Imagens das páginas
PDF
ePub

and a certain familiarity with religious writers, the outcome of his Jesuit training; and on the other, in the realization the book betrays of the vanity of mere material things. The decadent and neurotic des Esseintes creates for himself a wholly egotistic paradise, from which was to be excluded every sign and sound which could jar on the most delicate organization, and the experiment fails miserably.

Amid the turmoil of criticism aroused by the book few had the penetration to perceive whither the author was being led. That robust and original genius, Barbey d'Aurevilly, discerned it, as years before he had discerned a similar promise of conversion in Baudelaire. In an article in the Constitutionnel (July 29, 1884) he drew attention to the humble pathos of the prayer that brings the volume to a close, begging mercy " for the Christian who doubts and for the unbeliever who fain would believe," a prayer wrung from the lips of des Esseintes in a moment of acute desolation of soul. In Barbey d'Aurevilly's judgment it was Huysmans himself who gave utterance to the prayer. Yet, twenty year later, in a preface to a privatelyissued edition of A Rebours, the author was able to assert that at the time he wrote it he felt no conscious leanings towards the Christian faith, and no sense of the need of reformation in his own life.

His conversion, indeed, was still eight years distant. In the interval there appeared both En Rade and -Bas, books that few Catholics will care to open. Yet -Bas, despite its truly horrible revelations concerning the Black Mass and obscure forms of Satan-worship both in the Paris of to-day and in the Paris of the seventeenth century, possesses for the psychologist the interest of bringing on the scene, for the first time, Durtal, the man of letters, the hero of the three ensuing novels, the prototype of the author himself. In the intense subjectivity of all Huysmans' writing it is not easy to discriminate between fiction and personal experience, but it is admittedly no injustice to him to assume that the history of Durtal's soul's progress is, in its main features, closely autobiographical. None the less, the ordinary reader may well be content to make acquaintance with his career only at the stage entitled En Route.

This wonderful book appeared in 1895. Three years previously the author had suddenly left Paris, and had made a retreat in the little Trappist monastery of Notre Dame d'Igny. Here he made his peace with God and received Holy Communion. The event, when known, produced not a little curious speculation in French literary circles, to be followed by an outburst of excited controversy when the whole story was given to the world. Unbelievers, while praising the work of art, poured scorn on the conversion, and Catholics were too scandalized at the sinner to credit him with any sincerity of purpose. His reconciliation was declared to be unreal, his repentance sensational, his whole attitude a mere literary pose.

Happily a few men, such as the late Mgr. d'Hulst, François Coppée, and the Abbé F. Klein, besides his trusted friend, the Abbé Mugnier, discerned from the first something of the true greatness of a book so daringly outspoken and so full of startling paradoxes that the conventional Christian failed to recognize the repentant soul of the Prodigal Son returning to his Father's house in so unwonted a guise. Of the literary merit of the book there could scarce be any question. The uncertainties, the tentative experiment of earlier works, here disappear. With none of the usual stock-in-trade of the novelist-no love episode, no heroine, no plot-he holds the reader by the unbroken unity of the theme treated in a style so incisive, so picturesque, so varied in imagery as to carry one unfatigued through his longest and most learned dissertations. Few writers have so vast a vocabulary at their command as Huysmans, and his frequent use of unusual words is a continual tax on the foreign reader. In this he scarcely falls short of Balzac or Flaubert.

The ultimate test, however, of a book such as En Route as,

I may surely add, of the Confessions of St. Augustine, must lie, not in its purely literary qualities, but in its essential sincerity, and its reliability as an unvarnished record of a soul's conversion to God. Judged from such a standard, I confess it is hard to understand that any unprejudiced person can remain unmoved by Huysmans' confessions. Our passion for the sensational and mock-heroic which has caused us to embellish beyond all recognition the simple records of early hagiographers in order to bring them more into accord with our own false standards of what is edifying and becoming in saints and martyrs, often blinds us to the real nature of man's heroic struggle against evil in daily life. Huysmans has an unequalled capacity for reproducing not only the doubts and hesitations of the human mind, the petty pretexts on which we would fain put from us some unwelcome duty, the paltry cowardice that clogs our powers of action, but also the fierce onslaughts of temptation to which human nature is prone. Durtal is never heroic, as we are wont to understand heroism, but he is amazingly, convincingly, human !

Another point which testifies to Huysmans' transparent sincerity is that when it comes to the definite question of the cause of his own conversion, he, adept as he is in self-analysis, remains dumb. “ Providence was merciful to me," he writes simply in the preface to A Rebours, already referred to, “and the Blessed Virgin was kind.” Elsewhere he speaks of Dur. tal's weariness of life, of the prayers of relations, of the compelling power of Christian art as contributory causes.

He exclaims :

Ah! the true test of Catholicism is surely the art that it provided, the art that no man has been able to surpass: the Primitifs in painting and sculpture, the mystics in verse and in prose, plain chant in music, and in architecture the Roman and the Gothic (En Route. P. 10).

These, however, are the more external reasons and leave much unaccounted for. After all, who can apportion and determine the workings of the Holy Spirit within us? Are not most stories of conversions singularly unconvincing documents ? Yet a lesser artist than Huysmans would certainly have made the attempt.

Having once embraced Catholicism, Huysmans' attitude, in all essentials of faith, partook of the receptive docility of child. hood. He seems to have been wholly untouched by-indeed quite uninterested in the intellectual problems that cause distress to so many in our day. So, too, he had no leanings towards liberalism, whether within or without the Church. Poles asunder as they were by nature, his religious attitude, in its simple directness, reminds me at times of that of the Breton, Ernest Hello. They had in common their vivid sense of the Communion of Saints, and their intimate knowledge of Holy Scripture, rare among Frenchmen. Both are wholly free from the sin of human respect. To Huysmans religion could never be a matter of outward observances, a conventional formula. To him it meant nothing less than the familiarity of the soul with God and the diligent cultivation of such a state of life as renders the familiarity more real, more continuous. For the majority of souls such favorable conditions can scarce be found outside the cloister. Hence his enthusiasm for La Trappe, the wonderful picture of which supplies the most enchanting pages of En Route. No writer of our day has penetrated more intimately than he into the mystical beauty of the cloistered ideal, the far-reaching power of prayer, the awful reality of reparation for the sins of others.

His knowledge of the writings of the great mystics of the Church, more especially those of Spain and Flanders, is such as few laymen can pretend to. Living thus, as he did, in his later years, in touch with the highest conceptions of Christian truth, his mind steeped in the symbolism and the liturgy of the Church, it was perhaps only human that he should betray undue impatience of the worldly compromises of every day Catholics. The fashionable preacher, the theatrical cantiques of the Mois de Marie, religion reduced to a matter of painted statuettes and candles and chromos, the "imbecile literature” and "inept press” of Catholic France, all excite his unmeasured scorn, and if his picturesque language is over-emphatic, and his denunciations unduly sweeping, who can deny the basis of right upon his side ? He is a literary Savonarola, who would joyfully have lit a bonfire on the Parvis Notre Dame, in which to Aling all those trivial objets de piété which he believed to stand between the soul and God. None the less, one must regret that his generous defence of the religious orders should have led him into an undue depreciation of the French secular clergy. It is reassuring to learn from the Abbé Brémond, in

. a sympathetic appreciation of his friend, in Le Correspondant (June 10, 1907), that the invectives to be found in Huysmans' books were much attenuated as they fell from his own lips, and that his innate kindness of heart took from them all their sting. Apparently his complex nature included a certain Flem. ish thick-skinnedness, for we are told that he was genuinely surprised and distressed on learning that his ferocious plain-speaking had caused pain in many quarters, and it is to be noted that his latest writings are comparatively free from personalities.

After the mysticism of the Church was to follow its symbolism, after Notre Dame de l'âtre, Chartres Cathedral. To most people Chartres has been but one among the many beautiful Gothic churches of France. For readers of La Cathédrale it will ever retain a loveliness all its own, as the home par ex. cellence of the Blessed Virgin, as a "blonde aux yeux bleus," as “the most superhuman and exalted art the world has ever seen." Never has Cathedral been celebrated by so fervid and penetrating a chronicler. Never has the symbolism of mediaval sculptors and builders been subjected to a more searching analysis. There are exquisite romantic pages telling of the erection of the great building, of the wave of religious emotion that brought together a motley army of rich and poor to toil, as on a new Crusade, for the greater glory of the Mother of God. There is a wonderful picture of the vast nave at early dawn, in which the clustered pillars are compared with forest trees. And there is a long, detailed study of the incomparable statuary that decorates the exterior, a study in which every variation of line and expression is keenly noted. To Huysmans each stone figure is as a living witness of the past, an individuality endowed with all the characteristics of the saint or prophet whose name it bears, and to be written about, therefore, in tones of reverent admiration. Here is a charming passage referring to the group of royal ladies who adorn the Western porch:

What say they to each other, they who have watched St. Bernard, St. Louis, St. Ferdinand, St. Fulbert, St. Ives, Blanche of Castile, and so many of the elect, pass by them before penetrating into the starry gloom of the nave? Do they speak of the death of their companions, of those five statues that have disappeared forever from their little circle? Do they listen, through the half-closed doors, to the moaning of the desolate wind of the psalms and the roaring of the great waters of the organ? Can they hear the preposterous exclamations of the tourists who laugh at seeing them so tall and stiff? Can they detect, in common with so many saints, the odor of sin, the stench from the slime of the souls that brush by them? If it were indeed so, one could no longer lift one's

.. and yet Durtal continued to gaze, for he could not drag himself away; they held him by the nevertailing charm of their mystery. In fine, he said to himself, they are extra-terrestrial, in spite of their material form. Their bodies do not exist though their souls are free to dwell in their sculptured vesture ; they are thus in perfect unison with the basilica which, it also, is disincarnated from its stone walls, and rises far above the earth, in a flight of ecstasy.

eyes to them

« AnteriorContinuar »