The Foot of the Cross

Joris-Karl Huysmans describes his journey from Des Esseints to the Cistercians.

I must rejoice beyond the bounds of time … though the world may shudder at my joy, and in its coarseness know not what I mean ~ John of Ruysbroeck

John of Ruysbroeck was a thirteenth century mystic whose prose presented an incomprehensible but attractive amalgam of gloomy ecstasies, tender raptures and violent rages. ~ Des Esseintes, in Against Nature

Extraordinary things can only be stammered out, and stammer [John of Ruysbroeck] did, declaring that the sacred obscurity in which Ruysbroeck spreads his eagle’s wings is his ocean, his prey, his glory, and for him the four horizons would be too close-fitting a garment. ~ Ernest Hello

There is more knowledge and understanding of the human heart in one page of Ruysbroeck than in all the Stendhals, Bourgets, and Barreses in the world. ~ Joris-Karl Huysmans

Jan_Luyken - Christ Crucified
In a new Preface to the 20th anniversary edition of Against Nature, Joris-Karl Huysmans tried to explain how, eight years after its original publication, he ended up taking vows in a Cistercian monastery. However, the full story of his conversion was related in three subsequent books, we will focus at this time solely on what he wrote in the Preface. In particular, what is of interest is the influence of two writers, one a philosopher, the other a mystic, who achieved a certain prominence at that time. The philosopher was Arthur Schopenhauer, who was achieving a posthumous reputation that had eluded him in his lifetime. The mystic was John of Ruysbroek whose Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage had recently been translated into French by the theologian Ernest Hello.

After posting some extracts from Husymans’ Preface, we will conclude later this week with some fascinating ideas from Rusysbroeck. These will show how differently doctrine is understood today compared to the Medieval era. The important point to notice is to observe how a great artist approaches things. Like a poet, Huysmans seemed to have had negative capability and was willing to consider many ideas. Nowadays, in the age of social media, thoughts that require more than a dozen dozen words are ignored. Entire worldviews are expressed in seven declarative sentences, often with a florid background. Negative views are viewed negatively.

The idea of living with uncertainty and mystery is terrifying; all must be known and under control. Huysmans wrote:

I did not grasp that all is mystery, that we live only in mystery, that if such a thing as chance existed it would be even more mysterious than Providence.

The lack of negative capability makes an artistic conversion like Huysmans’ rare today. For example, what unbeliever could make this observation:

The strange thing was that, without my realizing it at first, I was drawn by the nature of my work itself to study the Church from a number of angles. It was in fact impossible to trace one’s way back to the only unblemished times humanity has ever known, the Middle Ages, without realizing that the Church was at the centre of everything, that art existed through her and by her. Not being a believer, I looked at her, a little defiant, taken aback by her greatness and her glory, wondering why a religion which seemed to me to have been created for children could have inspired such marvelous works of art.

At that time, Huysmans was under Schopenhauer’s spell, who was the philosopher of the tragic side of life. Like Huysmans, Schopenhauer was aware of religious literature like the Upanishads, Buddha, and even Christian mysticism. They all acknowledged what Schopenhauer observed, except that they offered a solution, an escape.

Yet I thought myself so far from religion. I did not imagine that it was only a short step form Schopenhauer, whom I admired beyond reason, to Ecclesiastes and the Book of Job. The premises about Pessimism are the same, only when the time comes to reach a conclusion, the philosopher disappears. I like his ideas about the horror of life, the stupidity of the world, the mercilessness of destiny; I like them also in the Holy Scriptures; but Schopenhauer’s observations lead nowhere; he leaves you, so to speak, in the lurch; in the end, his aphorisms are only a herbarium of dry plaints; whereas the Church explains the origins and the causes, indicates the conclusions, offers remedies. She does not limit herself to giving you a spiritual consultation, but treats and cures you, whereas the German quack, once he has proved the incurability of your condition, simply sneers and turns his back on you. … Never has Pessimism been of any comfort to those sick in body or in soul!

There was no single event that led Huysmans to his conversion. He tries to explain the inexplicable:

There was undoubtedly, as I was writing Against Nature, a land-shift, the earth was being mined to lay foundations of which I was unaware. God was digging to set his fuses and he worked only in the darkness of the soul, in the night. Nothing could be seen; it was only years later that the sparks began to run along the wires. I felt my soul moving to these shocks; it was at the time neither especially painful nor especially clear. … During the liturgies, I felt nothing more than an inner trepidation, a trembling that one feels when one sees or hears or reads a beautiful work of art, but there was no precise warning to get me ready to make up my mind.

He continues:

I was simply emerging, little by little, from the shell of my moral impurity; I was beginning to be disgusted with myself, but still I balked at the articles of faith. The objections I placed in my path seemed irresistible to me; and one morning, when I awoke, they were resolved, how, I have never know. I prayed for the first time and the explosion happened.

In these events, Huysmans was following the course described by John of Ruysbroeck:

And from this love there come forth perfect contrition and purification of conscience. And these arise from the consideration of misdeeds and all that may defile the soul: for when a man loves God he despises himself and all his works.


Selected texts from John of Ruysbroek to follow.

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