Irretito Animae
by Robert Wexelblatt


On a rainy Tuesday in September, 1751, Roland Busette, Bishop of Nantes, ordered his carriage to take him to the town of Cholet where Jules La Detterie, the Bishop had just learned, lay on his deathbed. Cholet sits on the northern approach to the hills of Vendée, so it was an uphill journey from the Loire made more arduous by the ceaseless rain. Busette was determined to speak with the philosopher, who had twice been expelled from France and had only recently returned from Prussia. In his robe the Bishop placed a small blue velvet pouch and a copy of La Detterie's latest tract, already included on the Index and under state review. In it, the freethinker, presumably for the final time, reiterated his arguments against the existence of God, confirmed his materialism, detailed the Church's baleful influence on human affairs, and laid out a two-stage hedonism in which the only value that trumped private pleasure was that of the public. As always, the Bishop found La Detterie's style captivating, even seductive: calm, level-headed, logical, untainted by rancor, defiance, or compunction.

La Detterie's ideas had never troubled the Bishop as much as his colleagues. He had met the man on half a dozen occasions and even disputed with him at one memorable soirée. La Detterie was a reprobate and yet he spoke simply, with complete honesty. He never sought simply to shock; in fact, there was something appealingly forthright, even childish about him. As for his ideas--the exclusive reliance on reason, the belief in nothing beyond bodies and motion, this whole new paganism of the intellect--such notions were human creations and Busette knew men were infinitely weaker than God. Jules La Detterie was, to be sure, an adversary and by no means an unworthy one; yet the Bishop could not help esteeming and even liking the fellow. If not, he would have kept out of the autumn rain.

The inn was what one would expect in a place like Cholet: not clean, not comfortable, not painted. It crouched like a beggar up close to the highway. Behind its crooked chimneys the hills rose in the south. In the best of weather these hills were hardly impressive; owing to the rain they were almost invisible. Where the courtyard was not inches deep in water the stones were slippery with muck. Manure, sweat, spilled wine, urine and bean cassoulet furnished the chief aromas of the place whose proprietor, in a state of unctuous exhilaration, rushed out to meet his poor guest's latest distinguished visitor. He had never seen such a parade of luminaries: scholars, academics, aristocratic women, and now His Grace the Bishop of Nantes. Who would have suspected that a consumptive scribbler in a shabby German frockcoat could furnish such an attraction?

The host bowed low. "Your Grace, welcome. I'll have your horses seen to at once. I would apologize for these puddles but the rain too is sent by God. I say too because, beyond doubt, He has sent you to my unfortunate guest for the easing of his poor soul. Please, please come in."

"I may assume the man is still alive?" asked Busette grandly.

This question slowed the loquacious innkeeper only momentarily. "Alive? Oh, yes. Barely, barely, but most definitely alive. He has been entertaining two ladies for the last half an hour."

"Two women? Tell me, what does the doctor say?"

The host merely shrugged, as if the Bishop were one of his regulars, then remembered himself and shook his head sadly. A doctor? Cholet had only Molinier the barber. Quiet at last, he conducted the Bishop through the low doorway and showed him to the stairs.

Two well-dressed females were just departing. The Bishop met them on the landing. He recognized the elder, whose eyes were wet. It was the once-notorious and still-handsome Comtesse de Royen. She bowed coldly to him and introduced her daughter, Hélène, who turned to the Bishop with big, surprised eyes and, making a slight curtsey, stared at his ring as if uncertain if she were obliged to kiss it.

"You won't find him in a repentant mood, Father," said the Comtesse.

"Repentance, my Lady, is not a mood. It is a turning of the whole soul. Pardon me, but I'm surprised to see you here with your daughter."

The Comtesse did not blush. "Hélène was always a great favorite with Jules, and he with her."

The girl shuffled her feet. The Bishop wondered if she might be a bit backward.

"Yes," said the Bishop who understood the Comtesse perfectly and rather admired her aristocratic self-possession, even if it was owing to the cardinal sin of pride. After all, pride is not invariably a sin, nor, Heaven knows, are cardinals immune to it. He bowed to the women, then swept straight into La Detterie's room unannounced, his robe swishing against the doorway.

The bed was only a foot or two above the bare floorboards. There was an old armoire, a small table, two basins, a pitcher and a chamberpot. Everything looked gray, as though fashioned from ashes or penetrated by the gloomy weather.

Jules La Detterie lay on his back, looking equally gray. His face was pinched, cheeks hollow, eyes glazed. But his wit had not deserted him.

"Illness is a magnet," he groaned. "First it draws the doctors and then the priests. Seneca had the right idea--first the lightning."

"I believe that bon mot was a prayer," said the Bishop.

"Not quite, Your Grace. Stoics accepted all that happened; consequently, for them prayer was superfluous. Why pray that nature will take her course?"

"Surely prayer is not always aimed at miracles."

"Not for the saints, perhaps," La Detterie gasped, "but for your flock praying's a plea against nature, isn't it?"

"I'm truly sorry to see you so low, Monsieur La Detterie--Jules, if I may--but I'm pleased to find your mind so sharp. I admire that mind of yours very much, more than you suspect."

The sick man's voice was bitter but without force. "Your admiration is a surprise, risky too. The Church damns my work and the State throws me out--and all for talking sense."

The Bishop smiled. "When wasn't it risky to talk sense?"

"That's so."

"I came as soon as I heard you'd fallen ill."

"A visit as generous as it is futile, presuming you've traveled all this way to save my soul." The sick man coughed. "Pity about the weather."

"Yes. The road was terrible."

La Detterie pushed himself up a little on his elbows. "I don't suppose you know the story of the Franciscan and the condemned man? I picked it up in Prussia."

"What is it?"

"The day appointed for the execution was as miserable as this. All the way to the gallows the condemned man complained about having to be hanged in such dreary weather. The Franciscan broke off his prayers and indignantly told the man he had no right to whine. 'You only have to walk to the gallows, while I have to walk all the way back again.'"

The Bishop could see that it gave the sick man pleasure to tell this story. He laughed to the degree expected. "Amusing . . . may I?" He gestured toward the bed.

La Detterie managed a nod and the Bishop of Nantes seated himself at the foot of the bed, being careful to avoid the sick man's feet.

"Have you any better comfort for me?" asked La Detterie with pathetic irony.

"On the contrary, Jules. I've come to tell you I've read your latest tract and that you've won."

"Pardon me?"

"You've convinced me. I've decided to leave the Church."


"Your arguments have overwhelmed me. Today will be my last as a bishop. How could I spend it better than by saying farewell to my instructor, my Socrates?"

"You've lost your faith?"

"I'm surprised by your choice of words, Jules. I hardly need to tell you that illusions are not lost like keys or misplaced watches. One's eyes are opened. You've opened mine."

La Detterie was too weak to raise his head further. Still, he looked sharply at the Bishop who said, "I thought you'd be pleased."


"Nature, as you so eloquently write, is the only subject worthy of a philosopher's attention. There is nothing higher, nothing beyond her . . . physical operations."

"Of which death is one," whispered La Detterie.

"Yes indeed, merely another process, like the one that I presume produced that charming Hélène sixteen or so years ago."

"So, you're sure?" asked the dying man.

"Utterly convinced," retorted the Bishop cheerfully. "And by you."

La Detterie spoke hesitantly, his voice faltering. "But--I'm a skeptic myself."

"How well I know it!"

"I mean that, unlike you, I'm not sure."

"I beg your pardon?"

The sick man's wasted body trembled as he coughed, and he shut his eyes in pain. He shook his head slowly back and forth. "You're evidently a man who demands certainty--first of faith and now of faithlessness."

"Of course. A man wants to know precisely how things stand. You don't agree?"

"We're not alike. You answer questions; I question answers."

"Oh, you're too modest, Jules. You do more than question worn-out answers. You absolutely annihilate them. Besides, it's not true that you give no answers. You offer entirely convincing ones, as I said." Here the Bishop carefully took from his robe La Detterie's tract and read a marked passage. "Is there a God? Though countless generations have wished it so, their numbers constitute no valid argument. Is there an after-life? No doctrine makes it more obvious that religion exploits our terrors and hopes. Is death a transition or is it final? Alas, it is final. We simply cease to exist. Death is no mystery. It is the same as being unborn, neither better nor worse. The dead are beyond justice because they are outside of being. Those bodies that are buried decay and those that are burnt liberate phlogiston. I particularly like that touch about phlogiston, Jules."

"I am a man of science," La Detterie declared weakly.

"Indeed, and, as I keep assuring you, you've converted me to this new faith, which is not a faith at all but something higher and better," said the Bishop with enthusiasm.

La Detterie began to twist on his bed as if he were being racked by an inquisitor. "No, no," he wheezed. "You miss the point. Science isn't founded on certainty but doubt."

"What's that? I don't believe I heard clearly."

"Doubt. Descartes. Hypothesis. Proof." Each word required one breath, none of them substantial.

The Bishop looked scandalized. He held up the pamphlet. "Then you aren't sure of what you wrote here?"

"Provisional. Subject to revision."

"But . . . if that's so, then you don't know whether there's a Judge or not?"

"Knowledge is of several degrees. Techne is not Episteme." Le Detterie groaned pedantically.

"What are you saying? That there may really be an after-life?"

La Detterie was wandering but his tone was still sarcastic. "Apostolic succession. Authority founded on a pun."

"On this rock, yes. Yes, I know. But you're evading the issue, Jules. Look, my eternal life's at stake here. What do you really mean to say? This is all-important to me."

La Detterie's eyes fluttered open and his chest seemed to collapse a bit. He was barely capable of forming words. "This place. So awful. Frightened," he whispered, looking not at the Bishop but the ceiling beams.

"I see," crooned the Bishop, as if he had suddenly become deeply thoughtful. "I suppose that too is nature speaking. . . . Look here, Jules. I haven't resigned yet. I'm still the Bishop of Nantes, even if you have shattered my faith. What can it matter if one unbeliever goes through an empty ritual with another?"


The Bishop extracted the little blue velvet pouch. "Non-existence is so close," he whispered softly, inveiglingly. "Just as before you were born, Jules. Nature alone endures. We must fill this little time somehow. I can scarcely leave you alone, like the Comtesse." He leaned over the dying man.

"You just tell me anything you want to get off your chest, I put an insignificant smudge of oil on your forehead and mumble some meaningless Latin--what can it matter? And besides, as you say, your brilliant tract is provisional. There could be a revision quite soon."

Ten minutes later the Bishop of Nantes, that cunning hunter of souls, strolled out of the room of the defunct freethinker with a smile on his lips. The tract he left on the bed.


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