Tales of Despair: The Fantastic Descent into Hell

Perhaps disheartened by the difficulty of writing an actual opera, in 1804 Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) had the bright idea to tell a musical story without the words, and so was born the programmatic symphony. His sixth orchestral masterpiece, the “Pastoral” symphony, was one of the first great musical creations to not just paint a scene or don a mood, but tell, from start to finish, a coherent and structured tale, through wordless music alone.

And it was a phenomenal achievement; through five intertwined movements, we are taken through the experience of the composer as he travels to an idyllic countryside, breathes in the beauty and serenity of the pastures and streams, and revels in the joyous dancing of the country folk. In a dark turn, we are overcome by a terrifying and violent storm, threatening to ravage the countryside, until finally it passes, and we rejoice with the shepherds. The story is, admittedly, rather naïve, but Beethoven was one of the great advocates of Goethe‘s humanism at the time, desperate for the belief that man was a better creature, and could aspire to beauty and greatness.

As the world moved forward into the romantic era, the youthful idealism became tainted with the dark reality of industrialism, war and poverty. Stories continued to be told, but they became ever darker. Composers and pianists, the rock starts of the nineteenth century, became corrupted by their popularity. Hector Berlioz (1803 – 1869), the infamous French composer, wrote many of his greatest works under the heavy influence of opium. In fact, perhaps his greatest tribute to Beethoven – a twisted retelling of his tale of beauty and serenity – is the Symphonie Fantastique, in which that very drug is the catalyst for a descent into murder and madness.

Being a child of the romantic era, Berlioz was infused with the passion and impetuosity of many of those of his generation, and he found himself infatuated with several women in his life. One of these, an Irish actress called Harriet, caught his fierce attention in Romeo and Juliet, and she became the inspiration for what is today perhaps his most enduring work.

Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique is, as was Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, a song with a tale to tell. Our young musician, in a dream of passion, discovers a woman who embodies his every ideal, and cannot rid her from his mind. He is delirious, love-struck, despairing and joyful, and sees her in his mind every waking moment. These thoughts consume him even as he passes through life – at a ball, a festive, joyous occasion, he cannot see the lights or the music. Wandering in the fields, by the brook and past the shepherds, he cannot but brood on his terrible loneliness. He wishes – hopes – that he may soon not be alone, but thoughts of betrayal of evil creep through his mind.

And then, the story takes a dark turn, and does not return. Convinced his love has forsaken him, he poisons himself with opium, and as he lays dying, he is plagued with the terrifying dream that he has murdered his only beloved. Powerless from the drug, he watches helplessly as he is captured, and led to the gallows. The crowd looks on, he cries out in despair – and, as the guillotine’s blade descends, he sees her in the crowd – alive.

And it does not end there. Dead, he finds himself transported to hell, lost in the midst of a witches’ Sabbath. Shadows, demons, sorcerers dance sickeningly around him, taunting and teasing him in his own death. And then – horror upon horror – he sees that she is a part of the diabolical gathering, that she is dancing to his death with the witches. As the bells of his death sound, the terrible creatures conspire to mock god, dancing over the ancient music of his wrath, and all is lost to perpetual darkness.

Inspired by the beautiful Harriet, Berlioz went on nonetheless to become engaged to a Camille, instead. When she spurned him, he raced to Paris, seeking to murder her, her mother and her fiancé. Eventually, when this plan failed, he returned to Harriet – and there, he discovered the painful truth behind infatuation. The two wed for a mere two years.

Berlioz would go on to produce one of the most famous renditions of the legend of Faust, who sold his soul to the devil. He separated from Harriet, and though he continued to provide for her for the rest of her life, she died not long after from severe alcohol abuse. His mistress, whom he eventually married, died eight years later. A girl for whom he had affection, only twenty-one years old, died also, and Berlioz was left with nothing but his grief.

At the age of only sixty, he began, in his despair, to wish for death, and not long after, he was stricken with violent abdominal pains. The pains soon grew and spread, and in the end, consumed him. On his death bed, he spoke these final words:

Enfin, on va jouer ma musique.

Tales of Despair: Perversity

The grunts of his sister and her clients ring loud through the thin partition. Emile hates her as he hates all women; women have only ever spurned him.

Later, her lover beats him, and then invites him to eat with them. Irma will not stop him, though she tends to her brother when he is gone.

Bebert does not like him, and is satisfied when Emile squirms. In the end he will stab Emile in front of his sister. Again, she will not stop him.

Emile will buy a gun, and will desire Bebert’s death; it isn’t his that comes.

Such are just some of the scenes that bring to life Francis Carco‘s (1886-1958) frankly stomach-churning painting of 1920s Parisian slums, Perversity (French: Perversité). The story is bleak and desperate, centered around three loathsome characters and filled with little hope. Emile is a clerk, unable to function without the reassurance of strict routine. Irma is a prostitute, working from her bedroom in the tiny, two-room apartment she shares with her brother. Bebert is the bully of the tale, lording ownership over Irma and taking great delight in the torment and abuse of Emile.

What is particularly unsettling about Perversity is Carco’s unflinching dedication to the deeply disturbing faults he has built into his characters, and he allows them no redemption. Emile and Irma are pushed to edge of human decency, and repeatedly make decisions that seem against the very grain of morality, yet each time we are left with the knowing that there was, of course, no other way it could have been. One of the most discomfiting scenes occurs half-way through the story, when Bebert walks in to find Emile and Irma talking together. As Emile shrinks away from him, his sister points out that he is afraid of Bebert. Rather than allowing his characters to escape  with a mere argument, Carco builds a tension so great that it is only finally released when Bebert brings out a pocket knife and stabs Emile repeatedly, smiling all the while and insisting that such ‘pricks’ don’t hurt at all, and he shouldn’t act as such a baby. When he is finally finished and allows Irma to bathe him in salt, she comes to him and tells him that Emile is bleeding profusely. His callous response is that such a thing is “quite natural, I assure you. It’s rather the contrary that would astonish me.”

I have read no other book that so encapsulates the despair and hurt of inescapable depression, and forces it on the reader without sympathy. This is a terribly uncomfortable read, and I found myself unable to continue at certain points, often for weeks at a time. Ultimately, it was a rewarding experience, for it is a tale that draws you in and does not let go. The uniqueness of this story is that it is not tension, fear or suspense that hooks its teeth into you, but rather the grim, hopeless lives of these three people who have no reason to live, yet push on regardless in spite of the filth and the pain.

Perversity is available in print and for Kindle on Amazon. Read it at your peril.