Spiritual AbsencesFrom Things That Happen When Reading Rilke
Having failed in my attempt to be visited by Rilke’s promised ‘spiritual presences’ through cultivating solitude, I have a sudden urge to get back to read Jules Renard’s Journal. I remember the terrible solitudes he confided to it, haunted by parents, dead to him from birth. Perhaps his woeful aside, after picking the body of his mother out of a well, would reconcile me with Rilke. ‘God’s incomprehensibility is the best proof of his existence’. The same could be true for Rilke’s ‘spiritual presences’.
‘I have a taste for solitary acrobatics. I like to turn my back on myself’, Renard confided to his Journal after his father’s death. But he was turning his back on others. Even when he was happily married with a complicit wife, Marinette, and two lively children, he found himself distancing himself from them, and in solitude curling up like a clenched fist. He needed to protect himself against disappointment in love. His previous experience of family life was horripilant, makes you hair stand on end. As recounted in Poil de Carotte, a novel which isn’t fiction, he was born like a battery chicken, laid by a mother, who at best went through the motions mechanically. His absent-minded father showed an interest in him, only to forget it. Everybody misunderstood him because he was different. Not merely in appearance (spiky red hair), but he dared to have ideas... Despised by his mother, ignored by his father, mocked by his siblings, Jules/Poil absented himself from others as much as he could, taking refuge in his room, and sometimes in a hen hutch.
The Journal is crowded as the Champs-Elysées with people. Sarah Bernhardt, Leon Blum, Cézanne, Paul and Camille Claudel, Rodin, the Goncourts, Toulouse-Lautrec, Pierre Loti, Mallarmé, Ravel, Marcel Schwob, Verlaine, Oscar Wilde, Zola…
But though his witty asides never let him down in their company, Renard keeps his distance, confiding to his journal, ‘I love my solitude, particularly when I’m alone’.
Irony (‘La pudeur de l’humanité’) gave him a grasp on life. Unlike Rilke’s warning to the young poet, it didn’t ‘fritter away when things got serious’. Au contraire, irony concentrated his mind (‘It shortens things, sincerity takes a long time’). Hunting for the mot d’esprit came as naturally to him as shooting birds. It was a council of perfection that ‘absorbed all the functions of the soul’ like Pascal’s sneeze. The portal of dark thoughts cleared, and he regained his pose to fire off bullets of iron wit. Thus his solitude was broken by what became an accurate shot of writing, retrieved for his Journal.
Renard was thirty-three when his father committed suicide. He wasn’t superstitious about the Christic age. Religion for him was often just ‘an excuse for lazy thinking’. It wasn’t that he was an atheist. He had merely given up on all the mysteries. The less he believed in them the less stupid he felt. But it pleased him that Marinette dressed up on Sunday to go to Mass. He’d be proud to accompany her, ‘but in my Church there is no vault between me and the sky’.
That autumn he took his gun out hunting. His hopelessness at it as a boy had come between him and his father. ‘Shooting birds of course is barbaric. But it was papa’s only pleasure. It got him out of the house. It was his solitude…’. Now hunting alone he found himself more focused at the kill. Every time he brings down a partridge, Jules throws a sideward glance to where his father would have been, seeing how his ghost reacts. On the way back, passing the cemetery gate, he shouts, ‘You know, old man, I bagged five’. When a boy, if a shot failed to kill, his father made him put the bird out of its misery. ‘Strangling a partridge, you tighten your grip around its neck until the fingers feel this little flute of life’. If Jules Renard returns empty-handed, he bypasses the cemetery.
When the maid came to tell him his father had barricaded himself in the house, Renard didn’t need to ask why. It wouldn’t be the first time he locked out his wife. He took his time, pumping up the tyres of his bike. On the road he met his mother running madly towards him, shouting ‘Jules, Jules. Do something.’ He shouldered the door open with a shrug. The lock was worn away. Inside he smelt gun-powder. ‘Papa’, he said, ‘this is beyond a joke’. His father was lying in bed, his hunting-gun between his legs. Ashen faced, mouth open, eyes deadset, and there was a black hole above his belt. Jules bolted the door to keep his mother out, sat beside him, and felt the hands, still warm, fingers relaxed after releasing the gun. The black bullet hole near his heart resembled ‘a fire just extinguished’.
Renard reproached himself for not understanding his father better. The ‘simple mayor of a little village’, his death was talked about ‘as though he was Socrates’. Yet he was only a man like any other. Jules had never thought of him like that. ‘We are all poor fools, me particularly, incapable being good or bad for more than an hour or two.’ As the coffin was lowered into the ground, he felt closer to his father than ever before. It wasn’t that they had come to hate the same woman. Both in their fashion had craved her love: his father when he married Ann-Rosa Colin (‘hake’) forty years before, and Jules since he started kicking in the womb. Which reminded him, he ought to do something about his mother. Maybe his Marinette, who was good at such things, could take her in hand. He was distancing himself again.
Hunting for Jules Renard was closer to Hemingway than Pascal. It was more a battle between himself and nature than a béta diversion from judging how to regulate our lives. Both Ernest and himself simply enjoyed killing. But it was a guilty pleasure for Renard. His Histoires Naturelles, published the year before his father’s death, was a hymn to the chase, tinged with irony, conscious that wilfully destroying in full flight a beautiful creature that never did him any harm was not in the best taste. But Renard wasn’t squeamish about hunting down and potting a cock-pheasant. He must have been haunted by Flaubert’s clinical description of the rampant slaughters by Saint Julien L’Hospitalier, which led to his killing of both his parents. It had been prophesied by a giant black stag when young Julien shot dead with an arrow the fawn his doe was suckling.
When I come across the passage that I was looking for in the Journal, I’m not disappointed. ‘We are ignorant of the Great Beyond because it’s not conditional to our life, in the same way that ice can never know the fire that melts it’. It leaves open the possibility that one could be possessed by ‘spiritual presences’ without knowing it. On the same day Jules Renard records that ‘Clement Ader, got his flying machine, Etoile, into the air. It took off and went into a forty-metre spiral.’