GEORGE EEKHOUD, the author of this novel, is one of the best known classical writers of modern Belgium. This is saying a great deal; for Belgium was never able to point to such a splendid galaxy of nearly perfect scribesmen as at the present time. By "classical" I mean writers whose names are pretty sure to go down with honour and acclamation to posterity; writers like Maurice Maeterlinck, Camille Lemonnier, Emile Verhaeren, Edmond Picard and Albert Giraudy to say nothing of many others, more or less well known, victorious toilers in the arduous paths of chastened expression, tireless sowers in the fields of thought.
The intellectual peer of the famous men whose names we have just mentioned, George Eekhoud well deserves the celebrity he has won. He is the author of numerous worlds that are justly honoured by the cultivated and the discerning in all French-speaking lands, for the simple and perfectly comprehensible reason that they are works of art, wrought with infinite patience and chiselled with admirable dexterity. That is equivalent to asserting that George Eekhoud is no penny-a-liner throwing off, with feverish haste, a conglomeration of ill-digested conceptions couched in rag-and bobtail terms. On the contrary, his compositions bear traces of exquisite artistry; every line he has written gives evidence of painstaking care; his books are the outcome of sleepless nights and toil-filled days. They abound with patient wisdom and a large experience of human life, human sorrows, and human failings, all of this being permeated with a sentiment of the infinite pathos of death and a profound commiseration therewith.
We shall make no attempt in this preface to give an outline of the dolorous tale before us. Why should we do so? He who is too lazy to read the whole dramatic story for himself will also be too lazy to glance at anything we may write down. Why seek to refine fine gold? Be it enough to shadow forth the saintly character of Blandine, the familiar rascality of Landrillon, the pusillanimous nature, mens fæmina in corpore virile, of the Count of Kehlmark, prenatally damned to the possession of a fatalistic hankering after unnatural loves to the exclusion of the enjoyment of those beautiful creatures that Nature has destined for the lawful delectation of men.
Why speak of that admirable character, the Dowager of Kehlmark, high-born lady and fearless disciple of Voltaire, dying in the saintly odour of her good deeds? Why name the sacrifices of Blandine, beautiful name covering a more beautiful soul, save to emphasize the martyrdom she endured? Blandine, true type of thousands of other brave girls and women living to-day in this strange God's world; Blandine, the losing heroine, who made a living sacrifice of her woman's body to save a mans name from shame.
Ah! These things recall other memories, stir up other souvenirs, mind us of the besmirchment of a great name, when a brilliant light, that shone like a star in England's literary constellation, was hurled headlong down from his ethereal estate.
"With hideous ruin and combustion
… Confounded though immortal."
This is no place, we know, to offer a plea for the hapless author of "Dorian Gray," nor for his literary congener Henry of Kehlmark. On the other hand, let us refrain from throwing stones at them. We even beg leave to suggest that Wilde was too severely, because far too publicly, chastised for what he may have done, for what at the worst was no more than a private misdemeanour. We consider that far more harm than needful was wrought by the publicity given to these unwholesome pranks with grown-up wastrels in private rooms, these "naughty fellows of a baser sort" as St. Paul would have called them. Would it not have been better first mercifully to warn, aye, and if needs were, to have hurried them off, willy-nilly,—struggling and kicking it might be,—to some private asylum to be treated hydropathically, as was done by the French authorities in the case of a certain well-known Parisian littérateur caught flagrante delicto in a Boulevard vespasienne? The interests of Justice would have been amply served, had prevention alone, and not vengeance, been the object to be attained.
Moreover, we are of those who believe that whilst there should be "one law for the rich and for the poor alike," there should still be a further law for the neurotic, the brain-sick, the mind-shattered, the functionally deranged. To apply the same heavy whip to a sensitive, highly-strung Derby runner, as to a coarser grained, slow-going dray horse were amazing lack of gumption. But we treat our favourite dogs and horses better than our gifted man.
He has sinned, has he? Then, by Christ, he shall pay for it! He has been found out, has he? Then, by the God that lives, we'll proclaim his sins to the earths four winds, blazon the nauseous thing in the newspapers, incarnadine the story of his shame on the fair skies themselves with the very blood wrung from the wretched man's soul. Hypocrites, whited sepulchres, pharisees, avaunt! Were your own secret misdeeds inscribed upon your every smooth forehead what edifying ornaments ye would all prove!
"Escal Vigor," like many another virile book, was prosecuted at law. What an honour! One day, (the novel had been out some time and was indeed practically unknown,) some little-minded juge d'instruction was inspired to seize it, in some inconsiderable bookseller's shop hidden away in the gentle, little town of Bruges. The book had been published in Paris and was merely by hazard, on sale in this quiet, old-world city. The seizure was doubtless due to some private vengeance. Or, did the Prosecution imagine that a hostile verdict could be more easily cajoled out of a jury in this clerical stronghold of Western Flanders than elsewhere?
The trial came on. The name of the Judge on the bench, the prosecuting Attorney at the bar, or of the twelve good Jurymen in the box, is not of the slightest consequence. Myrmidons of the law, string-pulled puppets of the judicial Punch-and-Judy show, they were there to do their "dooty" and they did their little worst. The fighter of the day,—the great henchman who, standing athwart the breach made by legal might in the rampart of thought, hewed down time-honoured lies and miserable contorsions of truth, as one after another they presented their rat-like heads to the Valiant blade of his memorable oratory, pitiless logic and scathing scorn,—was the Flemisher, Edmond Picard, one of the most extraordinary figures in Belgium for the last fifty odd years, advocate, jurisconsult, traveller, dramatist, poet, swordsman, athlete, aye and—finer than a hundred other titles besides,—a man!
The case of "Escal Vigor" was fought to a finish. After hearing all the witnesses, listening to expert medical evidence on the subject of abnormality, and the impassioned orations, for and against, the Jury came unanimously to their decision. George Eekhoud was acquitted!
This is no place to trace the story of the ebbying fortunes of that day's fight. Suffice to say that the enemies of George Eekhoud were routed—that the accused, whom it was sought to crush, emerged triumphant from the shock of arms more glorious than ever, looking, we opine, pretty much like Saint George after he had slain the Dragon, with this slight difference that Eekhoud's dragon was probably far more real than the mythological animal that fell beneath the strokes of England's patron Saint.
"Escal Vigor" is a romantic study, tragical and lugubrious enough, of a case of abnormal passion. Numa Numantius in Germany, Krafft Ebing in Austria, Havelock Ellis in England, Lombroso in Italy, aud Tamowsky in Russia, hate sufficiently analysed all the grave problems resulting from this idiosyncracy. It is not for us to discuss the subject here. The world's literature is crowded with examples of this passionate friendship between youths and men … such as existea between Alcibiades and Socrates, between Shakespeare and Lord Pembroke, between Michael Angela and Cavalieri. Should Balzac be condemned because he describes the shameful love of Vautrin for Lucien de Rubempri? Or because, in his Fille aux Yeux d'Or, he has laid bare the heart of women who love each other? Horace, he of Rome, sang in flaming verse the praises of his young slave; Virgil chaunts the feeling of the shepherd Corydon for the handsome Alexis, Plutarch paints the heroic prowesses of the Theban legion.
Are all these famous authors to be regarded as Artists, faithful cinematographs of the scenes depicted, or as Apostles, seeking to propagate the practices of their characters? Must their works be therefore destroyed and themselves for ever held in reprobation, the mock of little men without a hundredth part of their lordly genius?
Because Molière described Harpagon, was he himself a miser? Because Cervantes pourtrayed mad Don Quixote, is he himself to be considered mad? Because the Bard of Avon created Othello, was he a jealous maniac? Or, for the sake of Falstaff, a merry-Andrew? Or, because of the witches in "Macbeth," a benighted sorcerer?
The questions are absurd, we know: but Eekhoud was accused of "preaching pederasty"—(although the story is one of passional affection and in nowise physiological i. e. uranism, a vastly different thing)—because of "Escal Vigor." His enemies, it is true, were unable to produce passages from the book in support of their thesis, but the saying stands: "Throw mud and some of it is sure to stick."
It so chanced that none stuck—that the mud, in defiance of all known laws of physical science, recoiled on the throwers. The enemy wrested of course, from their proper and natural place in the book, every picturesque expression, the hardiest details, the most scabrous scenes for the dissecting table of the Court-room, and these things being deemed insufficient, they scrutinised the writer's intentions,tried to surprise the underlying thought,pursuing the idea behind its last entrenchments, across the folds of the author s brain, naïvely surmising what the heroes might have been doing when they were not on the stage!
Ye Gods! They would have a Star-Chamber over again! Men came forward to say Eekhoud, the author of "La Nouvelle Carthage," "Mes Communions," "Le Cycle Patibulaire," and half a score others, wherein may be read, ringing and vibrating, prose-poems of pagan love, page s of tumultuous sorrow, pages consolatory of all pains, sounding depths of profoundest passion, confessing men of all creeds, outsoaring all faiths, eclipsing all religions and shibboleths, could not be the monster represented.
Men of genius themselves, like Maeterlinck, Verhaeren, Theo. Hannon, Sander-Perron, Julius Hoste, Octave Maus, Albert Giraud, Valère Gilley some of them Catholics like Iwan Gilkin, the author of "Promethée," George Virrès, Du Catillon! The élite of Flanders and Wallonie!
Great penmen sent forth word from the neighbouring land of France that they held Eekhoud and all his works in the highest esteem—José de Heredia, Maurice Barres, Anatole France, Emile Zola, Edmond Haraucourty Catulle Mendis, and a host more, attested that this fox-terrier like worrying of a classic, such as "Escal Vigor," was odious to their souls; that a work of art could not, and should not, be judged save by a jury of competent literary men.
On Friday the 26th of October, 1900, George Eekhoud was acquitted. He left the Court "without a stain upon his character." "Escal Vigor" was exculpated from the accusation of intentional pornography and its gifted author came little short of apotheosis on the spot.
Thus it ever is and must be!
Eekhoud counts now among the great writers not of Belgium alone, but of the wide world.
Like the river that flows irresistibly forward to the sea, like the light that breaks out of the darkness, so the man foreordained must come at last into his own.That day, in the Court-house, the lamps alight—for the sun had withdrawn its rays—ashamed maybe longer to illumine such a scene—
"The heathen did mightily rage,
And the people imagined a vain thing;
The lyings of the earth set themselves
And the rulers took counsel together."
But their wiles and ruses and arguments and serried strength
"Were dashed in pieces
Broken like a potter's vessel."