Passage from “La-Bas,” by J. K. Huysmans, published 1891
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“What excellent people,” he exclaimed, as soon as they found themselves back on the Place Saint-Sulpice.
“Not to mention that Carhaix is an invaluable man to consult, since he’s so well-informed about a lot of things.”
“But, tell me…how is it that such a learned man, the sort of man you don’t meet everyday, practises a trade, that of a manual labourer…. is a worker, in short?”
“If he could hear you! But, my friend, the bell-ringers of the Middle Ages weren’t miserable wretches, though it’s true that modern bell-ringers are a degenerate lot. As for telling you why Carhaix is so in love with his bells, I don’t know. All I know is that he undertook his studies at a seminary in Brittany, that he had scruples of conscience and didn’t believe himself to be worthy of the priesthood, and that at Paris, where he went next, he was the pupil of a very clever and well-read master bell-ringer, Father Cilbert, who kept some old and very rare maps of Paris in his cell at Notre-Dame. He wasn’t a manual labourer either, rather he was an obsessive collector of documents relating to old Paris. From Notre-Dame, Carhaix moved to Saint-Sulpice where he’s been settled for more than fifteen years.”
“And how did you come to know him?”
“In my capacity as a doctor, at first, then I became his friend ten years ago.”
“Its funny, he doesn’t have that gait that old seminarians have, like some shuffling gardener.”
“Carhaix is good for a few more years yet,” said des Hermies, as if talking to himself. “After that, it’ll be time enough for him to die. The Church, which has begun by installing gas in the chapels, will end up by replacing bells with powerful electronic chimes. Now that will be charming, all those mechanisms connected up by electric wires, it’ll be true Protestant bell-ringing: short, sharp calls to order.”
“Well, that’ll be the time for Carhaix’s wife to go back to Finistère!”
“They couldn’t do it because they’re so poor, and besides, Carhaix would pine away if he lost his bells.. All the same, it’s curious this affection a man has for the object he loves, it’s the same love a mechanic has for his machine, you end up loving the thing that obeys you and that is under your care as much as a living creature. It’s true that the bell is an instrument apart, that it’s baptised just as if it was a person and anointed with the chrism of salvation to consecrate it. And after a Pontifical blessing, moreover, it’s sanctified in its chalice-like interior by a bishop, being anointed with holy oil seven times in the form of a cross for the sick, so that it thereby carries a consoling voice to the dying and sustains them in their last agonies. It’s also the Church’s herald, its external voice, as the priest is its voice within. It’s not just a simple piece of bronze, a mortar that you could turn upside down and shake. Added to which, like old wines, bells improve with age, their voices become fuller and more supple, they lose their shrill bouquet, their immature tone. That goes some way to explain how you get so attached to them.”
“You’re quite taken with bells aren’t you!”
“Me?” responded des Hermies laughing, “I don’t know anything, I’m repeating what I’ve heard Carhaix say. All the same, if the subject interests you, you should ask him to explain it, he’ll teach you the symbolism of the bell, he’s inexhaustible, knows all about it like no one else.”
“What is certain,” said Durtal thoughtfully, “is that I live in an area full of monasteries, in a street the very air of which vibrates at dawn with waves of pealing bells, and whenever I’m ill during the night, I wait for the call of the bells in the morning to bring me relief. Then, at daybreak, I feel myself lulled by a kind of gentle rocking, pampered by a mysterious far-off caress, it’s like a bandage, so smooth and so fresh, and I have the assurance that upright people are praying for others — and consequently for me — and I feel less alone. So it’s true, at least, that their chimes are especially suited to those who are ill and who can’t sleep.”
“Not only for the sick, the bells also act like bromide on war-like souls. The inscription carried by one of them, paco cruentos — ‘I pacify the embittered’ — is singularly apt when you think about it.”
This conversation haunted Durtal and, when he was alone in his room that evening, he was seized by troubled dreams in his bed. That phrase of the bell-ringer, that the true music of the Church was that of the bells, came back to him again and again like an obsession. And his reverie suddenly carried him back several centuries, evoking, amid the slow processions of monks in the Middle Ages, a kneeling throng of the faithful, responding to the call of the angelus and drinking in, like a blessed draught of consecrated wine, the sweet drops of their pure chimes.
All the details that he had once known of ancient litanies crowded in on him: the Invitatories to Matins, the bells telling the harmonious beads of their rosaries over those narrow, winding streets, over those conical turrets, those sentry-box gables, over those walls pierced by water-spouts and crenellations, carillons singing out the canonical hours, prime and terce, sext and nones, vespers and compline, celebrating the gaiety of a city through the delicate laughter of its small bells, or its distress, through the massive tears of its mournful bass.
In those days they were expert bell-ringers, true masters, who could echo the state of the town’s soul with these airborne joys or sorrows. And the bell which they were serving like obedient sons, like faithful deacons, was made in the very image of the medieval Church itself, humble and of the people. At certain times, it would divest itself of its pious tones, like a priest stripped of his chasuble. It spoke to the ordinary people on market days and at fairs, inviting them when it rained to discuss their business in the nave of the church, and, through the sanctity of the place, imposi