With the sharpening of his desire to withdraw from a hated age, he felt a despotic urge to shun pictures representing humanity striving in little holes or running to and fro in quest of money.
With his growing indifference to contemporary life he had resolved not to introduce into his cell any of the ghosts of distastes or regrets, but had desired to procure subtle and exquisite paintings, steeped in ancient dreams or antique corruptions, far removed from the manner of our present day.
For the delight of his spirit and the joy of his eyes, he had desired a few suggestive creations that cast him into an unknown world, revealing to him the contours of new conjectures, agitating the nervous system by the violent deliriums, complicated nightmares, nonchalant or atrocious chimeræ they induced.
Among these were some executed by an artist whose genius allured and entranced him: Gustave Moreau.
Des Esseintes had acquired his two masterpieces and, at night, used to sink into revery before one of them—a representation of Salomé, conceived in this fashion:
A throne, resembling the high altar of a cathedral, reared itself beneath innumerable vaults leaping from heavy Romanesque pillars, studded with polychromatic bricks, set with mosaics, incrusted with lapis lazuli and sardonyx, in a palace that, like a basilica, was at once Mohammedan and Byzantine in design.
In the center of the tabernacle, surmounting an altar approached by semi-circular steps, sat Herod the Tetrarch, a tiara upon his head, his legs pressed closely together, his hands resting upon his knees.
His face was the color of yellow parchment; it was furrowed with wrinkles, ravaged with age. His long beard floated like a white cloud upon the star-like clusters of jewels constellating the orphrey robe fitting tightly over his breast.
Around this form, frozen into the immobile, sacerdotal, hieratic pose of a Hindoo god, burned perfumes wafting aloft clouds of incense which were perforated, like phosphorescent eyes of beasts, by the fiery rays of the stones set in the throne. Then the vapor rolled up, diffusing itself beneath arcades where the blue smoke mingled with the gold powder of the long sunbeams falling from the domes.
In the perverse odor of the perfumes, in the overheated atmosphere of the temple, Salomé, her left arm outstretched in a gesture of command, her right arm drawn back and holding a large lotus on a level with her face, slowly advances on her toes, to the rhythm of a stringed instrument played by a woman seated on the ground.
Her face is meditative, solemn, almost august, as she commences the lascivious dance that will awaken the slumbering senses of old Herod. Diamonds scintillate against her glistening skin. Her bracelets, her girdles, her rings flash. On her triumphal robe, seamed with pearls, flowered with silver and laminated with gold, the breastplate of jewels, each link of which is a precious stone, flashes serpents of fire against the pallid flesh, delicate as a tea-rose: its jewels like splendid insects with dazzling elytra, veined with carmine, dotted with yellow gold, diapered with blue steel, speckled with peacock green.
With a tense concentration, with the fixed gaze of a somnambulist, she beholds neither the trembling Tetrarch, nor her mother, the fierce Herodias who watches her, nor the hermaphrodite, nor the eunuch who sits, sword in hand, at the foot of the throne—a terrible figure, veiled to his eyes, whose breasts droop like gourds under his orange-checkered tunic.
This conception of Salomé, so haunting to artists and poets, had obsessed Des Esseintes for years. How often had he read in the old Bible of Pierre Variquet, translated by the theological doctors of the University of Louvain, the Gospel of Saint Matthew who, in brief and ingenuous phrases, recounts the beheading of the Baptist! How often had he fallen into revery, as he read these lines:
But when Herod’s birthday was kept, the daughter of Herodias danced before them, and pleased Herod.
Whereupon he promised with an oath to give her whatsoever she would ask.
And she, being before instructed of her mother, said: Give me here John Baptist’s head in a charger.
And the king was sorry: nevertheless, for the oath’s sake, and them which sat with him at meat, he commanded it to be given her.
And he sent, and beheaded John in the prison.
And his head was brought in a charger, and given to the damsel: and she brought it to her mother.
But neither Saint Matthew, nor Saint Mark, nor Saint Luke, nor the other Evangelists had emphasized the maddening charms and depravities of the dancer. She remained vague and hidden, mysterious and swooning in the far-off mist of the centuries, not to be grasped by vulgar and materialistic minds, accessible only to disordered and volcanic intellects made visionaries by their neuroticism; rebellious to painters of the flesh, to Rubens who disguised her as a butcher’s wife of Flanders; a mystery to all the writers who had never succeeded in portraying the disquieting exaltation of this dancer, the refined grandeur of this murderess.
In Gustave Moreau‘s work, conceived independently of the Testament themes, Des Esseintes as last saw realized the superhuman and exotic Salomé of his dreams. She was no longer the mere performer who wrests a cry of desire and of passion from an old man by a perverted twisting of her loins; who destroys the energy and breaks the will of a king by trembling breasts and quivering belly. She became, in a sense, the symbolic deity of indestructible lust, the goddess of immortal Hysteria, of accursed Beauty, distinguished from all others by the catalepsy which stiffens her flesh and hardens her muscles; the monstrous Beast, indifferent, irresponsible, insensible, baneful, like the Helen of antiquity, fatal to all who approach her, all who behold her, all whom she touches.
Thus understood, she was associated with the theogonies of the Far East. She no longer sprang from biblical traditions, could no longer even be assimilated with the living image of Babylon, the royal Prostitute of the Apocalypse, garbed like her in jewels and purple, and painted like her; for she was not hurled by a fatidical power, by a supreme force, into the alluring vileness of debauchery.
The painter, moreover, seems to have wished to affirm his desire of remaining outside the centuries, scorning to designate the origin, nation and epoch, by placing his Salomé in this extraordinary palace with its confused and imposing style, in clothing her with sumptuous and chimerical robes, in crowning her with a fantastic mitre shaped like a Phœnician tower, such as Salammbô bore, and placing in her hand the sceptre of Isis, the tall lotus, sacred flower of Egypt and India.
Des Esseintes sought the sense of this emblem. Had it that phallic significance which the primitive cults of India gave it? Did it enunciate an oblation of virginity to the senile Herod, an exchange of blood, an impure and voluntary wound, offered under the express stipulation of a monstrous sin? Or did it represent the allegory of fecundity, the Hindoo myth of life, an existence held between the hands of woman, distorted and trampled by the palpitant hands of man whom a fit of madness seizes, seduced by a convulsion of the flesh?
Perhaps, too, in arming his enigmatic goddess with the venerated lotus, the painter had dreamed of the dancer, the mortal woman with the polluted Vase, from whom spring all sins and crimes. Perhaps he had recalled the rites of ancient Egypt, the sepulchral ceremonies of the embalming when, after stretching the corpse on a bench of jasper, extracting the brain with curved needles through the chambers of the nose, the chemists and the priests, before gilding the nails and teeth and coating the body with bitumens and essences, inserted the chaste petals of the divine flower in the sexual parts, to purify them.
However this may be, an irresistible fascination emanated from this painting; but the water-colour entitled The Apparition was perhaps even more disturbing.
There, the palace of Herod arose like an Alhambra on slender, iridescent columns with moorish tile, joined with silver beton and gold cement. Arabesques proceeded from lozenges of lapis lazuli, wove their patterns on the cupolas where, on nacreous marquetry, crept rainbow gleams and prismatic flames.
The murder was accomplished. The executioner stood impassive, his hands on the hilt of his long, blood-stained sword.
The severed head of the saint stared lividly on the charger resting on the slabs; the mouth was discolored and open, the neck crimson, and tears fell from the eyes. The face was encircled by an aureole worked in mosaic, which shot rays of light under the porticos and illuminated the horrible ascension of the head, brightening the glassy orbs of the contracted eyes which were fixed with a ghastly stare upon the dancer.
With a gesture of terror, Salomé thrusts from her the horrible vision which transfixes her, motionless, to the ground. Her eyes dilate, her hands clasp her neck in a convulsive clutch.
She is almost nude. In the ardour of the dance, her veils had become loosened. She is garbed only in gold-wrought stuffs and limpid stones; a neck-piece clasps her as a corselet does the body and, like a superb buckle, a marvellous jewel sparkles on the hollow between her breasts. A girdle encircles her hips, concealing the upper part of her thighs, against which beats a gigantic pendant streaming with carbuncles and emeralds.
All the facets of the jewels kindle under the ardent shafts of light escaping from the head of the Baptist. The stones grow warm, outlining the woman’s body with incandescent rays, striking her neck, feet and arms with tongues of fire,—vermilions like coals, violets like jets of gas, blues like flames of alcohol, and whites like star light.
The horrible head blazes, bleeding constantly, clots of sombre purple on the ends of the beard and hair. Visible for Salomé alone, it does not, with its fixed gaze, attract Herodias, musing on her finally consummated revenge, nor the Tetrarch who, bent slightly forward, his hands on his knees, still pants, maddened by the nudity of the woman saturated with animal odors, steeped in balms, exuding incense and myrrh.
Like the old king, Des Esseintes remained dumbfounded, overwhelmed and seized with giddiness, in the presence of this dancer who was less majestic, less haughty but more disquieting than the Salomé of the oil painting.
In this insensate and pitiless image, in this innocent and dangerous idol, the eroticism and terror of mankind were depicted. The tall lotus had disappeared, the goddess had vanished; a frightful nightmare now stifled the woman, dizzied by the whirlwind of the dance, hypnotized and petrified by terror.
It was here that she was indeed Woman, for here she gave rein to her ardent and cruel temperament. She was living, more refined and savage, more execrable and exquisite. She more energetically awakened the dulled senses of man, more surely bewitched and subdued his power of will, with the charm of a tall venereal flower, cultivated in sacrilegious beds, in impious hothouses.
Des Esseintes thought that never before had a water color attained such magnificent colouring; never before had the poverty of colours been able to force jeweled corruscations from paper, gleams like stained glass windows touched by rays of sunlight, splendors of tissue and flesh so fabulous and dazzling. Lost in contemplation, he sought to discover the origins of this great artist and mystic pagan, this visionary who succeeded in removing himself from the world sufficiently to behold, here in Paris, the splendor of these cruel visions and the enchanting sublimation of past ages.
Des Esseintes could not trace the genesis of this artist. Here and there were vague suggestions of Mantegna and of Jacopo de Barbari; here and there were confused hints of Vinci and of the feverish colours of Delacroix. But the influences of such masters remained negligible. The fact was that Gustave Moreau derived from no one else. He remained unique in contemporary art, without ancestors and without possible descendants. He went to ethnographic sources, to the origins of myths, and he compared and elucidated their intricate enigmas. He reunited the legends of the Far East into a whole, the myths which had been altered by the superstitions of other peoples; thus justifying his architectonic fusions, his luxurious and outlandish fabrics, his hieratic and sinister allegories sharpened by the restless perceptions of a pruriently modern neurosis. And he remained saddened, haunted by the symbols of perversities and superhuman loves, of divine stuprations brought to end without abandonment and without hope.
His depressing and erudite productions possessed a strange enchantment, an incantation that stirred one to the depths, just as do certain poems of Baudelaire, caused one to pause disconcerted, amazed, brooding on the spell of an art which leaped beyond the confines of painting, borrowing its most subtle effects from the art of writing, its most marvelous stokes from the art of Limosin, its most exquisite refinements from the art of the lapidary and the engraver. These two pictures of Salomé, for which Des Esseintes‘ admiration was boundless, he had hung on the walls of his study on special panels between the bookshelves, so that they might live under his eyes.
But these were not the only pictures he had acquired to divert his solitude.
Although he had surrendered to his servants the second story of his house, which he himself never used at all, the ground floor had required a number of pictures to fit the walls.
. . . .
The dressing room was tapestried in deep red. On the walls, in ebony frames, hung the prints of Jan Luyken, an old Dutch engraver almost unknown in France.
He possessed of the work of this artist, who was fantastic and melancholy, vehement and wild, the series of his Religious Persecutions, horrible prints depicting all the agonies invented by the madness of religions: prints pregnant with human sufferings, showing bodies roasting on fires, skulls slit open with swords, trepaned with nails and gashed with saws, intestines separated from the abdomen and twisted on spools, finger nails slowly extracted with pincers, eyes gouged, limbs dislocated and deliberately broken, and bones bared of flesh and agonizingly scraped by sheets of metal.
These works filled with abominable imaginings, offensive with their odors of burning, oozing with blood and clamorous with cries of horror and maledictions, gave Des Esseintes, who was held fascinated in this red room, the creeping sensations of goose-flesh.
But in addition to the tremblings they occasioned, beyond the terrible skill of this man, the extraordinary life which animates his characters, one discovered, among his astonishing, swarming throngs—among his mobs of people delineated with a dexterity which recalled Callot, but which had a strength never possessed by that amusing dauber—curious reconstructions of bygone ages. The architecture, costumes and customs during the time of the Maccabeans, of Rome under the Christian persecutions, of Spain under the Inquisition, of France during the Middle Ages, at the time of Saint Bartholomew and the Dragonnades, were studied with a meticulous care and noted with scientific accuracy.
These prints were veritable treasures of learning. One could gaze at them for hours without experiencing any sense of weariness. Profoundly suggestive in reflections, they assisted Des Esseintes in passing many a day when his books failed to charm him.
Luyken‘s life, too, fascinated him, by explaining the hallucination of his work. A fervent Calvinist, a stubborn sectarian, unbalanced by prayers and hymns, he wrote religious poetry which he illustrated, paraphrased the psalms in verse, lost himself in the reading of the Bible from which he emerged haggard and frenzied, his brain haunted by monstrous subjects, his mouth twisted by the maledictions of the Reformation and by its songs of terror and hate.
And he scorned the world, surrendering his wealth to the poor and subsisting on a slice of bread. He ended his life in travelling, with an equally fanatical servant, going where chance led his boat, preaching the Gospel far and wide, endeavoring to forego nourishment, and eventually becoming almost demented and violent.
Other bizarre sketches were hung in the larger, adjoining room, as well as in the corridor, both of which had woodwork of red cedar.
There was Bresdin‘s Comedy of Death in which, in the fantastic landscape bristling with trees, brushwood and tufts of grass resembling phantom, demon forms, teeming with rat-headed, pod-tailed birds, on earth covered with ribs, skulls and bones, gnarled and cracked willows rear their trunks, surmounted by agitated skeletons whose arms beat the air while they intone a song of victory. A Christ speeds across a clouded sky; a hermit in the depths of a cave meditates, holding his head in his hands; one wretch dies, exhausted by long privation and enfeebled by hunger, lying on his back, his legs outstretched in front of a pond.
The Good Samaritan, by the same artist, is a large engraving on stone: an incongruous medley of palms, sorbs and oaks grown together, heedless of seasons and climates, peopled with monkeys and owls, covered with old stumps as misshapen as the roots of the mandrake; then a magical forest, cut in the center near a glade through which a stream can be seen far away, behind a camel and the Samaritan group; then an elfin town appearing on the horizon of an exotic sky dotted with birds and covered with masses of fleecy clouds.
It could be called the design of an uncertain, primitive Durer with an opium-steeped brain. But although he liked the finesse of the detail and the imposing appearance of this print, Des Esseintes had a special weakness for the other frames adorning the room.
They were signed: Odilon Redon.
They enclosed inconceivable apparitions in their rough, gold-striped pear-tree wood. A head of a Merovingian style, resting against a bowl, a bearded man, at once resembling a Buddhist priest and an orator at a public reunion, touching the ball of a gigantic cannon with his fingers; a frightful spider revealing a human face in its body. The charcoal drawings went even farther into dream terrors. Here, an enormous die in which a sad eye winked; there, dry and arid landscapes, dusty plains, shifting ground, volcanic upheavals catching rebellious clouds, stagnant and livid skies. Sometimes the subjects even seemed to have borrowed from the cacodemons of science, reverting to prehistoric times. A monstrous plant on the rocks, queer blocks everywhere, glacial mud, figures whose simian shapes, heavy jaws, beetling eyebrows, retreating foreheads and flat skulls, recalled the ancestral heads of the first quaternary periods, when inarticulate man still devoured fruits and seeds, and was still contemporaneous with the mammoth, the rhinoceros and the big bear. These designs were beyond anything imaginable; they leaped, for the most part, beyond the limits of painting and introduced a fantasy that was unique, the fantasy of a diseased and delirious mind.
And, indeed, certain of these faces, with their monstrous, insane eyes, certain of these swollen, deformed bodies resembling carafes, induced in Des Esseintes recollections of typhoid, memories of feverish nights and of the shocking visions of his infancy which persisted and would not be suppressed.
Seized with an indefinable uneasiness in the presence of these sketches, the same sensation caused by certain Proverbs of Goya which they recalled, or by the reading of Edgar Allen Poe’s tales, whose mirages of hallucination and effects of fear Odilon Redon seemed to have transposed to a different art, he rubbed his eyes and turned to contemplate a radiant figure which, amid these tormenting sketches, arose serene and calm—a figure of Melancholy seated near the disk of a sun, on the rocks, in a dejected and gloomy posture.
The shadows were dispersed as though by an enchantment. A charming sadness, a languid and desolate feeling flowed through him. He meditated long before this work which, with its dashes of paint flecking the thick crayon, spread a brilliance of sea-green and of pale gold among the protracted darkness of the charcoal prints.
In addition to this series of the works of Redon which adorned nearly every panel of the passage, he had hung a disturbing sketch by El Greco in his bedroom. It was a Christ done in strange tints, in a strained design, possessing a wild color and a disordered energy: a picture executed in the painter’s second manner when he had been tormented by the necessity of avoiding imitation of Titian.
This sinister painting, with its wax and sickly green tones, bore an affinity to certain ideas Des Esseintes had with regard to furnishing a room.
According to him, there were but two ways of fitting a bedroom. One could either make it a sense-stimulating alcove, a place for nocturnal delights, or a cell for solitude and repose, a retreat for thought, a sort of oratory.
Joris Karl Huysmans, 1848-1907 À rebours, 1884 Against Nature. Translation: John Howard
Image: Gustave Moreau, Salomé dansant devant Hérode, 1876 Salome Dancing Before Herod. Armand Hammer Collection