The Devils of Loudun Page 85

The low-roofed tortoises do dwell

In cases fit of tortoise-shell:

No creature loves an empty space;

Their bodies measure out their place.

But he, superfluously spread,

Demands more room alive than dead,

And in his hollow palace goes

Where winds, as he, themselves may lose.

What need of all this marble crust

T’impark the wanton mote of dust?

And as the marble crusts expanded, the periwigs of the wanton motes imparked within them became more luxuriant, the heels of their shoes yet higher. Tottering on stilts and crowned with towering piles of horse-hair, the Grand Monarch and his courtiers proclaimed themselves larger than life and hairier than Samson at the height of his virility.

Needless to say, these attempts to overstep the limits set by nature were always unsuccessful. Doubly so; for not only did our seventeenth-century ancestors fail to be, they failed even to seem, superhuman. The absurd and bumptious spirit was willing enough; but the flesh was incurably weak. The Grand Siècle did not possess the material and organizational resources, without which the game of pretending to be superhuman cannot be played. That sublimity, those prodigies of grandeur, which Richelieu and Louis XIV so ardently desired, can be achieved only by the greatest of stage managers, by a Ziegfeld, a Cochran, a Max Reinhardt. But great showmanship depends on an armoury of gadgets, a well-stocked property-room and the highly trained and disciplined collaboration of all concerned. In the Grand Siècle such training and discipline were lacking, and even the material basis of theatrical sublimity—the machina which introduces and, indeed, creates the deus—was deficient. Even Richelieu, even the Sun King were “Old Men of Thermopylae, who never did anything properly.” Versailles itself was curiously unimpressive—gigantic but trivial, grandiose but of no effect. Seventeenth-century pageantry was sloppy to a degree. Nothing was adequately rehearsed, and the most grotesque of avoidable mishaps would mar the most solemn of occasions. Consider, for example, the case of La Grande Mademoiselle, that pathetic figure of fun who was Louis XIV’s first cousin. After death, according to the curious custom of the time, her body was dissected and buried piecemeal—here the head and there a limb or two, here the heart and there the entrails. These last were so badly embalmed that, even after treatment, they went on fermenting. The gases of putrefaction accumulated and the porphyry urn containing the viscera became a kind of anatomic bomb, which suddenly exploded, in the middle of the funeral service, to the horror and dismay of all present.

Such physiological accidents were by no means exclusively posthumous. The authors of memoirs and the collectors of anecdotes abound in stories about belching in high places, about the breaking of wind in a royal presence, about the gamy aroma of kings, the bromidrosis of dukes and marshals. Henri IV’s feet and armpits enjoyed an international reputation. Bellegarde had a perpetually running nose, Bassompierre a set of toes which rivalled those of his royal master. The copiousness of these anecdotes and the delighted amusement, which the telling of them evidently evoked, were in direct proportion to the enormity of kingly and aristocratic pretensions. It was precisely because great men tried to seem more than human that the rest of the world welcomed any reminder that, in part at least, they were still merely animal.

Identifying himself with a persona which was simultaneously princely, sacerdotal, political and literary, Cardinal Richelieu comported himself as though he were a demi-god. But the wretched man had to play his part in a body which disease had rendered so repulsive that there were times when people could hardly bear to sit in the same room with him. He suffered from tubercular osteitis of his right arm and a fissure of the fundament, and was thus forced to live in the foetid atmosphere of his own suppuration. Musk and civet disguised but could not abolish this carrion odour of decay. Richelieu could never escape from the humiliating knowledge that he was an object, to all around him, of physical abhorrence. This brutally violent contrast between the quasi-divine persona and the body of death, with which it was associated, strongly impressed the popular imagination. When the relics of St. Fiacre (the miraculous specific for haemorrhoids) were brought from Meaux to the Cardinal’s palace, an anonymous poet celebrated the occasion with a copy of verses which would have delighted Dean Swift.

Cependant sans sortir un pas hors de sa chambre

Qu’il faisait parfumer toute de muse et d’ambre,

Pour n’estonner le Sainct de cette infection

Qui du parfait ministre est l’imperfection,

Et modérer un peu l’odeur puantissime

Qui sort du cul pourry de l’Eminentissime. . . .

And here is another fragment from a ballad describing the great man’s last illness.

Il vit grouiller les vers dans ses salles ulcères,

Il vit mourir son bras—

Son bras qui dans l’Europe alluma tant de guerres,

Qui brusla tant d’autels. . . .

Between the rotting body of the actual man and the glory of the persona, the gulf was unbridgeable. In Jules de Gaultier’s phrase, “the Bovaric angle” separating fact from phantasy approximated to one hundred and eighty degrees. To a generation, which had been brought up to regard the divine right of kings and priests and nobles as axiomatic, and which therefore welcomed every opportunity of pricking the bubble of its rulers’ pretensions, the case of Cardinal Richelieu was the most acceptable of parables. Hubris invites its corresponding Nemesis. That dreadful stench, those worms battening on the living corpse, seemed poetically just and appropriate. During the Cardinal’s last hours, when the relics had failed to work and the doctors had given him up, an old peasant woman, who had a reputation as a healer, was called to the great man’s bedside. Muttering spells, she administered her panacea—four ounces of horse-dung macerated in a pint of white wine. It was with the taste of excrement in his mouth that the arbiter of Europe’s destinies gave up the ghost.

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