The Epic Adventures of a Small Man in a Big World

Of the written word and a peculiar philosophy…

Reading… I’m quite fond of it. What began as a child with the love of such works as The Hobbit (a book I’ve read more times than is probably necessary) and the collective works of S.E. Hinton (I know, right), was detroyed during highschool due to the entirely much too thorough dissections of such masterpieces as To Kill A Mockingbird and Hamlet (and did anyone else loathe The Stone Angel as much I did?). This moratorium on reading lasted for a good 4 or 5 years but was finally rekindled when one of my nearest and dearest friends, Shannon Culkeen, bought me a book for Christmas when I was, I believe, in the second year of my university education. Despite the aversion I had developed for the written word, this book being a gift, I felt obligated to read it. The book was Killing Yourself To Live by Chuck Klosterman. Klosterman writes in a completely readable fashion and this specific work of his, has as its subject matter, music and travel… other things I am quite fond of. It is the tale of how Klosterman, then a writer for SPIN magazine, is given an assignment to determine why it is that musicians who would have likely faded into obscurity have been immortalized due to the fact that they commited suicide. In order to to solve this riddle, he travels the United States to the graves of such aforementioned musicians and chronicles said journey. In the end the novel really doesn’t comprehensively address the riddle at all but serves simply to record the strange introspective voyage that was taken in search of the answer. Suffice it to say, I loved it and I’ve been reading furiously ever since.

All of this preface to say that traveling brings out the reader in me like nothing else does. Probably linked to the fact that I am granted ample amounts of time on my own with no one but dead or absent writers to keep me company, I read… a butt load. Of note, I recently read 18th century French novelist Joris-Karl Huysman’s A Rebours or Against Nature. It is the “poisonous yellow book“, (for those of you familiar with Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray), that Lord Henry Wotton gives to Dorian Gray who upon reading it found that “it was the strangest book he had ever read” and eventually serves to lead him down his path of excess and depravity. It is a book where nothing much of anything happens for it is comprised almost entirely of elaborately thorough descriptions of an aesthetic hedonist’s eclectic, decadent and often bizarre tastes in literature, jewels, textiles, perfumes, art etc. etc. If you’ve read chapter nine of The Picture of Dorian Gray, you will have an idea of what this novel is comprised of.

All of that further preface to say that there was one portion of this novel that I found particularly intriguing… so much so that I have reproduced it in blog form. This was really just an incredibly long-winded way of saying have a read and tell me your thoughts…

It was some years ago now since one evening in the Rue de Rivoli, he had come across a young scamp of sixteen or so, a pale-faced, quick-eyed child, as seductive as a girl. He was sucking laboriously at a cigarette, the paper of which was bursting where the sharp ends of the coarse caporal had come through. Cursing the stuff, the lad was rubbing kitchen matches down his thigh; they would not light, and soon he came to the end of the box. Catching sight of Des Esseintes who was watching him, he came up, touching his peaked cap, and asked politely for a light. Des Esseintes offered some of his own scented Dubeques, after which he entered into conversation with the lad and urged him to tell the story of his life.

Nothing could well be more ordinary; his name was Auguste Langlois, and he worked at making pasteboard boxes; he had lost his mother and had a father who beat him unmercifully.

Des Esseintes’ thoughts were busy as he listened. “Come and have a drink,” he said, — and took him to a café where he regaled him with goes of heady punch. The child drank his liquor without a word. “Look here,” broke in Des Esseintes suddenly, “would you like some fun this evening? I’ll pay the piper.” And he had thereupon carried off the youngster to Madame Laure’s, a lady who kept an assortment of pretty girls on the third floor of a house in the Rue Mosnier; there was a series of rooms with red walls diversified by circular mirrors, the rest of the furniture consisting mainly of couches and wash-basins.

There, petrified with surprise, Auguste as he fingered his cloth cap, had stared with round eyes at a battalion of women whose painted lips exclaimed all together:

“Oh! the little lad! Why, he is sweet!”

“But, tell us, my angel, you’re not old enough yet, surely?” a brunette had interjected, a girl with prominent eyes and a hook nose who filled at Mine. Laure’s establishment the indispensable rôle of the handsome Jewess.

Quite at his ease, and very much at home, Des Esseintes was talking familiarly in a low voice with the mistress of the house.

“Don’t be afraid, stupid,” he turned to the child to say; “come now, make your choice, it’s my treat,” — and he pushed the lad gently towards a divan, onto which he fell between two women. They drew a little closer together, on a sign from Madame Laure, enveloping Auguste’s knees in their peignoirs and bringing under his nose their powdered shoulders that emitted a warm, heady perfume. The child never stirred, but sat there with burning cheeks, a dry mouth and downcast eyes, darting from under their lids downward glances of curiosity, that refused obstinately to leave the upper part of the girls’ thighs.

Vanda, the handsome Jewess, kissed him, giving him good advice, telling him to do what father and mother told him, while her hands were straying all the time over the lad’s person; a change came over his face and he threw himself back in a kind of transport on her bosom.

“So it’s not on your own account you’ve come tonight,” observed Madame Laure to Des Esseintes. “But where the devil did you get hold of that baby?” she added, when Auguste had disappeared with the handsome Jewess.

“In the street, my dear lady.”

“Yet you’re not drunk,” muttered the old woman. Then, after thinking a bit, she proceeded, with a motherly smile: “Ah, I understand; you rascal, you like ’em young, do you?”

Des Esseintes shrugged his shoulders. — “You’re wide of the mark! oh! miles away from it,” he laughed; “the plain truth is I am simply trying to train a murderer. Now just follow my argument. This boy is virgin and has reached the age when the blood begins to boil; he might, of course, run after the little girls of his neighbourhood, and still remain an honest lad while enjoying his bit of amusement; in fact, have his little share of the monotonous happiness open to the poor. On the contrary, by bringing him here and plunging him in a luxury he had never even suspected the existence of and which will make a lasting impression on his memory; by offering him every fortnight a treat like this, I shall make him acquire the habit of these pleasures which his means forbid his enjoying; let us grant it will take three months for them to become absolutely indispensable to him — and by spacing them out as I do, I avoid all risk of satiating him — well, at the end of the three months, I stop the little allowance I am going to pay you in advance for the benevolence you show him. Then he will take to thieving to pay for his visits here; he will stop at nothing that he may take his usual diversions on this divan in this fine gas-lit apartment.

“If the worst comes to the worst, he will, I hope, one fine day kill the gentleman who turns up just at the wrong moment as he is breaking open his desk; then my object will be attained, I shall have contributed, so far as in me lay, to create a scoundrel, an enemy the more for the odious society that wrings so heavy a ransom from us all.”

The woman gazed at the speaker with eyes of amazement. “Ah! so there you are!’ he exclaimed, as he saw Auguste creeping back into the room, red and shy, skulking behind the fair Vanda. “Come, youngster, it is getting late, make your bow to the ladies.” Then he explained to him on their way downstairs that, once every fortnight, he might pay a visit to Madame Laure’s without putting hand in pocket. Finally, on reaching the street, as they stood together on the pavement, he looked the abashed child in the face and said:

“We shall not meet again after this; do you go back hot foot to your father, whose hand is itching for work to do, and never forget this half divine command: ’Do unto others as you would not have them do unto you.’ With that to guide you you will go far.”

“Good night, sir.”

“But whatever you do, do not be ungrateful, let me hear tidings of you soon as may be, — in the columns of the Police News.”

“The little Judas!” Des Esseintes muttered to himself on this occasion, as he stirred the glowing embers; “to think that I have never once seen his name in the newspapers! True, it has been out of my power to play a sure game; that I have foreseen, yet been unable to prevent certain contingencies, — old mother Laure’s little tricks, for instance, pocketing the money and not delivering the goods; the chance of one of the women getting infatuated with Auguste, and, when the three months was up, letting him have his whack on tick; or even the possibility of the handsome Jewess’s highly-spiced vices having scared the lad, too young and impatient to brook the slow and elaborate preliminaries, or stand the exhausting consummations of her caprices. Unless, therefore, he has been in trouble with the criminal courts since I have been at Fontenay where I never read the papers, I am dished.”

He got up from his chair and took two or three turns up and down the room.

“It would be a thousand pities all the same,” he mused, “for, by acting in this way, I had really been putting in practice the parable of lay instruction, the allegory of popular education, which, while tending to nothing else than to turn everybody into Langlois, instead of definitely and mercifully putting out the wretched creatures’ eyes, tries its hardest to force them wide open that they may see all about them other lots unearned by any merit yet more benignant, pleasures keener and more brightly gilded, and therefore more desirable and harder to come at.”

“And the fact is,” went on Des Esseintes, pursuing his argument, “the fact is that, pain being the effect of education, seeing that it grows greater and more poignant the more ideas germinate, the more we endeavour to polish the intelligence and refine the nervous system of the poor and unfortunate, the more we shall be developing the germs, always so fiercely ready to sprout, of moral suffering and social hatred.”


One response

  1. Shan Culkeen

    Love you. love the books you love.

    March 5, 2011 at 7:09 pm

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