For years I’ve been having a dream, a recurring nightmare, which features me and whoever I am in a relationship with at the time. In this dream nothing out of the ordinary happens, except that I am convinced that my partner is evil, is, specifically, possessed by something evil. Indeed, on one occasion I actually pushed the girl with whom I was sharing my bed away from me while I slept, believing her to be demonic. It is not, of course, difficult to interpret this dream, but, outside of any subconscious negative feelings towards my girlfriends, it is, I believe, still significant, because it involves something that, for no logical reason, absolutely terrifies me [and I don’t mean being in a relationship].
Despite not being religious myself, and not having been raised by religious believers, or ever having been particularly exposed to them, the satanic, well, possesses me. I’m as drawn to it, as I am petrified of it. I used to watch a lot of horror films at one time and, regardless of how poor the film was, if anyone started croaking out a bit of Latin and pulling gymnastic body shapes I was wanting to run out of the room. You might argue that my fear is atavistic, is a kind of psychological remnant of a time when the majority of people truly believed in this stuff, when they felt as though the prospect of hell was a genuine one. Who knows? But satanism is certainly the reason I was simultaneously attracted to, and wary of, J.K. Husymans’ La-Bas.
“Really, when I think it over, literature has only one excuse for existing; it saves the person who makes it from the disgustingness of life.”
The novel centres around a disillusioned author, Durtal, who is writing a book about the ‘virtuoso of suffering and murder’, and dabbler in the occult, Gilles de Rais. On the basis of what we learn about him, de Rais was a real life Maldoror; in fact, he is credited with one particularly unpleasant act – making a child think that you have saved him, so as to enjoy his shock when he realises that you intend to butcher him – that also features in Lautréamont’s Chants. These murders, which according to Huysmans number into the hundreds, were, it seems, part satanic ritual and part an expression of de Rais’ ennui. As the novel progresses, Durtal himself gets mixed up in satanism, which he justifies as being part of his research.
While I did approach La Bas with caution, the truth is that I needn’t have been concerned at all. The book is mostly plotless, is relentlessly, often drily, investigative and philosophical [with an emphasis on the historical], such that a significant proportion of it reads like an academic textbook. Therefore, all the tension and atmosphere that the subjects of child killing, dismemberment, and satanic practices, might have created is lacking. I freely admit to being a coward, and yet there wasn’t one moment during my reading when I felt especially unnerved or uneasy, not even the black mass scene, which is frequently commented upon. This is not, however, necessarily a fatal flaw, for there are numerous interesting ideas and passages in the book – such as the opening discussion about Naturalism, which I agreed with completely – but one will certainly be disappointed if one comes to it looking for thrills and shocks.
Indeed, that La-Bas opens with a chapter dedicated to the merits or otherwise of Naturalism is telling, for it is as much, if not more so, a book about art and literature as it is about satanism. Huysmans states that Naturalism rejects ‘every high-minded thought’, that it is concerned only with appetites. It may, as Durtal notes, have rid the world of romanticism, and rescued literature from ‘tedious idealism’, but it is, nevertheless, a dead-end, because it is not concerned with the soul. What Durtal advocates is a kind of supernatural realism, similar to that created by Dostoevsky, of which La Bas itself could be considered an example. The book is, then, partly about the author’s dissatisfaction with writing, both his own and other people’s, and was born out of his quest to create a new or better form of literature.
Moreover, one ought to bear in mind that all of the main characters are outsiders, are in a sense lost and/or disappointed with themselves and with the times; they are, to quote Husymans, ‘lives out of alignment.’ Take Durtal, a man whose soul ‘is clogged up with filth.’ He is an author who has given up writing novels, and who detests the literati and the present generation as a whole. He is, in writing a book about de Rais, shying away from the modern world, retreating back into the middle ages. His work on satanism and spirituality in medieval France is an act of avoidance, but it is also clearly an attempt to find himself. There are an abundance of references in the book to the superiority of the old ways, and the vacuous nature of modern attitudes and behaviour, which is best represented in the bell-ringer, Carhaix. This occupation, which was once so significant, the sound of bells being said to ‘echo the state of the town’s souls’, is now near-redundant [prophetically des Hermies predicts that real bells will soon be replaced with electronic chimes] and has been stripped of meaning or profundity.
“He did not believe, and yet he admitted the supernatural. Right here on earth how could any of us deny that we are hemmed in by mystery, in our homes, in the street,—everywhere when we came to think of it?”
What Huysmans seems to be suggesting is that people in the middle ages were more spiritually, emotionally alive, be that to one extreme or the other. This, for me, explains the real purpose of the focus on Gilles de Rais, who was both exceptionally good at one point in his life and exceptionally bad. Of course, one does not admire a child murderer and rapist, who has a sideline in Devil worship, but one cannot accuse the man of not wholly living, of not feeling and experiencing life to the full. And I believe that this is the point of interest for Huysmans, far beyond what it meant to be a satanist. Indeed, the title of the novel is sometimes translated as The Damned, but it is not the purveyors of black magic who are condemned, it is the spiritually lethargic, increasingly mindless modern man.