Against the Grain

“He had had the boudoir walls covered with bright red tapestry and all round the room he had hung ebony-framed prints by [[Jan Luyken]] , an old Dutch engraver who was almost unknown in France.

He possessed a whole series of studies by this artist in lugubrious fantasy and ferocious cruelty: his Religious Persecutions, a collection of appaling plates displaying all the tortures which religious fanaticism has invented, revealing all the agonizing varieties of human suffering – bodies roasted over braziers, heads scalped with swords, trepanned with nails, lacerated with saws, bowels taken out of the belly and wound onto bobbins, finger-nails slowly removed with pincers, eyes put out, eye lids pinned back, limbs dislocated and carefully broken, bones laid bare and scraped for hours with knives.

These pictures, full of abominable fancies, reeking of burnt flesh, echoing with screams and curses, made Des Esseintes’ flesh creep whenever he went into the red boudoir, and he remained rooted to the spot, choking with horror.

But over and above the shudders they provoked, over and above the frightening genius of the man and the extraordinary life he put into his figures, there were to be found in his astonishing crowd-scenes, in the hosts of people he sketched with a dexterity reminiscent of Callot but with a vigor that amazing scribbler never attained, remarkable reconstructions of other places and periods: buildings, costumes, and manners in the days of the Maccabees, in Rome during the persecution of the Christians, in Spain under the Inquisition, in France during the Middle Ages and during the time of the St. Bartholomew massacres and the Dragonnades, were all observed with meticulous care and depicted with wonderful skill.

These prints were mines of interesting information and could be studied for hours on end without a moments boredom; extremely thought provoking as well, they often helped Des Esseintes to kill time on days when he did not feel in the mood for reading.

The story of Luyken’s life also attracted him and incidentally explained the hallucinatory character of his work. A fervent Calvinist, a fanatical sectary, a zealot for hymns and prayers, he composed and illuminated religious poems, paraphrased the Psalms in verse, and immersed himself in Biblical study, from which he would emerge haggard and enraptured, his mind haunted by bloody visions, his mouth twisted by the maledictions of the Reformation, by its songs of terror and anger.

What is more, he despised the world, and this led him to give all he possessed to the poor, living on a crust of bread himself. In the end he had put to sea with an old maidservant who was fanatically devoted to him, landing wherever his boat came ashore, preaching the Gospel to all and sundry, trying to live without eating – a man with little or nothing to distinguish himself from a lunatic or a savage.”

from Against the Grain, by [[Joris Karl Huysmans]]