September 1, 2009

The Taint of Lucre by Leon Bloy, translated by Gilbert Alter-Gilbert

thousand dollar bloy bill

by Leon Bloy
Translated from the French by Gilbert Alter-Gilbert

"Have pity on a poor psychic, please!"

It's a story of the most banal sort. He had had the misfortune of being stricken with clairvoyance after surviving a shocking catastrophe in which a great number of good people met a miserable end.

It was, I believe, a railway accident; at least, so far as I can tell, it wasn't a shipwreck, a fire, or an earthquake. Who can say for sure? He didn't like to talk about it and, despite whatever ingenious and well-intended precautions or stratagems anyone adopted, he was always unstrung and insulted by the curiosity of do-gooders.

I will always remember his decorous supplicant's bearing at the foot of the basilica steps where he solicited alms. Because his ruin had been absolute.

It was impossible to resist a feeling of respectful sympathy for so unusual and so nobly persevering an unfortunate.

One felt that this queer individual had formerly known, better than most, the sweet delights of blindness.

A brilliant education, no doubt, had served to refine in him that exquisite faculty for seeing nothing which is the prerogative of all men, almost without exception, and the decisive criterion of their superiority over simple brutes.

It wasn't much of a trick to puzzle out, with an involuntary shudder of emotion, that, before his accident, he had been one of those exceptionally blind men called upon to become society's glitterati, and he retained from that epoch the melancholy of a prince of shadows exiled to the light.

The contributions, meanwhile, didn't exactly cascade into the old hat which he drooped in front of passersby. A beggar afflicted with an acute infirmity stymied the generosity of the devout but disconcerted parishioners who hated themselves, catching sight of him, while filing into the sanctuary.

Instinctively, one mistrusts a necessitous person who stares unflinchingly at the noonday sun, who all too clearly sees things as they truly are. There was no telling what heinous crime, what nameless sacrilege he had to expiate in some way and, from a safe distance, parents pointed him out to their offspring as a living testimonial to the redoubtable verdicts of God.

Those who encountered him even felt, for an instant, the fear of contagion, and the curate of the parish had been on the point of expelling him. Happily, a group of honorable church officials whose competence couldn't be questioned, had declared, not without a bitter twinge of distaste but, in the most authoritative and incontrovertible manner: "it isn't catching."


He subsisted thus, stingily, from occasional alms and from the meager fruit of the tenuous occupations at which he excelled.

He was a glutton for threading needles. He could also string pearls with breathtaking rapidity. For my own part, I was forced to seek him out not long ago and, several times, to take recourse to him to decipher the works of a renowned mystic who had adopted the habit of writing with a camel's hair cleft into four strands.

It was thus that we got to know one another and that we formed the regrettable bond that came, one day, to cost me so dearly.

God preserve me from being hard on a poor freak who, moreover, has been sadly buried in his grave for some time now! But consider how nefarious must have been the effect on my young imagination of the influence of an individual who taught me the secret science -- forgotten for centuries -- of telling a lion from a pig and a Himalaya from a heap of bran.

This dangerous knowledge almost led to my perdition. I teetered but a hair's breadth from sharing the fate of my preceptor. As it turned out, I was no closer than groping. That word says it all.

My lucky star, thank heaven, saved me from the abyss! I was able to extricate myself little by little from this baleful influence until I definitively broke the spell and resumed my role as an adequate figure among all the other moles and millipedes who blunder through the blindman's-buff of life.

But it took time, lots of time, and I was reduced to handing over a considerable part of my worldly goods to retain the rarefied services of a famed occultist from Chicago who, after an interminable series of intense sessions steered me definitively from the light.

Meanwhile, I yearned to know what had become of the wretched beggar; I will now relate how he ended up:

For a few more years, he kept up his clairvoyant's scam outside the door of the cathedral. His affliction, it is said, worsened with age. The older he got, the clearer he could see. The alms diminished proportionately.

The vicars gave him a few farthings to ease their consciences. Otherwise it was only gullible, unsuspecting strangers or persons of the lowest circumstances who, in all probability, had in themselves the seeds of clairvoyance, who came to his aid.

The blind man at the other door, a just and pitiful man who really raked it in, blessed the clairvoyant with a humble offering on the days of the grand carillon.

But all that put together amounted to next to nothing, and the revulsion he inspired mounted daily, and it didn't take much of a stretch of the imagination to guess that it wouldn’t be long before he starved to death.

Believing this himself, he swore an oath. Cynically, he flaunted his infirmity, the way the legless cripples, the goitered, the ulcerated, the demented, the arthritic displayed theirs during votive feasts in the countryside. He held himself under your nose, so to speak, forcing you, as it were, to inhale.

The disgust and indignation of the public were at their peak, and the fate of the reprobate hung by a thread, when there supervened an event as prodigious as it was unexpected. The derelict clairvoyant lucked into an inheritance from an American grandnephew who had become preposterously wealthy from artificial fertilizer and who'd been devoured by the cannibals of Auricania.

The ex-mendicant no longer needed to plead for scraps, but claimed in full the estate of his grandnephew, and straightaway set out to hurl himself headlong into a titanic binge of riotous living. One easily imagines that the fantastic and almost monstrous lucidity which had rendered him a celebrity would immediately bloat and mutate as he, like a consumptive suddenly gripped by uncontrollable seizures, precipitated himself into a rage of profligacy and dissolution.

It was precisely the opposite which happened.

A few months later he fell gravely ill -- and his condition was inoperable. He lost all clairvoyance and even became completely deaf.

No longer living on rancid tripe and rinsed-off garbage, he was finally delivered from the external world -- by the taint of lucre.

TRANSLATOR: Gilbert Alter-Gilbert

(Image created using a 1922 bill from the collection of Iliazd. I wanted to use this stunning collage by Mark Wagner but didn't hear from him in time.)


  1. utterly gripping - written to the beat of hunger's fury

  2. "But consider how nefarious must have been the effect on my young imagination of the influence of an individual who taught me the secret science -- forgotten for centuries -- of telling a lion from a pig and a Himalaya from a heap of bran."

    That's great writing. Thanks for sharing this.