Là-bas: One Hell of a Story

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On February 15, 1891, L’Écho de Paris courted controversy when it published the first installment of J.K. Huysmans’ Là-Bas. The serialization reflected fin de siècle decadence with its depiction of a satanic black mass.

Là-Bas translates as down there or the damned. The protagonist, Durtal, turns away from the modern 19th century world to study the Middle Ages. He develops a fascination with the notorious child torture-killer and practitioner of the black arts Gilles De Rais. His obsession leads Durtal to attend a black mass where Satanism and blasphemy was very much alive.

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 women 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, Durtal wanted to flee.

Durtal, always a stand in for Huysmans, returned in En route, La cathédrale and L’Oblat. They followed his conversion to Catholicism. La cathédrale turned out to be the most popular, in part because it served as detailed guide to the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres.

“What a queer age,” said Dutral, conducting him to the door. “It is just at the moment when positivism is at its zenith that mysticism rises again and the follies of the occult begin.”

“Oh, but it’s always been that way. The tail ends of centuries are alike. They’re always periods of vacillation and uncertainty. When materialism is rotten-ripe magic takes root.”

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