J.-K. Huysmans: The Oblate of St. Benedict.
Translated by Edward Perceval. Sawtry: Dedalus, 2004.
xi + 310 pp.
A few years ago, I was browsing in a bookstore and noticed
a Penguin Classic with the interesting-sounding title
I pulled it off the shelf and read the blurbs on
the back cover. Do you remember how, in Wilde's
The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian receives at some
point as the present a book which completely fascinates him,
leading to his years and years of decadent and aesthetic
preoccupations which are then charted in the fantastic Chapter XI
of that novel? It turns out that, although Wilde did not state
the title or author of the book which Dorian receives as a present,
he did have a particular book in mind; as he told later during his
trial, it was A Rebours
(Against Nature) by J.-K. Huysmans.
A book that comes with a recommendation like that
is a book that I simply have to buy and read. Which I did,
and was duly fascinated by this “breviary
of decadence”, what with all the gems,
the orchids, the perfumes, the gold-encrusted turtle,
the wonderful chapter on the decay of Latin literature,
etc., etc. The book also helped me understand somewhat
better a question that had been puzzling me ever since I had learnt
about the usual periodization of literature in secondary
school: the period of realism and naturalism in the mid- to
late-19th century was followed by the fin-de-siecle,
the “new romanticism”, with its various new
phenomena such as symbolism, decadence, and so on.
How could a period be so completely different from the
preceding one? How was such a break possible? What did this
look like in practice? Did all the authors simply sit down one fine
day and decided “let's start writing, from this day on,
in an entirely different way from the way we've been doing until
now”? Of course this is silly; but how did it actually
happen? Well, this book by Huysmans is in a way a splendid
illustration of how such a transition may have taken place.
Against Nature is certainly very much a fin-de-siecle
work; but all Huysmans' previous works were sordid naturalist
pieces in the manner of Zola. In Against Nature you
can still see the same studious spirit of naturalism,
except that its efforts have been directed towards fantastic
rather than realistic topics. Each chapter of Against Nature
chronicles some new obsession of the book's central character,
and each required Huysmans to study the technical literature of
some new field, which he duly did with all the usual Zolaesque
pedantry, and the resulting text bristles with lists of obscure
details and impressive-sounding technical terminology.
As it turns out, Huysmans kept these naturalistic instincts
throughout the rest of his literary career; all of his subsequent
novels are similarly full of passages where the author shows off
his mastery of impressive amounts of completely irrelevant details
from a multitude of fields. Anyway, all of this is an illustration
of how one particular author made the transition from naturalism
to the fin-de-siecle. As we can see, the gap between one period
and the next was not nearly so great as I formerly imagined,
and the transition was fairly smooth (which is not to say that
Against Nature didn't cause a big stir when it was
first published in 1884).
After this positive experience with Against Nature,
I naturally wanted to try reading some more of Huysmans'
works. Là-Bas, or The Damned
in Terry Hale's recent
translation, was next. It was OK, though nowhere nearly as fascinating as
Against Nature. Just as in the latter, there wasn't
much plot; the main character, a man of letters named Durtal,
is working on a biography of Gilles
de Rais and dabbles a little in contemporary occultism and satanism.
This was curious and interesting in a way, as were the disquisitions
and undoubtedly many other fine topics which I have by now entirely
forgotten; but all in all, this book was hardly anything to write
home about. Nevertheless, when I saw that Huysmans later wrote
three further novels which chronicle Durtal's subsequent path
towards religion and spiritual redemption, and that all these
novels are in many aspects autobiographical and reflect Huysmans'
own experiences, I decided to try reading them out of curiosity,
despite the boring-sounding theme of the books.
These three novels are
None of them has much of a plot; in En Route,
Durtal briefly retreats into a Trappist monastery;
in The Cathedral, he stays at Chartres and explores
its splendid old cathedral; and in The Oblate,
he becomes an oblate
affiliated with a Benedictine monastery.
The books mostly consist of endless monologues and
discussions involving Durtal and various clerical figures
(priests and monks). Durtal is particularly keen on art,
especially medieval religious art, and we get to hear as much
as anybody could possibly wish about all sorts of Christian
symbolism in art, architecture, plainsong,
botany, liturgy, medieval mysticism, etc., etc.
All of these things are in a way interesting, but in a way they are
also mind-numbingly boring. If I had ten lifetimes to spare, I wouldn't
mind dedicating one of them to an exploration of these topics; but with
only one, I'm fairly glad that I finally reached the end of the Durtal novels.
One aspect of Durtal's journey that I find particularly unsatisfying
is that, in a way, it looks to me that he took the easy way out.
He disliked the modern world, with its sordidness and alienation and so on;
fine, so do I and undoubtedly a large number of other people. But what
is his solution? Simple and trivial: become religious and let God sort
things out. And, for good measure, retreat to a monastery as well.
Sure, it's easy to stop worrying about this world if you think
that there's a life after death and that indeed only the afterlife really matters.
I'm not being quite fair to Durtal, because his journey is not as easy as
this criticism of mine might imply; as the books show, finding religion
was an honest and considerable effort for him. But still, this is no
solution; it feels like cheating. It's just as if, when you don't know the
answer to a question, you make an answer up and somehow delude yourself
into thinking that this has got to be the right answer.
To propose a return to good olde religion as a way to address the
problems of the alienated and perplexing modern world
might have seemed like a serious proposition a hundred years ago,
when Huysmans was writing his novels; but surely nowadays this
seems merely silly. As an example of how to respond to the modern world,
Durtal is practically completely useless. How the heck could I take up religion?
Whom would I be fooling? Not myself, that's for sure. But I suspect
that even in Huysmans' time, few of the people afflicted by the
fin-de-siecle malaise would have been seriously able to contemplate
following the example of someone like Durtal (or indeed like Huysmans
in real life) and taking up religion.
It was nevertheless interesting and impressive to observe
how much of everything there has been accumulated in the Catholic
Church during the two thousand years of its existence: knowledge,
history, art, books, people, symbolism, there's just so much of
everything. There's no end to the fascinating procession of obscure
books and authors cited by Huysmans or his literary characters;
no end to the endless array of saints, mystics, prelates, monks,
priests, artists, theologians;
no end to the innumerable symbols, rituals, traditions, regulations.
Much though I dislike the church, and worthless though all these
things seem to me, nevertheless I must admit: the church has been gathering
moss for two thousand years, and it has a mighty impressive accumulation
of moss to show for it. I don't like it when people take religious
doctrines seriously, or when they allow the church to wield an
influence in the real world; but if these undesirable things could
be somehow prevented, I think I could easily become an admirer
of the church as a supremely useless and delightful creation
of the human mind. In these two ways it truly vies with
philosophy and art (and is far ahead of science, which is seriously
lacking in the uselessness department).
Indeed one of the few reasons to be optimistic about humanity
has got to be the fact that it has been able to spare
some time from its sordid everyday life and dedicate it to these
completely worthless intellectual pursuits in entirely imaginary realms.
As Wilde said, “the only excuse for making a useless thing is
that one admires it intensely”.
Since I've been reading Huysmans at a rate of approx. one novel
per year, I don't remember any details from the novels I've read
so far, except for The Oblate which I've just finished
reading. So, here are a few more comments specifically relating
to The Oblate.
At the time when The Oblate was being written,
a new law was passed in France which required religious associations
to register with the government and to apply for permission to
continue their activities. This appears in the background
throughout the novel (see Terry Hale's introduction, p. viii,
and e.g. pp. 157, 188–92, 200–3, 218, 246–8, 260–1).
Apparently the “culture
wars” between the conservative/clerical and the
progressive/liberal/etc. sections of society were quite fierce
in France at that time.
The monastery to which Durtal had
become attached as an oblate decided to move to Belgium
rather than comply with the new law. In the last few
chapters of the novel we get a few glimpses of the problems
involving their relocation (pp. 246, 259, 266–8;
see esp. moving the library, pp. 267–8),
and the scene when the monks leave by train is quite touching
It seems that Huysmans himself maintained quite strongly conservative
pro-clerical opinions by this time. He seems regrettably inclined to
see freemasons, socialists, and Jews at work behind all the problems
that the catholic church had been facing in recent times;
pp. 37, 128, 202, 288.
In the novel, the peasants living in the Dijon area
where the story takes place are often portrayed in a very negative
light due to their republican opinions and their lack of religious
fervour (pp. 16, 26). On p. 26 he blames this on the
influence of politics on the peasants. (And on p. 279:
“Almost all of them were Socialists”.)
If this is true, I find it
a most impressive achievement. Of all social classes, none consists
of worse hidebound conservatives than the peasantry; almost everybody
else can eventually be freed from the shackles of religion,
but the peasants will always stubbornly persist in the ways of
their ancestors. If the French republican politicians of the
late 19th century indeed discovered a way to convert the peasantry
to anti-clerical sentiments, this is an achievement quite beyond
compare. How they managed to do it is beyond my comprehension.
I can only wish that something similar could be done in this country,
where religion has proved regrettably stubborn to 45 years of
communist oppression and is rearing its ugly head again now that
communism is over.
Huysmans is also critical of the French catholics in general,
including the priests and monks, for their weakness and
for not standing up to the new anti-clerical legislation
(pp. x, 202, 264–5).
Durtal says on p. 202: “As for the Catholics, you
know as well as I do, what utter fools and cowards they are.”
In fact he refers to catholic members of the parliament,
but I can already see that this sentence will be great
fun to quote out of context. :-)
Another minor subplot in the book concerns the rivalry
between the monastery and the local parish priest;
see e.g. pp. 15, 141, 162–7.
The novel also includes a few interesting minor characters,
e.g. the female oblate Mlle. de Garambois, noted for her obsession with good food
(pp. 58–9, 299) and her choice of clothing colors based on each day's liturgical
characteristics (p. 220, 248), as well as her frequent but
good-humoured bickering with her uncle M. Lampre.
There is an interesting discussion between Durtal and his housekeeper
on p. 12, which illustrates that obtaining all the necessary provisions
for running a household may have been a fairly nontrivial thing at the time,
something that required planning and sometimes extra effort.
Some things could be bought in the local village, but many
required a train journey to the nearby town of Dijon.
I found this interesting in contrast to the present-day situation,
when everything is easily available from gigantic supermarkets
that have sprung up around every corner, and when housekeeping seems
to be a largely trivial matter (but then I'm probably not sufficiently
involved in it to be able to appreciate all the complexities involved).
There is a fascinating legend about the Persian king Chosroes,
who apparently lost his mind at some point and went to considerable
lengths to have himself worshipped as a god (he even had constructed
a “firmament” of his own, a large domelike structure with
moveable parts to represent stars and planets). Pp. 18-21.
On criteria when considering new candidate monks:
“ ‘Godliness, saintliness even, may disappear;
but stupidity, never! That is the one thing that remains!’ ”
Ouch: “taste of sugared turpentine”
(p. 55). I had no idea that turpentine was meant to be
tasted, let alone sugared. But now I find in Wikipedia
that it “was once the preferred means of treating intestinal
parasites”. For some reason, I can't shake off the
association that sugared turpentine should go very
well with battery acid.
A veritable feast. :-)
On pp. 241–5 there is a religious meditation
on sorrow, and it contains the following passage (p. 242) which
I think is a wonderful example of how well decadent sensibility
goes with fervent catholicism:
“He took upon Himself the sins of the world, and, having
embraced Him, she [i.e. the Virgin] gained a grandeur that was
never hers till then. So terrible was she that at her touch He swooned.
His Agony was His Betrothal to her./ She filled His cup with the
sole blandishments that were hers to offer—atrocious
and super-human torments; and as a faithful spouse she devoted
herself to Him and never left him again till the end.”
Another great quote for taking out of context:
“The fact is that everything is going to the dogs,”
said by Durtal on p. 245. And he has another
paragraph in the same vein on p. 286,
a very fin-de-siecle thing on the complete bankruptcy of modern civilization
(“Everything is going to rack and ruin”).
There's more of the same on p. 288; lots of
plague and putrefaction.
Holy sheet! No, I didn't misspell it.
It's mentioned on p. 258: “the Holy Winding Sheet”.
Sounds like something in which you would wrap the
“ ‘[...] how incomplete your Breviary is in some respects!
It mentions only a few of your Saints; what about Saints like Austrebertha,
Walburga or Wereburga—where are they?’ ”
(P. 259.) Indeed. Whoever's fault this omission is, I hope
he fries in hell for depriving the readers of the breviary of
the opportunity to laugh at absurd names like Austrebertha and
There is a very interesting conversation on pp. 269–71,
where one of the monks is wondering if, as far as ensuring his own
salvation was concerned, going to the monastery wasn't rather like
taking the easy way out, compared with the effort it would have
required if he had decided to stay in the world instead, or even
if he had become an ordinary priest.
“[H]e used to read, and read, but never digested
what he read. His poor brain was a tangled mass of
doubts and scruples;” (p. 298).
Sometimes I wonder if this doesn't apply to me as well,
especially the part about not digesting what I read.
Here is a brief index to a number of curious topics mentioned
in the book (many of them in a fair amount of detail):
liturgical garden, p. 53;
pharmaceutical plants, p. 55 (a paragraph on p. 55 shows
that decadence is still going strong: Durtal's garden-arranging
efforts remind me a lot of the various pursuits of des Esseintes
in in A Rebours, except that the latter was wealthy
and could thus afford to be more extravagant);
legends of celandine, p. 57;
graisserons, i.e. rillettes of minced goose,
p. 58 (the name, like all names of French dishes, sounds exceedingly
fancy; but judging from the descriptions I've found on the web, I doubt that
I would enjoy this dish);
ceremony in which a novice oblate receives his habit, pp. 63–65;
the church of Notre Dame at Dijon, p. 70–75;
a comparison of English and French Benedictine liturgy, p. 76;
hermits and recluses, pp. 85–92
(“St. Lucipius, by way of penance, bore on his head
an enormous stone, which two men could hardly lift”, p. 86);
the monks' self-criticism sessions (p. 95; communists would
be delighted :-));
history of oblates, pp. 96–107;
the monks “should never eat the flesh of four-footed
animals” (p. 111; I couldn't help imagining herds
of cows and pigs with amputated legs); on the extremes of fasting,
p. 112; “ ‘These dispensations [...] are amply
justified by our weakened constitutions and by our sedentary
life of study, which one could not lead on a diet of vegetables
and water’ ” (pp. 112–13; obviously,
if one were instead to spend the entire day ploughing or chopping
firewood, meat could be easily dispensed with; a couple of rotten
carrots and a swig of stale rainwater would be amply sufficient for the whole day);
Durtal inveighs against the lack of mysticism in modern-day
catholics, pp. 117–18;
“Whatever fools may say about the Middle Ages, that
period was not one of prudery” (p. 136);
the martyrdom of Benignus, the apostle of Burgundy
(pp. 142–3; quite an impressive performance);
the Dijon museum, pp. 150–6;
perpetual prayer (different monastic orders pray at different
hours, and at any given moment somebody somewhere is sure to
be praying; p. 184);
books of hours, p. 209;
dyes used by medieval illuminators, p. 210
(says Durtal, “Ah, what a delightful frail, blue-eyed,
golden-haired little girl was Illumination, who, in giving birth to
her big daughter Painting, was fated to die!”);
wine, p. 216;
Sluter's sculptures at Dijon, pp. 222–8;
botanical garden at Dijon, pp. 229-30;
life of Sluter, p. 231
(“For the sum of forty gold francs [...]
the monastery gave him, for life, the use of a room
and a cellar for himself and a servant” and four
rolls of bread per day; depending on the weight of those
coins, it sounds like an excellent deal compared to present-day
rents and gold prices);
importance of oblates for religious art, p. 232;
ideas for a colony of artist-oblates, pp. 233–40;
the béguines, p. 234;
a meditation on sorrow, pp. 241–5;
liturgical pedantry, pp. 249–51;
liturgical calendar, pp. 252–9;
ceremony of taking the habit, p. 272;
feet-kissing, p. 273 (for another splendid feet-kissing scene,
see Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, ch. VI, p. 386
of the paperback edition).
By the way, I had a curious incident when ordering this
book via amazon.co.uk. Their web site said they have the book
in stock and can ship it in 24 hours. But when I placed
my order, I noticed that £2 had been added to the costs
of my order because the book is supposedly one of those hard-to-find
ones where it takes them up to 6 weeks to find the book and
they charge £2 extra for it. And indeed the book's
web page immediately also reflected this supposed new status.
However, the book was then actually dispatched the next day
and reached me in a little less than a week, as is usual when I
order from the UK. I guess I must have been the victim of some
sort of quirk in their software; perhaps the copy I ordered was
the last one they had in stock, and any subsequent copies would
indeed have to be ordered from the publisher; but their billing
system must have seen only the updated “hard-to-find”
status of the book rather than its previous “ships in 24 hours”
status (which is the one that actually applies to the copy that I
ordered). A further consequence of this imaginary hard-to-find
status of the book is that they refused to ship it together with the
other books I had ordered at the same time; hard-to-find books are
always shipped separately. Thus I had to pay a few more pounds because
the books were sent in two shipments rather than in one. And,
seeing that the order would be shipped to Slovenia, amazon.co.uk
helpfully added Slovenian VAT to the price of the books. Damned EU!
All in all, what I paid for the book was practically
twice its original list price. Grrrr.
Also by the way, here is Oscar Wilde's opinion on En Route (written in a letter to Robert Ross, 6 April 1896; published in Ross's 1908 edition of De Profundis; see also Wilde's collected works, vol. 2, Oxford, 2005, p. 321): “En Route is most overrated. It is sheer journalism. It never makes one hear a note of the music it describes. The subject is delightful, but the style is, of course, worthless, slipshod, flaccid. It is worse French than Ohnet's. Ohnet tries to be commonplace and suceeds. Huysmans tries not to be, and is.”