But this is till the same girl who once lived in the steppes, wild and indomitable. Even when she ceased to play in the falling snow, the snow continued to fall within her soul. She never sough lovers among the wealthy men and the crown princes who prostrated themselves before her; her heart, like her voice, remained faultless. The reputation, temperament and talent of the woman partook of exactly the same crystalline transparency and icy clarity. ("The Glass Of Blood")
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The madness of the eyes is the lure of the abyss. Sirens lurk in the dark depths of the pupils as they lurk at the bottom of the sea, that I know for sure - but I have never encountered them, and I am searching still for the profound and plaintive gazes in whose depths I might be able, like Hamlet redeemed, to drown the Ophelia of my desire.
There is nothing to be found in human eyes, and that is their terrifying and dolorous enigma, their abominable and delusive charm. There is nothing but that which we put there ourselves. That is why honest gazes are only to be found in portraits. The faded and weary eyes of martyrs, expressions tortured by ecstasy, imploring and suffering eyes, some resigned, others desperate... the gazes of saints, mendicants and princesses in exile, with pardoning smiles... the gazes of the possessed, the chosen and the hysterical... and sometimes of little girls, the eyes of Ophelia and Canidia, the eyes of virgins and witches... as you live in the museums, what eternal life, dolorous and intense, shines out of you! Like precious stones enshrined between the painted eyelids of masterpieces, you disturb us across time and across space, receivers of the dream which created you! You have souls, but they are those of the artists who wished you into being, and I am delivered to despair and mortification because I have drunk the draught of poison congealed in the irises of your eyes. The eyes of portraits ought to be plucked out.
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And then I recalled those mysterious stories about the waxworkers of the middle ages and the public reprobation attached to their trade. Did they not live in cellars, in the eternal twilight propitious for enchantments and apparitions? Their visionary art (who, more than they, evoked a truer image of life?) was closely related to that of magicians: bewitchments were carried out with wax figures, witch trials are full of them, and one particular legend haunted me above all, that of the modeler from Anspach, who slowly squeezed the soul and the life out of his model in order to animate his painted waxwork and then, having finished his work of art, awaited nightfall to go and bury the corpse in the ditch at the city walls.
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Then Chameroy spoke. 'You always put the blame on opium, but as I see it the case of Freneuse is much more complicated. Him, an invalid? No - a character from the tales of Hoffmann! Have you never taken the trouble to look at him carefully? That pallor of decay; the twitching of his bony hands, more Japanese than chrysanthemums; the arabesque profile; that vampiric emaciation - has all of that never given you cause to reflect? In spite of his supple body and his callow face Freneuse is a hundred thousand years old. That man has lived before, in ancient times under the reigns of Heliogabalus, Alexander IV and the last of the Valois. What am I saying? That man is Henri III himself. I have in my library an edition of Ronsard - a rare edition, bound in pigskin with metal trimmings - which contains a portrait of Henri engraved on vellum. One of these nights I will bring the volume here to show you, and you may judge for yourselves. Apart from the ruff, the doublet and the earrings, you would believe that you were looking at the Due de Freneuse. As far as I'm concerned, his presence here inevitably makes me ill - and so long as he is present, there is such an oppression, such a heaviness...
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8 April 1891 The obscenity of nostrils and mouths; the ignominious cupidity of smiles and women encountered in the street; the shifty baseness on every side, as of hyenas and wild beasts ready to bite: tradesmen in their shops and strollers on their pavements. How long must I suffer this? I have suffered it before, as a child, when, descending by chance to the servant's quarters, I overheard in astonishment their vile gossip, tearing up my own kind with their lovely teeth. This hostility to the entire race, this muted detestation of lynxes in human form, I must have rediscovered it later while at school. I had a repugnance and horror for all base instincts, but am I not myself instinctively violent and lewd, murderous and sensual? Am I any different, in essence, from the members of the riotous and murderous mob of a hundred years ago, who hurled the town sergeants into the Seine and cried, 'String up the aristos!' just as they shout 'Down with the army!' or 'Death to the Jews!
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The ring which you are holding, my friend, is identical to that one. I had it cut according to the model of the king's ring, and damascened in Spain. The original is still in the Escorial; it would have been pleasant to steal it, for I easily acquire the instincts of a thief when I am in a museum, and I always find objects which have a history - especially a tragic history - uniquely attractive. I am not an Englishman for nothing - but that which is easily enough accomplished in France is not at all practical in Spain: the museums there are very secure.
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His fame as an artist requires very tender care. Look what a mask of diplomacy is painstakingly formed by the whole of that fine profile; he is as wily as a cardinal. He has scented in Miss White a useful agent of celebrity, and he has come solely to harness her to the cause of his glory. It is himself that he courts by means of the salaams he offers to her; he only ever flirts with himself. He is the Narcissus of the inkpot...
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One encounters in the streets, late at night on the evenings of fetes, the most strange and bizarre passers-by. Do these nights of popular celebration cause ancient and forgotten avatars to stir in the depths of the human soul? This evening, in the movement of the sweaty and excited crowd, I am certain that I passed between the masks of the liberated Bythinians and encountered the courtesans of the Roman decadence. There emerged, this evening, from that swarming esplanade of Des Invalides - amid the crackle of fireworks, the shooting stars, the stink of frying, the hiccuping of drunkards and the reeking atmosphere of menageries - the wild effusions of one of Nero's festivals. It was like the odour of a May evening on the Basso-Porto of Naples. It was easy to believe that the faces in that crowd were Sicilian.
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the presence of others has become even more intolerable to me, their conversation most of all. Oh, how it all annoys and exasperates me: their attitudes, their manners, their whole way of being! The people of my world, all my unhappy peers, have come to irritate, oppress and sadden me with their noisy and empty chatter, their monstrous and boundless vanity, their even more monstrous egotism, their club gossip... the endless repetition of opinions already formed and judgments already made; the automatic vomiting forth of articles read in those morning papers which are the recognised outlet of the hopeless wilderness of their ideas; the eternal daily meal of overfamiliar cliches concerning racing stables and the stalls of fillies of the human variety... the hutches of the 'petites femmes' - another worn out phrase in the dirty usury of shapeless expression! Oh my contemporaries, my dear contemporaries... Their idiotic self-satisfaction; their fat and full-blown self-sufficiency: the stupid display of their good fortune; the clink of fifty- and a hundred-franc coins forever sounding out their financial prowess, according their own reckoning; their hen-like clucking and their pig-like grunting, as they pronounce the names of certain women; the obesity of their minds, the obscenity of their eyes, and the toneless-ness of their laughter! They are, in truth, handsome puppets of amour, with all the exhausted despondency of their gestures and the slackness of their chic... Chic! A hideous word, which fits their manner like a new glove: as dejected as undertakers' mutes, as full-blown as Falstaff... Oh my contemporaries: the ceusses of my circle, to put it in their own ignoble argot. They have all welcomed the moneylenders into their homes, and have been recruited as their clients, and they have likewise played host to the fat journalists who milk their conversations for the society columns. How I hate them; how I execrate them; how I would love to devour them liver and lights - and how well I understand the Anarchists and their bombs!
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The fancies that take their monstrous birth from the spinelessness and boredom of usurped wealth bring in their wake every defect... and though rich men's crimes escape the law, protected as they are by the cowardice of governments and people, Nature, more real than society, sets her anarchic example by abandoning the wretched time servers of Capital to the shame and madness of the worst aberrations.
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At this point, the sequence of my memories is disrupted. I sank into a chaos of brief, incoherent and bizarre hallucinations, in which the grotesque and the horrible kept close company. Prostrate, as if I were being garrotted by invisible cords, I floundered in anguish and dread, oppressively ridden by the most unbridled nightmares. A whole series of monsters and avatars swarmed in the shadows, coming to life amid draughts of sulphur and phosphorus like an animated fresco painted on the moving wall of sleep. There followed a turbulent race through space. I soared, grasped by the hair by an invisible hand of will: an icy and powerful hand, in which I felt the hardness of precious stones, and which I sensed to be the hand of Ethal. Dizziness was piled upon dizziness in that flight to the abyss, under skies the colour of camphor and salt, skies whose nocturnal brilliance had a terrible limpidity. I was spun around and around, in bewildering confusion, above deserts and rivers. Great expanses of sand stretched into the distance, mottled here and there by monumental shadows. At times we would pass over cities: sleeping cities with obelisks and cupolas shining milk-white in the moonlight, between metallic palm-trees. In the extreme distance, amid bamboos and flowering mangroves, luminous millennial pagodas descended towards the water on stepped terraces.
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Look, de Mazel, you've known him for years - hasn't he been known to sleep for forty hours in two days?' 'Forty hours?' 'Certainly. He awoke at meal times, just to take nourishment, and afterwards fell again into his torpor. And Freneuse had a strange horror of sleep; there was some abnormal phenomenon associated with it, some lesion of the brain or neurotic depression.' 'The troublesome cerebral anaemia which results from excessive debauchery. Another myth! I've never believed, myself, in the supposed debauchery of that poor gentleman. Such a frail chap, with such a delicate complexion! Quite frankly, there was no scope in him for debauchery. 'Pooh! About as much as Lorenzaccio!' 'You associate him with the Medicis! Lorenzaccio was a Florentine impassioned by rancour, a man of energy slowly brooding over his vengeance, caressing it as he might caress the blade of a dagger! There is not the slightest comparison to be drawn between Lorenzaccio and that gall-green, liverish creature Freneuse.
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March 1898 What a strange dream I had last night! I wandered in the warm streets of a port, in the low quarter of some Barcelona or Marseille. The streets were noisome, with their freshly-heaped piles of ordure outside the doors, in the blue shadows of their high roofs. They all led down towards the sea. The gold-spangled sea, seeming as if it had been polished by the sun, could be seen at the end of each thoroughfare, bristling with yard-arms and luminous masts. The implacable blue of the sky shone brilliantly overhead as I wandered through the long, cool and sombre corridors in the emptiness of a deserted district: a quarter which might almost have been dead, abruptly abandoned by seamen and foreigners. I was alone, subjected to the stares of prostitutes seated at their windows or in the doorways, whose eyes seemed to ransack my very soul. They did not speak to me. Leaning on the sides of tall bay-windows or huddled in doorways, they were silent. Their breasts and arms were bare, bizarrely made up in pink, their eyebrows were darkened, they wore their hair in corkscrew-curls, decorated with paper flowers and metal birds. And they were all exactly alike! They might have been huge marionettes, or tall mannequin dolls left behind in panic - for I divined that some plague, some frightful epidemic brought from the Orient by sailors, had swept through the town and emptied it of its inhabitants. I was alone with these simulacra of love, abandoned by the men on the doorsteps of the brothels. I had already been wandering for hours without being able to find a way out of that miserable quarter, obsessed by the fixed and varnished eyes of all those automata, when I was seized by the sudden thought that all these girls were dead, plague-stricken and putrefied by cholera where they stood, in the solitude, beneath their carmine plaster masks... and my entrails were liquefied by cold. In spite of that harrowing chill, I was drawn closer to a motionless girl. I saw that she was indeed wearing a mask... and the girl in the next doorway was also masked... and all of them were horribly alike under their identical crude colouring... I was alone with the masks, with the masked corpses, worse than the masks... when, all of a sudden, I perceived that beneath the false faces of plaster and cardboard, the eyes of these dead women were alive. Their vitreous eyes were looking at me... I woke up with a cry, for in that moment I had recognised all the women. They all had the eyes of Kranile and Willie, of Willie the mime and Kranile the dancer. Every one of the dead women had Kranile's left eye and Willie's right eye... so that every one of them appeared to be squinting. Am I to be haunted by masks now?
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I had, therefore, to resign myself to commissioning a duplicate from a jeweller in Madrid. They did the work very nicely. The claws are curiously shaped, but the true marvel is the stone; it is so very limpid and weighs many carats, but notice also how it is hollowed out! You see that drop of green oil which takes the place of the internal tear? It is a drop of poison, an Indian toxin which strikes so rapidly and so corrosively that it only requires to come into momentary contact with one of a man's mucous membranes to rob him of his senses and induce rigour mortis. 'It is instant death, certain but painless suicide, that I carry in this emerald. One bite' - and Ethal made as if to raise the ring to his lips - 'and with a single bound one has quit the mundane world of base instincts and crude works, to enter eternity. 'Look upon the truest of friends: a deus ex machina which defies public opinion and cheats the police of their prey... ' He laughed briefly. 'After all, we live in difficult times, and today's magistrates are so very meticulous. Salute as I do, my dear friend, the poison which saves and delivers. It is at your service, if ever the day should come when you are weary of life!
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It is said that one of his acquaintances - an old school-friend and a painter as highly-valued and as fashionable as himself - became an idiot in less than two years as a result of frequenting Claudius' studio. Certain cigarettes prepared by Ethal are said to provoke the worst debauchery; and it is said that the young Duchess of Searley was dead in six months, by virtue of having breathed the scent of certain strange and heady flowers in his home, whose peculiar property is to make the skin lustrous and the eyes delectably hollow. According to Tairamond, dangerous elixirs of beauty are offered by Claudius to those who pose for him. The Marchioness of Beacoscome might have died too, if she had not been ordered by her doctors to suspend her sittings. These marvellous flowers which generate pallors and shadowed eyes contain within their perfume, it seems, the germ of consumption. For love of beauty, in his fervour for delicate flesh-tints and expressions swamped with languor, Claudius Ethal would poison his models! Tairamond also asked me if I had seen Ethal wearing a certain emerald mounted in a ring, whose green depths contain a poison so powerful that a single drop on the lips of a man would suffice to strike him down. Ethal has allegedly tested that frightful glaucous death two or three times, before witnesses, on dogs. Cantharidian cigarettes, opium pipes, venomous flowers, Far-Eastern poisons and murderous rings... I knew nothing about any of this. Ethal has never breathed a word of it to me. The tales which Tairamond told gave me entry into a fearful and dismal legend. The corrupter and perverter of ideas that I already knew him to be was overtaken by a new image: he was, definitively, a poisoner: an impish master of every kind of venom.
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The Marquis de V... - whose falsetto voice and little watery eyes I have always detested - was saying to me with a wicked smile: 'Then again, the master gymnast might break his neck at any moment. What he is doing now is very dangerous, my dear, and the pleasure you take in his performance is the little frisson that danger affords you. Wouldn't it be thrilling, if his sweaty hand failed to grip the bar? The velocity acquired by his rotation about the bar would break his spine quite cleanly, and perhaps a little of the cervical matter might spurt out as far as this! It would be most sensational, and you would have a rare emotion to add to the field of your experience - for you collect emotions, don't you? What a pretty stew of terrors that man in tights stirs up in us! 'Admit that you almost wish that he will fall! Me too. Many others in the auditorium are in the same state of attention and anguish. That is the horrible instinct of a crowd confronted with a spectacle which awakens in it the ideas of lust and death. Those two agreeable companions always travel together! Take it from me that at the very same moment - see, the man is now holding on to the bar by his fingertips alone - at the very same moment, a good number of the women in these boxes are ardently lusting after that man, not so much for his beauty as for the danger he courts.' The voice subtly changed its tone, suddenly becoming more interested. 'You have singularly pale eyes this evening, my dear Freneuse. You ought to give up bromides and take valerian instead. You have a charming and curious soul, but you must take command of its changes. You are too ardently and too obviously covetous, this evening, of the death - or at least the fall - of that man.' I did not reply. The Marquis de V... was quite right. The madness of murder had taken hold of me again; the spectacle had me in its hallucinatory grip. Straitened by a penetrating and delirious anguish, I yearned for that man to fall. There are appalling depths of cruelty within me.
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Against a set of desolate scenery, amid spectral crags and livid mountains of ash, beneath the funereal daylight of slopes illuminated in blue, she personified the spirit of the witches' sabbat. Morbid and voluptuous, sometimes with extenuated grace and infinite lassitude, she seemed to carry the burden of a criminal beauty, a beauty charged with all the sins cf the multitude. She fell again and again upon her pliant legs, and as she outlined the symbolic gestures of her two beautiful dead arms she seemed to be towing them behind her. Then, the vertigo of the abyss took hold of her again, and like one possessed she stood on point, holding herself fully erect from top to toe, like a spike of flesh and shadows. Her arms, weighed down just a few moments earlier, became menacing, demoniac, and audacious. Twisting like a screw, she whirled around, like a winnowing-machine - no, like a great lily stirred by a storm-wind. Clownish and macabre, a nacreous gleam showed between her lips... oh, that cruel and sardonic smile, and the two deep pools of her terrible eyes! Ize Kranile!
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Ensor sees with his imagination, but his vision is perfectly accurate, of an almost geometric precision. He is one of the very few who can really see. Like you, he has an obsession with masks; he is a seer as you and I are. The common herd, of course thinks that he is mad.*****************You shall see what sort of man Ensor is, and what a marvellous insight he has into the invisible realm where our vices are created... those vices for which our faces make masks.
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