Guestblog: Justin Isis
(Below, please find an essay by Chômu author Justin Isis that originally appeared on the website Patchwork Earth. We hope this will be the first of a number of essays from Chômu authors to appear on the site. – QSC.)
On July 3, 2008, one month before killing himself, Thomas M. Disch wrote a poem in which he referenced 19th century French author Jules Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly. Disch introduces him as “the Walter Scott of Normandy” and mentions how “in his old age, he drew about him in his poor Paris lodgings the best of the young generation which has since made his fame secure.” Disch’s mention is intended as ironic; Barbey d’Aurevilly is all but unknown in the Anglosphere today.
Who was Barbey d’Aurevilly? Geoffrey Wall’s introduction to the Penguin edition of Flaubert’s L’Éducation sentimentale states:
“Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, the mischievous high-Catholic dandy, declared that the whole thing was disagreeably ‘dry’ and overdone. Flaubert, so he argued, ‘stays on the surface, knows no feeling, no passion, no enthusiasm, no ideal, no insight, no reflections, no depth.’ Maliciously perceptive, Barbey d’Aurevilly mocked Flaubert’s cult of perfectionism, inviting his readers to imagine a crowd that ‘goes down on its knees – like the three kings at the crib of the Infant Jesus – before the box that contains Flaubert’s manuscript.’”
“Beloved of fin-de-siècle decadents, Barbey d’Aurevilly is a classic example of what lengths the Romantics were capable of; his writings make it plain why the genre fell into discredit among later Victorians. He held extreme Catholic views, yet wrote on the most risqué subjects (a contradiction the English apparently found more disturbing than the French; Voltairianism would have been something else); he gave himself aristocratic airs and hinted at a mysterious past, though his parentage was entirely respectable and his youth humdrum and innocent.”
Barbey d’Aurevilly also reviewed À rebours, “the breviary of the decadence,” upon its release. J.-K. Huysmans states that “in the midst of all this hurly-burly, a single writer alone saw clear, Barbey d’Aurevilly, who, be it said, had no personal acquaintance with me.” Huysmans is referring to the ultimatum Barbey d’Aurevilly offered him in the review: “After such a book, it only remains for the author to choose between the muzzle of a pistol and the foot of the cross.” Huysmans, like Barbey d’Aurevilly, would eventually choose the latter.
At present, few books seem available in English. One is a manual on Dandyism with a preface by Quentin Crisp (not [Chomu co-founder] Quentin S. Crisp); another is Les Diaboliques, a collection of stories dealing with the common theme of murderesses, which is available for free, online, in French. I used online translation for the preface, and from it the following phrases were generated:
“Real stories of this civilized time and if divine that, when one warns to write them, it seems that it is the Devil which dictated… The Devil is like God. Manicheism which is the stock of all the great heresies of The Middle Ages, the Manicheism is not so stupid! Malebranche said that God recognized himself with the use OF the MEANS MORE. Devil too.”
“One wanted to make a small Museum of these Ladies, while waiting for the Museum, even smaller is made, ladies which make them during and contrasts in the company, because all things are double. Art has two lobes, like the brain. Nature resembles these women who have a blue eye and an eye black.”
My own interest in Barbey d’Aurevilly stems from his embodying two seemingly contradictory ideas: religious conservatism and avant-garde fashion. This tendency, symptomatic of a certain stratum of 19th century French literature, can be seen also in Huysmans’s movement from Naturalism to religious themes. This combination is difficult to imagine in English literature; although a kind of spirituality exists in the work of Dickens, Eliot, and Hardy, it remains at the level of a vague ideal. Few Victorian writers seem capable of summoning the satanic ecstasies of Huysmans’s La-Bas; even Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray comes off as derivative when held up to the standard of À rebours.
Where does this tendency come from? It might help to examine the seminal works of Flaubert, a writer typically credited with creating the modern form of literary Realism. As of 2008, Flaubert’s style in Madame Bovary and L’Éducation sentimentale is still used as a primer for Realist techniques – see critic James Wood’s recent How Fiction Works for an excellent analysis. But a closer inspection reveals that Flaubert, who claimed to detest Realism, more often wrote in a fantastic mode. His earliest work, La Tentation de Saint Antoine, is a near-Surrealist drama. His shorter works collected in Trois Contes have the atmosphere of fairy tales and medieval legends, and their concomitant violence – consider the flatly mystical ending of “Saint Julien l’hospitalier,” in which a horribly rotting leper is transfigured into Christ, or the grotesque death of John the Baptist in “Herodias,” a story which evokes its Oriental setting with all the vividness of a Gustave Moreau painting. Then there’s the historical novel Salammbô, with its flesh-eating idol, Moloch. And this dialogue from the early story “The Dance of Death,” which seems to prefigure H.P. Lovecraft rather than Henry James:
“When God’s work of creation has ceased; when the heavens have disappeared and the stars are quenched; when spirits rise from their retreats and wander in the depths with sighs and groans; then, what unpicturable delight for thee! Then shalt thou sit on the eternal thrones of heaven and of hell–shalt overthrow the planets, stars, and worlds–shalt loose thy steed in fields of emeralds and diamonds–shalt make his litter of the wings torn from the angels,–shalt cover him with the robe of righteousness! Thy saddle shall be broidered with the stars of the empyrean,–and then thou wilt destroy it! After thou hast annihilated everything, –when naught remains but empty space,–thy coffin shattered and thine arrows broken, then make thyself a crown of stone from heaven’s highest mount, and cast thyself into the abyss of oblivion. Thy fall may last a million aeons, but thou shalt die at last. Because the world must end; all, all must die,–except Satan! Immortal more than God! I live to bring chaos into other worlds!”
Examined in this light, Flaubert’s Realist works can be seen as exceptions rather than the rule, and so it seems strange that he’s still known primarily to English readers for a novel of provincial adultery. But the fact that the casual reader is familiar only with Madame Bovary is perhaps not surprising, given the Anglosphere’s Realist bias (to be fair, the other side of the coin is the long tradition of the English ghost story). And if most of Flaubert’s work goes unread, what hope does Barbey d’Aurevilly have? Disch’s poem and its mention of his “secure fame” seem painful to me. Oscar Wilde’s attempt to import Symbolist decadence into English had some influence on Modernism, but for the most part has had little mainstream effect: in the Anglosphere, at least, the fantastic/mystical tradition seems not just dead but forgotten. Instead we’re flooded with, on the one hand, tedious “magic realism” and empty formalism, and on the other, derivative “Realism” of the kind Flaubert would have disdained – Flaubert, who famously chose the theme of Madame Bovary not because of any especial interest, but because it was deliberately banal.
Why doesn’t the English-speaking world get the joke?