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Acid Attacks in Art: The Final Kiss

Maurice Level is justifiably regarded as the most characteristic writer of the "Conte Cruel" type of short story.

The cover of a 1901 edition of the periodical "Le Petit Journal", presenting "a husband using vitriol"

The cover of a 1901 edition of the periodical "Le Petit Journal", presenting "a husband using vitriol"

The Long History of Acid Attacks

Attacks using acid have increased in recent years. Primarily in some European countries; with parts of London witnessing widespread use of this devastating weapon. But it is in no way a new phenomenon: historically it has been popular, in a macabre way; beginning with the early 19th century and the large-scale production of sulfuric acid. There exists a well-documented history of the life-shuttering effects this type of attack brings about. And, particularly for a variant of this acid known as "oil of vitriol", the use had caused widespread fascination.

In-Between Two Wars

It can realistically be argued that vitriol attacks never would have died out, had the two world wars not caused a scarcity of available products containing sulfuric acid. Vitriol-armed attackers, so-called “vitrioleurs”, usually were taking revenge for spousal infidelity, or reacting to a break-up with a partner. This bleak and catastrophic vengeance, which only required a few seconds to materialize and needed no skill whatsoever in the handling of the weapon, inevitably caused panic. In the Paris of the “Belle Epoque”—the period between the defeat of France to Prussia and the start of the first World War—a number of artists presented the phenomenon; often in very memorable stories . . .

The Final Kiss

One of those stories was Maurice Level's Le Baiser dans la nuit – “The final kiss”. Like many other stories by Level – who was among the most prominent writers of the so-called “Conte Cruel” (cruel story) genre of fiction – the Final Kiss was also performed as a play, at the famous Parisian theater of the Grand Guignol. The Final Kiss is a story about the aftermath of an attack by vitriol. A mistress horribly deforms her ex-lover, when he announces that he will abandon her. She is then sent to court, and would have been placed behind bars for a large number of years, or possibly even for the remainder of her days, if it didn’t, curiously, happen that her own victim came to court to defend her!

The sad and deformed spectacle of that man did manage to convince the judges to let his ex-mistress go.

Maurice Level; a leading figure in the "Conte Cruel" subgenre of literature

Maurice Level; a leading figure in the "Conte Cruel" subgenre of literature

What He Wanted in Return

The man, now with a horribly disfigured face, and also entirely blind – because the vitriol burned his eyes, replacing them with frightening scar-tissue – communicated with the woman's lawyer, and asked that she would meet him for one last time. The woman accepts the invitation, since her lawyer advises her that it would be problematic if she didn’t. She arrives at her ex-lovers house, where – at first – all lights have been turned off, in order that his hideous form won't be visible.

She never saw him while he was speaking in court – she couldn’t bear looking at him. Now, in his house, where they are alone, she still wouldn’t wish to see his form – but keeps telling him how grateful she is, and how filled with remorse she is for what she did to him. The man seems to not want to hear more of this, and simply says that he too was to blame for what happened. The woman is moved by his words, and now regards him as a nearly saintly figure, a paragon of almost otherworldly kindness!

At some point, though, the man asks her to see his form, with the lights on. At length, she accepts to do so. Still, when the light reveals the devastating results of her actions, she almost shouts in horror… The man comments that he isn’t much to look at now, but he has a final request from his old mistress: he wants her to touch him, and to allow him to kiss her, for one last time…

The Paris of the Belle Epoque

The Paris of the Belle Epoque

The End Result

It is all a trick... Sadly, there was an ulterior motive to all of this. The man defended his ex-mistress in court, but with the end of luring her back to his house, and then managing to get close enough to her so that he could immobilize her – a blind man can only achieve that if he has a plan. When the woman has become unable to move, her deformed ex-lover opens up a bottle of vitriol, using his teeth (his hands are employed in keeping her next to him) and pours it all over the woman’s head.

Now, as he explains to her, she too will become a horrible monster, and also blind. In this way they can be together again, as lovers.

© 2018 Kyriakos Chalkopoulos