Before he was a morally reformed and practicing Catholic, the French novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans dabbled in the symbolist movement and its accompanying “literary occult” practices. His novel Là-bas (The Damned) is a partially autobiographical account of the demonic activities of this movement, just as his later novels mirror his ascent into spiritual freedom. One of Huysmans’ close friends was the laicized priest and occult practitioner Abbé Joseph-Antoine Boullan. The literary critic John Senior describes Boullan thus:
Abbé Boullan had claimed to be the spiritual inheritor of Eli Vintras, the leader of an aberrant branch of Masonry in Lyons which mixed all sorts of Rosicrucian, mystical, alchemical, and cabalistic symbols into the Masonic ceremony. Boullan inherited–or stole–a precious manuscript detailing the procedure of the “Glorious Sacrifice of Melchisidek” and a barrel of consecrated hosts [sic] with which the rite was performed. (The Way Down and Out, 118)
Unsurprisingly, bad things resulted from Fr. Boullan’s descent into the occult. One of his supposed friends, Stanislas de Guaita, visited Boullan’s house, learned the secret rite, stole a handful of the Hosts, fled to Paris, and began a spiritual attack on Boullan.
The Abbé woke from sleep one night, stricken at the heart. He barely got to his private altar, where, managing to munch a host [sic], he recited the Sacrifice and saved himself. Again and again the attacks arrived. Hurled through timeless, spaceless, astral planes, invisible mesmeric fluids came from Paris to Lyons like so many dreadful wireless messages. (119)
The publication of Là-bas targeted Huysmans for attack, since he named Guaita’s cohorts as the leaders of a Satanic cult in the novel. Caught in the crossfire, he feared for his safety and for his life, but soon also for the safety of his cat.
A letter from the Abbé warned him not to go to work one day, and on that day a heavy glass window smashed across his desk. Each night at bedtime he was cuffed about the head and face by “coups de poing fluidiques” [“fluidic fisticuffs”]. Even his cat was beaten–and this unnerved him utterly. In terror, he fled to Lyons to fortify himself with the full protective rites. (119)
The cat survived, but Boullan died soon thereafter, supposedly from a spiritual attack. Huysmans encouraged his own disciple Jules Bois to accuse Guaita publicly of Boullan’s murder. Bois and Guaita soon dueled, albeit unsuccessfully. Their horses were too frightened to walk to the dueling place, and when they finally met their pistols inexplicably misfired.
Shaken by the whole experience, Huysmans drifted away from the occult and into orthodoxy. His later novels chronicle his growing love for monastic life and religious symbolism. He eventually became a Benedictine oblate and died within the Church.
My research has yet to turn up the final fate of Huysmans’ cat, but this short passage on feline symbolism in La cathédrale (The Cathedral) does not seem to bode well:
The cat, which is but once mentioned in the Bible—in the Book of Baruch—is invariably abhorred by the primitive naturalists, who accuse it of embodying treachery and hypocrisy, and of lending its skin to the Devil, to enable him to appear in its shape to sorcerers. (ch. xiv)
Even so, the French novelist once described himself as “a courteous cat, very polite, almost likeable, but nervous, ready to reveal [my] claws at the slightest word.” Perhaps he saw a bit of the Devil in the Cat, but also a bit of himself, and he never wanted to forget what he once had been.