A master class in hailing Satan.
“The odor from those incense burners is unbearable … What do they burn that smells like that?”
“Asphalt from the street, leaves of henbane, datura, dried nightshade, and myrrh. These are perfumes delightful to Satan, our master.”
When J. K. Huysmans published Là-Bas (Down There) in 1891, it caused an immediate scandal in France. Huysmans serialized the novel in L’Écho de Paris, a newspaper; readers wrote in early and often to express their revulsion, threatening to cancel their subscriptions if the serialization was not halted posthaste. Not long afterward, when the book itself came out, it was banned from sale at railway kiosks, thus ensuring that it loomed all the larger in the public imagination. Controversy followed the book abroad, too—no one bothered to attempt an English translation for more than thirty years, and even then, the U.S. Society for the Suppression of Vice ruled that it was simply too immoral to see the light of day.
The outrage stemmed from the book’s frank depiction of Satanism—it culminates in a Black Mass, vividly described. Its protagonist, a novelist named Durtal, has pursued his interest in the occult to its logical conclusion, and he’s startled to learn that a thriving underworld persists in contemporary Paris. Huysmans conducted extensive research for the novel, basically embedding himself among a group of Satanists; he was disenchanted with ordinary life, and he wanted literature to present a thrilling alternative to quotidian reality. But he went too far. He grew so distressed by the darkness and evil in Là-Bas—and, perhaps, in his own soul; the novel’s subtitle is “A Journey into the Self”—that he came to regard it as a black book; he wrote a white book, En Route, to cancel its negative energy. (It’s sort of the same way that Prince, a century later, recorded Lovesexy to exorcize the demons of The Black Album.) Later in life, Huysmans converted to Catholicism.
You can understand, if you read its most famous scene, why the novel provoked such a furor in public and author alike. It’s dark and capital-D Decadent, the product of fin de siècle fixations, when matters of the occult could not have been more portentous or profound. As the afterword to a recent edition says, “Huymans has given us spit-and-sawdust Satanism. His Black Mass and its aftermath still have the power to shock.” That’s true: what’s presented here is what one character in the novel calls “a veritable seraglio of hystero-epileptics and erotomaniacs.” It’s a terrifying bit of saturnalia, often so over-the-top as to seem satirical to a contemporary reader. There are parts of it I couldn’t help but laugh at, but—at least in Keene Wallace’s 1928 translation, presented here—it’s mainly a joy to read, because the forces of hate and evil have seldom been marshaled with such style. Here’s the beginning of the Mass:
Preceded by the two choir boys the canon entered, wearing a scarlet bonnet from which two buffalo horns of red cloth protruded. Durtal examined him as he marched toward the altar. He was tall, but not well built, his bulging chest being out of proportion to the rest of his body. His peeled forehead made one continuous line with his straight nose. The lips and cheeks bristled with that kind of hard, clumpy beard which old priests have who have always shaved themselves. The features were round and insinuating, the eyes, like apple pips, close together, phosphorescent. As a whole his face was evil and sly, but energetic, and the hard, fixed eyes were not the furtive, shifty orbs that Durtal had imagined.
The canon solemnly knelt before the altar, then mounted the steps and began to say mass. Durtal saw then that he had nothing on beneath his sacrificial habit. His black socks and his flesh bulging over the garters, attached high up on his legs, were plainly visible. The chasuble had the shape of an ordinary chasuble but was of the dark red color of dried blood, and in the middle, in a triangle around which was an embroidered border of colchicum, savin, sorrel, and spurge, was the figure of a black billy-goat presenting his horns.
Docre made the genuflexions, the full- or half-length inclinations specified by the ritual. The kneeling choir boys sang the Latin responses in a crystalline voice which trilled on the ultimate syllables of the words […] the choir boys passed behind the altar and one of them brought back copper chafing-dishes, the other, censers, which they distributed to the congregation. All the women enveloped themselves in the smoke. Some held their heads right over the chafing-dishes and inhaled deeply, then, fainting, unlaced themselves, heaving raucous sighs.
A feast for the senses. There’s something especially nauseous about “his flesh bulging over the garters,” especially with that stench in the air. But things really take off when the canon speaks directly to Satan himself, extolling the Father of Lies in great detail for the depth and variety of his perfidy:
“Master of Slanders, Dispenser of the benefits of crime, Administrator of sumptuous sins and great vices, Satan, thee we adore, reasonable God, just God!
“Superadmirable legate of false trances, thou receivest our beseeching tears; thou savest the honour of families by aborting wombs impregnated in the forgetfulness of the good orgasm; thou dost suggest to the mother the hastening of untimely birth, and thine obstetrics spares the still-born children the anguish of maturity, the contamination of original sin.
“Mainstay of the despairing Poor, Cordial of the Vanquished, it is thou who endowest them with hypocrisy, ingratitude, and stiff-neckedness, that they may defend themselves against the children of God, the Rich.
“Suzerain of Resentment, Accountant of Humiliations, Treasurer of old Hatreds, thou alone dost fertilize the brain of man whom injustice has crushed; thou breathest into him the idea of meditated vengeance, sure misdeeds; thou incitest him to murder; thou givest him the abundant joy of accomplished reprisals and permittest him to taste the intoxicating draught of the tears of which he is the cause.
“Hope of Virility, Anguish of the Empty Womb, thou dost not demand the bootless offering of chaste loins, thou dost not sing the praises of Lenten follies; thou alone receivest the carnal supplications and petitions of poor and avaricious families. Thou determinest the mother to sell her daughter, to give her son; thou aidest sterile and reprobate loves; Guardian of strident Neuroses, Leaden Tower of Hysteria, bloody Vase of Rape!
“Master, thy faithful servants, on their knees, implore thee and supplicate thee to satisfy them when they wish the torture of all those who love them and aid them; they supplicate thee to assure them the joy of delectable misdeeds unknown to justice, spells whose unknown origin baffles the reason of man; they ask, finally, glory, riches, power, of thee, King of the Disinherited, Son who art to overthrow the inexorable Father!”
Then Docre rose, and erect, with arms outstretched, vociferated in a ringing voice of hate:
“And thou, thou whom, in my quality of priest, I force, whether thou wilt or no, to descend into this host, to incarnate thyself in this bread, Jesus, Artisan of Hoaxes, Bandit of Homage, Robber of Affection, hear! Since the day when thou didst issue from the complaisant bowels of a Virgin, thou hast failed all thine engagements, belied all thy promises. Centuries have wept, awaiting thee, fugitive God, mute God! Thou wast to redeem man and thou hast not, thou wast to appear in thy glory, and thou sleepest. Go, lie, say to the wretch who appeals to thee, ‘Hope, be patient, suffer; the hospital of souls will receive thee; the angels will assist thee; Heaven opens to thee.’ Impostor! thou knowest well that the angels, disgusted at thine inertness, abandon thee! Thou wast to be the Interpreter of our plaints, the Chamberlain of our tears; thou wast to convey them to the Father and thou hast not done so, for this intercession would disturb thine eternal sleep of happy satiety.
“Thou hast forgotten the poverty thou didst preach, enamoured vassal of Banks! Thou hast seen the weak crushed beneath the press of profit; thou hast heard the death rattle of the timid, paralyzed by famine, of women disembowelled for a bit of bread, and thou hast caused the Chancery of thy Simoniacs, thy commercial representatives, thy Popes, to answer by dilatory excuses and evasive promises, sacristy Shyster, huckster God!
“Master, whose inconceivable ferocity engenders life and inflicts it on the innocent whom thou darest damn—in the name of what original sin?—whom thou darest punish—by the virtue of what covenants?—we would have thee confess thine impudent cheats, thine inexpiable crimes! We would drive deeper the nails into thy hands, press down the crown of thorns upon thy brow, bring blood and water from the dry wounds of thy sides.
“And that we can and will do by violating the quietude of thy body, Profaner of ample vices, Abstractor of stupid purities, cursed Nazarene, do-nothing King, coward God!” “Amen!” trilled the soprano voices of the choir boys.
I don’t see why thousands of heavy-metal lyricists haven’t borrowed or outright stolen this speech; it’s got to be one of the best encomia to pure evil ever put to paper. Mercyful Fate and King Diamond could learn a thing or two. From here, the scene descends into prurient chaos, as the women begin to succumb to epileptic fits that result conveniently in the loss of clothing:
Durtal listened in amazement to this torrent of blasphemies and insults. The foulness of the priest stupefied him. A silence succeeded the litany. The chapel was foggy with the smoke of the censers. The women, hitherto taciturn, flustered now, as, remounting the altar, the canon turned toward them and blessed them with his left hand in a sweeping gesture. And suddenly the choir boys tinkled the prayer bells.
It was a signal. The women fell to the carpet and writhed. One of them seemed to be worked by a spring. She threw herself prone and waved her legs in the air. Another, suddenly struck by a hideous strabism, clucked, then becoming tongue-tied stood with her mouth open, the tongue turned back, the tip cleaving to the palate. Another, inflated, livid, her pupils dilated, lolled her head back over her shoulders, then jerked it brusquely erect and belaboured herself, tearing her breast with her nails. Another, sprawling on her back, undid her skirts, drew forth a rag, enormous, meteorized; then her face twisted into a horrible grimace, and her tongue, which she could not control, stuck out, bitten at the edges, harrowed by red teeth, from a bloody mouth.
For the coup de grâce, Docre tosses the communion bread across the room, gets a hard-on, and initiates an orgy:
Docre contemplated the Christ surmounting the tabernacle, and with arms spread wide apart he spewed forth frightful insults, and, at the end of his forces, muttered the billingsgate of a drunken cabman. One of the choir boys knelt before him with his back toward the altar. A shudder ran around the priest’s spine. In a solemn but jerky voice he said, “Hoc est enim corpus meum,” then, instead of kneeling, after the consecration, before the precious Body, he faced the congregation, and appeared tumefied, haggard, dripping with sweat. He staggered between the two choir boys, who, raising the chasuble, displayed his naked belly. Docre made a few passes and the host sailed, tainted and soiled, over the steps.
Durtal felt himself shudder. A whirlwind of hysteria shook the room. While the choir boys sprinkled holy water on the pontiff’s nakedness, women rushed upon the Eucharist and, groveling in front of the altar, clawed from the bread humid particles and drank and ate divine ordure. […]
Another woman, curled up over a crucifix, emitted a rending laugh, then cried to Docre, “Father, father!” A crone tore her hair, leapt, whirled around and around as on a pivot and fell over beside a young girl who, huddled to the wall, was writhing in convulsions, frothing at the mouth, weeping, and spitting out frightful blasphemies. And Durtal, terrified, saw through the fog the red horns of Docre, who, seated now, frothing with rage, was chewing up sacramental wafers, taking them out of his mouth, wiping himself with them, and distributing them to the women, who ground them underfoot, howling, or fell over each other struggling to get hold of them and violate them.
The place was simply a madhouse, a monstrous pandemonium of prostitutes and maniacs. Now, while the choir boys gave themselves to the men, and while the woman who owned the chapel, mounted the altar caught hold of the phallus of the Christ with one hand and with the other held a chalice between “His” naked legs, a little girl, who hitherto had not budged, suddenly bent over forward and howled, howled like a dog. Overcome with disgust, nearly asphyxiated, Durtal wanted to flee. He looked for Hyacinthe. She was no longer at his side. He finally caught sight of her close to the canon and, stepping over the writhing bodies on the floor, he went to her. With quivering nostrils she was inhaling the effluvia of the perfumes and of the couples.
“The sabbatic odor!” she said to him between clenched teeth, in a strangled voice.
“Here, let’s get out of this!”
She seemed to wake, hesitated a moment, then without answering she followed him. He elbowed his way through the crowd, jostling women whose protruding teeth were ready to bite. He pushed Mme. Chantelouve to the door, crossed the court, traversed the vestibule, and, finding the portress’ lodge empty, he drew the cord and found himself in the street.
It should end there, but Hyacinthe lures Durtal into a spiral staircase, and soon they’ve adjourned to “a musty room” to make love, or hate, or something:
The paper was peeling from the walls, which were nearly covered with pictures torn out of illustrated weeklies and tacked up with hairpins. The floor was all in pieces. There were a wooden bed without any curtains, a chamber pot with a piece broken out of the side, a wash bowl and two chairs.
The man brought a decanter of gin, a large one of water, some sugar, and glasses, then went downstairs.
Her eyes were sombre, mad. She enlaced Durtal.
“No!” he shouted, furious at having fallen into this trap. “I’ve had enough of that. It’s late. Your husband is waiting for you. It’s time for you to go back to him—”
She did not even hear him.
“I want you,” she said, and she took him treacherously and obliged him to desire her. She disrobed, threw her skirts on the floor, opened wide the abominable couch, and raising her chemise in the back she rubbed her spine up and down over the coarse grain of the sheets. A look of swooning ecstasy was in her eyes and a smile of joy on her lips.
She seized him, and, with ghoulish fury, dragged him into obscenities of whose existence he had never dreamed. Suddenly, when he was able to escape, he shuddered, for he perceived that the bed was strewn with fragments of hosts.
I think we’re inured against the shock of this kind of writing—but as a set piece, it’s unbeatable. If anyone can direct me to a depiction of Satanism on par with this one, please do.
Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.