This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
Journal of Decadence
Once again I am struck by just how timely and apropos the French Decadents are to this day and age. Like Huysmans’ Là-bas, Octa e !irbeau’s Le Calvaire is essentially autobiographical, and peppered with obser ations and e"trapolations about the meaning o# li#e and e"istence based on the e ents we go through, and society and humanity in general. For e"ample, anyone who still #alls #or the old $% about the &heroism' and &glory' o# the military is %()O*+L, directed to read chapter - o# this book, .%./. $ut there are gentler obser ations and truisms as well0 this in particular is something I’ e disco ered to be truth in my own li#e, #rom how I met my wi#e, to #riends 1and situations2 I’ e been meeting 1or #alling into2 through other #riends I’ e reconnected with ia arious social media, right down to the car I just happened to stumble across on the e"act day my wi#e’s died #ore er 1despite - 34- years o# serious looking, and do5ens o# #ruitless test dri es and car dealership negotiations be#ore2. I #ind that I need to relearn what I used to know, that despite what they try to #orce #eed you in the business world 1or .merican thought in general2, good things do not come to those &with a plan', who acti ely stri e towards a goal6they come to you seemingly by accident, and almost at random. (he key is to be open to them when they arri e. &is it not disturbing to think that our best #riendships, which ought to result #rom long deliberation6which only a logical chain o# circumstances ought to gi e rise to, are mostly just the instant result o# chance7 ,ou are are home in your study, sitting 8uietly in #ront o# a book. Outside, the sky is grey and the air cold. It’s raining, the wind is blowing, the street is dreary and muddy. 9onse8uently, you ha e e ery good reason in the world not to stir #rom your armchair6yet you go out, dri en by boredom, the want o# something to do, you know not what reason, nothing at all6and a hundred paces on, you’ e encountered the man, woman, carriage, stone, orange peel, puddle o# water that is going to turn your e"istence upside down. In my most agoni5ing moments, I ha e o#ten thought o# these things, and o#ten ha e I said to mysel#, &yet i# I had stayed at home, working, dreaming or sleeping on the e ening when I met6in that6place where I had no business to be6none o# what has happened to me would e er ha e occurred.'.
.s this was initially posted elsewhere, a #riend replied that he had just been ha ing a discussion with someone about this ery same topic the other night. He noted that the ne"t 8uestion is0 is this #ate, chance or some guiding hand7 !y reply was such0 (hat’s where things get a bit more metaphysical and touch on much larger issues : i.e., e en i# - people got together and decided &this must be the hand o# +od', one could be 9al inist4deterministic in orientation, while the other could be more spontaneous, and cite &the power o# prayer' : and that’s i# both subscribe to that orientation in the #irst place. ,ou get the idea how many directions and tangents this could go in, when you bring in the arious philosophical or religious standpoints and4or baggage people bring to the table with them. $ut regardless, I’ e always #ound this to be true, and the e"tent to which I’ e changed #or the worse o er the years is the e"tent to which my job1s2 ha e pushed me towards that #ruitless pursuit mentality, the &action' thing where you plot and scheme your way to imagined success 1generally winding up beating your head against the wall and stressing yoursel# and lo ed ones out #or little or nothing2. .s I noted, perhaps it’s time to go back to some earlier (aoist roots, and become the more easy going man I used to be6because it %(ILL always comes down to being open to seemingly random chance and opportunity, mostly independent o# my e##orts. I’m sure I’m not the only one out there. ; ; ;
Innocence Spoiled – Sébastien Roch
.nd so we come to another installment o# the early Octa e !irbeau< a #urther entry in his de #acto trilogy o# semi=autobiographical no els o# doomed young men bearing some measure o# the author’s own persona and past e"perience, albeit with each coming to some untoward early demise : a closure which the long li ed !irbeau himsel# would be spared. Sebastien Roch #ollows the titular character, a sensiti e, artistically inclined and intellectually curious young man whose only crime was to be born o# a petty bourgeoise with aspirations to higher social status, through the course o# a brie# and tragic li#e : a li#e dri en and hemmed in
by the in isible #ences o# a ridiculous and hypocritical society and those who li e by its mores. %ebastien’s #ather, a widower and blacksmith 1or >ironmonger’, as he is re#erred to herein2 is a relati ely success#ul small business owner who has attained some measure o# standing among the town#olk o# the small illage the )ochs hail #rom. ?hile boast#ul, obtuse and prone to histrionics, things seem to run along a reasonable enough course until )och is con inced by the petty prejudices o# a similarly emptyheaded parish priest that his son could be his entree into higher social circles. (o accomplish this absurd i# somewhat ubi8uitous bourgeois desire, %ebastien is essentially railroaded into attending a @esuit boarding school #ar #rom home, as the @esuits were apparently seen as prestigious 1any ideas that this odd conception rest solely in )och’s own misguided mind are dispro ed by the #act that the school is in #act generally comprised o# the progeny o# nobility2. $ut e en beyond this going against any wishes or desires the boy might ha e #or his own li#e and #uture, this pro es a #atal mistake that determines the unhappy course o# his entire li#e6 .s the parental edict is handed down, %ebastien begins to see another side to the #ather he had #ormerly held in high #ilial esteem : one that repulses and distances him #rom his #ather #or the #irst time0 &He #elt his respect and a##ection #or his #ather diminishing6he disco ered that no e"change o# similar emotions6was possible between them, so estranged were they #rom one another. A erything about his #ather’s actions disillusioned 1him26he noticed the way his #ather ate, greedily and messily6a host o# tiny details6which re ealed his la" habits and inconsistencies o# beha ior, so out o# keeping with the rigid pomp o# his principles6he su##ered genuine physical pain seeing the degrading manner in which his #ather treated the boy apprentice6 (he prestige o# paternal authority6was gradually #ading, destroyed bit by bit by6a thousand little intimate, debasing habits, whose ludicrousness and ulgarity no longer escaped him, a##licting him as i# they had been his own. Hour by hour, the most precious parts o# his own sel# perished6creating a new anguish, a bitterness and an un#amiliar sense o# pity.' ?hen he mo es in to the school, %ebastien 8uickly #inds ostracism based entirely on his #amilial social stature. !irbeau paints with i id colors the raw, biting and long=lasting emotion o# childhood rejection and cli8ue0 &(he oices and stares weighed hea ily on little %ebastien, in#licting the physical pain o# a multitude o# needles stuck into his skin. He wished he could launch himsel# on this band o# #erocious children and slap or kick them, or else soothe them with his gentleness, saying >you’re mad to laugh at me like that when I’ e done you no harm, when I so want to be #riends.' He 8uickly disco ers the sorry #act that in the real world, the so=called >authorities’ o##er no help in these sort o# situations0 &(he priest in charge6came up and joined the group. (he boy #elt he was sa ed0 >He’s going to make them shut up and punish them,’ he thought. ?hen the @esuit had been told why e eryone was laughing, he too began to laugh, but with a discreet, amused, patroni5ing laugh6%ebastien bent his head and mo ed away in despair.'
He recogni5es in this unchecked i# casual schoolyard bullying and ostracism a microcosm o# society as a whole, recalling a #riendly hunchback shoemaker #rom his hometown0 &(he other lads laughed at him, #ollowing him through the streets0 >HeyB !r. /unchB' .nd the little hunchback #led on his short legs6 %ebastien61saw2 analogies in their situation, similarities in their su##ering now that he too was an outcast. /oor hunchbackB He was not spite#ul or at all unpleasant eitherB Cuite the contrary6so why that relentless assault67 He was obliging towards e eryone, skilled and courageous< he liked to help and please others. He was always ready to lend a hand whene er anyone needed it6 9oudray, the carpenter, a sort o# handsome giant, had hit the hunchback #or no reason, #or a laugh, to amuse the pretty girls, #or they enjoyed cruel pranks that made him cry. He was so #unny, his hump jolted so comically when he cried6and the huge #ist o# the carpenter6 landed se eral blows on the hunchback’s hump. &Damn you, !r. /unchB' &?hy are you hitting me7 ,ou don’t e en know why you’re hitting me. I suppose you think it’s cle er, do you7' (hen one morning, he had been #ound hanged in his workshop.' He #urther #inds the priests to be intrinsically both pompous and repellent0 &. monk crossed his path6he had a con ict’s #ace, sly and begrimed6two other monks, thick=lipped, with the eyes o# child=molesters, brushed by him6' %ebastien gradually becomes accustomed to this daily mistreatment, but it still weighs on him pro#oundly0 &(here was more harassment at school, but each episode became progressi ely less iolent so that, in the end, it became a kind o# intermittent, jo ial raillery which made the pain more bearable. Howe er, he #elt ery keenly the bitterness o# social ine8uality in which he li ed, acknowledged and persistent as it was. (o be tolerated as a pauper and not accepted as an e8ual caused him great sorrow, a wound to his pride which did not heal, and he #elt helpless to protect himsel#. (he attitude in which the others le#t him made him more serious and thought#ul, almost old be#ore his time6his eyes became shadowed, troubled.' . pain#ul, biting condemnation o# the &status 8uo' results, one that all too many o# us can #ind some degree o# sel#=recognition in0 &%chools are miniature uni erses. (hey encompass, on a child’s scale, the same kind o# domination and repression as the most despotically organi5ed societies. . similar sort o# injustice and comparable baseness preside o er their choice o# idols to ele ate and martyrs to torment. %ebastien was ignorant o# the #act that there are con#licts o# interest, ri al appetites, which are innate and which cause all human societies to #ight amongst themsel es, but by obser ing and making comparisons, he soon determined his precise position in that world6moti ated as it was by passions and concerns which, up until then, he had ne er e en suspected. He #ound it deeply demorali5ing. His position was that o# the underdog, a an8uished opponent6he understood that he must rely on himsel# alone, li e a solitary, intro erted li#e, act independently and seal himsel# o##6 but he also understood that such a renunciation was beyond his powers. His generous, e"pansi e, enthusiastic nature could not be con#ined within the narrow
psychological limits which he would be obliged to impose on himsel#. It needed air, warmth, light, a broad e"panse o# sky. ?hile waiting #or this light to shine, #or this sky to open up, %ebastien continued to watch li#e pass him by against a background o# blurred images and ine"orable darkness.' He notes with incomprehension how the group gra itates to &leaders' based mainly on wealth and #amily connections i# not #orce o# will, and decides to adopt the only sane policy, namely acti e disdain0 &..that community o# children in which, by e"ample and education, e ery #orm o# ser ility and tyranny was taken #or granted. (he anities, ambitions and aspirations, secret or a owed, o# this small, di ided people, with its jealous coteries, all #ocused on his #rail, awe=inspiring person6 %ebastien did not attempt to gain his sympathy by cowardly submission, nor to impose himsel# on him by means o# re olt. He disdained him6and this made him cherish 1his #riends back home2 all the more6He decided to keep out o# the way o# the teachers and6 neither to seek their appro al or arouse their sympathy6the priests’6ingratiating tone rang #alse to him. $y their side he #elt no sense o# protection6they le#t him to his own de ices in the recreation yard6where he wandered, usually alone and bewildered, wounded by the others’ joy, outraged by the roars o# laughter e"ploding all around him as i# to mock him all the more in his abandonment.' %ebastien is e entually be#riended by a sympathetic boy o# noble e"traction named @ean de Derral, who ne ertheless displays a disturbing lack o# empathy at core, relating a &#unny story' about his #ather0 &Do you know the story about /apa’s si" hunting dogs and the bali##’s clerk76?ell, one day, my #ather was coming back #rom a hunt< he hadn’t caught a thing and was not at all pleased. .s he got nearer 1town2, who should he see on the road but the bali##’s clerk. He’s a nasty clerk6he says bad things about priests, ne er goes to mass, and his #amily own a #arm near the chateau, con#iscated land bought cheap o## us a#ter the )e olution6a real nasty piece o# work. /apa says to himsel#0 >%ince my dogs ha en’t had a chance to hunt anything, I’m going to let them chase the bali##’s clerk.’ Funny, eh7 He unleashes them, puts them on the scent, and the dogs are o##6you can imagine6how the clerk bolted, #eeling the dogs at his heels6he gets all tangled up in the reeds and brambles, rips his trousers, #alls o er, gets back on the road, his #ace all bloody, and escapes as #ast as his legs can carry him towards 1town2. (he dogs stick as close to him as i# he was a hare6. .pparently it was really #unny6he went into the church and barely had time to close the door behind him< he collapsed onto the #lagstones and #ainted away out o# #ear. .nother second and he would ha e been caught and gobbled up by the dogs. (hey don’t mess about, you know those dogs6?ell, the #ather o# this nasty man took my papa to court and /apa was ordered to pay this nasty man -E thousand #rancs because, a#ter this joke o# a hunt, his son had #allen ill and lost his mind. $ut /apa will get his re enge.' Later, @ean in ites %ebastien to his home #or the holiday, which %ebastien’s #ather trumpets around town as a matter o# pride. Howe er, @ean’s #ather rejects the idea o# letting a social in#erior into their home, pro oking this re elation0 &How he repented o# ha ing so obstinately nurtured that dream, not because longing #or
magni#icence had e entually led to these ruins, but because a new emotion was penetrating his soul and o erturning all his ideas0 something strong and warm, like a draught o# wine. He had just seen !onsieur de Derral, and he hated him. He hated him and those like him. (o these men, li ing amongst other men like beasts o# prey amidst game, and o# whom his #ather had spoken and told him se eral times that they were to be admired and respected, he compared those o# his own kind, who toil to meet their daily needs6side by side, helping one another, working together to achie e tomorrow’s hopes< and he #elt proud to ha e been born amongst them6 He #ound greater nobility in his #ather’s o eralls6than in the insolent gaiters, the whistling whip6o# this !onsieur who had despised him, and along with him all o# the little people, the humble #olk6Faced with the image o# inner decay e ident in the chateau, which was collapsing stone by stone, and that soil, e"hausted #rom ha ing nourished men without pity or lo e6this created in him a pro#ound sense o# joy6this thought o# justice6was roused #rom its ata istic slumber and burst #orth in this child’s soul, which though6innocent, was large enough6to contain 1both2 an immense lo e and immense hatred on behal# o# all mankind.' (his disco ery brings about a change in his beha ior, and he #inally stands up #or himsel#, or more speci#ically, on behal# o# others su##ering unjust abuses0 &$olorec was still in the same place6two pupils nearby were pestering him6%ebastien could no longer control his precipitate emotions. He yelled at them0 >Lea e him beB6He hasn’t done anything to youB' One o# them ad anced, hands on hips, threatening0 >?hat are you wittering on about6#ilthy ironmonger.’ %ebastien leaped on him in one bound, knocked him o er and slapped him se eral times saying0 >A ery time you e en think o# insulting me, you will get the same6you and the others.’ (he beaten child got up in a piti#ul state. >,es, my #ather is an ironmonger,’ con#essed %ebastien. >.nd I’m proud o# him6he doesn’t set dogs on poor un#ortunates.' Like most intelligent children, he #inds the rote nature and banal curricula o# schoolwork to be somewhat less than stimulating as well0 &.s his intelligence broadened6as the desire to learn de eloped in him, he grew e er more disgusted with schoolwork and this disgust grew to the point where the mere sight o# his books caused him pain and irritation6In children, who are by nature keen, passionate and curious, what is re#erred to as la5iness is o#ten merely an awakening o# sensiti ity, a psychological inability to submit to certain absurd duties, and a natural result o# the distorted, unbalanced education gi en to them. (his la5iness, which leads to an insuperable reluctance to learn, is, contrary to appearances, sometimes proo# o# intellectual superiority and a condemnation o# the teacher6 ?hat he was #orced to learn bore no relation to any o# his latent aspirations6once his homework was hurriedly dispatched, his lessons recited, none o# what remained in his memory made him think, interested him or seemed to concern him6he was happy just to #orget it all61lessons2 which he #ound repellent and whose uselessness oppressed him6in the real world there were things which beguiled him, astonished him6he di ined something o# the inherent mystery in the world about him, delicious to un eil6but they were determined to shroud it all with the thickest and grimiest o# shadows6' Later he disco ers the power o# true literature on his own, comparing his education un#a orably thereto0
&(his was like the re elation o# a new world #or him6?hat a di##erence between that warm, color#ul, ibrant language6where e ery word li ed, breathed and sprouted beating wings6 compared with the cold, creeping, grudging language o# his schoolbooks, whose ensla ed words and dull ideas seemed deliberately positioned in order to block his desire to know, to #eel, to be inspired, like surly park=keepers, #orbidding entry to a garden #ull o#6splendid #lowers and subtle birds, where the radiant sky can be glimpsed through swaying branches.'
He also takes on the mentality o# !ani#est Destiny and all those who would claim +od on their side in justi#ication o# their own mass murders, land grabs and domination o# others, rejecting #irmly any &god' who could stand behind such0 &(hey were always talking about battles, sa age hordes on the march towards destruction, blood and ruin< they showed him the #ear#ul #aces o# drunken heroes, undaunted brutes, terrible con8uerors, odious and bloody puppets6who symboli5ed Duty, Honor, +lory, 9ountry, )eligion. .nd o er this whole abject, mad hurlyburly o# brutal assassins6there was always the image o#6+od6a kind o# maniacal, all=power#ul bandit, whose greatest pleasure was to kill, and who6tra eled howling across space or else lay in ambush6brandishing his thunderbolt in one hand and his sword in the other. %ebastien re#used to admit this bloodthirsty demon as his +od, and continued to lo e his own +od, a charming6pale, blond @esus, his arms #illed with #lowers, his mouth wreathed in smiles, blessing children, his ga5e constant in its boundless goodness and ine"haustible compassion.' He is a man who #eels li#e intensely, which can be e8ually wonder#ul as horri#ying in its implications0 &(here was not a thought, an action, a word, that %ebastien did not li e passionately0 the senses and passions were so strong in him that he e"perienced them like an illness6 e erything a##ected him much more than it did other people and had an impact on all his #aculties. It was enough #or one o# his senses to be stimulated #or all the others to participate68uadrupling it, prolonging it.' Fn#ortunately, he #alls under the spell o# the sort o# prelate making the headlines with due
regularity these days. His instincts warn him o# the priest’s ulterior moti e0 &?hy did Father de Dern’s presence cause him such iolent embarrassment, a sort o# strange, instincti e repugnance, a creeping o# the skin, a nauseous #ear, something abnormal, rather like the di55ying sensation he #elt when he looked down into an abyss #rom the heights o# a cli##top7' *e ertheless, the older man seduces the boy by appealing to his desire to learn and his artistic leanings, teaching him music, reciting poetry and e"posing him to the arts, until he lulls him into a #alse sense o# security. One night, he achie es his goal, re ealing the ama5ing hypocrisy and delusionality o# a supposedly sacred institution that harbors and encourages these sort o# situations0 &He had lured many others into that room6but none had made these deplorable scenes6little martyrs, little de#lowered creatures, his startled prey, docile or anguished6Father de Dern approached %ebastien6in an imperious tone, 1he said2 ’,ou know you’re taking communion tomorrow.’ (he e##ect o# this sentence was electric. %ebastien leaped up6now he would no longer be able to do so6he alone, like one o# the damned6 >$ut I can’t nowB’ >.nd who will stop you7’ snapped the priest6’am I not here7 9an I not hear your con#ession7’ >,ouB’ cried %ebastien with a surge o# horror. >,ouB’6 >,es6I am a priest. I ha e the power to absol e you6howe er unworthy, culpable and criminal I might be. I ha e not lost the sacred character which allows me6to gi e you back peace o# conscience and6purity o# body.' %carred by his e"perience, %ebastien, still thwarted in his desire to learn music, makes this power#ul analogy0 &%ebastien sei5es the iolin6plugs at the #our strings, which emit shrill, discordant sounds6 he stands #oolishly be#ore this iolin, which in his hands, is no more than an inert, jangling instrument, and #eels an in#inite sadness at knowing that a soul li es in it6but that he will ne er be able to breathe li#e into that soul nor awaken that dream6.re you not like that iolin76ha e you not a soul, and do not dreams inhabit that oid in your little brain7 ?ho knows about that7 ?ho cares7 (hose who ought to make your soul resonate and your dreams take wing, ha e they not le#t you in a corner all alone like that iolin abandoned on a chair, at the mercy o# the #irst6 passerby who, in order to amuse himsel# #or a moment, takes hold o# it and breaks #ore er the #ragile wood which was made #or eternal song7' In a proacti e attempt to co er #or himsel# against any untoward re elations, the guilty priest spreads a #alse rumor o# a homose"ual relationship between %ebastien and his #riend $olorec, which gets him e"pelled #rom the school. (he absurdity o# logical appeals to established o##icialdom is seldom more amusingly put0 &I# you wish, I can take >*o, #ather.’ >,ou are wrong6 mark my words, there is nothing more re !. @uste Durand con#essed at least G times in H days6but >$ut he was e"pelled you to con#ession.’
itali5ing than a good con#ession. what consolation he #ound tooB’ all the same.’
>,es, but what consolation he #oundB' Later, he ponders about what must dri e both priest and 9hurch in situations like this0 &.lthough, in normal circumstances, he was a good man, he had only one thought at that moment0 to pre ent this terrible secret #rom getting out, e en i# that meant a #lagrant injustice or the sacri#ice o# an innocent, unhappy boy. Howe er unimportant the child6e en i# they managed to rewrite the story in their own #a or, there would always be a lingering doubt, damaging the proud reputation o# the Order. It was ital to a oid that6' On departing #rom the school, he sums up his e"perience0 &Deceit e erywhere, wearing a 1cassock2. *o, little children like him, poor, humble wretches6with no position and no #ortune had nothing to hope #or #rom those young, pitiless boys, corrupted #rom birth by all the prejudices o# a hate#ul education< nothing to e"pect #rom those lo eless, ser ile teachers either, kneeling be#ore wealth as be#ore a god. ?hat had he learned7 He had learned pain, and that was all. He had arri ed ignorant and pure< they were e"pelling him, ignorant and de#iled. He had arri ed #ull o# nai e #aith< they were dri ing him out #ull o# troubling doubts. (he peace o# mind6he possessed on entering that accursed house were now replaced by a horrible, de ouring oid, a burden o# remorse, disgust and constant anguish. .nd that had all been accomplished in the name o# @esusB 6Oh, he knew all about their kind o# lo e, justice and #orgi enessB (o earn it, you had to be rich and noble. ?hen a person was neither6there was no lo e, no justice, no #orgi eness. ,ou were e"pelled and no one told you whyB' !using about his classmates and the eternal cycle o# social abuse and rejection to be #ound in schoolyards e erywhere, he surmises that0 &?hat were they saying about him and this sudden, un#orseen separation7 /robably nothing. . child arri es0 e eryone throws stones at him and insults him. . child lea es, and it’s all o er. On to the ne"t.' %ebastien returns home to #ind his #ather #irst ranting and acting out, and later shutting down, and treating him as a stranger in his own home. %et adri#t, without goals or aspirations, he watches the days pass in aimless re erie6 >,ou must be so bored.’ >*ot really. I look, I think, and time passes. ,esterday6I watched an ants’ nest all day. ,ou can’t imagine how beauti#ul and mysterious such a thing is6there’s the most e"traordinary li#e going on in there, a great social structure that would be #ar more interesting to learn about6it’s another o# the thousands o# things they don’t teach you in school.’ 6’(hat’s all ery well6but you can’t go on li ing like this6people are beginning to whisper and say bad things about you6you must make up your mind to do something with your li#e.’ >(rue,’ sighed %ebastien6’$ut what can I do7 (here’s nothing that interests me.’ He #inally comes to the reali5ation o# why his li#e went the way it did, which comes down to the sad #act that parents will ine itably try to reli e and redeem their #ailed li es through the hoped successes o# their progeny0 &I was a stimulus to my #ather’s anity, the promise o# social ele ation, the impersonal summation o# his incoherent dreams and peculiar ambitions. I did not e"ist in mysel#< it was he who e"isted or rather re=e"isted through me. He did not lo e me< he lo ed himsel# in me.
%trange as it may seem, I am sure that by sending me to school, my #ather, in good #aith, #elt that he was going there himsel#6recei ing the bene#its o# a good education which in his mind ought to lead to the highest positions in the land. From the day when it became clear that nothing o# what he had dreamed #or himsel# 1not #or me2 could be reali5ed6I no longer e"isted #or him at all.' %ebastien #urther notes how his upbringing and education has instilled in him a timidity o# thought that binds him to social con ention and the upholding o# the status 8uo, e en as all measure o# reason and logic rejects same0 &I cannot concei e6o# a moral system #or the uni erse, #ree o# all hypocrisies or religious, political, legal and social barbarities, without being instantly gripped by the same religious and social terrors inculcated in me at school. Howe er brie# the time I spent there, howe er apparently imper ious I thought I was to that depressing and ser ile education6its terrors and sla ery ha e soaked into my brain and poisoned my soul. (hey ha e made me too cowardly to think #or mysel#6 .s #or priests, they make me shudder. I can see the deceit in what they preach, the deceit in the consolations they o##er6I #eel that priests are only here in society in order to keep man steeped in his intellectual #ilth and to create out o# the ensla ed multitudes a #lock o# brute idiots and cowards6' Finally, %ebastien comes to reali5e the innate #utility o# trying to help those who will not accept that help and are unwilling to change, and arri es at a pro#ound understanding o# human nature and society as a whole0 &I too used to want to de ote mysel# to others6through pity and reason. I soon reali5ed it was absurd and pointless6e erything I see makes me despair and #eel sickened. Fundamentally, all these people hate and despise one another. (he bourgeoise hate the workers, the workers hate the tramps, the tramps seek out 1those2 more wretched than themsel es6to hate and despise. A eryone struggles to maintain the #atal e"clusi ity o# his own class, to make e en narrower the prison cell in which he shakes his eternal chains. I6ha e occasionally tried to point out to the miserable wretches the injustice o# their condition and their inalienable right to re olt, tried to direct their hatred not lower but higher, but they only became suspicious and turned their backs6 (here is an inertia, strengthened by centuries o# religious and authoritarian ata ism, which it is impossible to o ercome. !an would only ha e to stretch out his arms #or his chains to #all away< he would only ha e to mo e his legs #or his ball and chain to break< but he will ne er make that gesture towards #reedom. He has been so#tened up, emasculated6trapped in his moral abjection and sla ish submission.' In due course, the Franco=/russian ?ar breaks out. )ather than stirring an appropriate horror throughout the land, howe er, this stirs something else entirely among the nation6 (he cluelessness and underlying bloodthirstiness o# the general populace here has strong parallels with today0 &(oday a regiment6passed through 1town26e eryone looks #orward to it in a way I can scarcely understand and which it is impossible to share, but which is no less strong #or all that it resides in the ulgar heart o# the multitude. It is curious how the people respond to only two stimuli0 religion and war, the two greatest enemies o# moral de elopment.
6(he crowd swells, #illed by the same wild instinct. It really is a crowd now and it strikes me as absolutely hideous. It seems to me that I ne er be#ore grasped so clearly the unerring stupidity o# this human herd, the powerlessness o# these creatures, so immune to natural beauty. (o make them crawl out o# their holes, to put those broad, ata istic, brutish smiles on their #aces, they ha e to be promised barbarous spectacles, degrading pleasures aimed only at the lowest and meanest among them.' A en his gentle, se"ually curious and de oted girl#riend !arguerite joins in on the mob mentality, becoming 8uite e"cited and aroused by the pomp and circumstance o# the parading troops. &I ha e ne er seen her like this be#ore, so impatient, her eyes aglow and her whole body trembling with e"citement, e"cept when such beha ior is directed at me6her ga5e, now stripped o# any shame, is a mi"ture o# cruelty, sa agery and submission, which strikes #ear into my heart6she has submitted 1to the pageantry o# war and the battle#ield2 se"ually.' $ut %ebastien #inds to his dismay that the shadow o# the neanderthal resides within the breast o# e ery man0 &I am gripped by emotion despite mysel#. It is neither pride, nor admiration, nor a #eeling o# patriotism< it is a kind o# ague, latent sense o# heroism, and whate er there is in me o# the bestial and sa age is awoken6and I am just like the crowd I despise. (he same soul that horri#ies me is inside me, with all its brutishness, its lo e o# iolence and killing.' He con#ronts one young boy entranced with the potent wine o# jingoist sentiment0 &6are you glad to be going into the army76do you know what your &9ountry' is7’ He stares at me in astonishment. 9learly he has ne er considered the 8uestion. >6your &9ountry' is a #ew rogues who ha e taken it upon themsel es to make you into something less than a man, less than an animal or a plant0 a number6In other words, #or reasons o# which you know nothing and which are nothing to do with you, they’ll take away your job, your lo e, your #reedom, your whole li#e.' .#ter being #orced to ga5e into this collecti e abyss encompassing both his societal intimates and himsel#, %ebastien can no longer enjoy their company as he once did, and #inds himsel# more alone than e er0 &!adame6is not as intelligent as I used to think. %he is #ull o# bourgeois prejudices and meanness o# spirit and understands nothing o# the #eelings gnawing away at me6we speak o# meaningless, random things, the only things she can talk about6it is terrible ne er to ha e6a simple, straight#orward soul6to whom you could re eal yoursel# just as you are, and who would respond to what you #eel and think, correct your errors, encourage you and direct you.' *e ertheless, he has one passionate #ling with his belo ed !arguerite, whose lo e and honest communication with each other in a physical sense brings one brie#, solitary ray o# light to the narrati e, as he muses in the a#terglow0 &He sensed6a slow regaining o# his own sanity, a slow return o# the senses to peace, a place #or his injured heart to rest in calm and purity, with no dark, constraining hori5ons. He suddenly e"perienced again old #eelings o# enthusiasm and generosity6and a boundless lo e #or those who su##er6he had ne er be#ore seen how clearly how empty, useless and guilty his li#e had been, how it was constantly threatened by the ice o# inaction6
>I’m twenty years old and I ha e done nothing with my li#e6I must make up my mind not to waste my manhood in the same way as I’ e wasted my adolescence.' Fn#ortunately, he soon #inds the destiny he had been unable to en ision as a #ait accompli, when he encounters a meaningless death on the battle#ield o# a pointless war. Ouch. %trong stu## indeed. ?ith Sebastien Roch, !irbeau deli ers one o# the angriest o# his missi es, all the more disturbing #or bearing the mark o# autobiographicality. Is it any wonder that a boy who su##ered similar e"perience to that described herein would later bear the disgust #or societal blindness and stupidity so brilliantly and sa agely skewered in no els like Diary of a Chambermaid and Torture Garden7
Sebastien Roch ultimately works on two le els. .s a narrati e, it ser es a tale by and #or the outsider, the downtrodden, those who by choice or no stand outside the mainstream, the commonplace, those who #it into the petty cli8ues and li e by and #or the pettiness o# accepted more. (hose who en ision a li#e beyond a continual stri ing up an imaginary ladder o# achie ement and &proo#' that one is somehow &worthy' o# ascension to the ne"t le el, culminating in a moderately &happy' marriage with a statistical 3.E o##spring, a modest house in the suburbs, dreams o# a career in middle management and a sideline as a &soccer mom'. (hose who understand that there’s a lot more to li#e than petty &ideals' such as these6 .nd as a mani#esto o# sorts, it deli ers a resounding condemnation o# such surprisingly contemporary topics as child abuse, e"ploitation, bullying, the whole o erachie er culture that dri es parents to push their children in e"treme ways in the hopes o# creating a sports hero or corporate leader, and the culpability o# the 9hurch and public authorities in allowing these sort o# things to go on under its auspices 1and in #act, acti ely co ering them up #or &the good o# the 9hurch', to allow the institution to continue undaunted, retaining its imaginary &authority' and eneer o# &respectability' at the cost o# human li es and ery souls2. In both o# these respects, the book displays Decadence’s typically #orward thinking and progressi e 1particularly #or the time2 understanding o# human psychology, sociology, and politics : #rom the agaries, con#licted desires and #allibility o# the indi idual to the lowest common denominator ata ism and abject stupidity o# the group 1ranging all the way #rom
small social circles to society at large and as a whole2, dissecting e8ually the sel# and other with a re#reshing sense o# honesty, #earlessness and e"istential authenticity so noticeably absent in the >literature’ o# today, designed entirely #or commercial purposes and #illed with a apid emptiness at core. ?hile hardly a pleasant read, this makes Sebastien Roch a book more rele ant than e er, and one that needs to be read as a sort o# assigned curriculum #or prospecti e parents, teachers, and religious leaders : one whose lessons bear a per#ect and direct applicability to the societal blights o# our own day, and whose warnings must be hearkened to.
&,ou’re a child,' repeated 9lara. &,ou speak as you would in Aurope, dear. .nd you ha e stupid scruples, just as they would ha e in Aurope6li#e is #ree, happy and boundless, #ree #rom con entions and without prejudices and laws. .t least #or us6Liberty has no other limits than yoursel#6nor lo e anything but the triumphant ariety o# your desires. Aurope and its hypocritical barbaric ci ilisation is a lie. ?hat else do you #ind there but lies7 ,ou lie to yoursel# and others : you lie about e erything that, in the depths o# your soul, you recognise as the truth. ,ou are #orced to pretend outward respect #or people and institutions which you #ind ridiculous6you remain cowardly, attached to moral or social con entions you despise, condemn and which you know lack all #oundation6it’s the permanent contradiction between your ideas and desires on one hand and all the dead #orms and ain phantoms o# your ci ilisation on the other that makes you sad, troubled and unbalanced. In that intolerable con#lict you lose all joy o# li#e and all #eeling o# personality because e ery moment the #ree play o# your strength is restrained, impeded, and checked. (hat’s the poisonous and mortal wound o# the ci ilised world. ?ith us, there’s nothing like that6 e erything is conduci e to a #ree li#e and to lo e. ?hat are you a#raid o#7 ?hat are you lea ing behind7' = 9lara, #emme #atale o# Octa e !irbeau’s Le @ardin du %upplices 1(orture +arden2. *o less a personage than Oscar ?ilde apparently described this book as &re olting6a sort o# grey adder', and once we get to the heart o# the matter, it’s hard to disagree. (he #act that both ?ilde, a noted bon i ant and deliberate satirist and transgressor o# traditional mores, and mysel# agree on this point should gi e #air warning to the skittish among us0 this is strong stu##, particularly #or the period, and should be approached with trepidation by the bourgeoise in mentality, the moralist, the uptight. %till with me7 +ood, let’s begin. .#ter the usual welcome and in#ormati e historical introduction and analysis by $rian %table#ord, we are transported to the #rontispiece, which presents the bulk o# the no el as a story within a story. . gathering o# literati turns con ersationally towards the idea that the dri ing #orce o# ci ili5ation and human nature may actually be murder. (his would seem to be a somewhat spurious premise at #irst sight, until you reali5e !irbeau is pointing an acidic #inger directly at the warmongering o# nations and thier go ernments #or the aggrandi5ement
o# domestic #inance and other personal gain 1i.e. land and possessions #rom their targets, oluntary surrender o# #reedoms and submission to go ernment intrusion and martial law #rom their own citi5enry2. .t length, one &man with a ra aged #ace', apparently unknown to the author relating this section, begins to interject with assurance his e"perience and perspecti e on the matter. .nd thus the tale begins6 %plit into two major sections, !irbeau’s non=traditional approach actually pro es 8uite e##ecti e. Like a well constructed suite or symphony, each successi e mo ement builds the narrati e tension, suspending the reader with that unspoken 8uestion o# where all this is going 1and pro iding subtle intimations o# just how horrible the end o# all this will be2. In the #irst section 1which is technically the second, a#ter the wraparound o# the #rontispiece2, we are introduced to our unnamed protagonist 1who remains thus throughout the course o# the proceedings, thus becoming an ob ious cipher and allegorically, the reader him1or her2sel# by de#ault2. %omething o# a con=man and perpetual middle management type, his primary method o# subsistence is based on his college a8uaintance o# a political o##icial. ?hile some would be 8uick to use the usual euphemism o# &getting by on connections', this is more akin to a low le el #orm o# blackmail0 he has something o er on his &#riend', and continues to ride his coattails into minor prestige and a low le el o# notoriety and success through a succession o# nepotistic &positions'. (he o##icial hates him, the narrator despises the o##icial and himsel#, but it’s a li ing, as it were 1most #ellow stooges #or a corporate entity, getting by on a diet o# paper pushing, taking periodic measures related wholly to job justi#ication, and relying primarily on bullsh;tting and charm #or their pay will doubtless #ind some measure o# identi#ication herein2. In the end, seen as something o# an embarrassment and an albatross, our protagonist is shu##led o## to a mock position as a scienti#ic e"pert in the Indies. ?ithout e en knowing what his supposed pro#ession entails 1as &embryologist', though later e ents suggest a more proper designation as &icthyologist'2, he sails o## to 9eylon with #unding that is e"pected, de rigeur #or such go ernment sponsored e"peditions, ne er to see e"penditure on the e8uipment or purpose ostensibly intended. (his one last dig at go ernment waste out o# the way, !irbeau shi#ts tone with a literate mastery marked by a simultaneous subtlety and suddenness. For in the course o# this journey 1both literal and metaphorical, an archetypal i# sub erted hero’s journey ala @oseph 9ampbell2, he encounters the #ascinating Anglishwoman 9lara. Flame haired and marked by occasional indications o# her true, dark nature, 9lara 8uickly gra itates #rom pi8uing the narrator’s interest to essentially ensla ing him to her domination, through a gradual and ongoing re eal o# her obsessions, as they embrace in a passionate and physical a##air. On arri al at his intended destination, our protagonist #inds himsel# so entwined in her web that he allows her to lure him along to her pre#erred home o# e"otic 9hina, where awaits the per ersities and pleasures o# the titular (orture +arden. &you see how 1those2 we accuse o# being barbarians are on the contrary more ci ilised than us, being more deeply immersed in the logic o# li#e and in the harmony o# natureB (hey don’t consider the act o# lo e as something shame#ul to be hidden. On the contrary, they glori#y it, celebrating all its gestures and caresses6just like the ancients, #or who se", #ar #rom being an
object o# in#amy and an image o# impurity, was a godB ,ou can see how occidental art as a whole loses out by being #orbidden the magni#icent e"pressions o# lo e. .mong us, eroticism is wretched, stupid and chilly. It is always deciet#ully presented as being sin#ul, whereas here it retains all the ital amplitude, all the throbbing poetry, all the grandiose trepidation o# nature6but you’re just a Auropean lo er, a poor timid little soul who6has been stupidly indoctrinated with a #ear o# nature and a hatred o# lo e by the 9atholic religion. It has #alsi#ied and per erted the meaning o# li#e within you.' *ow the book takes another leap in time, as we join the lo ers post=separation, at some unspeci#ied point down the road. Our narrator had attempted to separate himsel# #rom his obsessi e submission to the pernicious in#luence o# 9lara and her appetites, which are soon to be shown in some detail. $ut despite recklessly joining a missionary e"pedition to distant lands, despite attempting to assauge his longing #or her sensuous and lasci ious caresses in opium, like a hero #rom +autier, he only sees her, mocking him, drawing him back to her arms. .nd here we rejoin the lo ers, upon the #irst #lush o# reunion. )ather than welcoming him as one might e"pect o# an absent lo er, returned at last to the #old, she begins by relating the horrible and seemingly random #ate o# a hereto#ore unencountered third party to their a##air, one .nnie, who he remembers as astonishingly beauti#ul, but whom, as 9lara relates, suddenly was stricken with elephantitis 1oddly described as a #orm o# leprosy2, her beauty marred and dri en to the point o# suicide. Da5ed by his long journey and horri#ied by this gruesome bit o# news, he is dragged by 9lara to one o# her sick pleasures, which in ol es tormenting star ing prisoners with o##erings o# rotten meat. .nd it only gets worse #rom here on out, #olks. In e##ect, despite the irtues and accuracy o# her assessment o# ?estern culture and arguments against the #oolishness o# its philosophic underpinnings and repression o# the natural se"ual instinct, 9lara becomes e"posed as something wholly other, a horrible e"tension o# a %adean, *iet5chean, e en )andian philosophic aesthetic that re els in e"tremes and the su##ering o# others. (hink o# her as the sort o# girl who gets o## on the &torture porn' o# today, becoming passionate o er the demented and yes, e il e"cesses o# such now=ubi8uitous garbage as Hostel, %aw, or House o# ?a". Despite a number o# pleasing aspects to her physically and e en philosophically, in the end, this woman is one sick #;;k, and becomes wholly detestable there#ore 1but read on62. ?hat makes this particular book so maddening and the & ile grey adder' o# ?ilde’s aphorism 1and please note, that was 8uoted in the course o# his recommendation o# the book to a #ellow literati and aesthete2 lies in the #act that it is 8uintessentially !irbeau. In other words, e en beyond his assured command o# the art #orm and undisputed mastery o# the art o# wordsmithing, the book and its philosophical underpinnings are dri en by #undamental truth, and an absurdist criti8ue o# the #irmly held societal belie#s and accepted con ention o# belie#, &order' and &good taste' o# the era 1and in #act, today2. ?ith some real 5ingers deli ered along the way and4or with the inanities o# society and its mores presented reductio ad absurdam, any number o# such deeply held &patriotic' sentiments and religiosities are skewered with due mercilessness0 the march o# colonialism, the corruption, usuriousness, underhanded double dealings and ile hypocrisy o# capitalism and commerce, politics and go ernment, bourgeoise morality, the hegemony o# the 9atholic church and sel# aggrandi5ement in all its #orms are e"posed to the light o# reason and set a#lame by the torch o# satire with e8ual incisi eness and aplomb. *onetheless, and in spite all o# this, the character o# 9lara presents something o# a
conundrum0 is she a dedicated libertine in pursuit o# personal #reedom and the liberation o# the natural se"ual impulse, or a cruel and elitist *iet5chean #ascist, whose pursuit o# pleasure and #reedom comes solely at the e"pense o# that o# others7 (o make matters e en more muddled and stir the waters to an opacity o# sediment, e ents would strongly point towards the latter0 in her per erse delight at the su##erings o# others 1to the point where she crosses the line #rom obser er into at least partial actor in this regard2, !irbeau presents something e en more appalling than a standard %adean anti=heroine. For the pains that gi e her such shi ers o# 1literal2 orgasmic delight are not the delicious tortures o# the boudoir and consensual liason, but in seeing 1and in #act taking no small part in incensing2 the su##ering o# prisoners, who whether #or political ariance with the ruling regime or #or minor crimes, are gi en the undue and horri#ic punishment common to this day in (hird ?orld dictatorships and uprisings, or e en in these ery Fnited %tates, under the auspices o# an imaginary &war on terror', the misnomer and iolation o# basic ci il liberties and human rights that is the abominable &/atriot' .ct and its ery own (orture +arden o# +uantanamo $ay. ?orse, there is no ideological underpinning the simpleminded can utili5e to create some #allacious &justi#ication' #or same : #or 9lara clearly admits she cares not why these un#ortunates are being tortured and killed, and is in #act #urther in#lamed with passion by the ery intimation o# their potential innocence and undeser edness #or being put in this aw#ul and #inal imposition. A en among the long=suppressed scrawlings o# %ade, the only no el that comes close to the depra ity shown by this character is the abominable 3-I Days o# %odom, a satirical and somewhat metaphorical celebration o# the rich and power#ul elites and their aw#ul e"ercise o# stripping the dignity and li es o# those so unlucky as to #all under their pur iew. (his is the line, people, where #reedom and liberation cross o er into dictatorship and horror, where the pleasures o# breaking the imaginary and generally pointless taboos and sacred cows o# societal con ention and mores gi e way to a true and pure e"ercise o# e il. .nd the ery seducti eness o# her open and welcome sensuality, the ery truth o# a number o# her assertions against prudishness, colonialism and the #ailings o# ?estern ci ili5ation, make it all the more harder to reconcile the horrors and darkness that she celebrates and which ser e to complete the picture o# who she is as a person. Like )achilde’s !ar8uise de %ade, !ary $arbe, her ery likeability and correctness in a number o# respects draws the reader into complicity with the contradictory deep seated wrongness o# where her philosophical standpoints can lead us as indi iduals, or as a society. .nd there’s no better stimulus #or re= assessment o# thought, introspection and metacogniti e analysis o# where one truly stands than that. Once again, I o##er high recommendations to this work, #or those who ha e ears to hear, su##icient stomach to tread the rocky waters into which it o#ten leads, and the courage to take its implications as both e"hortation and warning, and per#orm some much needed reassessment o# who we are as human beings, and where we’re going as a society and world, be#ore it’s too late to turn back.
Diary of a Chambermaid
)egular readers o# the @ournal should be well aware that outside the storied @.D. Huysmans, probably my #a orite author o# the #in de siecle French Decadent mo ement is Octa e !irbeau, scribe o# the un#orgettable con#essional Le Calvaire and the mind blowing social criti8ue that is Torture Garden. $ut one work we had not yet addressed is perhaps the one he is best known #or. (his is a story which had been #ilmed twice, and by two much belo ed directors o# the French *ou elle Jague< o#ten considered his literary apotheosis by the powers that be. .nd so, once again, we come to address the #allacy o# general critical consensus. $ecause
while 8uite intense and #iery in spirit and #ull o# important philosophical and social commentary, this narrati ely motionless and thinly disguised polemic o# a work doesn’t hold a dimming candle to his true masterwork, the a#orementioned Torture Garden6 . surprisingly angry book, Diary of a Chambermaid is simultaneously i# not incongrously 8uite amusing. ?here both Le Calvaire and Torture Garden #eatured #ascinating i# not gripping narrati es su##used with politicosocial and psychological insight, Chambermaid deli ers dripping sarcasm on a modern scale, with a biting satire worthy o# i# not superior to that o# (wain, Joltaire, !oliere and their ilk. .s the introduction notes, &In !irbeau’s portrait o#6the end o# the 3Kth century we see a society6not so di##erent #rom our own. (he gap between rich and poor6is now writ large across the globe. (he callousness o# those who hold economic power is as icious as e er.' and again, &!irbeau6railed against6the arbitrary iolence o# the police and the parallel atrocities committed abroad in the6colonies6 A erywhere he looked, e il was paraded as good. 1(here#ore2 hypocrisy was his prime target.' (he #raming story, such as it is, re ol es around one 9elestine, an earthy, lusty member o# the working class who makes her way as chambermaid and ser ant to the well o##, and her obser ations thereo#. In the process, she comes to reali5e the inability o# riches to buy happiness, and the sorry e"amples o# humanity those who tend to bear the #inancial upper hand represent0 &6something ine"pressibly sad, some unspeakable weight seemed to ha e descended on these two creatures, till I #ound mysel# wondering what purpose they really ser ed by their presence here on earth.' %he also pro ides a mouthpiece #or !irbeau to speak to the #olly o# #inery kept under lock and key, rather than being properly utili5ed and enjoyed. !oreo er, he notes how this bi5arre mindset cuts well beyond the rich to speak to any number o# us, #rom the jewel and chinaware hiding middle class housewi#e right down to the peculiarly modern per ersity o# the a erage geek collector0 &Isn’t it curious the way people like this hide e erything away7 $ury their sil er, their jewels, their wealth, their happiness, and instead o# li ing happily and lu"uriously, insist upon li ing as though they were hard up7' 9elestine comes to reali5e through her e"perience how impo erished the rich truly are when di orced o# their possessions, which truly seem to sum up their entire being and raison d’etre0 &(he sight o# !adame, slumped o er her empty cases, deader than i# she had really died, because she was conscious o# 1it26#or what death could concei ably be more horrible, #or a creature who had ne er in her li#e lo ed anything, but had always assumed that money could buy e erything, e en the things without price : pleasure, charity, lo e6' .nd o# course, she notes with derision the hypocrisy o# the ostensibly &moral', who make a huge show o# sho ing their supposed belie#s down e eryone else’s throats, while their beha iors when they assume no one is looking show all this to be an abject lie0 &%ince they are so #ond o# lecturing other people about their morals, and demand the most complete chastity #rom their ser ants, it is 8uite inconcei able that they should not be at
greater pains to conceal the e idence o# their own se"ual manias6 How they in#uriate me, these >respectable’ people, with their6sa age contempt #or any girl who happens to >go wrong’, and their e erlasting nagging about our moral beha ior6o# course, none o# this pre ents the master, despite all his morality, pulling you on to a so#a or bed as soon as he gets a chance, and as o#ten as not6lea ing you with a child on your hands. (hen, o# course, it’s up to you to do what you can i# you can6and i# you can’t, then you and the child can just star e, #or all they care. It’s no concern o# theirs.' and later, &.#ter a #ew banal6e"changes about the more #utile e ents o# the day, the con ersation6 settled down to a discussion o# standards o# propriety in society. .ll these poor de ils, these pathetic men and women, #orgetting the looseness o# their own li es, displayed a relentless se erity towards anyone whom they suspected6o# ha ing6show1n2 too little respect #or those social standards which they alone regarded as binding.' .s with Huysmans in A Rebours, !irbeau notes here how the rich were able to e"ploit the poor through military ser ice, and builds a biting net o# social commentary there#rom0 &1dra#t2 conscripts were chosen by lot. $ut the sons o# wealthy parents, i# they happened to be selected, could buy themsel es out. (hey would get in touch6with an agency or some indi idual, who on payment o# a premium6according to the risk in ol ed, would #ind some poor de il who was prepared to take their place in the army6and i# there happened to be a war, die #or them. In short, it wasn’t only in .#rica that there was a sla e trade6the same sort o# thing is going on today. .#ter all, what are our registry o##ices (modern equivalent tem! a"encies and #ob !lacement a"encies$ and public brothels (modern equivalent stri! bars$, i# not markets #or the sale o# human #lesh7' In a direct nod to our current economic situation, where major multinational corporations making billions pay IL on ta"es, while what remains o# a >middle class’ gets s8uee5ed on all sides by o erpriced commodities, diminishing salaries, bene#its and public programs0 &I really belie e6that i# they could steal money #rom the poor they would do it with pleasure, without turning a hair.' He also speaks to the #rankly bi5arre penchant #or the e eryday worker, and particularly the impo erished, to be da55led by the sort o# glittering idolatry o# Li#estyles o# the )ich and Famous, Deeping up with the Dardashians, et al0 &(he most curious, and also the saddest, part o# this story is that despite6all the in#amous re elations 1in the media26the 1common2 people en y 1the rich and power#ul2 e en more than they look down on them. Despite6all the harm they do to society, despite e erything that is crushed beneath the weight o# their monstrous wealth, it is precisely their money that gi es them a halo o# respectability, e en o# importance. /eople are prepared to bow down to them, to greet them more readily6i# a isitor were to ask what places o# interest there were to see in he neighborhood, I #eel con inced61they2 would reply0 >6we ha e 1the rich and power#ul26they are atrocious people, but we are ery proud o# them.’ (he worship o# money is the lowest o# all human emotions, but it shared not only by the
bourgeoisie but also by the great majority o# us6e en those who are practically penniless.' %imiliarly bi5arre is the penchant #or the abused to throw ehement support behind their abusers, with a mouth #rothing de#ense o# conser atism and the upholding o# the >status 8uo’, as e inced in the despicable child murdering anti=%emite monarchist #ootman @oseph. ?hen 9elestine contradicts him on one o# his wild rants against the republic and the @ews, he merely &re#used to listen to a word I tried to say. He just scolded me #or being unpatriotic and not lo ing my country, and6went o## to bed.' How little things ha e changedB $ut still, she e entually #alls #or this rather sorry specimen o# humanity, noting how one becomes acclimati5ed to any situation, howe er bad, inclusi e o# people0 &.s a result o# seeing him e ery day, I no longer #ind him so old and ugly. Habit has the same e##ect on people as on things0 it is like a #og that gradually obliterates the #eatures o# a #ace and hides its de#ects. .#ter a while you don’t seem to notice that a hunchback has got a humpB' (here’s an interesting i# satirically accurate assessment o# how religion and #aith tends to be the last i# not only desperate re#uge o# the helpless0 &?ithout being particularly de out, I ne ertheless belie e in religion6maybe the rich can do without it, but #or people like us, it’s an absolute necessity. I know there are some people who make use o# it in #unny ways, and that there are plenty o# priests and holy sisters who do ery little credit to it. $ut that’s not the point. ?hen you are unhappy : and in our job we ha e more than our share o# unhappiness : there’s nothing like it #or helping you to #orget your troubles6religion and lo e.' Later, this is amended by e"perience, and how #ar workaday reality and people around us are remo ed #rom the ideals represented by religion and #aith0 &?hat a churchB 6.ll you could see were #aces brutali5ed by ignorance and embittered mouths soured with hate. *othing but wretched creatures who ha e only come there to pray #or +od’s help against someone else6a horrible chill seemed to en elop me.' %ure enough, the illagers are as petty, indicti e, and seeking to e"ploit each other #or personal gain as e eryone seems to be in our own age0 &,ou may well imagine I ad ised her to sue the lawyer and his wi#e6i# it had been me6I’d ha e made them cough up, all right, hundreds and thousands, 3I,III #rancs at least6hea ens, #ancy missing an opportunity like thatB' (he rich are ob iously no better, ha ing little regard #or the li es and well being o# their charges, who are #orced by economic desperation to submit to their abuses. %eldom has the e"ploitation o# the poor by the rich been e"plored as angrily as here0 &%olitude is6li ing in other people’s houses6who ha e no interest in you, who regard you as being o# less importance than the dogs6#rom whom all you get are useless, cast=o##1s2 and le#to er1s2 already going bad6 ?ith e ery word, they e"press contempt #or you, their ery gestures treat you like dirt0 but you must ne er say a word : just smile and be thank#ul, or else you area considered to be
ungrate#ul and ill=natured.' Later, she works #or a #amous no elist renowned #or his psychological insight, who opines o# the working poor that0 &I’m really not concerned with such people6they are too small minded, completely lacking in soul6they do not #all within the scope o# my psychology.’ I reali5ed at once that, in the circles in which he mo ed, no one with an income less than 3II,III #rancs a year was e"pected to ha e a soul.' (hrough 9elestine, !irbeau addresses an issue 8uite #amiliar to part time workers, contract workers, consultants, temps or new hires, who are particularly stung by the lack o# en#orced allocation o# sick and personal time0 &I’m always ha ing to run up and down these con#ounded stairs just to satis#y the mistress’ whims. .nd be#ore you’ e had time to sit down #or a moment6ting=a=ling=a=ling, and o## you go again. A en when you’re not well, the bell ne er stops. .nd when I’m like that, I get pains in my back that almost double me up, and tear my insides till I could almost shriek. $ut o# course, that doesn’t matter to her6no time to be unwell, no right to be in pain. Illness is a lu"ury that’s reser ed #or our employers. .s #or us, we just ha e to keep going, and look snappy about it6keep going till we drop.' ?hen she protests at one employer’s attempt to get some & alue added ser ice' out o# her by dumping unrelated e"tra work on her head without compensation0 &,our job, my girl,’ said the lady se erely, >is to do what your employers tell you to6,ou seem to ha e a ery rebellious nature.' @ust as with today’s labor market, agencies and employers see #it to attempt to brainwash their prospecti e employees into indentured ser itude without complaint0 &/eople are 8uite wrong about the country,’ she insisted. >(here are e"cellent situations to be #ound there.’ >A"cellent7 (hat’s a good one,’ I interrupted. >In the #irst place, there’s no such thing as an e"cellent situation anywhere.’ 6’I beg your pardon, !me. 9elestine6there’s no such thing as a bad situation.’ >6only a bad employer 1then2.' &*ot at all6only bad 1employees2.' .nd o# course, as anyone who’s e er been in any tight spots knows, money buys in#luence, and trumps justice at any gi en turn0 &.las, at the police station, they pretended it was nothing to do with them, and when I spoke to a magistrate about it, he ad ised me to #orget all about it, because, as he e"plained0 &(o start with, !ademoiselle, nobody is going to belie e you. .nd 8uite right, too, I assure you. For whate er would become o# society i# ser ants started getting the better o# their masters7' In #act, the working class are so put upon, that 9elestine de elops a shock and emotional
ulnerability at being treated like a proper human being, and notes with remarkable insight that in order to ha e true empathy #or others, one needs to ha e been on the losing side at some point themsel es0 &I# anyone speaks kindly to me, i# they do not regard me as a creature belonging to another world, something 1akin to2 a dog6I immediately #eel as though I were once again a child. .ll my bitterness and hatred6disappears, and I #eel nothing but unsel#ish a##ection towards those who speak to me with humanity. I know #rom e"perience that only those who ha e themsel es su##ered can appreciate the su##ering o# others, e en i# they are socially in#erior to them6there is always an element o# insolence and remoteness in the kindness o# those who ha e known nothing but happiness.'
(he apotheosis o# the book, it’s central premise and thrust, can be summed up in 9elestine’s assessment o# society and the place o# the working man here0 &*o one has any idea o# all the worries that ser ants ha e to put up with, nor o# the monstrous way in which they are continually e"ploited. I# it’s not the employers, it’s the registry o##ices6not to mention your #ellow ser ants, #or some o# them are pretty #oul. *o one has the slightest concern #or anyone else. A erybody li es, grows #at, amuses himsel# at the e"pense o# someone more miserable and hard up than himsel#. Howe er much the scene may change or the background be trans#ormed, howe er di##erent6 the social setting6whether it’s in a cramped, middle=class #lat, or some banker’s lu"urious townhouse, you #ind the same beastliness, the same ine"orable #ate. ?hen all’s said and done, the truth is that a girl like me is de#eated e en be#ore she starts, where er she may go and whate er she may do6poor human dung, nourishing6the rich 1who2 use 1it2 against us. (here is supposed to be no more sla ery nowadays. $ut that’s all rubbish6in practice, 1the working class2 are simply sla es, with all that sla ery entails : the moral degradation6the spirit o# re olt that breeds hatred6it is the masters who teach ser ants to be icious. Howe er pure and simple hearted they may be when they start6they are soon corrupted6day by day, they begin to adapt themsel es to it, #or #ar #rom being able to de#end themsel es against it, they #ind themsel es on the contrary obliged to wait upon it, pamper it, respect it.' $ut throughout all o# the polemici5ing, there is a strong undercurrent o# surprisingly passionate emotion, particularly in regards to se". %ome choice reminiscences0 &I ga e mysel# to him completely, with a 5est that held nothing back, with that #e erish, in enti e delight that tames and o erwhelms the strongest men till they beg #or mercy.' &I had no sooner got into the room and locked the door than he #lung himsel# upon me, and threw me brutally on the bed, my skirts in the air6really, what a bitch one can be sometimesB' &I submitted to e ery sensual caprice, accepting, e en outstripping, his wildest #antasies6and +od knows, some o# them were as #rightening as they were e"traordinary6more in enti e and #erocious in his depra ity than6a satanic priestB'
In its own way, Diary of a Chambermaid is just as shocking and intentionally &scandalous' as Torture Garden. %u##used with #rank eroticism and unusually blatant discussion o# the se"ual impulse in all its ariations, we are gi en a more modern picture than one might e"pect #rom a no el o# its intage. *o unrealistic %adean #antasias o# doohickeys and unnatural i# not impossible couplings and sordid doings here : !irbeau speaks o# what Frank Mappa once amusedly re#erred to as &lonely person de ices' and the many arieties and 8uirks o# the erotic impulse, with a keen attention and insight to the unspoken per ersities we publicly reject< those thoughts and desires that #lash through our minds which we o#ten choose to suppress #or #ear o# some ery realistic conse8uences to our relationships with those around us. Fn#ortunately, as with the a#orementioned masterwork, there is also a grimmer, more &acceptable' 1in puritanical .merican terms, anyway2 undercurrent o# iolence and e en animal cruelty. ?hile utili5ed with clear narrati e purpose and appropriately symbolic o# the baseness mankind is all too o#t capable o# descending to, I #or one could certainly ha e done without 9elestine’s cruel taunting o# the 9aptain’s pride that led to his killing 1and consumption2 o# his belo ed and a##ectionate domesticated #erret, or the twisted rapist and child murderer @oseph, who takes sadistic pleasure in prolonging the necessary killings o# li estock used #or the #oodstu## o# the chateau and its deni5ens. .s with Torture Garden, this e"ceedingly ugly #law mars the otherwise per#ectly entertaining and 8uite incisi e portrayal o# a world so #ar remo ed #rom the di ine Adenic ideal as to be a complete in ersion o# what we are capable o#, and which the best o# us acti ely stri e towards attainment o#. Despite its increased reliance on humor and #rank depictions o# eroticism, Diary of a Chambermaid di##ers #rom both Le Calvaire and Torture Garden in its white hot rage against social injustice and the wide net o# social dissolution that #ollows in direct relation to the measure o# economic ine8uality a gi en society allows itsel# to bear. .s such, it is o#ten a di##icult read, particularly as it is a book in which little actually happens. In e##ect, 9elestine goes #rom one depra ed, abusi e, hypocritical employer to the ne"t, ery much in the mold o# %ade’s %ustine : though being more o# a %uliette in spirit, she does not #are hal# so poorly throughout. .s strong willed as )achilde>s !ary $arbe but marked by a measure o# centrist acceptance o# poor social conditions, 9elestine bounces back and #orth in time between descriptions o# her #inal employers and those she supported pre iously, and when she runs out o# things to say about hersel# and the many situations she #inds hersel# in, she describes the horrors o# the job placement agency and the less #ortunate, weaker willed girls who #ind themsel es in still worse straits thereby. .musing, but e8ually biting, and with little true progression in narrati e i# not character, it’s hard to truly like this book0 it stands more as a sort o# political mani#esto than a proper no el. (he personages who people the pages within dri#t by interchangeably, #orgettable ciphers o# a sort as 9elestine dri#ts through her working li#e, and in the end, the only change in her persona is a negati e one. ?hile well written and certainly humorous in a pointed satirical sense, think o# Diary of a Chambermaid more as a particularly well done political cartoon than a proper Decadent
no el, and its merits deser e to be judged on that measure alone. .nd in this respect, it’s a standout classic, more appropriate to our own times and where we’re allowing society to be taken than e en the ones in which it was created. In essence, what !irbeau is telling us is what those o# a certain generation and their children were sagely taught and instilled with, but which appears to ha e #allen entirely by the wayside in recent years due to some practiced psychological and politicosocial manipulation on the part o# the powers that be, in order to cement and #urther their dominance and bring dissenters into line i# not to heel with their insidious plans #or our collecti e #uture under their absolute authority. It’s a simple postulate, but one that demands centrality to the intelligent and rational among us, and any who would seek a#ter personal and e"istential authenticity and autonomy. &Cuestion authority'. .nd the rationale is e en simpler. $ecause you’re no better than I am. $ecause when it comes down to it, we are all e8uals. In retrospect, it’s easy to see why $unuel gra itated to this o# all Decadent no els. %imultaneously amusing and absurdist, anarchistic and droll, it skewers pretensions on all sides o# the putati e #ence, slicing and dicing all comers with an e8ually sharp edge. .nd yet, #or all that, it’s a warm no el, one that demands an e8ual sense o# philosophical detachment 1in that whate er you are, and where er you stand, be it politically, socially, economically or in terms o# religion and belie#, e"pect to be dissected mercilessly and e"posed #or all the ridiculousness o# your chosen position2 and emotional empathy. $ecause #or all e eryone’s #ailings and #oibles, be they the many bourgeoise and wealthy employers or the impo erished ser ants, sta##ers and illagers that wend their way through 9elestine’s li#e and memories, there is an e8ual sense o# understanding, an acceptance that we are all imper#ect and make the same mistakes, dri en and misled by cra5y and misguided opinions, ictims o# our own con#used psyche. !irbeau understands anarchism to a #ar greater degree than the general public or those lunatics who let re olutionary polemic and the weight o# connotation carried by the idea o# &direct action' get in the way o# the real message and alue o# the mindset, which is that regardless o# all the bullshit we’re #ed, irrespecti e o# the arti#icial barriers we build up to separate oursel es #rom one another through location, economic status or what belie#s, #aiths and political allegiances we ascribe to, we’re all on e8ual ground, and are all o# e8ual alue 1or lack thereo#, i# you buy into a more Hobbesian, %chopenaueres8ue, right wing or satanic mindset2. ?e’re humans #irst and #oremost, and there isn’t a one o# us who can dare to claim superiority to the rest, like it or not. In the grand scheme o# things, it is this, and not any mistaken pie in the sky dreams o# some sort o# social uprising somehow o erturning oppression and re ealing as i# by magic some long dreamt o# utopia, that makes anarchism so &dangerous' to the powers that be, and the one thing that makes the philosophy o# any alue whatsoe er. For what $abeles8ue edi#ice o# &authority' and longstanding sociocultural more can stand in the #ace o# such a simple and
honest truth7 .nd in the end, it is that, i# nothing else, which makes Diary of a Chambermaid essential reading, and a true classic o# #in=de=siNcle literature.
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue reading from where you left off, or restart the preview.