J.K. Huysmans, “Là-Bas” (1891) (translated from the French by Keene Wallace) – Joris-Karl Huysmans served for respectable decades as a civil servant and wrote decadent novels in his spare time, until he converted to Catholicism and wrote sufficiently Catholic novels to generate enough sales to quit his day job. That sums a lot of it up, right there. My understanding is that Huysmans didn’t see himself as a decadent- he lived a simple bachelor lifestyle, and started out his literary career as a Zola-style naturalist. But disdain for his time and place — late nineteenth century France — and a fascination with the wicked led him to decadent literature, first with “A Rebours,” easily the most important literary novel of interior decoration going, and this novel about satanism. Huysmans wasn’t an aesthete dandy, like the main character in “A Rebours,” and like his narrator in “Là-Bas,” he never became a satanist. He liked to watch, especially things that either confirmed his disdain for his times, transcended it, or both.
“Là-Bas” contains elements of what would become the genres of horror and crime fiction, as bored writer Durtal, lackadaisically finishing a book on medieval serial killer Gilles de Rais, decides he needs to find some real devil-worshippers, “for research,” of course. A lot of the novel is Durtal kicking it with his doctor friend Des Hermies (interesting name) who knows a lot about the occult, and a humble church bell-ringer named Carhaix, who represents a (mildly patronizing) picture of the vanishing “good Catholic” of France, someone with a downright medieval level of devotion. They’re joined by their hatred of the (supposed) mediocrity and corruption of their era. The Middle Ages were a better time, they declare, though with much more Gallic irony and acceptance of things like squalor and foolishness — Durtal and Des Hermies disregard much of what the church actually says — than you get with a lot of medieval nostalgists. But how are these three going to find the black mass Durtal wants to see (Des Hermies is too “over it” to bother and Carhaix is too much the good simple Catholic)?
“Cherchez la femme” as a roughly contemporary Francophone literary figure would have it- Durtal starts getting anonymous horny letters. A little detective work reveals they come from Madame Chantelouve, the wife of a literary Catholic friend. In keeping with his then-contemporary neuroticism, Durtal can’t decide whether he wants to go through with an affair or not, but once he finds out that Chantelouve has connections with the biggest contemporary Satanist, a real bad dude. Eventually, she leads him to a black mass- Durtal, naturally, doesn’t participate, just watches. This scene, along with the recitations of Gilles de Rais’s murderous career, are what put “Là-Bas” on the censor’s desk as often it appeared there. The depictions of blasphemous deeds aren’t that much to anyone who’s seen all that shit done on MTV by scrubs like Marilyn Manson, but the speech the satanist priest makes against god and Jesus is pretty impressive, even in translation. After all this, Durtal and his bros eat dinner among the bells again and Durtal thinks, “maybe I’ll be Catholic after all,” maybe a little out of shock from what he’s seen but more in reaction to the way it confirms contemporary banality.
This is a weird, interesting book, less for the peculiarities of the occult scene and more for its form, pacing, and general ethos. French antimodernism is both less “catchy” than the usual Anglophone (or German, or Russian for that matter) variants but also usually a bit smarter, with a sense of actual tragedy. To the extent this is a mystery story, it’s less a whodunit and more what they used to call a “city mystery” – as cities expanded during the industrial revolution, people wrote loosely-plotted novels revealing their seamy undersides; part crime novel, part travelogue, part pornography. What lies at the heart of fin de siecle Paris? A deep rot, naturally, an underground war between good and bad occultists (but even the good ones are sketchy and basically off-camera), the base materialism of the age causing people to seek out older truths, but only when they think no one’s watching, etc. If you want to be an artist, you have to seek out truths that transcend the age, and that’s hard to do- the church might be the path of least resistance, even if it also produces occultists (the big bad satan priest is, naturally, a defrocked Catholic priest).
Again, Huysmans was an actual writer and a smart person and he was writing before whatever threshold in the mid-twentieth century was passed before we had to make all of these thing schematic. “Good” and “evil” barely show up- in fact, the throughline with the Gilles de Rais stuff, the payoff for Durtal narrating his notes, isn’t De Rais’s evil- it’s his redemption. When he got caught, after some brief tergiversation, he confessed and threw himself on the mercy of Mother Church, which he once served alongside Joan of Arc. According to Durtal, the parents of the children who De Rais brutalized and slaughtered all forgave him, prayed for him at his execution site, before they did him in. This, more than anything, is what Durtal/Huysmans sells to us as the greatness of the Middle Ages: not our sense of good and evil, cleansed of modern accretions, but an alien sense — none of it “makes sense” — that allows for an alien greatness. You wouldn’t see that in a contemporary good-evil narrative, I tend to think. The battles between occult forces would be hard to game out in any of the RPG systems I know about. It’s genuinely irrational, and that’s hard to get across, but Huysmans did it, even with his viewpoint characters of drawing room detectives. ****’