite the sympathetic magic and poisonings aimed at my person, I am quite well! Fr Boullan, it is true, maintains he is defending me against them. It is quite laughable.” In the same letter he also wrote about how “My book will also have in its favour that it will be the final dismantling of that crumbling mound known as naturalism!” That same month, on June 26th, 1890, Huysmans wrote a letter to Boullan informing him that Là-Bas was now two-thirds finished.
Huysmans most likely completed Là-Bas in September of 1890. That same month he made the acquaintance of an older woman known as Julie Thibault, a priestess of Boullan’s sect and also his housekeeper (she would, in later years, briefly serve as Huysmans’ housekeeper as well). Thibault (whose nickname was ‘The Apostolic Woman”) was something of a Christian mystic who claimed to have conversations with the saints and the Virgin Mary every day. Needless to say, Huysmans found her fascinating, and she would go on to provide inspiration for his Madame Bavoil character in his later novels (namely The Cathedral and The Oblate). On the night of his introduction to Thibault, Huysmans was paid a visit by a succubus, which he believed was sent to him by Thibault: he described the experience as being “both exquisite and painful.” It was this event that convinced him the time was right to finally meet Boullan in person (a brief note: this wouldn’t be the first time that Huysmans was plagued by a succubus: during his stay at the monastery Notre-Dame d’Igny in the summer of 1892 he also claimed to be tormented by such beings).
In late September/early October, Huysmans visited Lyons to finally meet Boullan in person and thank him for his help with the research of Là-Bas.
On October 11th, 1890, Huysmans wrote a letter to Georges Landry in which he insisted that Boullan was “…not a Satanist – that is for certain – but he is the most extraordinary miracle worker in existence! I have been cosseted by these good people in a way I could not have expected. I have also seen singular things, and to think that there are people who deny the existence of the mysterious!”
In a letter to Jules Destrée written on December 12th, 1890, Huysmans wrote, “I have finished my book on Satanism, which is enormous (five hundred tightly packed pages!). I hope to come out in the first few months of next year. I expect nothing from it, I shall be accused of mystification or madness, and no one will believe that the strangest documents in this book were given to me by a priest, the last exorcist to be in possession of the secrets of the Middle Ages.”
January of 1891 found Huysmans going over the proofs of Là-Bas, as he relates in a letter to the bookseller/police-spy Gustave Boucher on January 15th, 1891 (it was Boucher who supplied Huysmans with some details on the Mass of Melchizedek, back in September of 1890, when they first made each other’s acquaintance).
Around this same period of time (late 1890) Huysmans had also become obsessed with the Parisian criminal underworld, and he and his friends would often go slumming in some of the seedier sections of the city (such as the district around Saint-Séverin and the Place Maubert, or the Rue Galande), seeking out “dens of thieves” and mingling with prostitutes, murderers, thieves and other criminals. Boucher would later introduce Huysmans to the notorious Bal du Château-Rouge (also known as the Cabaret de la Guillotine), which was situated in one of the oldest houses in its district (No. 57 Rue Galande, now demolished). With the company of friends (usually Boucher), Huysmans began to make weekly visits to this latter criminal hangout, which no doubt would have scandalized his co-workers at the Ministry of the Interior had they known. These visits came to an end in January of 1891, however. One evening Huysmans and a friend (de Bray) went there and some kind of altercation ensued. In a letter to a friend in which he expounded on the “terrible happenings at the Château-Rouge,” Huysmans claimed that de Bray was “practically clubbed to death” and that a waiter “had his throat slit” (he also mentioned how one of the criminals that frequented the Château-Rouge had attacked a number of other criminals at some hotel, and had even killed one of them: “A real massacre!” as Huysmans enthusiastically described it). This is another example of Huysmans exaggerating his stories for dramatic effect: many years after Huysmans’ death a man named Maurice Garcon conducted a careful study of the records of January 1891 at the Paris police headquarters, where he found no mention of any “massacres” at any Paris hotel that month: in the meanwhile, the “terrible happenings” turned out to be a simple brawl in which a waiter had been slightly wounded (in contrast to Huysmans’ lurid description of the event). Huysmans himself seemed convinced that he had been lucky not to have been murdered, so from that point on he began to curb his slumming.
Even more amazing about all of this is that, during this same time frame (again, around the last few months of 1890), which found Huysmans dabbling in the occult and hanging out with prostitutes in the lowest dives in Paris, also found Huysmans visiting churches and chapels on the Left Bank! And on January 18, 1891, in a letter to his friend Landry, he wrote the following: “But what sort of phenol, what cupric solutions could cleanse the great sewage tank into which my carnal iniquities are still pouring? It would need casks of carbolic, barrels of disinfectant – and then what Milleriot could handle a pump powerful enough to draw the residual waters from the old sewers? The breed of divine pumpmen who rejoiced in such labors is extinct. And so there seems no reason, brother, why things should not go on as before. Though it’s true that when they are as bad as this!…”
Originally, Huysmans had predicted that Là-Bas would be published in the spring of 1891, and he believed after completing it that no newspaper would publish it in a serial format, in regards to its sensational and grotesque subject matter. In this matter he was proved mistaken, for on February 15th, 1891, the very first installment of Là-Bas appeared in the popular newspaper known as L’Écho de Paris. Some segments of the reading public were scandalized by the book’s content, and some of the more conservative subscribers of the paper made threats to cancel their subscriptions unless Là-Bas was pulled, but Valentin Simond (the paper’s publisher) refused. The attention that Huysmans received from all this brought him many new readers (it was in fact his first bestseller), and it was equally successful when it was published in book form in April of 1891 by Tresse & Stock, though the novel was banned from railway book kiosks (indeed, the book proved to be so controversial that it wasn’t translated into English until around 30 years later, in 1924). Reviews were generally favorable, though unsurprisingly, the Rosicrucians hated it (ditto for Leon Bloy, who had then fallen out with Huysmans for reasons too numerous to mention). Not all of the reviews were good, though, as this one that appeared in the May 2nd, 1891 issue of The Saturday Review proves:
“M. Huysmans (7), like all French novelists of a certain school, is tormented by the “farthests” of others, as geographers say. He seems to have heard the voice cry antiquam exquirite matrem, and to have interpreted, let us look up old wives’ fables. And the old wives’ fables (of course, as unsavoury ones as possible) which he has chosen to look up are those of demoniality, black masses, &c.;, in general, of Gilles de Rais, the mediaeval Jack-the-Ripper of children, in particular. Michelet and others helping, he has executed his purpose, writing with some skill — when M. Huysmans uses an intelligible lingo he generally does that — and rather artfully interspersing his version of the ghastly legends of Tiffauges and Champtocé with a modern story of the inquiries of a Parisian novelist (assisted, of course, by somebody else’s wife) into the practices of contemporary devil-worshippers. These seem to have forgotten that their master is on high authority a gentleman, and that there is neither fun nor felicity in frantic and foolish filth.”
Now might be a good time to look at some of the events that befell Huysmans’ life in the months following the publication of Là-Bas.
“At outdoor rituals, Arizona says she wore a red robe and stood in the centre of a pentagram which was surrounded by a hexagram or Star of David. She was triggered into her ‘Isis’ program and conducted the Drawing Down of the Moon ceremony which, she says, made four snarling, hideous creatures materialise in the Satanists’ circle. The sacrificial victims, who have been bred from birth for the role, are ritually killed by slashing the throat from left to right. This is the origin of the Freemasonic sign of pulling the flat hand across the throat from left to right, a movement which means ‘You’re dead.’ The blood from the victims is collected and mixed with arsenic, which appears to be a necessary element for those of the human-reptilian bloodlines. This is poured into goblets and consumed by the Satanists, together with the liver and eyes. This is supposed to provide strength and greater psychic vision. Fat is scraped from the intestines and smeared over the bodies of the participants – like the fat of the ‘messeh’ in ancient Egypt. The corpse is then suspended from a tree and the Satanists stand naked to allow the dripping blood to fall on them. The Mother Goddess says that by this time the participants are in such a high state of excitement that they often shape-shift into reptilians and mostly manifest, she says, in a sort of off-white color.”
-David Icke, The Biggest Secret
Là-Bas: the Aftermath
On March 6th, 1891 (a month before the publication of Là-Bas in book form), Husmans received a letter from a Mr. Eugene Cross: in this letter, Cross wrote that if the letters of Mme. Chantelouve were in fact copies of letters that had been sent to Huysmans by Henriette Maillat, then Huysmans should contact Cross promptly. It was, in essence, a blackmail letter. Huysmans reminded Cross that he was himself a government official, then hired a detective to investigate both Cross and Maillat (this was around March 10th or so): when the two became aware of this, they quickly dropped the blackmail ploy. Around this same time he also sent a letter to Andre Gide, praising the novel Le Cahier d’Andre Walter, Gide’s first novel (that the author had previously sent to Huysmans).
The publication of Là-Bas also was condemned by the Rosicrucian secret societies of the time. In one of Boullan’s earliest letters to Huysmans (February 10th, 1890), he had asked Huysmans if he were prepared to defend himself should occult warfare erupt between himself and the Rosicrucians: Boullan had warned that, “if you write the book you have outlined to me, you will certainly incur the full fury of their hatred.” When Huysmans replied in the negative, Boullan supplied him with instructions on how to combat evil spells (during Huysmans first meeting with him during his Lyons trip towards the end of 1890). Later on he would also send him some “weapons,” such as an exorcistic paste, which was a mixture of myrrh, incense, camphor and cloves (the plant of St. John the Baptist), the purpose of this paste being to ward off evil spirits.
Around this same time (beginning in March of 1891 and ongoing for several years), Huysmans became troubled by the feeling of something cold moving across his face, and became alarmed at the idea that he was surrounded by an “invisible force.” These ‘attacks’ would often occur at night, before he went to bed, and he referred to them as ‘fluidic fisticuffs’ (apparently his pet cat suffered similar ‘attacks’ during this same time period). Naturally, Huysmans blamed the Rosicrucians (and Stanislas de Guaita in particular) for these “attacks.”
Other strange events began to occur. One day Boullan warned him not to go into work that day, so Huysmans called in sick. Upon returning to work the next day, he found out that on the previous day a heavy gilt-frame mirror behind his desk had fallen off the wall and landed at the exact spot where he should have been sitting (had he gone into work). He also made use of the exorcistic paste and the blood-stained hosts which Boullan had provided him with. At the first sign of a spiritual attack, Huysmans would promptly make use of these occult weapons. First he would burn a tablet of the paste in his fireplace. Then he would draw a defensive circle on the floor. Wielding the “miraculous host” in his right hand, he would then press the blessed scapular of Elijan Carmel to his body and begin reciting special conjurations, the purpose of which would dissolve the “astral fluids” and paralyze the “power of the sorcerers.” Perhaps needless to say, it was around this period that some of Huysmans friends had begun to suspect that he was suffering from some kind of mental degradation.
In a letter to Jean Lorrain (written April 15th, 1891), Huysmans wrote, “Personally, I renounce all Satanism. I am going to write a mystical book, and after my St-Severin, which is a relaxation, simply an interlude, I shall take a bath in a sheep dip, I shall purge myself, and with a clean body I shall go to confession – after which I shall, I think, be in a state of candour which will permit me to vent my hysteria in a reversal, an ‘A Rebours’ of Là-Bas!” A few months later, in a letter written to Emile Edwards on May 17th, 1891, Huysmans again confirmed that his next book would be the total opposite of Là-Bas: “I shall try to produce the opposite of Là-Bas – a book full of the whiteness of pure and divine mysticism.” But this was still all very vague, and he himself had no clear idea what the book would be like, though in April of 1891 he did mention (in an interview with Jules Huret) the possibility of doing a novel about a priest.
Generally speaking, Huysmans tended to avoid telling most of the people he knew about these religious stirrings, and if asked about the subject, usually would just evasively suggest it was research for his next novel. Not that all of his activities of this time period were pious, as he continued to frequent brothels as well. Finally, determined to lead a chaste life, he decided that he would need to seek out a spiritual advisor. When Berthe de Courrière (of all people!) found out about this, she began seeking out a priest for her friend to confide in. There was one priest she knew of, a worldly and literate man she had met towards the end of 1890 named Arthur Mugnier (b. 1853 in the village of Lubersac), who was the curate of the church of Saint-Thomas-d’Aquin, a post he had held since his appointment there in 1888. Around the time that Là-Bas was being serialized, Berthe mentioned to Mugnier, “I know the author of this novel, M. Huysmans, very well. He is a very talented writer. For some time now, he has been prowling round the churches and looking for a priest in whom to confide. I mentioned your name to him, and he would be glad to see you if you have no objections.” Even though Mugnier had yet to read a single word written by Huysmans (though he was familiar with his name), the priest agreed to meet him. On the evening of Thursday, May 28, 1891, Berthe took Huysmans to meet Mugnier. Once the two men were alone, Huysmans mentioned how he had just written a satanic book full of Black Masses, but that now he wanted to write a white book, but that before he could do that, he would first need to whiten himself. It was then that Huysmans asked the priest, “Have you any chlorine for my soul?”
Impressed by Huysmans’ humility, Mugnier agreed to become Huysmans’ spiritual advisor. Mugnier advised Huysmans to pray as often as he could, both at home and in church, and to avoid sinful occasions. At the same time that Huysmans was seeking advice from Mugnier, he was also (paradoxically) seeking out spiritual advice from Boullan. That July, Huysmans and Boullan made a pilgrimage to La Salette (the details of this trip would later be worked into his novel The Cathedral), before returning to Lyons and spending a few weeks with Boullan and his posse. While there, they received a letter from Paris, in which some occultists supposedly sent them death threats. In a letter to Boucher (written on August 19th), Huysmans wrote, “…and the battles lasted three days. It was like Wagram in the void! In his priestly vestments, with hosts in his hand, Boullan brought down his enemies, assisted by a somnambulist in a state of lucidity, and by Mother Thibault. And by me! I was responsible for seeing that the enemy did not cast little Laura (the somnambulist) into a state of catalepsy.”
Upon returning to Paris, Huysmans resumed both his pious and carnal activities, confessing to his friend Arij Prins (in a letter written on September 30th, 1891): “As far as filth is concerned, I have problems! I had discovered a girl whose depravity was first-rate; she had managed to get into my blood and we had some fine times between us. Her delicious and terrifying anus haunted me. I devoured it without respite, and now some American swine has deprived me of her. He is carrying her off to run a bar in Cincinnati! Damn! Since then other women seem insipid, even when using one’s tongue. That particular flower is decidedly the only remaining pleasure; but, damn it, a little mauve and pink hole is necessary, and that is not to be found every day.” In that same letter, he also gave some details about his next book: “I should like to write the battle between piety and the flesh. A book where there will be both prostitution and convents, scenes of taking the veil, and of deflowering, music and the liturgy of La Salette and strange corners of Paris. I am meditating on all this, and it is simmering away. I hope something will emerge from this cookery.”
In a long letter written to Louis de Robert and Emile Lapoix in November 1891, Huysmans claimed that “…I believe naturalism to be dead and buried, if it continues in the way in which it is being enforced. The novel of the mediocre man, of the majority, of the average voter, an analysis of the man in the street seems to me to be finished.” He also goes on to claim in this letter that the first chapter of Là-Bas is essentially a summary of how he feels about art, and that Là-Bas “…is in fact naturalistic, if by this word you understand only its documentary veracity, the reality of its characters, and for me this is so, but in quite a different way from in Les Soeurs Vatard, for example. In that area, the soul follows a special path that is unknown and immense, more interesting – for me at least – than all the psychology of worldly ladies or fishwives…To sum up, like you, I believe in exact documentation and in life, and I have no intention of straying from this path, but I am moving towards a beyond that is different from Zola, or even the Goncourts, towards states of the soul that are less well known, but I think interesting and disturbing.”
In the summer of 1892 (July to be exact), Huysmans spent a week at a Trappist monastery named Notre-Dame d’Igny, where he made Confession and took Communion: essentially, it was a religious retreat. Although this was a huge moment in Huysmans’ life, the topic is too lengthy to get into here: those curious about it should seek out his novel En Route, which (among other things) “dramatizes” his time at the monastery in fictional form.
Shortly after his stay with the Trappists, in August of 1892, Huysmans returned to Lyons to hang out with Boullan and his sect again. Around this same period of time, Boullan was trying to influence the subject matter of Husymans’ ‘white’ book (which for a time he was calling La Bataille charnelle, “The Carnal Battle”), saying that it should revolve around demonic possession in the convents of France and also present “…the spectacle of people abandoned to every sort of satanic obscenity, yet at the same time enjoying the illumination of divine life” (Boullan might have been describing himself here). During his stay there, Huysmans watched as Boullan engaged in long-distance occult warfare with his Rosicrucian foes, while Madame Thibault reported her visions of militant archangels. Huysmans seems to have begun harboring some doubts about Boullan around this period, for in a letter to a friend, he confessed, “This Boullan is disconcerting. As a theologian, as a mystic, and as an experienced confessor, he was incomparable. Why the devil had this man, who would otherwise have become an ecclesiastical high-up a long time ago, to get mixed up with the crazy notions of a Vintras!”
In the winter of 1892, Joseph Boullan visited Paris on a “mysterious errand,” staying at a hotel under an assumed name. During his stay in Paris, Boullan hung out with Huysmans and some of his friends. This would be the last time that Huysmans and Boullan would ever see each other again. By the start of 1893 Boullan was back at his home in Lyons, and on the 2nd of January he wrote a letter to Huysmans, extracts of which follow:
“My very dear friend J.-K, Huysmans, We received with much pleasure the letter which brought us your good wishes for this New Year. It opens with ominous presentiments, this fateful year, and its figures 8-9-3 together form a terrible warning… 3 January. I ended my letter there last night to wait for dear Mme Thibault to finish hers; but during the night a terrible incident occurred. At three in the morning I awoke with a feeling of suffocation and called out twice: ‘Madame Thibault, I’m choking!’ She heard, and came to my room, where she found me lying unconscious. From three till three-thirty I was between life and death. At Saint-Maximin, Mme Thibault had dreamt of Guaita, and the next morning a bird of death had called to her – prophesying this attack. M. Misme, too, had dreamt of it. At four I was able to go to sleep again: the danger had passed…”
Boullan passed away the following day, on January 4th, in the evening. He had been in a jovial mood that evening, but during his nightly prayers with Julie Thibault he suddenly began to feel ill and cried out, “What’s that?” He then crumpled to the ground and “died after an agony lasting two minutes” (to quote from a letter that Thibault sent to Huysmans regarding the death of Boullan shortly afterwards).
Huysmans instantly suspected the black magic of the Rosicrucians as the prime culprit behind Boullan’s death. He expressed these suspicions to his friend Jules Bois (who was also a disciple of Boullan). Bois then wrote an article attacking Guaita, which appeared in the January 9th issue of Gil Blas:
“I consider it my duty to relate these facts: the strange presentiments of Joseph Boullan, the prophetic visions of Mme Thibault and M. Misme, and these seemingly indisputable attacks by the Rosicrucians Wirth, Péladan, and Guaita on this man who has died. I am informed that M. le Marquis de Guaita lives a lonely and secluded life; that he handles poisons with great skill and marvelous sureness; that he can volatize them and direct them into space; that he even has a familiar spirit – M. Paul Adam, M. Dubus, and M. Gary de Lacroze have seen it – locked up in a cupboard at his home, which comes out in visible form at his command… What I now ask, without accusing anyone at all, is that some explanation be given of the causes of Boullan’s death. For the liver and the heart – the organs through which death struck at Boullan – are the very points where the astral forces normally penetrate.”
In an interview with Le Figaro a few days later (January 10th, 1893), Bois went on to claim that (though the response was wrongly attributed to Huysmans), “It is indisputable that Guaita and Péladan practise Black Magic every day. Poor Boullan was engaged in perpetual conflict with the evil spirits which for two years they continually sent him from Paris. Nothing is more vague and indefinite than these questions of magic, but it is quite possible that my poor friend Boullan has succumbed to a supremely powerful spell.” Guaita was so outraged by these comments that he ended up challenging Huysmans to a duel, but in the end Huysmans decided to placate Guaita and, in an article published on January 15th, he disassociated himself from Bloy’s accusations (Guaita himself would die a few years later, in 1897, at the age of 36, from a drug overdose).
Unable to attend Boullan’s funeral, Huysmans instead purchased a 15-year grant of a grave in a cemetery in Lyons, and on the tombstone he had this inscription placed: ‘J.-A. Boullan (Docteur Johannes), noble victime’. The grant, however, was never renewed, for by 1908 Huysmans, Julie Thibault, and most of the other members of Boullan’s sect had all passed away.
Moving on, by May 1893, Huysmans decided to take his ‘white’ book (which for a time he had intended to call Là-Haut, or Up There, thus further casting it as a sequel to Là-Bas) in a new direction. This would now become his novel En Route. Shortly before the book’s publication in 1885, Huysmans would provide this description of the book to a friend:
“The plot of the novel is as simple as it could be. I’ve taken the principal character of Là-Bas, Durtal, had him converted, and sent him to a Trappist monastery. In studying his conversion, I’ve tried to trace the progress of a soul surprised by the gift of grace, and developing in an ecclesiastical atmosphere, to the accompaniment of mystical literature, liturgy, and plainchant, against a background of all the admirable art which the Church has created.” He then goes on to explain how the book is split into two parts, with the first part taking place in Paris and detailing the steps of Durtal’s turn towards Catholicism, while part two takes place at a Trappist monastery. As Huysmans notes, “In a word, I have made nothing up, neither the daily timetable, which I copied out at Igny, nor the kinds of monk that I present.” In short, En Route, even more so than Là-Bas, is less novel and more thinly-veiled autobiography, though it does make some reference to some of the events of Là-Bas: we find out that Durtal both finished and published his book on Gilles de Rais (somewhat unoriginally calling it The Life of Gilles de Rais), during his Confession at the Trappist monastery he mentions his relationship with Madame Chantelouve and how she took him to a Black Mass, and we also find out that in-between Là-Bas and En Route Durtal lost his two closest friends within two months of each other, with des Hermies dying from typhoid fever and Carhaix expiring from a chill.
In the summer of 1884, Huysmans paid a brief visit to Lyons to consult the private papers of Boullan. It was then that he also first discovered and read (to his horror) Boullan’s infamous cahier rose, and thus realized that Boullan and his followers had duped him all along (sadly for our purposes, around this point in time he destroyed the majority of his correspondence with Boullan: only a few of their letters remain in existence today, four of which may be found at the Bibliotheque de l’Arsenal in Paris). Later on in his life, in a letter to Adolphe Berthet written on May 1st, 1900, Huysmans wrote, “Boullan was a Satanist, that is for sure, and Guaita was another. Only they both pretended to be men of God. And they both lied…”
In the year 1904, Les Cent Bibliophiles published a deluxe edition of A rebours, and to this edition Huysmans wrote a special preface, entitled “Preface, written twenty years after the novel” (though in fact he wrote this preface the previous year, in 1903). Although the subject matter of this preface naturally concerned itself with A rebours, Huysmans did address some of his other novels as well, including Là-Bas, and seeing as how this preface was written towards the end of Huysmans’ life (and in essence seems to summarize his life’s work as a novelist), it seems only appropriate to conclude this segment with his thoughts on Là-Bas: “As for this novel Là-Bas, which alarmed so many people, I wouldn’t write it in the same way either, now that I have become a Catholic again. No doubt it is true that the wicked, sensual part expounded in it is reprehensible; but I have to say that I toned it down, I revealed almost nothing; the documents the book contains are very insipid confections, very tasteless morsels compared with those I omitted and which I have in my archives. Nevertheless, I believe that despite its cerebral aberrations and its alvine follies, the novel has, by mere virtue of the subject matter it treated, rendered a useful service. It has drawn attention to the machinations of the Evil One, who had succeeded in getting men to deny his existence; it has been the point of departure for all the subsequent studies on the eternal trial of Satanism; it has helped to put an end to the odious practices of sorcery by exposing them; in short, it has taken sides and resolutely fought for the Church against the Devil.”
I do find it interesting that, following his reversion to Catholicism, certain members of the priesthood at the time were convinced that Huysmans should repudiate his secular books and have them destroyed. But as Huysmans observed in that same above quoted preface, “… how is it possible to appreciate the work of a writer in its entirety if one doesn’t see it from the beginning, if one doesn’t follow it step by step; and how, above all, is it possible to understand the progress of Grace in a soul if you suppress the traces of its passage, if you efface the first impressions it left behind?”
1903 saw the publication of The Oblate of St. Benedict, the fourth and final book of the Durtal tetralogy: having brought Durtal to the end of his spiritual voyage, it would fittingly be the final novel penned by Huysmans, who died on May 12th, 1907, from cancer of the mouth. He was 59 years old.
“Guibourg also confirmed that it was at la Voisin’s that he had ministered to the depraved requirements of Mlle des Oeillets and the titled Englishman, and he recalled an instance when he had performed a particularly distasteful spell for them. After Mlle des Oeillets had provided Guibourg with a sample of her menstrual blood, the Englishman masturbated into a chalice, then bats’ blood and flour were added to the semen collected there. Once Guibourg had uttered an incantation on this mixture, Mlle des Oeillets and her male companion took it away.”
-Anne Somerset, The Affair of the Poisons
What follows are two excerpts from the novel Là-Bas. For these, I have chosen to use the Keene Wallace translation, which, while not as accurate as some of the later English translations, is still the first version of the text that I ever read, and hence still has some sentimental value (though I still stress that the Dedalus Press edition is the ideal translation to read for those new to the book: indeed, prior to its appearance there had never been publically available a complete and unexpurgated English translation of the book).
Grünewald’s Karlsruhe Crucifixion, 1523-1525
“Durtal’s introduction to this naturalism had come as a revelation the year before, although he had not then been so weary as now of fin de siècle silliness. In Germany, before a Crucifixion by Matthæus Grünewald, he had found what he was seeking.
He shuddered in his armchair and closed his eyes as if in pain. With extraordinary lucidity he revisualized the picture, and the cry of admiration wrung from him when he had entered the little room of the Cassel museum was reechoing in his mind as here, in his study, the Christ rose before him, formidable, on a rude cross of barky wood, the arm an untrimmed branch bending like a bow under the weight of the body.
This branch seemed about to spring back and mercifully hurl afar from our cruel, sinful world the suffering flesh held to earth by the enormous spike piercing the feet. Dislocated, almost ripped out of their sockets, the arms of the Christ seemed trammelled by the knotty cords of the straining muscles. The laboured tendons of the armpits seemed ready to snap. The fingers, wide apart, were contorted in an arrested gesture in which were supplication and reproach but also benediction. The trembling thighs were greasy with sweat. The ribs were like staves, or like the bars of a cage, the flesh swollen, blue, mottled with flea-bites, specked as with pin-pricks by spines broken off from the rods of the scourging and now festering beneath the skin where they had penetrated.
Purulence was at hand. The fluvial wound in the side dripped thickly, inundating the thigh with blood that was like congealing mulberry juice. Milky pus, which yet was somewhat reddish, something like the colour of grey Moselle, oozed from the chest and ran down over the abdomen and the loin cloth. The knees had been forced together and the rotulæ touched, but the lower legs were held wide apart, though the feet were placed one on top of the other. These, beginning to putrefy, were turning green beneath a river of blood. Spongy and blistered, they were horrible, the flesh tumefied, swollen over the head of the spike, and the gripping toes, with the horny blue nails, contradicted the imploring gesture of the hands, turning that benediction into a curse; and as the hands pointed heavenward, so the feet seemed to cling to earth, to that ochre ground, ferruginous like the purple soil of Thuringia.
Above this eruptive cadaver, the head, tumultuous, enormous, encircled by a disordered crown of thorns, hung down lifeless. One lacklustre eye half opened as a shudder of terror or of sorrow traversed the expiring figure. The face was furrowed, the brow seamed, the cheeks blanched; all the drooping features wept, while the mouth, unnerved, its under jaw racked by tetanic contractions, laughed atrociously.
The torture had been terrific, and the agony had frightened the mocking executioners into flight.
Against a dark blue night-sky the cross seemed to bow down, almost to touch the ground with its tip, while two figures, one on each side, kept watch over the Christ. One was the Virgin, wearing a hood the colour of mucous blood over a robe of wan blue. Her face was pale and swollen with weeping, and she stood rigid, as one who buries his fingernails deep into his palms and sobs. The other figure was that of Saint John, like a gipsy or sunburnt Swabian peasant, very tall, his beard matted and tangled, his robe of a scarlet stuff cut in wide strips like slabs of bark. His mantle was a chamois yellow; the lining, caught up at the sleeves, showed a feverish yellow as of unripe lemons. Spent with weeping, but possessed of more endurance than Mary, who was yet erect but broken and exhausted, he had joined his hands and in an access of outraged loyalty had drawn himself up before the corpse, which he contemplated with his red and smoky eyes while he choked back the cry which threatened to rend his quivering throat.
Ah, this coarse, tear-compelling Calvary was at the opposite pole from those debonair Golgothas adopted by the Church ever since the Renaissance. This lockjaw Christ was not the Christ of the rich, the Adonis of Galilee, the exquisite dandy, the handsome youth with the curly brown tresses, divided beard, and insipid doll-like features, whom the faithful have adored for four centuries. This was the Christ of Justin, Basil, Cyril, Tertullian, the Christ of the apostolic church, the vulgar Christ, ugly with the assumption of the whole burden of our sins and clothed, through humility, in the most abject of forms.
It was the Christ of the poor, the Christ incarnate in the image of the most miserable of us He came to save; the Christ of the afflicted, of the beggar, of all those on whose indigence and helplessness the greed of their brother battens; the human Christ, frail of flesh, abandoned by the Father until such time as no further torture was possible; the Christ with no recourse but His Mother, to Whom—then powerless to aid Him—He had, like every man in torment, cried out with an infant’s cry.
In an unsparing humility, doubtless, He had willed to suffer the Passion with all the suffering permitted to the human senses, and, obeying an incomprehensible ordination, He, in the time of the scourging and of the blows and of the insults spat in His face, had put off divinity, nor had He resumed it when, after these preliminary mockeries, He entered upon the unspeakable torment of the unceasing agony. Thus, dying like a thief, like a dog, basely, vilely, physically, He had sunk himself to the deepest depth of fallen humanity and had not spared Himself the last ignominy of putrefaction.
Never before had naturalism transfigured itself by such a conception and execution. Never before had a painter so charnally envisaged divinity nor so brutally dipped his brush into the wounds and running sores and bleeding nail holes of the Saviour. Grünewald had passed all measure. He was the most uncompromising of realists, but his morgue Redeemer, his sewer Deity, let the observer know that realism could be truly transcendent. A divine light played about that ulcerated head, a superhuman expression illuminated the fermenting skin of the epileptic features. This crucified corpse was a very God, and, without aureole, without nimbus, with none of the stock accoutrements except the blood-sprinkled crown of thorns, Jesus appeared in His celestial super-essence, between the stunned, grief-torn Virgin and a Saint John whose calcined eyes were beyond the shedding of tears.
These faces, by nature vulgar, were resplendent, transfigured with the expression of the sublime grief of those souls whose plaint is not heard. Thief, pauper, and peasant had vanished and given place to supraterrestial creatures in the presence of their God.
Grünewald was the most uncompromising of idealists. Never had artist known such magnificent exaltation, none had ever so resolutely bounded from the summit of spiritual altitude to the rapt orb of heaven. He had gone to the two extremes. From the rankest weeds of the pit he had extracted the finest essence of charity, the mordant liquor of tears. In this canvas was revealed the masterpiece of an art obeying the unopposable urge to render the tangible and the invisible, to make manifest the crying impurity of the flesh and to make sublime the infinite distress of the soul.
It was without its equivalent in literature. A few pages of Anne Emmerich upon the Passion, though comparatively attenuated, approached this ideal of supernatural realism and of veridic and exsurrected life. Perhaps, too, certain effusions of Ruysbroeck, seeming to spurt forth in twin jets of black and white flame, were worthy of comparison with the divine befoulment of Grünewald. Hardly, either. Grünewald’s masterpiece remained unique. It was at the same time infinite and of earth earthy.”
“Gilles refuses to alienate his existence and sell his soul, but he contemplates murder without any horror. This man, so brave on the battlefield, so courageous when he accompanied Jeanne d’Arc, trembles before the Devil and is afraid when he thinks of eternity and of Christ. The same is true of his accomplices. He has made them swear on the Testament to keep the secret of the confounding turpitudes which the château conceals, and he can be sure that not one will violate the oath, for, in the Middle Ages, the most reckless of freebooters would not commit the inexpiable sin of deceiving God.
“At the same time that his alchemists abandon their unfruitful furnaces, Gilles begins a course of systematic gluttony, and his flesh, set on fire by the essences of inordinate potations and spiced dishes, seethes in tumultuous eruption.
“Now, there are no women in the château. Gilles appears to have despised the sex ever since leaving the court. After experience of the ribalds of the camps and frequentation, with Xaintrailles and La Hire, of the prostitutes of Charles VII, it seems that a dislike for the feminine form came over him. Like others whose ideal of concupiscence is deteriorated and deviated, he certainly comes to be disgusted by the delicacy of the grain of the skin of women and by that odour of femininity which all sodomists abhor.
“He depraves the choir boys who are under his authority. He chose them in the first place, these little psaltry ministrants, for their beauty, and ‘beautiful as angels’ they are. They are the only ones he loves, the only ones he spares in his murderous transports.
“But soon infantile pollution seems to him an insipid delicacy. The law of Satanism which demands that the elect of Evil, once started, must go the whole way, is once more fulfilled. Gilles’s soul must become thoroughly cankered, a red tabernacle, that in it the Very Low may dwell at ease.
“The litanies of lust arise in an atmosphere that is like the wind over a slaughter house. The first victim is a very small boy whose name we do not know. Gilles disembowels him, and, cutting off the hands and tearing out the eyes and heart, carries these members into Prelati’s chamber. The two men offer them, with passionate objurgations, to the Devil, who holds his peace. Gilles, confounded, flees. Prelati rolls up the poor remains in linen and, trembling, goes out at night to bury them in consecrated ground beside a chapel dedicated to Saint Vincent.
“Gilles preserves the blood of this child to write formulas of evocation and conjurements. It manures a horrible crop. Not long afterward the Marshal reaps the most abundant harvest of crimes that has ever been sown.
“From 1432 to 1440, that is to say during the eight years between the Marshal’s retreat and his death, the inhabitants of Anjou, Poitou, and Brittany walk the highways wringing their hands. All the children disappear. Shepherd boys are abducted from the fields. Little girls coming out of school, little boys who have gone to play ball in the lanes or at the edge of the wood, return no more.
“In the course of an investigation ordered by the duke of Brittany, the scribes of Jean Touscheronde, duke’s commissioner in these matters, compile interminable lists of lost children.
“Lost, at la Rochebernart, the child of the woman Péronne, ‘a child who did go to school and who did apply himself to his book with exceeding diligence.’
“Lost, at Saint Etienne de Montluc, the son of Guillaume Brice, ‘and this was a poor man and sought alms.’
“Lost, at Mâchecoul, the son of Georget le Barbier, ‘who was seen, a certain day, knocking apples from a tree behind the hôtel Rondeau, and who since hath not been seen.’
“Lost, at Thonaye, the child of Mathelin Thouars, ‘and he had been heard to cry and lament and the said child was about twelve years of age.’
“At Mâchecoul, again, the day of Pentecost, mother and father Sergent leave their eight-year-old boy at home, and when they return from the fields ‘they did not find the said child of eight years of age, wherefore they marvelled and were exceeding grieved.’
“At Chantelou, it is Pierre Badieu, mercer of the parish, who says that a year or thereabouts ago, he saw, in the domain de Rais, ‘two little children of the age of nine who were brothers and the children of Robin Pavot of the aforesaid place, and since that time neither have they been seen neither doth any know what hath become of them.’
“At Nantes, it is Jeanne Darel who deposes that ‘on the day of the feast of the Holy Father, her true child named Olivier did stray from her, being of the age of seven and eight years, and since the day of the feast of the Holy Father neither did she see him nor hear tidings.’
“And the account of the investigation goes on, revealing hundreds of names, describing the grief of the mothers who interrogate passersby on the highway, and telling of the keening of the families from whose very homes children have been spirited away when the elders went to the fields to hoe or to sow the hemp. These phrases, like a desolate refrain, recur again and again, at the end of every deposition: ‘They were seen complaining dolorously,’ ‘Exceedingly they did lament.’ Wherever the bloodthirsty Gilles dwells the women weep.
“At first the frantic people tell themselves that evil fairies and malicious genii are dispersing the generation, but little by little terrible suspicions are aroused. As soon as the Marshal quits a place, as he goes from the château de Tiffauges to the château de Champtocé, and from there to the castle of La Suze or to Nantes, he leaves behind him a wake of tears. He traverses a countryside and in the morning children are missing. Trembling, the peasant realizes also that wherever Prelati, Roger de Bricqueville, Gilles de Sillé, any of the Marshal’s intimates, have shown themselves, little boys have disappeared. Finally, the peasant learns to look with horror upon an old woman, Perrine Martin, who wanders around, clad in grey, her face covered—as is that of Gilles de Sillé—with a black stamin. She accosts children, and her speech is so seductive, her face, when she raises her veil, so benign, that all follow her to the edge of a wood, where men carry them off, gagged, in sacks. And the frightened people call this purveyor of flesh, this ogress, ‘La Mefrraye,’ from the name of a bird of prey.
“These emissaries spread out, covering all the villages and hamlets, tracking the children down at the orders of the Chief Huntsman, the sire de Bricqueville. Not content with these beaters, Gilles takes to standing at a window of the château, and when young mendicants, attracted by the renown of his bounty, ask an alms, he runs an appraising eye over them, has any who excite his lust brought in and thrown into an underground prison and kept there until, being in appetite, he is pleased to order a carnal supper.
“How many children did he disembowel after deflowering them? He himself did not know, so many were the rapes he had consummated and the murders he had committed. The texts of the times enumerate between, seven and eight hundred, but the estimate is inaccurate and seems overconservative. Entire regions were devastated. The hamlet of Tiffauges had no more young men. La Suze was without male posterity. At Champtocé the whole foundation room of a tower was filled with corpses. A witness cited in the inquest, Guillaume Hylairet, declared also, “that one hight Du Jardin hath heard say that there was found in the said castle a wine pipe full of dead little children.’
“Even today traces of these assassinations linger. Two years ago at Tiffauges a physician discovered an oubliette and brought forth piles of skulls and bones.
“Gilles confessed to frightful holocausts, and his friends confirmed the atrocious details.
“At dusk, when their senses are phosphorescent, enkindled by inflammatory spiced beverages and by ‘high’ venison, Gilles and his friends retire to a distant chamber of the château. The little boys are brought from their cellar prisons to this room. They are disrobed and gagged. The Marshal fondles them and forces them. Then he hacks them to pieces with a dagger, taking great pleasure in slowly dismembering them. At other times he slashes the boy’s chest and drinks the breath from the lungs; sometimes he opens the stomach also, smells it, enlarges the incision with his hands, and seats himself in it. Then while he macerates the warm entrails in mud, he turns half around and looks over his shoulder to contemplate the supreme convulsions, the last spasms. He himself says afterwards, ‘I was happier in the enjoyment of tortures, tears, fright, and blood, than in any other pleasure.’
“Then he becomes weary of these fecal joys. An unpublished passage in his trial proceedings informs us that ‘The said sire heated himself with little boys, sometimes also with little girls, with whom he had congress in the belly, saying that he had more pleasure and less pain than acting in nature.’ After which, he slowly saws their throats, cuts them to pieces, and the corpses, the linen and the clothing, are put in the fireplace, where a smudge fire of logs and leaves is burning, and the ashes are thrown into the latrine, or scattered to the winds from the top of a tower, or buried in the moats and mounds.
“Soon his furies become aggravated. Until now he has appeased the rage of his senses with living or moribund beings. He wearies of stuprating palpitant flesh and becomes a lover of the dead. A passionate artist, he kisses, with cries of enthusiasm, the well-made limbs of his victims. He establishes sepulchral beauty contests, and whichever of the truncated heads receives the prize he raises by the hair and passionately kisses the cold lips.
“Vampirism satisfies him for months. He pollutes dead children, appeasing the fever of his desires in the blood smeared chill of the tomb. He even goes so far—one day when his supply of children is exhausted—as to disembowel a pregnant woman and sport with the fœtus. After these excesses he falls into horrible states of coma, similar to those heavy lethargies which overpowered Sergeant Bertrand after his violations of the grave. But if that leaden sleep is one of the known phases of ordinary vampirism, if Gilles de Rais was merely a sexual pervert, we must admit that he distinguished himself from the most delirious sadists, the most exquisite virtuosi in pain and murder, by a detail which seems extrahuman, it is so horrible.
“As these terrifying atrocities, these monstrous outrages, no longer suffice him, he corrodes them with the essence of a rare sin. It is no longer the resolute, sagacious cruelty of the wild beast playing with the body of a victim. His ferocity does not remain merely carnal; it becomes spiritual. He wishes to make the child suffer both in body and soul. By a thoroughly Satanic cheat he deceives gratitude, dupes affection, and desecrates love. At a leap he passes the bounds of human infamy and lands plump in the darkest depth of Evil.
“He contrives this: One of the unfortunate children is brought into his chamber, and hanged, by Bricqueville, Prelati, and de Sillé, to a hook fixed into the wall. Just at the moment when the child is suffocating, Gilles orders him to be taken down and the rope untied. With some precaution, he takes the child on his knees, revives him, caresses him, rocks him, dries his tears, and pointing to the accomplices, says, ‘These men are bad, but you see they obey me. Do not be afraid. I will save your life and take you back to your mother,’ and while the little one, wild with joy, kisses him and at that moment loves him, Gilles gently makes an incision in the back of the neck, rendering the child ‘languishing,’ to follow Gilles’s own expression, and when the head, not quite detached, bows, Gilles kneads the body, turns it about, and violates it, bellowing.
“After these abominable pastimes he may well believe that the art of the charnalist has beneath his fingers expressed its last drop of pus, and in a vaunting cry he says to his troop of parasites, “There is no man on earth who dare do as I have done.’
“But if in Love and Well-doing the infinite is approachable for certain souls, the out-of-the-world possibilities of Evil are limited. In his excesses of stupration and murder the Marshal cannot go beyond a fixed point. In vain he may dream of unique violations, of more ingenious slow tortures, but human imagination has a limit and he has already reached it—even passed it, with diabolic aid. Insatiable he seethes—there is nothing material in which to express his ideal. He can verify that axiom of demonographers, that the Evil One dupes all persons who give themselves, or are willing to give themselves, to him.
“As he can descend no further, he tries returning on the way by which he has come, but now remorse overtakes him, overwhelms him, and wrenches him without respite. His nights are nights of expiation. Besieged by phantoms, he howls like a wounded beast. He is found rushing along the solitary corridors of the château. He weeps, throws himself on his knees, swears to God that he will do penance. He promises to found pious institutions. He does establish, at Mâchecoul, a boys’ academy in honour of the Holy Innocents. He speaks of shutting himself up in a cloister, of going to Jerusalem, begging his bread on the way.
“But in this fickle and aberrated mind ideas superpose themselves on each other, then pass away, and those which disappear leave their shadow on those which follow. Abruptly, even while weeping with distress, he precipitates himself into new debauches and, raving with delirium, hurls himself upon the child brought to him, gouges out the eyes, runs his finger around the bloody, milky socket, then he seizes a spiked club and crushes the skull. And while the gurgling blood runs over him, he stands, smeared with spattered brains, and grinds his teeth and laughs. Like a hunted beast he flees into the wood, while his henchmen remove the crimson stains from the ground and dispose prudently of the corpse and the reeking garments.
“He wanders in the forests surrounding Tiffauges, dark, impenetrable forests like those which Brittany still can show at Carnoet. He sobs as he walks along. He attempts to thrust aside the phantoms which accost him. Then he looks about him and beholds obscenity in the shapes of the aged trees. It seems that nature perverts itself before him, that his very presence depraves it. For the first time he understands the motionless lubricity of trees. He discovers priapi in the branches.
“Here a tree appears to him as a living being, standing on its root-tressed head, its limbs waving in the air and spread wide apart, subdivided and re-subdivided into haunches, which again are divided and re-subdivided. Here between two limbs another branch is jammed, in a stationary fornication which is reproduced in diminished scale from bough to twig to the top of the tree. There it seems the trunk is a phallus which mounts and disappears into a skirt of leaves or which, on the contrary, issues from a green clout and plunges into the glossy belly of the earth.
“Frightful images rise before him. He sees the skin of little boys, the lucid white skin, vellum-like, in the pale, smooth bark of the slender beeches. He recognizes the pachydermatous skin of the beggar boys in the dark and wrinkled envelope of the old oaks. Beside the bifurcations of the branches there are yawning holes, puckered orifices in the bark, simulating emunctoria, or the protruding anus of a beast. In the joints of the branches there are other visions, elbows, armpits furred with grey lichens. Even in the trunks there are incisions which spread out into great lips beneath tufts of brown, velvety moss.
“Everywhere obscene forms rise from the ground and spring, disordered, into a firmament which satanizes. The clouds swell into breasts, divide into buttocks, bulge as if with fecundity, scattering a train of spawn through space. They accord with the sombre bulging of the foliage, in which now there are only images of giant or dwarf hips, feminine triangles, great V’s, mouths of Sodom, glowing cicatrices, humid vents. This landscape of abomination changes. Gilles now sees on the trunks frightful cancers and horrible wens. He observes exostoses and ulcers, membranous sores, tubercular chancres, atrocious caries. It is an arboreal lazaret, a venereal clinic.
“And there, at a detour of the forest aisle, stands a mottled red beech.
“Amid the sanguinary falling leaves he feels that he has been spattered by a shower of blood. He goes into a rage. He conceives the delusion that beneath the bark lives a wood nymph, and he would feel with his hands the palpitant flesh of the goddess, he would trucidate the Dryad, violate her in a place unknown to the follies of men.
“He is jealous of the woodman who can murder, can massacre, the trees, and he raves. Tensely he listens and hears in the soughing wind a response to his cries of desire. Overwhelmed, he resumes his walk, weeping, until he arrives at the château and sinks to his bed exhausted, an inert mass.
“The phantoms take more definite shape, now that he sleeps. The lubric enlacements of the branches, dilated crevices and cleft mosses, the coupling of the diverse beings of the wood, disappear; the tears of the leaves whipped by the wind are dried; the white abscesses of the clouds are resorbed into the grey of the sky; and—in an awful silence—the incubi and succubi pass.
“The corpses of his victims, reduced to ashes and scattered, return to the larva state and attack his lower parts. He writhes, with the blood bursting his veins. He rebounds in a somersault, then he crawls to the crucifix, like a wolf, on all fours, and howling, strains his lips to the feet of the Christ.
“A sudden reaction overwhelms him. He trembles before the image whose convulsed face looks down on him. He adjures Christ to have pity, supplicates Him to spare a sinner, and sobs and weeps, and when, incapable of further effort, he whimpers, he hears, terrified, in his own voice, the lamentations of the children crying for their mothers and pleading for mercy.”
I would like to add here that, despite the grimness of some of the book’s subject matter (as can be seen from the above passages), at the same time there are also some very funny moments. Part of the humor comes from Huysmans’ constant vexation with nearly every single aspect of modern society: at the start of chapter V, he even takes a moment to go on a long diatribe about modern stoves (or, as he calls them, “hideous sausages of sheet-metal”). In one scene, Durtal tells Hyacinthe that he can’t sleep with her anymore, and as an excuse for why this is the case he comes up with some cock & bull story on the spot about a non-existent child of his and the child’s ailing mother, and by the end of his lie has gotten so carried away with it that he finds himself believing in the child himself and almost starts crying. When des Hermies finds out that Huysmans will be attending a Black Mass, he grumbles, “Some people have all the luck!” And in the chapter following the Black Mass chapter, des Hermies is unimpressed with Canon Docre’s version of the Black Mass, proclaiming it (in comparsion with the crimes of Gilles de Rais) “…incomplete, pale imitations, tame, as one might say.” To which Durtal peevishly replies, “You’re a fine fellow, you are. It’s not that easy these days to procure children one can disembowel with impunity, without the parents whinging and the police coming after you!”
“In Paris, and even in London, there are misguided people who are abusing their priceless spiritual gifts to obtain petty and temporary advantages through these practices. The “Black Mass” is a totally different matter. I could not celebrate it if I wanted to, for I am not a consecrated priest of the Christian Church. The celebrant must be a priest, for the whole idea of the practice is to profane the Sacrament of the Eucharist. Therefore you must believe in the truth of the cult and the efficacy of its ritual. A renegade priest gathers about him a congregation of sensation-hunters and religious fanatics; then only can the ceremonies of profanation be of extended black magical effect. There are many ways of abusing the Sacrament. One of the best known of which is the “Mass of Saint Secaire,” the purpose of which is to cause an enemy to wither away. At this “mass,” always held in some secret place, preferably in a disused chapel, at midnight, the priest appears in canonical robes. But even in his robes there is some sinister change, a perversion of their symbolic sanctity. There is an altar, but the candles are of black wax. The crucifix is fixed the head downwards. The clerk to the priest is a woman, and her dress, although it seems to be a church garment, is more like a costume in a prurient revue. It has been altered to make it indecent. The ceremony is a parody of the orthodox Mass, with blasphemous interpolations. The priest must be careful, however, to consecrate the Host in the orthodox manner. The wine has been adulterated with magical drugs like deadly nightshade and vervain, but the priest must convert it into the blood of Christ. The dreadful basis of the Mass is that the bread and wine have imprisoned the Deity. Then they are subjected to terrible profanations.”
-extract from an essay entitled “Black Magic is Not a Myth” written by Aleister Crowley in 1933
Some Examples of Là-Bas in Pop Culture
It would seem that the fictional serial killer Norman Bates is a fan of Là-Bas. Consider this passage from Robert Bloch’s classic 1959 horror novel Psycho, in which the character Lila peruses the bookcases of Norman Bates: “Here Lila found herself pausing, puzzling, then peering in perplexity at the incongruous contents of Norman Bates’s library. A New Model of the Universe, The Extension of Consciousness. The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, Dimension and Being. These were not the book of a small boy, and they were equally out of place in the home of a rural motel proprietor. She scanned the shelves rapidly. Abnormal psychology, occultism, theosophy. Translations of Là Bas, Justine.”
The December 1976 issue of Playboy magazine saw the publication of Norman Mailer’s 18 page screenplay/film treatment “Trial of the Warlock,” itself an adaptation of Huysmans’ Là-Bas. Although some of its scenes are shuffled in a different order (the screenplay opens with the scene where Durtal visits the home of Mr. Chantelouve, which is chapter 12 of the novel, for example), and the ending is much different from the novel, on the whole it is a fairly faithful adaptation and captures the spirit of the book quite well. I would like to take this opportunity to thank my friend Scott Bradley for bringing this screenplay to my attention, and also for photocopying and mailing the pages in question to me, a few of which I reproduce below:
When studying the lyrics to Current 93’s Imperium album (released in 1987), I came across the following lyric in the song “Locust” (which is, I’ll confess, one of my top ten favorite Current 93 songs): “Leaden tower of hysteria, bloody vase of rape.” This is, of course, taken from one of Canon Docre’s diatribes during the Black Mass chapter of Là-Bas. Evidently David Tibet was using the Keene Wallace translation of the text, as a more accurate translation of the line in question would be: “The Founder of Hysterias, the blood-stained Vessel of Rape!”
Umberto Eco’s excellent 1988 novel Foucault’s Pendulum makes a reference to Là-Bas. Consider this passage, which, even though it does not mention the book by name, is clearly alluding to it (especially the reference to Lyon):
In the year 2000, the Susan Lawly record label (best known for being the home label for the power electronics band Whitehouse) released an extremely interesting compilation album entitled Extreme Music From Women (the third in their “Extreme Music” series, following the extreme music from Japan/Africa releases). One of the tracks on this album, Debra Petrovitch’s “Dislocated,” contains a text reading, this reading being “a ‘recall’ of the Grunewald painting of ‘The Crucifixion From Wound to Wound’ written by Huysmans in 1891” (to quote the album’s liner notes): obviously a reference to Là-Bas. You can hear the track here:
During his run on the Batman comic in 2008, comic book writer Grant Morrison wrote a 6 issue arc known as “Batman R.I.P.” that ran from May to November of that year, through Batman issues #676-681. In this storyline, Batman was pitted against the Black Glove, a mysterious organization obsessed with destroying both him and all the values he stood for. The leader of the Black Glove is a sinister individual known only as Dr. Simon Hurt, a man whose identity is very obscure (though Morrison drops a lot of clues and hints that Dr. Hurt is the Devil in human form). In the second issue of this arc (#677: “Batman in the Underworld”), the Batcave is attacked by gargoyle-masked henchmen of the Black Glove, who proceed to administer a savage beat down to Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s faithful butler. Before this beat down takes place, one of the henchmen says the following to Alfred: “Ah, La Bas. Deep where no one can find you.” At the time this issue was released, this line confused a large portion of the Batman fan base, as many of them had never even heard of the novel Là-Bas. Needless to say, I got the reference! “Batman R.I.P.” actually has very little to do with Là-Bas, and most likely Morrison just put that reference in there to further add to the Satanic ambiance of his storyline (though I would like to point out that Morrison has obviously been influenced by the Decadents: for further proof of this, see his 3 issue mini-series Sebastian O, published in 1993, which concerns itself with a dandy bisexual mercenary living in a sort of alternate steampunk Victorian England: one of the issues of this mini-series is called “Against Nature” and there’s even a reference to a character who’s last name is “Carhaix”).
My own debut short story collection Grimoire: A Compendium of Neo-Goth Narratives (Rebel Satori Press, 2012) is heavily indebted to the writing style and subject matter of J.K. Huysmans, and there are many aspects of that book that represent his work. The penultimate story, “Reaping Time Has Come,” features a scene (in a chapter suggestively entitled “Down There”) in which the main character hallucinates herself watching a Black Mass, a scene that totally rips off Là-Bas, even down to a cameo to Gilles de Rais himself (though the part where Rais does a mincing striptease using a boy’s intestines as a boa was my own invention, though even that was ripped-off from something else, most likely a WSB homage).
Some miscellaneous Huysmans quotations
Huysmans on Maldoror:
“But oh yes, my dear Destrée, the Comte de Lautréamont is talented with a fine madness. That singular book with its comic lyricism, a bloody rage reminiscent of the Marquis de Sade, and amidst a load of sentences put together like four pennyworth, a few that burst with magnificent sonority! I await an article on this book with impatience, I hope you will have found some information concerning the life of this strange fellow, who has created his hymn of homosexuality with such fine phrases. It is also true that it contains some nightmares a la Redon. The screwing of the female shark by the man is stupefying, and there is a disemboweling, liver and heart, through a vagina that is quite appetizing. Thank you for having sent me these songs. They are in fact worth reading – what the devil could a man who has written such terrible dreams do for a living?” (from a letter to Jules Destrée, dated September 27th, 1885)
Huysmans on the Sun:
“Apart from all that, nothing new here- sun – and you know my hatred for that celestial lout, who roasts my lodgings and renders me stupid, covering me with sweat and depriving me of what little appetite I have.” (from a letter to Odilon Redon, dated June 28th, 1886)
Huysmans on the human body:
“Ah, such fine news: on the one hand I have a stomach upset and on the other, neuralgia. How inferior this human machine is, compared to man-made machines. They can be decoked, unscrewed, oiled and parts replaced. Decidedly, nature is not a very wonderful thing.” (from a letter to Arij Prins, dated August 11th, 1886)
“The hostelry of flesh in which we lodge our wretched selves is badly run.”
(from a letter to Edmond De Goncourt, dated March 17th, 1889)
Huysmans on the only rewarding aspect of writing:
“I have just written those felicitous words: the end! You know what that means! It is the only really good literary moment in one’s life, I believe, given that, the very next day, disgust with what one has written sets in. But still, there has been at least one minute of happiness.” (from a March 1887 letter to Camille Lemonnier, on the completion of En Rade)
J.K. Huysmans on city life:
“And savour the fresh air. Here it is pestilential and filthy- the streets are full of provincials, dragging confused-looking wives and weeping children. All this with their noses in the air, looking up to the skyline to read the street names. One feels the need for a massacre. But what are they all after, these people? There was a crowd of them at the Louvre yesterday; they smelt of damp dog, polluting the paintings with their breath. One of them, bald and obese, was explaining the subjects of the pictures to his abominable wife, done up Gods know how, and she, rolling her liquid rubber eyeballs, her hands on her belly, mumbles: ‘Them’s old, them pictures, old, old.’ Massacres!” (from a letter written to Odilon Redon on September 15th, 1889)
“There is at least one respect in which you are to be envied in being shut up: that of not seeing the city overrun with foreigners displaying their vulgar wealth, and the English. It is enough to make one vomit at the moment; what frightful tides of humanity foreign spermatozoa produce: comic and podgy. It is unbelievable. The tortures of the Holy Office certainly had their uses!”
(from a letter to Paul Verlaine, dated September 27th, 1889)
Huysmans on dealing with STDs:
“You give me sad news of your love life: your gonorrhea. A propos, do you know how we successfully treat it in Paris, without injections, and without relapse? I have myself followed this treatment, which is excellent. Drink as much as you can of a herbal tea made from pine buds. You simply pour boiling water on the buds and let it cool. This increases the flow, and then when you have had a really good flow, buckets of it, you take sandalwood capsules for a few days, and that’s an end to it. The essential is to pee for all you are worth beforehand, let it run like a river. That’s the secret. Then the pus is no longer green, like gamboge. It’s all over very quickly and is a real cure.” (from a letter to Arij Prins, dated July 24th, 1890)
Huysmans on the state of literature:
“Literature is mediocre; twenty-five novels come out every day, and, in this mass, nothing worthwhile. This overproduction is frightening, and drowns everything. Ah, how right they are, those who bring out their books for their friends, privately, not polluting themselves with the heady prostitution of paying customers.”
(from a letter to Jules Destrée, dated December 12th, 1890)
Huysmans on the Homosexual scene in Paris:
“I found your studies of disturbance in sexual gender no less interesting. Two years ago, with a view to a book which is unfortunately unwriteable, for it would look as if one were digging up scandal, I was able to get an introduction into the frightful world of sodomy. Frightful! That is the word, and if demonic action were to exist, that is where it would be found. I believe that they are just about all candidates for the madhouse, but stab wounds ensure that they die in hospitals rather than in mental asylums. This is what is disconcerting; one could almost establish a law: that is, the true sodomites (I don’t mean young lads who do it for money, but those who live only for this fixation) are physical giants. It seems that muscular strength develops this taste in men. Thus this army finds its recruits amongst the porters of the central market, butchers’ boys, fairground strongmen. Those are the ones who are really enamored of this vice and are, above all, the passive partners. All the bars around Les Halles are full of them. And what is frightful is that a man who has this vice cuts himself off voluntarily from the rest of the world. He lives apart. He eats, has his hair done, drinks in special establishments run by sodomites; his brain becomes even more given up to imbecility as his voice changes; imagine a Hercules with enormous arms, a bestial mouth, cackling like an old maid, putting on airs in a loud voice that is shrill and husky! Is there any relation between the vocal chords and genital organs? One might think so, if one observes that nearly all female singers are lesbians, especially contraltos.”
(from a letter to Dr. Paul Serieux, written May 15th, 1893)
Huysmans addressed these issues again in a letter he wrote to an acquaintance in 1896. Because I’ve grown sick of transcribing things by this point, I’ve decided to just scan two images of the letter in question here, which I provide because I think it gives an interesting (though bilious) view of what the homosexual scene in Paris was like at the tail-end of the 1890’s (for those curious, the “talented boy” who served as Huysmans’ guide into the Parisian homosexual scene was none other than Jean Lorrain):
In my own personal opinion, Huysmans strikes me as a bit of a closet case, a man equally fascinated by and repulsed by homosexuality. As we saw in his letters to Prins earlier (and some of his other letters written in the 1880’s), he was clearly comfortable discussing the subject, and only got squeamish about it following his reversion to Catholicism in 1891-1892. Yet even though Huysmans became fanatically religious late in his life (and, it must be said, somewhat anti-Semitic), at the same time he still associated with open homosexuals such as Jean Lorrain, though their friendship became a bit strained when Lorrain was charged with “corrupting public morals by literary means” in the early 1900s, as Huysmans remained silent rather than come to his friend’s defense (he did, however, heap praise on Lorrain’s novel Monsieur de Phocas upon its publication in 1901). Huysmans also remained good friends with Verlaine, a man he would later classify as the only Catholic poet worth reading: in the preface that Huysmans wrote for the 20th anniversary edition of Against Nature, Huysmans not only stood by his praise for the poetry of Verlaine that he had first expressed in that novel all those years ago, but also said that if anything his appreciation of Verlaine’s work had only gone higher since then. In 1904, Huysmans wrote a preface for the publication of a volume of Verlaine’s religious poetry, and the fact that Huysmans would associate his name with such a project exasperated many Parisian Catholics. Huysmans mentioned this in a letter written on April 29th, 1904:
“At the moment I’ve got the Press nagging at me. The preface to A Rebours, coming on top of the preface to the Verlaine book, has had the good fortune to exasperate the Catholics and they have begun harping again on that same old string – the destruction of my earlier books. I told them to go to hell in one or two interviews, and to my astonishment this doesn’t appear to have pleased them. Oh, the imbecility, the bigotry of these people! … The idea, too, that Verlaine was a great poet, the only Catholic poet, drives them to distraction. Again and again they come back to the point that he was a drunkard and a sodomite. They must be very pure themselves, these people, to be so fond of condemning others…”
In Baldick’s biography of Huysmans, he mentions Huysmans “…proposition that the only noteworthy Catholic writers and artists were converts who, like Verlaine, had tasted life’s pleasures and griefs to the full.” This was one reason why he found Gilles de Rais to be a more interesting Christian than, say, George Sand or Augustin Craven. In his book Decadence and Catholicism, Ellis Hanson points out that T.S. Eliot’s famous quote about Baudelaire (“Satanism itself, so far as not merely an affectation, was an attempt to get into Christianity by the back door”) is even more appropriate when applied to Huysmans’ case. As Huysmans would observe later on in life, “…it was through a glimpse of the supernatural of evil that I first obtained insight into the supernatural of good. The one derived from the other. With his hooked paw, the Devil drew me towards God.” Yes, you’re reading that right: Huysmans credits the Devil with his religious conversion!
The three Huysmans novels that I would recommend to anybody are A Rebours, Là Bas, and En Route. The Dedalus Press editions of these books are especially worth seeking out as they usually include helpful endnotes and introductions. Plus, they’re considered to be the most accurate translations.
Other books on Huysmans that I would recommend:
The Life of J.-K. Huysmans by Robert Baldick, first published in 1955, republished in 2006 by Dedalus Press. A little outdated, yet it still remains the definitive biography of Huysmans’ life. Essential reading.
The Road From Decadence: from Brothel to Cloister: Selected Letters of J.K. Huysmans edited and translated by Barbara Beaumont and published by the Athlone Press in 1989. A nice selection of Huysmans’ letters, well worth seeking out.
The Image of Huysmans by Brian Banks, published in 1990 by AMS Press. Not as good as the two previous mentioned books, but still very informative, and a must read for fans of En Route (in that it includes many rare photographs of Notre-Dame d’Igny, the Trappist monastery that Huysmans stayed at in the year 1892).
Those interested in other writers of the 19th-century French Decadence would do well to investigate the work of Jean Lorrain (who perhaps in his life embodied the spirit of the Decadence to a greater degree than any other writer of that era), though sadly much of his writings still remain to be translated into English. The interested reader should be sure to check out Monsieur de Phocas, one of his final novels and a sort of spiritual sequel to Huysmans’ Against Nature: it has been published by both Dedalus Press and, more recently, Tartarus Press, this latter edition coming in the form of a deluxe hardcover, and which makes a nice collector’s item. Last year Snuggly Books released a collection of Lorrain’s short stories entitled Nightmares of an Ether-Drinker which I also highly recommend (I understand that they’re also planning to release a second volume of his short stories at some point in the future, which will be entitled The Soul-Drinker and Other Decadent Fantasies). In this same vein, I would also recommend Remy de Gourmont’s The Angels of Perversity (Dedalus Press, 1992) and Leon Bloy’s Disagreeable Tales (Wakefield Press, 2015: sadly much of Bloy’s writing remains untranslated into English as well). Also recommended is The Decadent Reader: Fiction, Fantasy, and Perversion from Fin-de-Siècle France (Zone Books, 1998, edited by Asti Hustvedt). Over 1,000 pages long, it collects a number of French Decadent novels (including Rachilde’s Monsieur Venus, Barbey d’Aurevilly’s Les Diaboliques, and Huysmans’ En Rade), along with a selection of short stories by writers such as Guy de Maupassant, Jean Lorrain, Remy de Gourmont and Octave Mirbeau, among others. In regards to the relevant realm of Decadent art, the books Lust For The Devil: The Erotic-Satanic Art Of Felicien Rops (Wet Angel, 2013) and The Graphic Works of Odilon Redon (Dover Publications, 1969) are also highly recommended. In terms of poetry, perhaps needless to say, Baudelaire and Rimbaud are the two patron saints.
On-line e-version of the Keene Wallace translation of Là-Bas
Brendan King’s Huysmans website
“The Mordant Liquor of Tears: Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece” by Ben Robinson, from the Winter 2011 issue of Yuck ‘N Yum
a collection of the illustrations created by Henry Chapront that appear in a 1912 publication of Là-Bas
“The Word-Painter of Paris: an Introduction to the work of J.K. Huysmans” (by Colin Wilson). This article was originally to have appeared as an introduction to Brian Banks’ The Image of Huysmans, but was cut for some unknown reason
One final note I’d like to add. Last fall I read Ray Russell’s short novel The Case Against Satan, which was first published in 1962 and which paved the way for later popular depictions of demonic possession such as The Exorcist. In a footnote at the end of the book, Russell relates a story about how, while working on the book’s 13th chapter, which depicts an exorcism ritual that culminates with the words “Begone, Satan!” While working on this chapter, Russell found himself being annoyed by the abrupt manifestation in his study of a large horsefly, one that was “almost the size of a bee.” This horsefly began buzzing around Russell’s head, preventing him from working on the chapter. Eventually he was forced to stop writing and kill the horsefly with a rolled-up newspaper. Upon sitting down to resume work, no sooner had he typed a few words then did a second fly of the same size as the first “attacked” him. So he was forced to stop work again and kill this fly as well. All in all, he was ‘attacked” by four flies, each one appearing after he had killed the previous one. According to Russell, the flies stopped appearing after he had typed the words of exorcism, “Begone Satan!” Leaving his study afterwards, Russell felt an instant of “superstitious fear” upon recalling a tidbit of information that he had learned many years before but had forgotten until that moment: how Beelzebub was the name of Lucifer’s lieutenant, and how the name Beelzebub, in Hebrew, means Lord of the Flies.
I mention this little anecdote for the following reason: on the evening of February 21st, 2015 (a Sunday), a day in which I had spent a great number of hours working on this very Là-Bas Day, a most curious coincidence occurred (or maybe Jung would have classified it as a synchronicity). Like many people who suffer from a mild form of OCD, I have a number of little rituals I carry out every morning and night that I can’t really explain. In my bedroom I keep a shoebox containing (among other things) a number of objects from my high school days that, every morning, I set up at spots around my bedroom, only to return them to the shoebox at night. One of these objects is a small handheld pocket calculator that hasn’t functioned correctly in years: whenever I put it away at night I always observe how some new random number is on display. Well, on the evening of which I speak (and I swear in the name of everything I hold sacred that I’m not making this up, including on the souls of my deceased cats), when I went to put the calculator away, I noticed that the number on display that evening was 666. Make of that what you will!
p.s. Hey. This weekend I’m rebirthing Sypha’s monumental and amazing and long o.o.p. ‘Las Bas’ post at the request of author and d.l. New Juche, and you are in for a major experience, if you are so inclined, and I hope you are. Please pass any thoughts or reactions you have onto Sypha, and thank you very much. And James, what I can say, thank you again! ** Marilyn Roxie, Hi, Marilyn! How nice to see you, pal! Glad you liked the Beatty post. Fantastic about the video program you curated! I obviously am wishing I were in reach. How did it go? Great luck tonight, and take good care, maestro! ** Kyler, Hi. So the full moon worked its magic. Interesting, strange trade-off. I mean … why does that make a certain kind of sense to me because it shouldn’t? Anyway, enjoy whatever the heck there is to enjoy in Ft. Lauderdale! ** David Ehrenstein, Hm, not that I’m aware of. But who knows? I just put together a post about Frank Perry and discovered while building it that Katy Perry is his niece. ** Bernard, Neighbor! I’m so very happy to hear that the snow globe post snuck inside you. You should so write about that, B. The snow globe-related literature is very thin. I saw James of Golden Fur last evening, and he told me met you and that it was a great pleasure for him. I was planning to text you today/ shortly and see if you’re up for a hang-out since I am not editing today. And I’ll do that in an almost sec. Awesome LaTouche notes. I knew a little of that, but not very much. You know Marshall Reese? How interesting. I’ll ask you more about that when we share some proximate oxygen. Anyway, I’ll text with you and hopefully face-to-face not long thereafter. ** B, Hi, Bear! Ducking in and out is totally legit. Thanks about the post. I’m good, pretty fried from constant editing morning ’til night, but good. The editing is going very, very well. Or Zac and I think so. We’ll see what our producer thinks when we show him our cut next Friday. Scary. And what is up in your head and heart and world? Love, me. ** Nicholas Jason Rhoades, Two days in row! It’s like old times! Remind me who JW is. John Waters? No, right? God, all the luck and accumulating health to your poor caregiver. That’s intense. Slow working is is equivalent to taking the high road when working, some say. Anyway, obviously glad to hear that ‘Minus’ is still growing. ** Bill, Hi, B. Oh, Laird Hunt, what a very good writer. I don’t … no, I don’t think I’ve read ‘The Exquisite’. Hm, okay, I’ll get it somehow. Whoa, so you must be in Berlin now, correct? How were its opening chords? ** S., Hi. There are those who say feeling weak and ill is the passage to enlightenment. No, there aren’t. I just made that up. Petit fours, that’s doable and a date. Wow, is Phil Anselmo still doing stuff? Probably the same stuff but in an older body? I think balls are what’s at the other end of the rainbow maybe. ** _Black_Acrylic, Yeah, I saw that about the Tory gains in Scotland, and I couldn’t figure that out at all. But that won’t stop the referendum, will it? I don’t know. ** Steevee, Hi. Oh, yeah, I know who IA is, I just don’t think I’ve ever heard a note by her, although they probably play her stuff in the supermarket, so I probably have. I’m glad the Beatty Day hit the mark. Thank you! Without you, it wouldn’t have been even a tiny gleam in my eye much less a post. ** Misanthrope, Hi. Well, maybe he means ‘why now’, why not before now? I don’t know. When you make stuff, you don’t get to feel how exciting or whatever it is. You just have to go, ‘Oh, it’s exciting? Cool. I was hoping it would be’. Then, yes, give me your ‘WW” take. It seems pretty well liked from what I read, but the script seems to be dumb and obvious, and it seems to be a matter of whether you’re willing to overlook that, and it seems like most people are, or something. Good weekend! ** Okay. Find a comfortable chair, dim the lights, and immerse yourself in the magnificence that Sypha has wrought. See you on Monday.