Against the Grain: Contraception, abortion, and slow death

From Joris-Karl Huysmans’ À rebours (1884), which I highly recommend to anyone with a decadent literary bent. Our protagonist is briefly moved to philosophize on the slings and arrows:

Presently, above the hedge separating the garden which lay at a lower level from the raised roadway leading up to the Fort, [Des Esseintes] caught sight of a band of young rascals tumbling over each other in the blazing sunshine. […] Kicks and fisticuffs were freely exchanged, and the weaker vessels got tumbled over in the road, where they lay squalling as the jagged stones scraped their backsides.

Looking on at the fury of these naughty youngsters, he reflected on the cruel and abominable law of the struggle for existence, and ignoble as the children were, he could not help sympathizing with their lot and concluding it would have been better for them had their mother never borne them.

What madness to beget children! reflected Des Esseintes. And to think that ecclesiastics, who have taken a vow of sterility, have actually pushed unreason so far as to canonize St. Vincent de Paul because he saved innocent little ones for useless torments!

Thanks to his odious precautions, he had postponed for years the death of beings, devoid of intelligence and feeling, in such wise that, having in time grown almost understanding and at any rate capable of pain, they could foresee the future, could expect and dread the death they had hitherto not known so much as the name of; that they could, some of them, even call upon it to come, in very hatred of the condemnation to live he inflicted on them by virtue of an illogical code of Theology.

Yes, and since the old Saint’s death, his ideas had come to govern the world; children abandoned to die were rescued, instead of being left to perish quietly without their being conscious of aught amiss; while, at the same time, the life for which they were preserved was growing day by day harsher and more barren! Under a pretext of liberty and progress, Society had discovered yet another means of aggravating the miseries of man’s existence, by dragging him from his home, tricking him out in an absurd costume, putting specially contrived weapons in his hands, brutalizing him in a slavery identical with that from which they had, out of compassion, enfranchised the negro — and all this merely to put him in a condition to slaughter his neighbor without risking the scaffold, as do common murderers who work alone, without uniform, with arms less noisy and less swift.

What a singular epoch, Des Esseintes told himself, is this, which, while invoking the sacred name of humanity, and striving to perfect anaesthetics to abolish physical pain, at the very same time provides such irritants to aggravate moral agonies!

Ah! if ever, in the name of pity, useless procreation should be abolished, that time was now! But here, again, the laws promulgated by men like Portalis and Homais appeared, ferocious and self-contradictory.

Justice deemed quite natural the ways men use to trick Nature in the marriage bed; it was a recognized, admitted fact; there was never a household, no matter how well-to-do, that did not employ means to hinder procreation, use contrivances to be bought openly in the shops — all artifices it would never occur to anybody to disapprove. Yet, if these means, these subterfuges proved ineffectual — if the trickery failed, and to make good the failure, recourse was had to more certain methods — there were not prisons and gaols and penal settlements enough to hold in durance vile people condemned to this punishment by judge and jury, who the same night in the conjugal bed used every trickery they could devise not to beget youngsters of their own.

The trickery itself therefore was no crime, but to repair its failure was one.

In a word, Society regarded as a crime the act that consisted in killing a creature endowed with life; and yet, in expelling a foetus, one surely destroyed an animal, less fully formed, less alive and certainly less intelligent and more ugly than a dog or a cat, which may be strangled at birth without penalty!

It is right to add, thought Des Esseintes, for further proof how monstrous the injustice is, that it is not the unskilful man, who generally makes off with all haste, but the woman, victim of his awkwardness, who pays the penalty for having saved an innocent from life!

Verily the world must be extraordinarily prejudiced to want to suppress manoeuvres so natural that primitive man — that the very savages of the South Seas — have been led to practise them by the mere action of their own instinct!

At this moment, his servant interrupted these charitable reflexions of his master by bringing Des Esseintes a silver-gilt salver […]

Posted 2018-12-26