“I am up to my neck in lust and ritual murder.”
So claims Durtal, the central figure in Là-Bas, arguably the most notorious novel by fin-de-siècle French writer Joris-Karl Huysmans. By the time the first instalment appeared in a Paris newspaper in 1891, Huysmans was already a well-known member of the Decadent movement, thanks to his 1884 work À Rebours (Against Nature), which remains his most famous and most influential text. Of that book, Arthur Symons wrote, “With this contempt for humanity, this hatred of mediocrity, this passion for a somewhat exotic kind of modernity, an artist who is so exclusively an artist was sure, one day or another, to produce a work which, being produced to please himself, and being entirely typical of himself, would be, in a way, the quintessence of contemporary Decadence.”
The Decadents, who overlap the Symbolists, are generally thought to originate with Baudelaire‘s Les Fleurs du mal, and include in their ranks Paul Verlaine, Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, Léon Bloy, and Stéphane Mallarmé; the most noted English-language Decadent was Oscar Wilde. A reaction against the naturalism of Balzac, Flaubert, and Zola, the movement emphasized an aesthetic of artifice and sensualism that recalled aspects of the Romantics. Indeed, there are critics who view the Decadent movement as a bridge between Romanticism and Modernism. Terry Hale, who translated the Penguin Classics edition of Là-Bas under the title The Damned, writes that the book “cemented [Huysmans’s] reputation as a writer at the very forefront of the literary avant-garde.”
It did so with a story so scandalous Huysmans himself worried that no one would dare publish it. The central subject of the novel is Satanism, and the climactic set-piece is a Black Mass, which begins with an orgy of blasphemy and sacrilege before descending into a literal orgy. Durtal is drawn into a fascination with the occult in fin-de-siècle France, and in particular the demonic abbé Canon Docre, as a result of his research on an earlier figure who trafficked in Satanism: the infamous 15th-century child murderer Gilles de Rais, about whom Durtal is writing a biography.
By any measure, de Rais is a fascinating historical figure. A military hero who was made Maréchal by Charles VII, de Rais fought with Joan of Arc at Orléans and elsewhere. After the future St. Joan’s trial and execution for heresy, de Rais took refuge on lands he had inherited from wealthy family members. There his attention turned to alchemy and Satanism. In 1440, he was tried in Nantes for the ritual murders and sexual defilement of as many as 150 children; he confessed to avoid excommunication and was executed. Some argue that de Rais was the first serial killer in recorded history; a modern fringe movement believes he was innocent of the crimes he was convicted for.
Huysmans’s Durtal professes no doubt about the Maréchal’s guilt, though he does argue that the association many have drawn between the murderer and the figure of Bluebeard is erroneous. If there is a truly subversive aspect to Durtal’s portrayal of the Medieval killer, from the perspective of 21st-century moral dogma, it is in his eagerness to see the Maréchal as a fully rounded human being rather than a one-dimensional monster. For Durtal, de Rais is at once a “brave and honest soldier,” a “refined and artistic criminal,” and a ”repentant sinner.” Looking at the entire trajectory of de Rais’s life, Durtal sees “a mass of contradictions” in which “each of his vices is compensated for by a contradictory virtue.” He was a hideous murderer, Durtal avers, but also “a sure and generous friend” whose “table was closed to none.”
There are those who are made uncomfortable when history’s most monstrous villains are presented with their complete humanity intact, in large part because to see them as human is to underscore what they share in common with us. This is not a qualm that Durtal faces, largely because his conception of humanity is bleak and entirely pessimistic:
Surely human nature is selfish, intolerant, and vile. Just look around ourselves! Constant struggle, a society which is cynical and cruel, the poor and humble forever fleeced and abused by the bourgeoisie! Everywhere I look I see the triumph of those without ability and without scruples, the apotheosis of crooked politicians and financiers. What progress can possibly be made against such a tide? No, man is just the same as always. His soul was corrupt in the days of Genesis and it is no less rotten and riddled with vice today. Only the nature of his sins changes. Progress is the hypocrisy in which vice is refined!
“Life to Huysmans was revolting in the highest degree,” writes Maximilian J. Rudwin in ”The Satanism of Huysmans.” “He felt a horror for contemporary banality, vulgarity, and insipidity. The human soul was to him bankrupt, defunct. The stupidity of men and the ugliness of things filled him with bitter despair.” The association of Durtal’s philosophy with his creator is not unfounded, since Hale points out that Là-Bas is “an essentially autobiographical work.” Thus, when Durtal asserts, “One can take as much pride achieving greatness in crime as a saint greatness in virtue,” a reader is likely to side with his friend des Hermies, who says, “The abhorrence of impotency, a hatred of mediocrity – your definition of diabolicism is an extremely liberal one!”
What is undeniable is Durtal’s legitimate fascination with Satanic rituals, an obsession that is as old as religion itself (at least as old as the Loudun possessions, which Durtal references several times in the narrative), and as recent as the 1980s Satanic panic in the U.S. and QAnon. Under the tutelage of des Hermies and the machinations of the mysterious and vaguely sinister Madame Chantelouve, Durtal is initiated into understanding of beliefs involving alchemy, the Black Mass, incubi and succubi, and demonomania.
In the creation and development of Durtal’s character in Là-Bas, Rudwin sees little distinction between the fictional figure and the living author. Huysmans shared Durtal’s revulsion at humanity and longed to create a new kind of literature that would attain the level of what Rudwin refers to as “spiritual naturalism.” In his embrace of the Decadent movement, moreover, he underscored the essentialism of diabolical influence on his imagination. “[T]he taste of Huysmans for all that is artificial and high in flavour, as seen in À Rebours, inclines him toward demonism,” Rudwin writes. “Decadentism passes almost imperceptibly into diabolism.”
While this is surely the case with Là-Bas, Durtal would go on to appear in three other books – En Route (1895), La Cathédrale (1898), and L’Oblat (1903) – which trace the character‘s conversion to Catholicism and his retreat among the religious community at Ligugé. (As with Là-Bas, the subsequent novels follow closely the trajectory of Huysmans’s own life.) If the cycle of four novels can be seen as a sort of Dante-esque, fin-de-siècle journey from the depths of hell to some kind of religious or spiritual revelation, the opening salvo in the author’s quadrilogy could be considered his Inferno. When Durtal storms out of the Black Mass in abject disgust, telling himself he has “had enough of such horrors,” he is not so much recanting as he is admitting the limitations of Satanic belief to fulfill the spiritual void inside him.
At the very end of the book, Durtal remains despondent, wondering balefully, “What whirlwinds of ordure lie in wait for us on the horizon!” Huysmans died in 1907, so he would not live to comprehend the full measure of that question’s answer in the trenches and on the front lines of the First World War. But the novel’s chilling assessment of history – “And just to think that this century of positivism and atheism has overthrown everything, everything except Satanism; Satanism has not been forced to yield an inch” – still rings true 130 years after its first shocking appearance.