Seeking something other than his staid writerly life, where the most exciting occurrence is the un-scheduleable trial of his concierge brutally "cleaning" his apartment, Durtal is attracted to the life of a medieval serial killer and the currents of contemporary Satanism in fin de siècle Paris. As Durtal digs deeper into the story of Gilles de Rais, in order to write a definitive biography, his own life creeps nearer and nearer to real-life seductive dark mysteries. Ostensibly, Durtal is trying to understand how a man like de Rais could be drawn into medieval Satanic rites, a possible cause of the madness which enabled de Rais to slaughter hundreds of children.
And, let's be honest, the Marquis de Sade was no more than a timid bourgeois, a wretched little fantasist, in comparison with Gilles.The tortures visited upon these children are written about explicitly, and it's no surprise that Là-Bas was censored and banned. The details are the stuff of Thomas Harris novels, or the movie Se7en. Durtal's research has him inquiring about the methods of modern Satanism, and other occult theories, and leads him, eventually, into witnessing a Black Mass.
From the very first page, Durtal is complaining about the current state of literature.
Try reading any of the latest novels a second time. What do you find? Trivial anecdotes, tidbits culled from the newspapers, nothing but scandal and demoralization[.]There are passages in Là-Bas that could have been ripped from current CanLitCrit. Durtal complains that "the only people who buy books are society women, who can thus make or break an author." This is very much the sentiment of the anti-populist critics, who hate the sales increases of Giller award-winners, CBC Canada Reads finalists. There are tirades against schools of writing (Decadents, Naturalists) and worries that writing, and society, is too influenced by the Americans.
One of the American influences — briefly mentioned in the text of Là-Bas — is the Spiritualist movement, credited as beginning in New York with the Fox sisters and their famous rappings. Spiritualism quickly moved across the Atlantic, and while most popular in England, France could not help but be involved in a more general feeling at the end of the century that “saw civilization as being in a crisis that required a massive and total solution.” (Wikipedia) I turn to Elaine Showalter for a good synopsis of this feeling:
The ends of centuries seem not to only suggest but to intensify crises, as the 1989 bicentennial of the French Revolution and the astonishing events in Eastern Europe reminded us. History warns that after the revolution comes the terror and decadence. [...] The crises of the fin de siècle, then, are more intensely experienced, more emotionally fraught, more weighted with symbolic and historical meaning, because we invest them with the metaphors of death and rebirth that we project onto the final decades and years of a century.Through Là-Bas we can see how certain topics do return to Western culture every hundred years or so. As Durtal's close friend, des Hermies, says:
But it's always been like that. The tail-ends of centuries all resemble each other. They are always periods of vacillation and unrest. Magic flourishes when materialism is rife. This phenomenon appears every hundred years.and he is quite right. If we think to the1980s and 90s, there was most obviously the Satanism scare (talked about briefly in Sybil Exposed), with sensible adults convinced that everything from Dungeons & Dragons to Twisted Sister was a gateway for their children to join in with the devil.
This is also the time that the goth aesthetic reached its highest point, with dark clothing, pale skin, and religious symbolism used as heretical fashion. While the 60s had its share of dabbling in the “New Age” arts of crystals and astrology, in the 90s things took a heavier turn, with neo-pagans believing they really could affect the world around them through spell-casting. And there's always The Craft...
When I was talking about Là-Bas with a friend of mine, who is an actual professorial smart person, he said that the novel is ultimately about the dangers of getting what exactly what you want.
[N]o sooner has one secret been revealed than we lose interest in it and crave another... Just so in reading. The attempt to peer into the very core of a text, to possess once and for all its meaning, is vain--it is only ourselves that we find there, not the work itself. (Showalter, 166. Quoting Morris Zapp)Durtal, while claiming to be "he who, when the stable-door of his sick senses opened, was happy to drive the stinking herd clamouring to get in towards the abattoir where their sinful heads might be split open by the butcher girls of love", and protesting that “the only kind of love that matters, one which is entirely intangible, a love made up of past sorrows and present regrets” is really very easily swayed into an affair with a married woman. Similarly, he is too easily titillated, very much wanting to see for himself what exactly goes on in Satanic Mass.
When reading descriptions of Satanism in Là-Bas, both contemporary to the novel and historical, I couldn't help thinking about the “real” Satanists of our time, most of whom turned out to be (and I wrote this in my annotations) malformed dorks. In a fin de siècle context, being “dark” will get you laid. Turns out, a lot of these black magicians, those who practiced the entirely laughable “sex magick” were just... kind of horny nerds. Which is fine, but it's also a let down for people who genuinely feel the pull of darkness. Durtal feels that pull, but when he sees an actual Black Mass, he's completely disgusted, and let down. Funnily enough, Cadrinal Docre, the leader of this Satanic sect, is described as not very physically attractive (though Durtal's ego has likely something to do with this description). Des Hermies, again and ever the smartest and most logical voice, agrees with my assessment of Satanism, when he remarks “I am convinced that for them the invocation of Beelzebub is only a preliminary to the carnal act.” Neither Durtal's affair, that began with letters and mysteries, nor actual Satansim can live up to what his imagination can conjure. “How right I was when I wrote that the only women you can go on loving are the ones you haven't had.” This is a human condition, of course, evidenced every time one is chased only to be quickly released after catch. We can make things as good or brutal as we need them to be in our minds, yet real life is simply a lot less exciting, and if I may, that's why we have literature.