"If I believed anything, I would incline towards Manichaeism," replied des Hermies. [...] "The Principle of Good and the Principle of Evil, the God of Light and the God of Darkness, two rivals fighting over our souls. At least it's clear. Right now it is evident that the good God is in abeyance and the God of Evil has the upper hand, and that the latter reigns over the world as master."
A French author – of Dutch parentage - Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848-1907) wrote The Damned (Là-Bas) while working as a civil servant in Paris, in the criminal investigation bureau. Literally, in fact, while working; he had just been promoted to a new position that came with its own office, and took advantage of the privacy to pen his novel of fin-de-siècle Satanism on Ministry notepaper. He borrowed something else from his workplace, too: part of the inspiration for his subject matter came from the cases that crossed his desk, together with contemporary enthusiasm for all things occultist and spiritualist.
The novel follows a naïve young writer, Durtal, as he works on a book about Gilles de Rais, a 15th-century nobleman and notorious mass-murderer (and a possible source of the Bluebeard story). Durtal’s interest – as Huysmans’ was – is what caused de Rais’ actions: what could have led a man to commit such crimes? How did one explain evil? Opinion at the time was sharply divided between scientific and theological frameworks of understanding. Huysmans himself was in the latter camp, strongly resistant to materialistic explanations. Evil was a tangible force acting upon the world and found within individual human beings, not the result of circumstance and environment. As Durtal’s associate, des Hermies, comments:
"No, what I really object to is Naturalism's immorality on the intellectual plain - the way it has turned literature into the living incarnation of materialism [...] Whenever some act of passion requires an explanation, whenever some evil needs probing, whenever a remedy has to be found for some common spiritual ailment even, Naturalism immediately blames it all on the appetites and instincts."
In the course of his research, Durtal becomes embroiled in the contemporary underworld of Parisian devil-worship, via a clandestine relationship with the mysterious Madame de Chantelouve. Yet how much of what he sees is exaggerated by his perspective? The glimpses we get of Durtal’s biography of de Rais show how he uses the data from 15th-century sources as merely a springboard for his own prurient flights of fancy (most notably the sequences about de Rais’ crimes, and reactions during his trial: “these prelates, familiar with every human abasement, whom no depravity has ever astonished, make the sign of the cross, and Jean de Malestroit rises and, from a sense of decency, veils the face of Christ”).
The same sense of an imagination working overtime may be detected in Durtal’s obsession with what he believes de Chantelouve can lead him into, and the ever more extreme details that he is fed by those he speaks to. The evil is laid on thickly. Of cult leader Canon Docre, for example, we are told:
What does he do? He conjures up the Devil, and he feeds white mice on hosts which he has himself consecrated; such are his sacrilegious frenzies that he has had the image of Christ tattooed on the soles of his feet so that he may always be treading on the Saviour!
It is here that the autobiographical elements of the story come to the fore; Huysmans, too, conducted private investigations into the occult, and was fascinated and horrified by what he found. Several of the characters, including de Chantelouve, are apparently based upon people he interacted with during this time. The translator, in his introduction to the Penguin edition, suggests that Huysmans was manipulated and played for a fool by his informants. Yet it seems to me that there’s a glimmer of irony running through the fictional reflection of his experiences, as if Huysmans was not wholly taken in; occasionally it is quite overt, like when Durtal reflects:
I'll be damned, though, if I ever imagined Paris harboured such a diabolic underworld! What a strange coincidence. No sooner do I start to get interested in Gilles de Rais and the question of medieval Devil-worship and I get whisked off on a conducted tour of contemporary Satanism in Paris!
Indeed, as the novel progresses, the irony at Durtal's expense appears again and again. While reading, I began to wonder whether Huysmans liked or sympathised with his protagonist at all. Durtal’s dealings with de Chantelouve do not show him in a remotely positive light; he badgers the woman into sleeping with him, then is consumed with disgust at her loose ways when she finally consents. While such misogynism may well be reflective of the times, its presentation is baldly (intentionally?) disagreeable:
"And now, in the course of less than an hour, what an entirely different side to her personality she has revealed: a Hyacinthe with all the vicious inclination of a prostitute coupled with the sort of romantic nonsense you wouldn't even expect from a shopgirl in heat. In short, every defect known to woman compounded in a single example of the species! How exasperating!" […] Now that his desire was satisfied, all signs of gallantry had deserted him; it had all become a bore.
An uneasiness with female sexuality runs through the novel. Many of the accounts (or imaginings) of occult practice through the ages pivot on lurid sexual activities, particularly on the part of women: black Mass orgies, incubi and succubi, possessed nuns and the like. There's a hilarious passage about the terrible consequences of the way an incubus provides sexual stimulation to its female victims in more than one way at once! (Interesting, and perhaps related, is the observation that "the only people who buy books [in Huysmans' day] are so-called society women, who can thus make or break an author"). Perhaps inadvertently, Huysmans repeatedly provides avenues for precisely the materialistic causation he has Durtal deplore: repression, sexual abuse, political corruption, social tensions and economic discontents. All create a desire for escape, for subversion of a stifling social order.
The backdrop to de Rais’ tale is the immunity from redress enjoyed by the medieval French nobility, set against a peasantry bled dry, literally and figuratively; noblesse confers impunity of action. Durtal’s time sees an election held, but it is one crippled by demagoguery and unscrupulous power-seeking. There is a sense of constriction running through the whole of society; the author expresses it in terms of landscape, in one of the book’s rare descriptive passages:
One felt that this irony-grey sky, this impoverished soil, empurpled only here and there by the bleeding flower of the buckwheat, that these roads, bordered with stones piled one on top of the other, without mortar or render, that these paths, hemmed in be impenetrable hedges, that these stunted plants, these inhospitable fields, that the beggars themselves, filthy, crippled and riddled with vermin, that even the cattle, undersized and wasted, the squat little cows, the black sheep whose blue eyes suggested the cold, pale gleam of the Slav or the tribade, one felt that all of these things had managed to perpetuate themselves since time immemorial, unchanged and unchanging against the same landscape.
In keeping with this, the black Mass that Durtal eventually witnesses is as much about subverting social hierarchies and achieving freedom of self-expression (especially for the women involved) as it is about the theatrics of devil-worship.
The Damned was well received in France, but abroad it met with controversy; there were several English translations, but they came in for heavy censorship. To my ill-informed-about-avant-garde-lit eye, Huysmans doesn't exactly stand out as a prose stylist. Much of the book is composed of Durtal's inner monologue (though hardly in a stream of consciousness way), or dialogue exchanges consisting of long speeches. Yet at the same time it is a very vivid, unusual, compelling, and deeply-felt piece of work - an insight into, and a pessimistic slant upon, the scattered spiritual world of the author's time. Put another way: odd, obsessive, lurid, and (at times) strangely enjoyable.
"This century does not give a fig for the coming glory of Christ; it adulterates the supernatural and vomits over the other-worldly. How can you have hope for the future under such circumstances?"