The Cathedral – J.-K. Huysmans (tr. Brendan King)

“it is in vain that we say what we see; what we see never resides in what we say.”
– Foucault

J.-K. Huysmans’ ‘The Cathedral’ is the third novel in his tetralogy tracking the conversion of Huysmans’ alter ego Durtal. the first two novels ‘Là-bas’ and ‘En Route’ I looked at over the last month and the final work, ‘L’Oblat’, I intend writing about in the coming weeks. The journey of Huysmans’ alter-ego is from decadence, satanism and black masses through a purgatory questioning of his spiritual self, ending with a journey and stay at a monastery. Here he is billeted at Chartres.

This hefty novel opens with the wind battering everybody in Chartres, refuge from the elements for our protagonist Durtal is in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres.

A massive Cathedral, mainly constructed between 1194 and 1220, it is now a UNESCO World Heritage listed site, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and said to contain the tunic worn by Mary at Christ’s birth.

Once inside Durtal gets to thinking:

He thought of the Virgin, whose watchful attentions had so often preserved him from unseen risks, from careless slips, from great falls. Was she not a Well of Kindness that never ran dry, a Benefactress of the blessing of Patience, a Visiting Sister for hearts that are dried up and closed? Was she not, above all, a living and benevolent Mother?
Always leaning over the squalid bed of the soul, she bathed the sores, dressed the wounds, consoled the fainting weakness of converts. Through all the ages, she remained the eternal supplicant, eternally praying, merciful and grateful at one and the same time: merciful to the unfortunates she alleviated, and grateful to them, too. Indeed, she was thankful for our sins, because if it were not for the sinfulness of man, Jesus would never have been born under the corrupt semblance of our image, and she would never have been the immaculate Mother of God. Our misfortune was thus the initial cause of her joy, and indeed this is the most bewildering of mysteries, that this supreme Good should result from the very excess of Evil, that this touching, though supererogatory, bond should link us to her, because her gratitude might seem unnecessary since her inexhaustible mercy was enough to attach her to us for ever.

This obsession with the Virgin is explained in the introduction to the novel:

But if the Virgin –- and the cathedrals and churches which were dedicated to her and with whom she was so closely associated – played a broader ideological role in fin de siècle social and political life, there were also deeper psychological reasons why Huysmans was drawn to her image. Containing within her the seemingly contradictory avatars of the Virgin and the Mother, she was able to fulfil her procreative role without involving the guilt and shame that Huysmans associated with sex. He had long been searching for a way out of the impasse of sexual desire, a way to reconcile his spiritual yearnings with his physical urges, which in the early years of the 1890s were given fictional expression through the phantasmagorial sexual excesses of Madam Chantelouve in Là-bas, and the obsessive, nymphomanic visions of Florence in En Route.

As mentioned in my brief look at the previous novels in this cycle, these are multi layered works, the Virgin not a theme I had only mentioned in passing, knowing I could address it in some more detail here. Even the novel ‘Drifting’ (translated by Brendan King) the protagonist thinks “There’s no way I can accept . . . the virginity of an expectant mother…”.

It is through the architecture, art, sculptures and stained-glass windows that we travel through the Chartres Cathedral, and the obsession with the Virgin is peppered throughout:

The Virgin is sovereign over all. She fills the whole interior, and even on the exterior, on the West and South Porches which aren’t set aside for her, she also appears, in a niche, on the overdoor, in the capitals, high up on the pediment, in the air. The Hail Mary of art has been repeated without interruption by the painters and sculptors of every age. Never has the pious thread of its rosary been broken. The cathedral of Chartres is truly the fiefdom of Our Lady.

This obsession continues throughout:

Nowhere else was the Virgin so admired, so cherished, so emphatically proclaimed mistress of the realm offered her; and one detail proved it. In all other cathedrals, kings, saints, bishops and benefactors lay buried in underground sepulchres; but not at Chartres, not a body had ever been buried there, never had this church been an ossuary, because, as one of its historians, old Rouillard, said: “it has the pre-eminent distinction of being the couch or bed of the Virgin.”

Early in this work there are mentions of Zola, who appears in other works once Huysmans moved from the Naturalist style toward the Decadent, here Zola is employed to write promotional material for Lourdes:

It’s this that really confounds the mind: Jesus resigning himself to employ the wretched artifices of human commerce, adopting the repulsive tricks we use to launch a product or a business!

Three months into Durtal’s residence at Chartres, “his soul has kept to its room, barely getting out of bed” the fog of praying like clockwork becomes an allegory for Edgar Allan Poe:

The rooms of his inner castle were empty and cold, encircled, like those of the House of Usher, by a tarn whose mists ended up penetrating and cracking the worn shell of its walls. And he would prowl, alone and uneasy, amid these ruined cells, whose closed doors would no longer open; his walks within his own mind were thus limited and the panorama he could contemplate was singularly constrained and constricted, contracted almost to nothing. He knew full well, moreover, that the rooms surrounding the central cell, the cell reserved for the Master, was locked, sealed with bolts that couldn’t be unscrewed, triple-barred, inaccessible. So he limited himself to wandering in the halls and passageways.

It is not only the halls and passageways of Durtal’s mind where the wandering occurs, we have 342 pages, plus an additional 22 pages of photos, where Durtal wanders through the Chartres Cathedral and gives us detailed descriptions of the artworks, the windows, the sculptures, the architecture and more. At times it reads like a guidebook, an 1898 Lonely Planet guide to the Cathedral. Huysmans extends this exploration of art, with detours, at one stage Durtal reading aloud an article he has had published about ‘The Coronation of the Virgin’ by Fra Angelico, held in the Louvre, this small excerpt, again, referring to the Virgin:

She is ageless; she is not a woman, yet she is no longer a child. And one wouldn’t even know that she’s an adolescent, a barely nubile girl, so sublime is she, above all humanity, beyond the world, exquisite in her purity, forever chaste.
She remains wholly without parallel in painting. Next to her other Madonnas are vulgar; they are, in any case, women; she along is truly the white blade of corn divine, the wheat of the Eucharist; she along is truly the Immaculate, the
Regina Virginum of the hymns; and she is so young, so guileless, that the Son seems to be crowning his Mother before she could even have conceived him.

Huysmans is returning to his roots, art criticism, and this work contains innumerable examples.

Iconography and the symbolism of colours, the inner and outer colours of cloaks in artworks, of the hues and brightness in stained-glass windows, of gemstones, plants, North, South, East and West, animals and their appearance in the Bible, it is all explored in minute detail, a guidebook that’s is also a set of research notes, wrapped up in a tale of a man’s journey through purgatory, an obsession with the Virgin and fear of women:

…the passage where that terrible monk takes up the seductive charms of woman, turns them over, flays them, and flings them aside like a rabbit eviscerated on a butcher’s stall?

In ‘En Route’ we read about Durtal’s travails and concerns of moving to a monastery, here those struggles of the soul continue, using a different lens, the concrete reality of monuments and art dedicated to religion:

The church symbolism, this psychology of cathedrals, this study of the soul of sanctuaries, so entirely overlooked since the Middle Ages by those professors of monumental physiology called archaeologists and architects, was so interesting to Durtal that, for hours at a time, he was able to forget the turmoil and struggles of his soul; but the moment he ceased applying himself to researching the real meaning of those outward forms, everything started again. The kind of ultimatum that the Abbé Gévresin had so curtly given him, to put an end to his procrastinations and make a decision one way or the other, was as disturbing as it was terrifying.

Through Durtal’s observations and detailed descriptions of the Chartres Cathedral, do we move closer to God? Do we take this ekphrastic approach and picture the divine in the mind’s eye? The benefits of living in the internet age is that I can look up each of the referenced works and alongside Huysmans detailed descriptions, observe the work in question, notice his embellishments, his mind’s eye.

Stained glass! isn’t it the art in which God intervenes the most, the art which man alone could never make perfect, because only heaven can animate its colours and give movement to its lines by a ray of sunshine; in short, man fashions the outer form, prepares the body, but must wait for God to infuse the soul.

Although a guidebook for the Chartres Cathedral, this also contains the multitude of the man’s soul and his struggles, the intricate detail of each section of the church and its innumerable artworks, as Foucault says, “it is in vain that we say what we see; what we see never resides in what we say.” And although Huysmans says a lot there is still much more to be seen. A visit to the Cathedral has been added to the bucket list.

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