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From Against the Grain (A Rebours), by J.-K. Huysmans, 1884


THE weather went from bad to worse. That year the seasons seemed to have changed places; after a long succession of rain-storms and fogs, blazing skies, like sheets of white-hot metal, now hung over the earth from horizon to horizon. In two days, without any transition whatever, cold, wet mists and lashing showers were followed by a torrid heat, an atmosphere as heavy as lead. As if stirred to a fiery fury with giants, the sun glared,--a glowing furnace-mouth shooting forth an almost white light that scorched the eyes; a dust of flame rose from the burnt-up roads, grilling the parched trees, frying the dry grass. The reverberation from the white-washed house-walls, the flames thrown back from the zinc of roofs and panes of windows, blinded the sight; the temperature of a smelting-house in full blast weighed on Des Esseintes' house.

Half stripped, he threw open a casement, to receive full in the face a puff of wind as hot as if coming from an oven; the dining-room, whither he fled for refuge, was burning, the rarefied air seemed to boil. In utter exhaustion, he sat down, for the excitement that had kept his mind active with dreams and fancies during the time when he was arranging his books had come to an end.

As is the case with all sufferers from nervous disorders, the heat undermined his strength terribly; his anaemia, checked for the time being by the cold, recurred, exhausting a body debilitated by copious perspirations.

With shirt clinging to his moist back, perspiring perineum, dripping arms and legs, brow streaming with salt drops that poured down his cheeks, Des Esseintes lay back half fainting in his chair. The sight of the food on the table sickened him; he ordered it to be taken away and boiled eggs brought instead. He tried to swallow sippets of toast dipped in the yolk, but they stuck in his throat. He turned sick and drank a few drops of wine, but it seemed to burn his stomach like fire. He mopped his face; the sweat, hot just now, was now cold as it trickled from his temples; he tried sucking bits of ice to relieve the feeling of nausea,--but all to no purpose. An infinite lassitude glued him to his chair by the table; at last he got up, longing for air, but the sippets of toast had swelled and risen in his throat till they came near choking him. Never before had he felt so oppressed, so feeble, so ill at ease; his eyes, too, were affected, he saw things double and turning round and round; soon the sense of distance grew confused, his glass seemed to be a mile away from his hand. He told himself he was the victim of an optical delusion, but he could not throw off the sensation. Finally, he went and lay down on the sofa in the drawing-room; but then the rolling of a ship at sea began, increasing his nausea still further. He sprang up again, resolved to take a digestive to settle the eggs in his stomach.

He returned to the dining-room and sadly compared himself, in his cabin, to passengers on a vessel attacked by seasickness. With staggering steps he made his way to the cupboard that contained his "mouth-organ," and examined the latter, but without opening it he reached instead up to a higher shelf for a bottle of Bénédictine, which he selected to keep by him because of its shape which struck him as suggestive of ideas at once pleasantly festive and vaguely mystical.

But for the moment, he remained indifferent, looking with a dull eye at the thick-set flagon of dark green glass which was wont at other times to call up before his mind's eye the Priors of the mediaeval Monastery as he looked at its antique monkish paunch, its head and neck wrapped in a parchment cowl, its stamp of red wax quartered with three silver mitres on a field azure, the cork tied over and sealed with lead like a Papal bull, and the label written in sonorous Latin, on paper yellowed and faded as if by age,--liquor Monachorum Benedictinorum Abbatiæ Fiscanensis (Liqueur of the Benedictine Monks of the Abbey of Fécamp).

Under this full monastic habit, certified by a cross and certain ecclesiastical initial letters,--P. O. M., within these parchments and bands that guarded it like an authentic charter, slumbered a saffron-coloured liquor of an exquisite delicacy. It distilled an aroma of the quintessence of angelica and hyssop mingled with sea-shore herbs rich in iodines and bromines disguised by sugary matters; it stimulated the palate with a spirituous heat dissimulated under a toothsomeness altogether virginal and innocent; flattered the nose with a smack of rankness enwrapped in a soothing savour at once childlike and pious.

This hypocrisy resulting from the startling discrepancy between the containing vessel and its contents, between the liturgical form of the bottle and the soul inside it, so feminine, so modern, had before now set him dreaming; he had indeed fallen many a time into a brown study as he sat before this liqueur, thinking of the monks who sold it, the Benedictines of the Abbey of Fécamp who, while belonging to the Congregation of Saint-Maur, famous for its researches in History, served under the rule of St. Benedict, yet did not follow the observances of the white monks of Citeaux and the black monks of Cluny. Irresistibly they came crowding before his mind's eye, in their daily life as they lived in the Middle Ages, cultivating simples, heating retorts, distilling in alembics sovereign panaceas, infallible cure-alls.

He drank off a drop of the liqueur and felt a relief that lasted a minute or two; but very soon the same fire that a mouthful of wine had before kindled in his inwards burned there again. He tossed away his napkin and went back into his study, where he began pacing up and down; he felt as if he were under the bell of an air-pump in which a vacuum was being gradually produced, and a sensation of faintness, at once soothing and excruciating, ran from his brain down every limb. He pulled himself together and, unable to bear more, for the first time perhaps since his arrival at Fontenay, fled for refuge to his garden, where he found shelter in the ring of shadow cast by a tree. Seated on the turf, he gazed with a dazed look at the beds of vegetables the servants had planted. But it was only after an hour had elapsed that his eyes saw what he was looking at, for a greenish mist floated before his eyes and prevented his making out more than the blurred images, as if viewed through deep water, of objects, whose appearance and colour kept continually changing.

In the end, however, he recovered his balance and found himself able to distinguish clearly onions and cabbages, further off a broad patch of lettuce and in the background, all along the hedge, a row of white lilies standing motionless in the heavy air.

A smile flitted over his lips, for suddenly he remembered a quaint comparison old Nicander makes, likening, from the point of view of shape, the pistil of a lily to an ass's genitals, while a passage from Albertus Magnus also occurred to him where that miracle-worker gives a singular formula for discovering by the use of a lettuce whether a girl is still virgin.

These recollections gave him a moment's merriment. Then he fell to examining the garden, marking how the plants lay withered by the heat and the ground smoked in the glare of the dusty sunbeams. Presently, above the hedge separating the garden which lay at a lower level from the raised roadway leading up to the Fort, he caught sight of a band of young rascals tumbling over each other in the blazing sunshine.

His attention was still concentrated on them when another village lad appeared, a smaller mite than the rest. He was a squalid object; his hair looked like sea-weed sodden with sand, his nose was filthy, his mouth was disgusting, the lips smeared with a white paste from what he had been nibbling at,--skim-milk cheese spread on a piece of bread and sprinkled over with slices of raw green onion.

Des Esseintes sniffed the air; a sudden longing, a perverse craving seized him; the nauseous dainty brought the water to his mouth. He thought somehow that his stomach, that rebelled against all food, would digest this horrid repast and his palate enjoy it like a royal feast.

He sprang up, ran to the kitchen and gave instant orders to send to the village for a round loaf, some white cheese and a raw onion, directing that they should make him a meal exactly like what he had seen the child gnawing at. This done, he went back and resumed his seat under the tree.

The lads were fighting now, snatching scraps of bread out of each other's hands, shoving them into their mouths and then licking their fingers. Kicks and fisticuffs were freely exchanged, and the weaker vessels got tumbled over in the road, where they lay squalling as the jagged stones scraped their backsides.

The sight gave new life to Des Esseintes; the interest he took in the combat diverted his thoughts from his own miseries. Looking on at the fury of these naughty youngsters, he reflected on the cruel and abominable law of the struggle for existence, and ignoble as the children were, he could not help sympathizing with their lot and concluding it would have been better for them had their mother never borne them.

In fact, what was it all but scald-head, colics, fevers, measles, kicking and cuffings in infancy, hard knocks and degrading jobs of work at thirteen or so, women's trickeries, vile diseases and wives' unfaithfulness in manhood; then, in declining years, infirmities and a painful death in a workhouse or a hospital.

When all was said and done, the future was the same for all, and neither one nor the other class, if they had had a particle of common sense, could possibly have desired it. For the rich, it was, in different surroundings, the same passions, the same vexations, the same sorrows, the same diseases, and likewise the same poor satisfactions, whether these were alcoholic, literary or carnal. There was even a vague compensation for all the sufferings, a kind of rude justice that restored the balance of misery as between the classes, enabling the poor to endure more easily the physical sufferings that broke down more mercilessly the feebler and more emaciated bodies of the rich.

What madness to beget children! reflected Des Esseintes. And to think that ecclesiastics, who have taken a vow of sterility, have actually pushed unreason so far as to canonize St. Vincent de Paul because he saved innocent little ones for useless torments!

Thanks to his odious precautions, he had postponed for years the death of beings, devoid of intelligence and feeling, in such wise that, having in time grown almost understanding and at any rate capable of pain, they could foresee the future, could expect and dread the death they had hitherto not known so much as the name of; that they could, some of them, even call upon it to come, in very hatred of the condemnation to live he inflicted on them in virtue of an illogical code of Theology.

Yes, and since the old Saint's death, his ideas had come to govern the world; children abandoned to die were rescued, instead of being left to perish quietly without their being conscious of aught amiss; while, at the same time, the life they preserved them for was growing day by day harsher and more barren! Under pretext of liberty and progress, Society had discovered yet another means of aggravating the miseries of man's existence, by dragging him from his home, tricking him out in an absurd costume, putting specially contrived weapons in his hands, brutalizing him in a slavery identical with that from which they had, out of compassion, enfranchised the negro, and all this merely to put him in a condition to slaughter his fellows without risking the scaffold, as common murderers do who work in units, without uniform, with arms less noisy and less swift to kill.

What a strange epoch, Des Esseintes told himself, is this, which, while invoking the sacred name of humanity, and striving to perfect anaesthetics to abolish physical pain, at the very same time provides such irritants to aggravate moral agonies!

Ah! if ever, in the name of pity, useless procreation should be abolished, that time was now! But here, again, the laws promulgated by men like Portalis and Homais appeared, ferocious and self-contradictory.

Justice deemed quite natural the ways men use to trick Nature in the marriage bed; it was a recognized, admitted fact; there was never a household, no matter how well-to-do, that did not employ means to hinder procreation, use contrivances to be bought openly in the shops,--all artifices it would never occur to anybody to disapprove. Yet, if these means, these subterfuges proved ineffectual, if the trickery failed, and to make good the failure, recourse was had to more certain methods, there were not prisons and gaols and penal settlements enough to hold in durance vile people condemned to this punishment by judge and jury, who the same night in the conjugal bed used every trickery they could devise not to beget youngsters of their own.

The trickery itself therefore was no crime, but to make good its failure was one!

In a word, Society regarded as a crime the act that consisted in killing a creature endowed with life; and yet, in expelling a foetus, the operator was surely destroying an animal, less fully formed, less alive and certainly less intelligent and more ugly than a dog or a cat, which may be strangled at birth without penalty.

It is right to add, thought Des Esseintes, for further proof how monstrous the injustice is, that it is not the unskilful operator, who generally makes off with all haste, but the woman, victim of his awkwardness, who pays the penalty for saving an innocent being from the burden of life.

Verily the world must be extraordinarily prejudiced to want to suppress manoeuvres so natural that primitive man, that the very savages of the South Seas have been led to practise them by the mere action of their own instinct.

At this moment, his servant interrupted these charitable reflexions of his master by bringing Des Esseintes a silver-gilt salver on which lay the nauseous dainty he had asked for. A spasm of disgust shook him; he had not the courage to touch the thing, for the morbid craving had now ceased. A sensation of extreme malaise returned; he was forced to rise from where he sat; the sun, in moving westwards was little by little encroaching on the place, the air becoming more oppressive and the heat more scorching.

"Go and pitch the thing," he ordered the man, "to those children yonder fighting in the road; I hope the weakest ones will be maimed and never get a scrap and, what's more, be soundly whipped by their parents when they get back home with trousers torn and eyes blackened; that will give them a foretaste of the merry life that awaits them!" Then he returned to the house, where he sank half fainting in an armchair.

"Still I must try and eat something," he sighed,--and he proceeded to soak a biscuit in a glass of old Constantia (J. P. Cloete brand), a few bottles of which were still left in his cellar.

This wine, the colour of onion skins slightly burnt, smacking of old Malaga and Port, but with a sugary bouquet of its own and an after-taste of grapes whose juices have been condensed and sublimated by burning suns, had often comforted his stomach and given a fillip to his digestion enfeebled by the forced fasts he was compelled to undergo; but the cordial, generally so efficacious, failed of its effect. Then, hoping an emollient might cool the hot irons that were burning his intestines, he had recourse to Nalifka, a Russian liqueur, contained in a flask patterned over with dead-gold filigree; but this unctuous, fruity syrup was equally ineffective. Alas! the days were long past when Des Esseintes, still in the enjoyment of robust health, would, in the middle of the dog-days, mount a sledge he had at home, and then, closely wrapped in furs which he would pull up to his chin, force himself to shiver as he told himself through teeth that chattered of set purpose: "Ah! but the cold is Arctic; it's freezing, freezing hard!" till he actually persuaded himself it was cold weather!

Alas! suchlike remedies were of no avail now that his sufferings were real.

With all this, it was useless for him to have recourse to laudanum; instead of acting as a sedative, that drug only irritated his nerves and robbed him of sleep. In former times he had resorted to opium and haschisch in order to see visions, but the only result had been to bring on vomiting and intense nervous disturbances; he had been obliged forthwith to give up their use and without the help of these coarse excitants to ask his brain of itself alone to bear him far away from everyday life into the region of dreams.

"What a day!" he moaned to himself on this occasion, as he sponged his neck, feeling as if every ounce of strength he had left was melting away in a fresh access of perspiration. A feverish restlessness still made it impossible for him to stay in one place; again he set off roaming through his rooms, trying all the seats one after the other. Wearied out at last, he presently sank down before his writing-desk, and resting his elbow on the table, fell mechanically and without any ulterior motive to turning about in his hands an astrolabe, lying as a paper-weight on a heap of books and memoranda.

He had purchased the instrument, which was of copper engraved and gilt, of German workmanship and dating from the seventeenth century, at a bric-à-brac shop in Paris, after a visit he had paid one day to the Musée de Cluny, where he had stood for hours enraptured before a wonderful astrolabe of carved ivory, the cabalistic look of which had fascinated him.

The paper-weight in question stirred up in him a whole crowd of reminiscences. Influenced by the associations evoked by the sight of the little ornament, his thoughts flew from Fontenay to Paris, to the old curiosity shop where he had bought it, then returned to the Musée des Thermes, where he called up the mental picture of the ivory astrolabe, while his eyes still continued to dwell, but without seeing it, on the copper astrolabe on his writing table.

Then, still led by memory, he quitted the Museum and, without leaving town, strolled up and down the streets. After roaming along the Rue Sommerard and the Boulevard Saint-Michel, he struck off into the adjoining streets and came to a halt in front of certain establishments whose frequency and peculiar character had often struck him.

Beginning with the astrolabe, this mental excursion ended by leading him to the beer-halls of the Quartier Latin.

He recalled the great number of these places all along the Rue Monsieur-le-Prince and at the end of the Rue Vaugirard adjoining the Odéon; sometimes they stood cheek by jowl like the old riddecks in the Rue du Canal-aux-Harengs at Antwerp, stretching one after the other down the side-walk, which they overlook with a row of signboards all very much alike.

Through the half open doors and the windows only partially obscured by coloured panes or curtains he could remember having caught glimpses of women walking up and down with dragging step and out-thrust neck, the way geese waddle; others lounging on benches were rubbing elbows on marble-topped tables, dreaming away the hours or singing to themselves, their heads drooped between their fists; yet others would be preening themselves before the looking-glass, patting with the tips of their fingers their false hair just dressed by a barber; others again would be drawing out of reticules with broken fastenings piles of silver and copper which they amused themselves by ranging methodically in little heaps.

The majority had massive features, hoarse voices, flaccid bosoms and painted eyes, and all, like so many automata wound up at the same time with the same key, uttered in the same tone the same invitations, lavished the same smiles, talked in the same silly phrases, indulged in the same absurd reflexions.

Thoughts began to crystallize in Des Esseintes' mind and he found himself coming to a definite inference, now that he could look back in memory and take a bird's-eye view, as it were, of these crowded taverns and streets.

He realized the meaning of these cafes, saw that they corresponded to the state of mind and imagination of a whole generation; he gathered from them material for the synthesis of the period.

Indeed, the symptoms were plain and unmistakable; the legalized brothel was disappearing, and each time one of these closed its doors, a beer-tavern opened.

This diminution of official prostitution, organized for the satisfaction of clandestine amours, was evidently to be accounted for by the incomprehensible illusions men indulge in from the carnal standpoint.

Monstrous as this might seem, the fact was, the beer-tavern satisfied an ideal.

True, the utilitarian tendencies transmitted hereditarily and further developed by the precocious discourtesies and constant brutalities of school and college had made the youth of the present day singularly coarse and also singularly opinionated and cold-hearted, but for all this, it had preserved, deep down in its heart, an old-fashioned flower of sentiment, a vague, half decayed ideal of love.

So nowadays, when the blood was hot within, it could no more consent just to march in, work its will, pay and go home again. This, in its eyes, was a bestial thing, like a dog covering a bitch without preliminary or preamble. Besides, vanity was in no sort of way gratified in these official houses of vice where there was no pretence of resistance on the woman's part, no semblance of victory on that of the man, where no special preference was to be expected, nor even any special liberality of favours from the prostitute who, as a tradeswoman should, measured her caresses in proportion to the price paid. On the other hand, to pay court to a girl at a beer-saloon was allowing for all these sentimentalities, all the delicacies of love. There were rivals in this case striving for her affection, and those to whom she agreed, for a sufficient consideration, to grant a rendezvous, imagined themselves, in all good faith, to have won a victory, to be the object of a flattering preference, the recipient of a precious favour.

Yet, all the time, the creatures were every whit as stolid, as mercenary, as base and degraded as those who ply their trade in the houses with numbers. Like these, the tavern waitresses drank without being thirsty, laughed without being amused, were mad after the caresses of a fancy man from the streets, blackguarded each other and quarrelled and fought on the slightest provocation. Yet, in spite of everything, the young Parisian rake had never learned that the servant wenches at these beer-halls were, from every point of view, whether of personal good looks or attractive poses or pretty dresses, altogether inferior to the women confined in the luxurious rooms of the other sort of establishment! Great God! Des Esseintes could not help exclaiming, what simpletons these fools must be who flutter round beer-halls, for, to say nothing of their ridiculous self-deception, they have positively brought themselves to ignore the danger they run from the low-class, highly suspicious quality of the goods supplied, to think nothing of the money spent in drinks, all priced beforehand by the landlady, to forget the time wasted in waiting for delivery of the commodity,--a delivery put off and put off continually in order to raise the price, frittered away in delays and postponements endlessly repeated, all to quicken and stimulate the liberality of the client.

This imbecile sentimentalism combined with ferocity in practice seemed to represent the dominant feeling of the age; these same fellows who would have gouged out their best friend's eye to make a sixpence, lost all clearness of vision, all perspicacity, in dealing with the disreputable tavern-wenches who bullied them without compunction and exploited them without mercy. Workmen toiled, families cheated one another in the name of trade, all to let themselves be swindled out of money by their sons, who in their turn allowed themselves to be plundered by these women, who in the last resort were drained dry by their fancy lovers.

From end to end of Paris, East to West and North to South, it was one unbroken chain of petty trickeries, a series of organized thefts repeated continually from one to another,--all this simply because, instead of satisfying lechers straight away, the suppliers of these goods were artful enough to keep their clients dangling about and waiting with what patience they might.

At bottom, human wisdom might be summed up in the precept,--drag things out indefinitely, say no, then after a long time, yes; for indeed there was no way of managing mankind half so good as procrastination.

"Ah! if only the same held good of the stomach," sighed Des Esseintes, seized with a sudden spasm of pain which instantly brought his thoughts back to Fontenay, recalling them from the far-away regions they had been roaming.

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