Félicien Rops, La Tentation de St. Antoine, 1878.
“We think that a man who does evil to us and to his neighbours must be very evil. So he is, from a social standpoint; but can’t you realize that Evil in its essence is a lonely thing, a passion of the solitary, individual soul?…It appears to me that it is simply an attempt to penetrate into another and higher sphere in a forbidden manner…Sin is an effort to gain the ecstasy and knowledge that pertain alone to angels, and in making this effort man becomes a demon.”
Arthur Machen, The White People, 1899.
Sin is no sin when virtue is forgot.
Richard le Gallienne, “The Decadent to His Soul,” 1892.
The Decadence was fascinated and titillated by evil, sacrilege and sin. Like Existentialist novels, Decadent novels often ended with some gratuitous, ambiguously philosophic murder – Lorrain’s Monsieur de Phocas, Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Rachilde’s Monsieur Venus and Marquise de Sade, Rodenbach’s Bruges-la-Morte. But unlike the Existentialists, the Decadents never toyed with amorality, aspired to atheism or cast good and evil into the muddy waters of human, secular subjectivity. Their perversity implied an inverted piety – their conception of sin relied on a basically Catholic moral universe – in order to experience fully the pleasures of the Sinner, one must credit the virtue of the Saint. All that adultery, sodomy, obscenity and literary blasphemy would’ve been dull and meaningless to people who had declared religion foolish and such acts nothing but banal crime – petty legal transgressions. The Satanism Huysmans investigates in Là-Bas is theistic and indeed Catholic – the Black Mass must be performed by a defrocked priest with consecrated hosts. The fallen priest in the novel, Canon Docre, has the face of Christ tattooed on his feet so that he is perpetually desecrating the image. Such actions are in no way an abandonment of religion, simply a perversion of it, so when Félicien Rops declared that his then-horrifically shocking Tentation de St. Antoine was not an ‘attack on religion,’ he was being sincere.
Philippe Jullian tells us Catholicism was “utterly repellent to every rationalist, but by the very irrationality of its propositions proved attractive to a generation which preferred Verlaine and Villiers de l’Isle-Adam to Zola or Taine.” At a time when these dreamers were revolting against dull, demystified, industrial, rational materialism, Catholic religion in all its most morbid and mysterious manifestations became de rigueur, whether one was idealizing ancient rites and saintly souls, or siding with Satan. The excesses of the Medieval Church possessed all the appropriate aesthetics – monumental, unfathomable beauty executing grotesque and bizarre torture, a time when superstitions were reality and dark, Wagnerian woods hid orgiastic Sabbats and witches transforming into wolves. Therefore the fin de siècle’s renewed interest in the Church and its mania for anything sinful, occult, magical, or Satanic are indeed two sides of the same quest to shirk modernity in favor of mystery.