The literature of our days, bound to sensuality, is in a clear thematic crisis. This crisis is truly the most serious problem that all modern literati have to struggle with.
The cinema, the novel, the novella, poetry – in short everything is beset by a tremendous crisis in storylines.
Plots revolve endlessly around love affairs. Now, the amorous aspects of life, however modernized we may be, can only give rise to four combinations: Either two married people abandon their respective homes to build a third home together on the ruins of their first spouses’ happiness; or a married person falls in love with an unmarried one, the passion culminating in a rupture of the conjugal ties; or the rupture does not take place, but the unwanted spouse conveniently dies, so that the widower or widow may, upon the closing of the deceased’s coffin, rush into the open arms of their beloved and be happy ever after; or two unmarried persons whose mutual love is barbarously opposed by an implacable father-in-law.
These cases obviously include some variants. Either crime cuts the Gordian knot of a superfluous life which threatened to last too long; or the brutal adultery puts an end to an uncomfortable situation; or the superfluous spouse discreetly commits suicide to make way for his or her happier successor.
Evidently, however, these combinations are also limited, and are exhausted after some time, so that those who devote themselves assiduously to reading novels for five years become acquainted with the entire amorous inventory of our bookshops. And with a little shrewdness, he will be able to see, on reading the first few pages, what the outcome of the story will be, an outcome that depends on the author’s inclinations and the feelings and attitude he attributes to the characters in the novel.
An author who [manages to break] this vicious circle, to enter a new field, is plainly a Christopher Columbus of the spirit, who opens to the intelligence new continents, unexplored worlds.
This is the case with Huysmans, one of the strangest and most admirable writers of the last century.1
His merit was that of having woven the most astonishing literary [plots] that can be imagined, abstracting entirely from amorous complications.
Intellectual crisis that leads to anti-Catholic mysticism
J. K. Huysmans, a naturalist writer living in Paris, found himself at a certain point in his life plunged into a tremendous intellectual crisis. Lucid enough to abhor his century, but devoid of any sentimental support from any solid friendship or deep family affection, Huysmans, while isolating himself more and more from the conviviality of all, created within himself a tremendous vacuum.
Having abandoned all his friends, destroyed all his former illusions, lost all his relatives, he lived isolated in Paris, in a small room, where he spent endless days, in the company of a cat, forever bemoaning the nineteenth century.
At first, he was seduced by the original and mysterious nature of his life. This seduction became more pronounced as he became acquainted with the people closest to Des Hermies, all of whom were plagued by an anti-Catholic and pathological mysticism that exuded the miasmas of the most absolute spiritual putrefaction.
Driven by his dilettante inclinations, Huysmans did not retreat at the sight of such an environment.
A salutary reaction to the horrors of a black Mass
On that occasion, under mysterious conditions, he received an invitation to attend a black Mass, celebrated in honour of the devil by a priest divested of his holy orders.
His curiosity aroused, he accepted the invitation and was led to a strange place, crowded with women and men laden with the weight of every vice and baseness. On the altar, there was a Christ grinning in an ignoble and outrageous rictus. A bell rings, the priest enters. The Mass begins, amid the contortions of the assembly. At the moment of the Consecration, the priest pronounces the sacramental words, bathed in sweat, his voice filled with hatred, his gaze charged with strange diabolical effluvia. He distributes the Holy Eucharist to those present, who profane it abominably. Satanic laughter, dreadful blasphemies, implacable insults, nothing is spared to the adorable Body of Our Lord.
Clearly diabolical manifestations erupt on all sides. It is the triumph of Satan, glorified by those present in a delirium of abjection and infamy. Sickened, feeling wounded in his few remaining sentiments, Huysmans slips out the door and flees in terror.
Starting from that moment, a great disquiet seized his mind, and eventually brought him submissively to the feet of the Church. He had seen the devil; he had seen the spirit of darkness, spewing forth the most horrific insults against the Holy Eucharist.
He reflected: if the devil, whose existence I can no longer doubt, hates the Host consecrated by Catholic priests, it is because it really is the Body of Christ. Therefore, the Catholic Church is true.
A painful and laborious conversion ensues, prolonged by untold struggles – endless battles waged against the flesh, rebellious against the injunctions of the will, and the spirit, rebellious against the demands of the Faith.
Ecstasy in face of the beauty of the Liturgy and Catholic churches
When he enters a church, he becomes ecstatic with the beauty of the Catholic Liturgy. His soul soars to the feet of God at the sound of the organ, at the grave and cadenced flow of the sacred music. Few souls have experienced the beauty of plainchant like his […].
Assiduously frequenting the churches of Paris, he visits them all in his most intense moments of sentimentality.
At times it is Notre-Dame de Paris, retaining in its centuries-old ogives some remnants of light filtered through the stained-glass, while slowly and sadly the setting sun disappears on the horizon. At another moment it is a working-class church where he observes at length the impoverished women, the beggars, the exhausted workers, the wretched of the suburbs of Paris, who come to address endless prayers to God after a day of intense labour, while, from within the tabernacle, the invisible Lord consoles them by mutely repeating the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are those who mourn, those who suffer, those who thirst for justice…”
Yet Huysmans has not yet dared to approach the Sacraments. He falls back into sin with such ease that he does not even dare to approach the tremendous tribunal of Penance. […]
Flashes of the supernatural in the life of the Church
Brought by circumstances into contact with an intelligent and virtuous French priest, Huysmans begins to attend Catholic religious ceremonies. These awaken indelible impressions in him, which he passes on to us through his masterly prose.
His descriptions of the tenebrous sadness of the De profundis, the ardent supplications of the Miserere, the exultant joy of the Magnificat, are literary pages which glorify the language in which they were written.
Moreover, Huysmans’ work constitutes a most interesting application of artistic naturalism to religious matters, an approach that fills it with originality.
From a strictly religious point of view, of particular interest to me was the new genre of apologetics that Huysmans tried to institute.
He is not concerned with philosophical arguments, with scientific disputes in which syllogisms for or against faith clash. The French poet had already said that, à force de raisonner, on perd la raison.4
He gives an objective material description of the Church, through which he tries to bring out with inimitable skill the flashes of the supernatural, which emerge from the magnificent Liturgy, enriched with moving symbolism, from the stupendous chant, in its vehement entreaties, in the tumultuous outpouring of its contrition, in the eruption of its surges of confidence in Divine Providence, and in the harmonious weeping of its services for the dead.
He is particularly impressed by Religious Orders, in which he rightly sees the crystallization of the evangelical spirit.
The penances of the Carmelites, the implacable austerities of the Benedictines and Sacramentines, the rigours of the monastic rules in general fascinate him.
Among all these, however, one Order attracted his attention for the stupendous beauty of its constitutive principles: the Trappists.
Spurred on by the advice of his priest friend, he decided to make a retreat of a few days in a distant Trappist monastery.
Thus begins the most interesting part of the book.
Moral beauty of the contemplative Orders
It must be said that, like the ancient Christians, who forbade pagans to attend the sacred mysteries, we feel the desire to prevent the reading of what follows to unbelieving spirits, who, confronted with the incomparable moral beauty of the Trappist life, will probably proffer the silly laughter or the witless pun with which a backwoodsman comments on a complex – and for him, useless – modern mechanism, the working of which is beyond his comprehension.
According to the dogma of the Communion of Saints, which the Church obliges all the faithful to accept, the sufferings of one soul can be applied in expiation for the sins of another. With divine justice thus satisfied, mercy can incite the sinner to conversion.
[Hence] the importance of Religious Orders which, in contemplation of God and in ceaseless penance, enclose (we should say bury) creatures for a lifetime in humble convents, to thereby atone for the ignominies of the sinful world, [and which] participate, therefore, in all the moral elevation of the Holy Sacrifice of Calvary.
It is certain that the sybarites, so numerous in the twentieth century, perturbed in their delights by the sight of so much self-denial and suffering, will want to describe such a course of action as inhuman savagery.
It is certain that to some people, for whom gold is the only ideal of life and who consider man solely according to what he produces, the Trappist is useless because his activity “yields no profit”.
Their judgements profane such matters. It would be better if they kept silent on questions beyond their comprehension!
Proof that the Church has not lost the lifeblood that nourished the martyrs
Such were the considerations that occupied Huysmans on his journey from Paris to the Trappe.
His impression, when he became accustomed to conventual life, was one of true amazement.
Placid and austere monks, invariably dressed in white, devoted themselves, within a perpetual seclusion, to manual work, and especially to prayer and penance, which consumed their lives. Their bed was a wooden plank. The nourishment, extremely rigorous, was exactly what was necessary to prevent the monks from falling seriously ill from hunger. Everywhere, silence. Only one voice spoke: that of contrition and reparation, expressed through every attitude and every action.
The Trappe constitutes the most masterly response to those who claim that the Church has lost the lifeblood that nourished the martyrs of the first centuries of Christianity. If it is true that superhuman heroism is required for someone to be subjected to the torments of the Coliseum, it is also true that the agony of an entire life, slowly drained away between sackcloth and mortifications, constitutes a torment that surpasses all others, by the rigour and the trial they impose on the perseverance.
Reintegration into Catholicism
One night, Huysmans was restless and could not sleep. He got up and went to the chapel, which he thought was deserted. As he entered, he vaguely glimpsed, through the dim light that filtered through the skylight of a cupola, the white figures of the Trappists who robbed from their few hours of sleep the time needed to nourish their spirit in prayer.
Some, bowed by humility, prostrated themselves on the floor. Others, like candle flames reaching upwards, lifted themselves into an upright position of ardent petition, of vehement supplication, that only Huysmans’ pen could describe. Others, finally, overwhelmed by the enormity of the sins of the world which they had to expiate, in an attitude of deep contrition, moaned a Miserere.
Slowly, morning penetrates through the skylight. The white shapes become more defined, still bathed in the soft clarity of dawn. At last the sun rises. All the Trappists head for the pews. The bell rings and the Salve Regina radiantly bursts forth.
The observation of these scenes had a profound effect on Huysmans, who, finally resolved to confess his sins, prostrated himself at the feet of a Trappist, to whom, in deep contrition, he confided all his offences against God and men. The next day he received communion. Having thus integrated himself into Catholicism, he left the Trappist monastery with everlasting memories. ◊
Taken from: O Legionário. São Paulo.
Year VI. N.93 (Jan. 31, 1932), p.1;
N.94 (Feb. 21, 1932), p.2
1 Having written this article in 1932, Dr. Plinio refers to the 19th century.
2 From the French: having fallen in social rank.
3 From the French: scum, underworld of society.
4 From the French: By dint of reasoning, we lose our reason.