July 14, 2015 | by Erik Morse
In his fiction, Léon Bloy strove “to disclose the universal villainy of respectable people.”
In his first homily as Pope Francis, in March 2013, the Pontiff included an obscured voice of the French fin de siècle. Restating one of the most entrenched principles of Catholic dogma, Francis declared, “When one does not profess Jesus Christ, I recall the phrase of Léon Bloy—‘Whoever does not pray to God, prays to the devil.’ ” Though it may have struck religious scholars as unusual, the reference to Bloy indicated the Church’s cautionary role against the millennial idolatry of technology and humanism. Bloy, who wrote a series of pamphlets, novellas, and essays during the increasingly scientific climate of the Second Empire and the Belle Epoque, included himself among the cabal of symbolists and decadents who had taken Satan as the object of their literary obsessions—specifically, the resurgence of the devil in the popular French imagination.
As a popular aphorism of late nineteenth-century Paris has it, “one was forced to choose between worshipping Satan or God.” At the very least, this was true of the city’s congregation of artists and literati. In Satanism, Magic and Mysticism in Fin-de-siècle France (2012), Robert Ziegler writes, “Perhaps the most spectacular manifestation of fin-de-siècle supernaturalism was the country-wide explosion of reports of the meetings of secret cults and the bloody rituals of Satanic societies.” As a succès de scandale, Ziegler points to the 1892 serialization of Doctor Bataille’s (a pseudonym for hoaxer Léo Taxil) two-thousand-page Devil in the Nineteenth Century (Le diable au XIX siècle), which consumed the Parisian public with salacious descriptions of black masses and orgies. The cultural fervor reached such a pitch that the Church, in La revue du diable (1894), instigated its own series of public excommunications for sorcery and other forms of occultism. “However, the Decadents,” Ziegler continues, “also intuited that Satanism was not just an issue of fact, and that—more than an entity whose existence was demonstrable—the devil was the product of fear of nostalgia … As Satan migrated from the domain of ontology into the realm of fiction and fantasy, he grew in stature, his avatars multiplied, and his majesty was enhanced by style and artistry.”
In other words: in fin de siècle France, Satan had never looked so good.
Born in 1846, only two years before the Spring Revolutions engulfed Western Europe’s monarchs and dethroned the Orleanist regime in France, Léon Bloy was raised by an antimonarchial, anti-Catholic father who imparted such beliefs on his adolescent son. By the 1870s, Bloy had intimately acquainted himself with Baudelaire, Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, Huysmans, and Barbey d’Aurevilly, in whose writings he discovered a kindred nostalgia for an aristocratic medievalism, which opposed the bourgeois materialism of the modern zeitgeist. These so-called decadents, accompanied by artists like Félicien Rops and Odilon Redon, transmuted the urban pessimism of Zola’s naturalism into a preternatural landscape of demons and saints engaged in an eschatological battle for the soul of humanity.
As the decadents’ most fanatical exemplar of medieval indulgence, Bloy observed the anchoritic vows of both poverty and suffering for the whole of his professional life, a choice that alienated him from bourgeois Catholicism and the institutions of literary Paris. It also earned him the dubious honorific of the Ungrateful Beggar among his friends and enemies.
“Woe to him who has not begged!” he writes. “There is nothing greater than begging. God begs. The Angels beg … The dead beg. All that is in light and glory begs.” Like Huysmans, he briefly joined the Trappist order but was evidently turned away by the cloister to better serve the cities’ unconverted. The Irish Catholic scholar Shane Leslie writes, “Poverty, suffering, symbolism—these were the three corners of Bloy’s heart; but they dealt not in secret places, for he lavished the full fury of his style upon their elucidation.”
Such Dolorism was, for Bloy, inspired in part by the vision of Melanie Calvat, a shepherdess in the mountains of southeastern France in 1846, the same year of Bloy’s birth. Known as Our Lady of Salette, the Marian apparition that appeared to Calvat admonished lapsed Catholics and nonbelievers and warned them of her constant intercession upon Christ to stave off apocalypse and the certain condemnation of man. Bloy’s text Celle qui pleure (1908) was dedicated to upholding the soteriology of the miracle of La Salette and, along with La femme pauvre (1897) goes some way toward elucidating his thorny, salvation misogyny.
Perhaps his most explicit selection of harangues and exhortations, the newly reissued Disagreeable Tales (Histoires désobligeantes, 1894) represents a unique literary genre—inspired by Villiers de L’Isle-Adam’s Cruel Tales (1883), Barbey d’Aurevilly’s Les diaboliques (1874) and the short sketches of Poe and Lautréamont. In the introduction to the first English edition, from Wakefield Press, the translator Erik Butler writes,
The collection proceeds … in the framework of anecdotal narratives. Often, a title will serve as a punch line that comes back at the story’s end or, alternately, as an affirmation the narrative as a whole calls into question … Bloy’s narratives feature theft, onanism, incest, murder, and a wealth of other perversions, and they are served with gusto befitting the most decadent of literary blackguards.
In fact, the thirty short vignettes within Disagreeable Tales resemble a hybrid of the narrative short story and the didactic fait divers—brief, crime reports that regularly appeared in Le Petit Journal and Le Petit Parisien beginning in the late nineteenth century. According to an 1872 edition of Le Grand Larousse Universel, the term fait divers included “small scandals, carriage accidents, horrible crimes, lovers’ suicides, roofers falling from the fifth floor, armed robbery, showers of locust or toads, storms, fires, floods, comical tales, mysterious kidnappings, executions, cases of hydrophobia, cannibalism.”
Among the more sordid accounts reported by Bloy in the fait-divers tradition are “A Dentist’s Terrible Punishment” and “It’s Gonna Blow!” The former concerns a lovesick swain who wins over a betrothed woman by secretly murdering her beau, only to suffer spiritual recriminations when their eventual child bears an uncanny resemblance to the murder victim. Bloy’s use of gothic irony is taken to the level of the diabolical, however, when the villain strangles his own progeny in the crib. The latter story, whose title is illustrative of Bloy’s knack for punchy headlines, begins with a round-table discussion on the veniality of the modern soul but quickly degenerates into a “well-known and perfectly honorable” artist’s confession of arson and murder of an innocent family. As with most of Bloy’s stories, the motivation behind these horrendous acts proves incidental to his larger, thematic fixation on an ecumenical crisis of spirit. As one of the narrators of “Blow!” morbidly contends:
We enjoy the synoptic catalogs to which are consigned—in Arabic numerals, of course—the murders and rapes that have helped us to endure the monotony of our days … It would be no less interesting, you may agree without paling in indignation, to undertake to disclose the universal villainy of respectable people.
Such hyperbolic sensationalism mirrors Bloy’s almost-Pauline attitude toward the agnosticism of the Third Republic’s ruling and middle classes, which he decrees as far more monstrous than the indigent and lumpen.
Other entries—like “A Recruit,” “Whatever You Want! … ” and “The Prisoners of Longjumeau”—veer closer to the conventional Gothic parable, in which the presence of a demonic force becomes the narrative catalyst for the moral ruination of one or more characters. In the first and second examples, the diabolical figure appears, respectively, in the person of a “putty faced” wanderer (in the Mephistophelian tradition) and as the reanimated corpse of a solicitous prostitute. Only in “Longjumeau”—the sort of interiorized travelogue inspired by Xavier de Maistre and anticipating the works of Borges and Cortazar—does the spirit of evil manifest in a nonpersonified “Enemy of mankind,” who, “with a cordon of invisible troops,” accomplishes the bizarre, decades-long capture of a pair of honeymooners in their own home. In what becomes a recurrent conclusion for many of the Disagreeable Tales, two of these devilish encounters end in suicide and the other with a presumed possession.
What distinguishes Bloy’s “tales” from those written by Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, Poe, and Lautréamont is the marked absence of any sensualist or proto-surrealist tone with its ecstatic invocations of the flesh, like those that characterize Romantic literature since William Blake. Rather, Bloy’s bilious allusions to excrement (“ordure”), genitalia, rot, disease, and waste descend from a negative theology, which extols a mystical, self-mortification nearer to the postsurrealist existentialism of Georges Bataille’s My Mother (1966) and The Dead Man (1967), or Jean Genet’s A Thief’s Journal (1949). For Bloy, all physical pleasures are diversion or, worst yet, satanic temptation, so it is only through intense suffering and punishment that his characters can expiate their sins.
It was precisely this kind of extreme Dolorism that prompted Bloy to publically cheer the death of Pierre Curie, the sinking of the Titanic, and the fire at the Opéra-Comique—actions that would give even his most ardent supporters pause. In the introductory text to Disagreeable Tales, “The Voluntary Fanatic, Or the Conspiracy of Silence,” Bloy writes, through his occasional alter ego Caïn Marchenoir: “‘Ask our peers. Everyone will tell you that I’m a monster, that there’s no way to escape from my ferocious jaws … When I’m not killing, I must injure. Such is my destiny. I’m fanatically ungrateful.’ ” The Ungrateful Beggar nursed his aspirations for monstrosity for the remainder of his life, often to the detriment of his colleagues—most of who would abandon his confidence before his death in 1917. For those highly critical of Bloy’s dogmatism, his oeuvre was positively medieval. But, perhaps, more perceptively, Kafka reckoned of the medievalist that he “[was] nurtured by the dung heap of modern times.”
Erik Morse is the author of Dreamweapon (2005) and Bluff City Underground: A Roman Noir of the Deep South (2012). He is also a lecturer at SCI-Arc, Los Angeles.