-A SEASON IN HELL-
Once, if I remember rightly…
Once, if I remember rightly, my life was a feast where all hearts opened, and all wines flowed.
One evening I sat Beauty on my knees – And I found her bitter – And I reviled her.
I armed myself against Justice.
I fled. O sorceresses, O misery, O hatred, it was to you my treasure was entrusted!
I managed to erase all human hope from my mind. I made the wild beast’s silent leap to strangle every joy.
I summoned executioners to bite their gun-butts as I died. I summoned plagues, to stifle myself with sand and blood. Misfortune was my god. I stretched out in the mud. I dried myself in the breezes of crime. And I played some fine tricks on madness.
And spring brought me the dreadful laugh of the idiot.
Now, just lately, finding myself on the point of uttering the last croak, I thought of seeking the key to the old feast, where I might perhaps find my appetite again!
Charity is the key – This inspiration proves I have been dreaming!
‘You’re a hyena still…’ the demon cries who crowned me with such delightful poppies. ‘Win death with all your appetites; your egoism, all the deadly sins.’
Ah, I’ve practised too many! – But, dear Satan, I beg you, an eye a little less inflamed! And while awaiting my few cowardly little deeds, for you who prize in a writer the lack of descriptive or instructive skill, for you, I tear off these few hideous pages from my notebook of a damned soul.
From my ancestors the Gauls I have pale blue eyes, a narrow brain, and awkwardness
in competition. I think my clothes are as barbaric as theirs. But I
don’t butter my hair.
The Gauls were the most stupid hide-flayers and hay-burners of their
From them I inherit: idolatry, and love of sacrilege– oh, all sorts
of vice; anger, lechery– terrific stuff, lechery– lying, above all,
I have a horror of all trades and crafts. Bosses and workers, all of
them peasants, and common. The hand that holds the pen is as good as
the one that holds the plow. (What a century for hands!) I’ll never
learn to use my hands. And then, domesticity goes too far. The propriety
of beggary shames me. Criminals are as disgusting as men without balls;
I’m intact, and I don’t care.
But who has made my tongue so treacherous, that until now it has counseled
and kept me in idleness? I have not used even my body to get along.
Out-idling the sleepy toad, I have lived everywhere. There’s not one
family in Europe that I don’t know. Families, I mean, like mine, who
owe their existence to the Declaration of the Rights of Man. I have
known each family’s eldest son!
If only I had a link to some point in the history of France!
But instead, nothing.
I am well aware that I have always been of an inferior race. I cannot
understand revolt. My race has never risen, except to plunder; to devour
like wolves a beast they did not kill.
I remember the history of France, the Eldest Daughter of the Church.
I would have gone, a village serf, crusading to the Holy Land; my head
is full of roads in the Swabian plains, of the sight of Byzantium, of
the ramparts of Jerusalem; the cult of Mary, the pitiful thought of
Christ crucified, turns in my head with a thousand profane enchantments–
I sit like a leper among broken pots and nettles, at the foot of a wall
eaten away by the sun. –And later, a wandering mercenary, I would have
bivouacked under German nighttimes.
Ah! one thing more: I dance the Sabbath in a scarlet clearing, with
old women and children.
I don’t remember much beyond this land, and Christianity. I will see
myself forever in its past. But always alone, without a family; what
language, in fact, did I used to speak? I never see myself in the councils
of Christ; nor in the councils of the Lords, Christ’s representatives.
What was I in the century past? I only find myself today. The vagabonds,
the hazy wars are gone. The inferior race has swept over all– the People
(as they put it), Reason; Nation and Science.
Ah, Science! Everything is taken from the past. For the body and the
soul– the last sacrament– we have Medicine and Philosophy, household
remedies and folk songs rearranged. And royal entertainments, and games
that kings forbid. Geography, Cosmography, Mechanics, Chemistry!…
Science, the new nobility! Progress! The world moves!… And why shouldn’t
We have visions of numbers. We are moving toward the Spirit. What I
say is oracular and absolutely right. I understand… and since I cannot
express myself except in pagan terms, I would rather keep quiet.
Pagan blood returns! The Spirit is at hand… why does Christ not help
me, and grant my soul nobility and freedom? Ah, but the Gospel belongs
to the past! The Gospel. The Gospel…
I wait glutinously for God. I have been of an inferior race for ever
And now I am on the beaches of Brittany…. Let cities light their lamps
in the evening; my daytime is done, I am leaving Europe. The air of
the sea will burn my lungs; lost climates will turn my skin to leather.
To swim, to pulverize grass, to hunt, above all to smoke; to drink strong
drinks, as strong as molten ore, as did those dear ancestors around
I will come back with limbs of iron, with dark skin, and angry eyes;
in this mask, they will think I belong to a strong race. I will have
gold; I will be brutal and indolent. Women nurse these ferocious invalids
come back from the tropics. I will become involved in politics. Saved.
Now I am accursed, I detest my native land. The best thing is a drunken
sleep, stretched out on some strip of shore.
But no one leaves. Let us set out once more on our native roads, burdened
with my vice– that vice that since the age of reason has driven roots
of suffering into my side– that towers to heaven, beats me, hurls me
down, drags me on.
Ultimate innocence, final timidity. All’s said. Carry no more my loathing
and treacheries before the world.
Come on! Marching, burdens, the desert, boredom and anger.
Hire myself to whom? What beasts adore? What sacred images destroy?
What hearts shall I break? What lie maintain? Through what blood wade?
Better to keep away from justice. A hard life, outright stupor– with
a dried-out fist to lift the coffin lid, lie down, and suffocate. No
old age this way– no danger: terror is very un-French.
–Ah! I am so forsaken I will offer at any shrine impulses toward perfection.
Oh, my self-denial, my marvelous Charity, my Selfless love! And still
De profundis, Domine… what an ass I am!
When I was still a little child, I admired the hardened convict on whom
the prison door will always close; I used to visit the bars and the
rented rooms his presence had consecrated; I saw with his eyes the blue
sky and the flower-filled work of the fields; I followed his fatal scent
through city streets. He had more strength than the saints, more sense
than any explorer– and he, he alone! was witness to his glory and his
Along the open road on winter nights, homeless, cold, and hungry, one
voice gripped my frozen heart: “Weakness or strength: you exist, that
is strength…. You don’t know where you are going or why you are going;
go in everywhere, answer everyone. No one will kill you, any more than
if you were a corpse.” In the morning my eyes were so vacant and my
face so dead that the people I met may not even have seen me.
In cities, mud went suddenly red and black, like a mirror when a lamp
in the next room moves, like treasure in the forest! Good luck, I cried,
and I saw a sea of flames and smoke rise to heaven, and left and right
all wealth exploded like a billion thunderbolts.
But orgies and the companionship of women were impossible for me. Not
even a friend. I saw myself before an angry mob, facing a firing squad,
weeping out sorrows they could not understand, and pardoning– like
Joan of Arc!– “Priests, professors and doctors, you are mistaken in
delivering me into the hands of the law. I have never been one of you;
I have never been a Christian; I belong to the race that sang on the
scaffold; I do not understand your laws; I have no moral sense; I am
a brute; you are making a mistake….”
Yes, my eyes are closed to your light. I am an animal, a nigger. But
I can be saved. You are fake niggers; maniacs, savages, misers, all
of you. Businessman, you’re a nigger; judge, you’re a nigger; general,
you’re a nigger; emperor, old scratch-head, you’re a nigger: you’ve
drunk a liquor no one taxes, from Satan’s still. This nation is inspired
by fever and cancer. Invalids and old men are so respectable that they
ask to be boiled. The best thing is to quit this continent where madness
prowls, out to supply hostages for these wretches. I will enter the
true kingdom of the sons of Ham.
Do I understand nature? Do I understand myself? No more words! I shroud
dead men in my stomach…. Shouts, drums, dance, dance, dance! I can’t
even imagine the hour when the white men land, and I will fall into
Thirst and hunger, shouts, dance, dance, dance!
The white men are landing! Cannons! Now we must be baptized, get dressed,
and go to work.
My heart has been stabbed by grace. Ah! I hadn’t thought this would
But I haven’t done anything wrong. My days will be easy, and I will
be spared repentance. I will not have had the torments of the soul half-dead
to the Good, where austere light rises again like funeral candles. The
fate of a first-born son, a premature coffin covered with shining tears.
No doubt, perversion is stupid, vice is stupid; rottenness must always
be cast away. But the clock must learn to strike more than hours of
pure pain! Am I to be carried away like a child, to play in paradise,
forgetting all this misery?
Quick! Are there any other lives? Sleep for the rich is impossible.
Wealth has always lived openly. Divine love alone confers the keys of
knowledge. I see that nature is only a show of kindness. Farewell chimeras,
ideals and errors.
The reasonable song of angels rises from the rescue ship: it is divine
love. Two loves! I may die of earthly love, die of devotion. I have
left behind creatures whose grief will grow at my going. You choose
me from among the castaways; aren’t those who remain my friends?
I am reborn in reason. The world is good. I will bless life. I will
love my brothers. There are no longer childhood promises. Nor the hope
of escaping old age and death. God is my strength, and I praise God.
Boredom is no longer my love. Rage, perversion, madness, whose every
impulse and disaster I know– my burden is set down entire. Let us appraise
with clear heads the extent of my innocence. I am no longer able to
ask for the consolation of a beating. I don’t imagine I’m off on a honeymoon
with Jesus Christ as my father-in-law.
I am no prisoner of my own reason. I have said: God. I want freedom,
within salvation: how shall I go about it? A taste for frivolity has
left me. No further need for divine love or for devotion to duty. I
do not regret the age of emotion and feeling. To each his own reason,
contempt, Charity: I keep my place at the top of the angelic ladder
of good sense.
As for settled happiness, domestic or not… no, I can’t. I am too dissipated,
too weak. Work makes life blossom, an old idea, not mine; my life doesn’t
weigh enough, it drifts off and floats far beyond action, that third
pole of the world.
What an old maid I’m turning into, to lack the courage to love death!
If only God would grant me that celestial calm, ethereal calm, and prayer–
like the saints of old. –The Saints! They were strong! Anchorites,
artists of a kind we no longer need….
Does this farce have no end? My innocence is enough to make me cry.
Life is the farce we all must play.
Stop it! This is your punishment…. Forward march! Ah! my lungs burn,
my temples roar! Night rolls in my eyes, beneath this sun! My heart…
my arms and legs….
Where are we going? To battle? I am weak! the others go on ahead…
tools, weapons… give me time!
Fire! Fire at me! Here! or I’ll give myself up! –Cowards! –I’ll kill
myself! I’ll throw myself beneath the horses’ hooves!
Ah!…–I’ll get used to it. That would be the French way, the path