Saturday, August 05, 2023

Jules-Amedee Barbey d'Aurevilly, Les Diaboliques


Opening Passage: From "The Crimson Curtain":

A considerable number of years ago I went to shoot waterfowl in the western marshes, and, as there was no railway then, I took the diligence, which passed the cross-roads near the Chateau de Rueil, and which at that precise moment contained only one passenger inside. This person, a very remarkable man in every respect, and whom I knew by having often met him in society, I will ask your permission to introduce as the Vicomte de Brassard. The precaution is probably useless! The few hundred people who constitute Parisian society are, no doubt, able to supply the real name. It was about five o'clock in the evening. The sunn shed its slanting rays on a dusty road, edged with poplar trees and fields, through which we rattled, drawn by four stout horses , whose strong flanks rolled heavily at each crack of the postilion's whip -- a postilion always reminds me of life, there is a great deal too much whip-cracking at the outset. (p. 17)

Summary: Les Diaboliques, or The She-Devils, is a collection of six short stories.

In "The Crimson Curtain", the Vicomte de Brassard narrates the story of his first clandestine attachment at the age of seventeen, which ends with her death in the middle of lovemaking. It makes a fitting opening to the book, because the whole affair is symbolized by light through the gap in a thick crimson curtain, and this story, as well as the others, are like seeing something of something of human nature, mysterious and perhaps not entirely explicable in an indirect manner. Most of the stories use the literary technique of recit parlee; we are not privy to the details of the story, but are hearing them indirectly, at second-bounce, so to speak, through another person. In fact, Barbey d'Aurevilly's working title for the collection was Ricochets of Conversation. We are looking at human life, and particularly moments that are often hidden, indirectly and in such a way as not to uncover the full truth of them.

"The Greatest Love of Don Juan" finds us at a dinner party that a group of women have thrown for the Comte de Ravila de Raviles, a notorious Don Juan, at which he relates the story of the greatest love of his life, which involves a mother and her daughter. Of course, it's a dinner-party story, so it has an absurd edge. 

The story that seems to be most broadly popular among readers is "Happiness in Crime".  In it, Doctor Torty tells the story of a handsome couple to his background he is unusually privy, a tale that involves adultery, deception, and murder. "Beneath the Cards in a Game of Whist" gives another tale of passionate lust and murder.

The story I thought was best was "At a Dinner of Atheists", although not because it was the easiest story to read. A local freethinker hosts a regular dinner of atheists and libertines -- these are the days in which atheists did not claim respectability, and indeed would have been ashamed if they ever discovered that they were regarded as respectable. However, the freethinker's son, the younger Mesnilgrand, was caught earlier coming out of a church, and is forced to explain why. The tale he tells is a harrowing one of wantonness, brutality, and desecration of the dead.

The final story, "A Woman's Revenge", is exactly what it says on the tin. A young man pays for a prostitute and discovers that she is a duchess, degrading herself to destroy the reputation of her husband.

In his 1874 preface to the collection, Barbey d'Aurevilly claimed that part of his purpose in telling these stories was the Christian one of showing good and evil at war in the world. Readers have from the beginning expressed considerable skepticism of this, and indeed, the translation I read has an Introduction by Robert Irwin, called "Barbey d'Aurevilly and the Satanism of Appearances", that pretty much calls Barbey d'Aurevilly a liar ("disingenuous apologetics" is the precise phrase used). Having read the stories, however, I think the skepticism is largely based on wishful thinking and not having a sense of the methods of a writer in Decadent mode. The thing about Decadence, as a literary phenomenon, is that it insists on the aesthetics of good and evil, and particularly a version of it in which the interesting and the evil can overlap. But this is not the same as amoralism, nor is it the same as immoralism, nor is it any kind of deliberate indulgence of evil. At the beginning of "A Woman's Revenge", Barbey d'Aurevilly has a scathing criticism of "modern literature", which pretends to show society and human nature as it is, puffing itself as daring for it, but in reality is hypocritically trying to hide much of the evil of the world. The realist novelists are moralists after all; it's just that they are incompetent moralists, and are trying to spin their incompetence as courage. "High civilization deprives crime of its terrible poetry, and does not allow an author to restore it," the narrator says (p. 224). You will learn nothing from it about why and how people easily and even joyfully do bad things; modern literature doesn't want to show you the badness that people love doing, and so tries to pretend either that they do not really enjoy it or that it is not really bad. Barbey d'Aurevilly has no patience for either kind of lying.

And, when all is said and done, human beings may admire moral goodness, but we also admire interesting things just for being interesting. Listen to people's gossip -- the ricochets of conversation -- and you see it. Gossiping is a major temptation precisely because of it. This approval of interestingness is a purely aesthetic approval; but it is not avoidable for all that. In a world filled to the brim with the boringly wicked, it's not surprising the people's ears perk up at a hint of the interestingly wicked. And for yourself -- you're not a saint, okay, it is not out of the ordinary for a human being to be wicked, but given that you are wicked, how dare you be boringly so? The saint we may revere; the interestingly wicked may impress us; but for the boringly wicked no one can have anything but contempt. Iniquity has its own hierarchy; it may be a distorted image of saintly hierarchy, but it is not for all that less real.

All of this ties to the running theme of the stories. You could be forgiven, from pretty much any description of the tales, for thinking that these are primarily erotic tales. Certainly sex comes up often. But lust is the not a devil-like vice; it is not the vice that makes you diabolique. Pride is the diabolical vice. Another aspect of Barbey d'Aurevilly's criticism of "modern literature" is that modern authors do not understand spiritual vice. They see the carnal vices without any difficulty. So if you want to show people how the evils of the spirit work, you have to show it to them in the form, in the guise, in the vestment of evils of the flesh. But if in turn you read the tales as just being about the fleshly vices, the whole thing has gone over your head. The reason why there is a shocking element to the tales is that pride is the vice that treats vices as if having them were a kind of virtue; the proud do not merely commit their sins, but are brazen about them, double down on them, take them to extremes precisely to get to extremes. We live in a world with pride running everywhere through it. Barbey d'Aurevilly is not claiming that there is nothing else -- here and there even in these stories there is a hint of something that is not subject to the dominion of pride. But his goal is to make sure that we see the dominion of pride, to avoid covering it up the way so much of our literature and culture does.

Favorite Passage:

" 'The Major is coming upstairs,' she said. 'He must have lost, and he is jealous when has lost. There will be a terrible scene. Go in here! I will get rid of him!' and she opened the door of a long cupboard in which her dresses hung, and pushed me in. I suppose there are few men who have not some time or other been put in a cupboard, when the husband or protector arrived on the scene."

"You were lucky to have a cupboard," said Selune. "I had once to get into a coal-sack. That was before my damned wound, of course. I was in the White Hussars then. You may guess what state I was in when I came out of my coal-sack."

"Yes," continued Mesnilgrand bitterly, "that is one of the drawbacks of adultery. At such a time even the most high-spirited man loses his pride, and, in generous consideration for a frightened woman, becomes as cowardly as she is, and commits the cowardice of hding himself.

"It made me feel sick to find myself in a cupboard, in my uniform, and with my sabre at my side, and covered with ridicule, for a woman who had no honour to lose, and whom I did not love..." (pp. 214-215)

Recommendation: You definitely have to be in the right mood and mindset for reading stories of wickedness, but Recommended.


Barbey D'Aurevilly, Les Diaboliques, Dedalus (Sawtry, Cambridgeshire: 2020).

Friday, August 04, 2023

Three Kinds of Men

 Roughly speaking, there are three kinds of people in this world. The first kind of people are People; they are the largest and probably the most valuable class. We owe to this class the chairs we sit down on, the clothes we wear, the houses we live in; and, indeed (when we come to think of it), we probably belong to this class ourselves. The second class may be called for convenience the Poets; they are often a nuisance to their families, but, generally speaking, a blessing to mankind. The third class is that of the Professors or Intellectuals; sometimes described as the thoughtful people; and these are a blight and a desolation both to their families and also to mankind. Of course, the classification sometimes overlaps, like all classification. Some good people are almost poets and some bad poets are almost professors. But the division follows lines of real psychological cleavage. I do not offer it lightly. It has been the fruit of more than eighteen minutes of earnest reflection and research.

[G. K. Chesterton, "The Three Kinds of Men", in Alarms and Discursions.]

Wednesday, August 02, 2023

White, Glaring, Still

by Lizette Woodworth Reese

 No wind, no bird. The river flames like brass.
 On either side, smitten as with a spell
 Of silence, brood the fields. In the deep grass,
 Edging the dusty roads, lie as they fell
 Handfuls of shriveled leaves from tree and bush.
 But 'long the orchard fence and at the gate,
 Thrusting their saffron torches through the hush,
 Wild lilies blaze, and bees hum soon and late.
 Rust-colored the tall straggling brier, not one
 Rose left. The spider sets its loom up there
 Close to the roots, and spins out in the sun
 A silken web from twig to twig. The air
 Is full of hot rank scents. Upon the hill
 Drifts the noon's single cloud, white, glaring, still.

Tuesday, August 01, 2023

Prince of Moral Theologians

 Today is the feast of St. Alphonsus Liguori, Doctor of the Church. From his Practice of the Love of Jesus (chapter 12):

The primary object of Christian hope is God, whom the soul enjoys in the kingdom of heaven. But we must not suppose that the hope of enjoying God in Paradise is any obstacle to charity; since the hope of Paradise is inseparably connected with charity, which there receives its full and complete perfection. Charity is that infinite treasure, spoken of by the Wise Man, which makes us the friends of God: An infinite treasure, which they that use become the friends of God. The angelic Doctor St. Thomas says, that friendship is founded on the mutual communication of goods; for as friendship is nothing more than a mutual love between friends, it follows that there must be a reciprocal interchange of the good which each possesses. Hence the saint says, "If there be no communication, there is no friendship."  

Monday, July 31, 2023

On Gottlieb and Parvizian on Descartes

 Gottlieb and Parvizian has a recent paper, Descartes' God is a Deceiver, and that's OK (PDF), whose argument is so absurd that it has to be trolling. A few points:

(1) They say, "God cannot be a deceiver, the thought goes, because God is omniperfect," but already we see here a problem: Descartes doesn't hold that God is not a deceiver on the basis of God being omniperfect, because 'omniperfect' is not a thing for Descartes -- indeed, it is not actually a thing at all. Descartes bases his claim on the idea of God as infinite (i.e., unlimited) perfect (i.e., complete) being; and he does it because he thinks it is conceptually necessary that deceiving involves limitation or incompleteness, because the act of deceiving always involves either malitia (badness) or imbecillitas (feebleness). This is not a quibble, because what analytic philosophers sometimes call 'omniperfection' is not what Descartes means by 'infinite perfect being'.

It's also notable that the authors basically sideline any discussion of imbecillitas, saying it's obscure, focusing entirely on malitia; but this vitiates their entire discussion by leaving out a significant element in Descartes's actual account of deception.

(2) Throughout the paper, the authors confuse deceiving with being deceived.  Descartes's position is crucially bound up in his insistence that while we can be deceived, God is not a deceiver. It is because of this that we can know that it is possible for us to know things about the sensible world. If we are deceived about the sensible world, it is because we have freely failed to exercise sufficient caution and method in making our judgments, not because we are naturally unable to do so. Most of the paper is concerned with trying to show that Descartes holds that we can be deceived by our senses; this, despite being blatantly obvious when said of Descartes, is literally irrelevant to the question of whether God is a deceiver.

(3) They give as an account of deception that they claim Descartes would support:

X deceives a subject S if (i) S judges that p; (ii) it’s false that p; (iii) X judges that p is false; (iv) the evidence E on the basis of which S judges that p is brought about by X for the purpose of making S judge that p.

This is not correct; deceiving as Descartes presents it is an act, and notably this definition abstracts from the particular kind of action that X is itself engaging in. However, even if we assume this, it fails in the case of God as conceived by Descartes, because we don't know God's purposes, and therefore we could never be in a position to know that (iv) obtains; what we can rule out, on the other hand, is that God's actions are such as to be indicative of finitude or incompleteness, without which Descartes thinks deception is impossible. 

What is more, this account fails to grasp Descartes's concern in the entire discussion of 'God is not a deceiver', namely, that he wants to show that however deceptive the senses (and other faculties) may be, their deceptiveness cannot possibly be indefeasible. This definition is useless for saying anything about the defeasibility or indefeasibility of sensory deceptiveness.

(4) The authors put a lot of emphasis on the question of whether our judgments are violating 'epistemic norms'; this is completely out of place in discussing Descartes, because 'epistemic norms' that apply to judgments are also not a thing for Descartes. What Descartes is concerned with is the freedom of our judgments, whether our judgments are determined by our nature. Arguing on 'God is not a deceiver' that the latter is impossible, Descartes has established that if we are ever deceived it is in every case because we freely did not exercise the care that would be required to find the truth. This is entirely independent of any consideration of what our 'epistemic norms', if any, might be.

(5) The argument given requires that there be two distinct 'theodicies' in the Meditations, the Fourth Meditation based on free will and the Sixth Meditation concerned with sensory judgments (where the authors take the justifying element to be divine benevolence). This is one of those things that is kind of true and kind of false. For one thing, Descartes still seems to appeal to what he has established in the Fourth Meditation in the context of the Sixth Meditation discussions. But the Sixth Meditation is concerned with arguing, as Descartes says, that, where we do not have the time or care to exercise our freedom in the proper way, we will often go wrong because of the weakness (infirmitas, which is a synonym of imbecillitas) of our own nature. That is, the structure is that 

if we do not use our freedom to judge only what we clearly and distinctly perceive to be true

then we will often go wrong
--------- not because of any deception on the part of God
--------- but because our nature is finite and imperfect, involving the limitations of the body, such as are inevitably relevant to sensation, especially insofar as the body has to be structured so as to survive and operate in a physical environment.

The body's structures being the way they are so as to contribute to survival and reproduction is important in showing that God's allowing us to have these limitations is not a problem for Dei bonitas (God's goodness, not 'divine benevolence', which is not an exact synonym, and which Descartes could perfectly well have said if he had wanted to say it); but all of this is just Descartes tying up loose ends in his account of how we know anything about material bodies by forestalling a potential set of objections. The whole thing presupposes already that God is not a deceiver as part of the antecedent structure, and also the Meditation IV 'theodicy'. And what it is intended to do is the opposite of what the authors claim -- it establishes that our tendency to go wrong when we just go on sensory experiences is due to weakness in our nature, not God's.

Sunday, July 30, 2023

Divine Coal

The bread and the wine are not merely figures of the body and blood of Christ (God forbid!) but the deified body of the Lord itself: for the Lord has said, This is My body, not, this is a figure of My body: and My blood, not, a figure of My blood. And on a previous occasion He had said to the Jews, Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. For My flesh is meat indeed and My blood is drink indeed. And again, He that eats Me, shall live. 

 Wherefore with all fear and a pure conscience and certain faith let us draw near and it will assuredly be to us as we believe, doubting nothing. Let us pay homage to it in all purity both of soul and body: for it is twofold. Let us draw near to it with an ardent desire, and with our hands held in the form of the cross let us receive the body of the Crucified One: and let us apply our eyes and lips and brows and partake of the divine coal, in order that the fire of the longing, that is in us, with the additional heat derived from the coal may utterly consume our sins and illumine our hearts, and that we may be inflamed and deified by the participation in the divine fire. Isaiah saw the coal....
[Damascene, De Fide. IV.13.] I've talked about the Isaiah passage in this context before; St. John is drawing on the traditional Liturgy of St. James, the oldest extant liturgical tradition of the East, which goes back in something like its current form to about the fourth century.