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«Small, Douglas Robert John (2013) Dementia's jester: the Phantasmagoria in metaphor and aesthetics from 1700-1900. PhD thesis. ...»

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158    characters into ecstatic, fascinating and modern personalities. It is worth paying attention, for example, to how often Oscar Wilde uses the term ‘curious’ in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891). Along with ‘monstrous’ it is one of the most frequently repeated adjectives in the novel, appearing several dozen times in a variety of situations. Although the complex eighteenth-century associations of the word had all but completely disappeared by the time Wilde came to write the book, he uses it in a way that is oddly reminiscent of those associations. In Dorian Gray, ‘curious’ often implies a mixture of the alluring and the disconcerting, a contradictory impulse or impression that the characters do not fully understand: Dorian finds a ‘curious charm’ in Lord Henry’s ‘flowerlike hands’,14 he decorates his rooms with ‘curious Renaissance tapestries’,15 the poisonous French novel is written in a ‘curious jewelled style’16 and at one point Dorian imagines ‘curious unpictured sins whose very mystery lent them their subtlety and charm’.17 This mixture of the odd and the attractive (the oddly attractive and the attractively odd) was at the heart of the curious aesthetic and it held a similar appeal for the decadents. Wilde’s use of it suggests a connection between decadent aesthetic thinking and the culture of curiosity: the allure of the strange.

But for the decadents there were even more compelling attractions to be found in the phantasmagorical. The excess, the wonder and the disorientation of the curious collection and the curious landscape seemed to open up a passageway into dream and unfettered imagination. The dynamism and energy of the phantasmagoria could reflect a vision of the inner life of the imagination that the decadents longed for, banishing the dull reality of normalcy and convention. Here again, the phantasmagoria seemed ideally tailored to decadent needs. In its oddness, in its grotesque and fantastical nature, the phantasmagorical subverted the propriety, the aesthetic unity and the restraint of conventional bourgeois values.

This last is of special importance because it provides the key to the social context of decadent phantasmagorias. In these decades, the phantasmagoria again plays out its role as an aesthetic of resistance. It seemingly disrupts normal certainties and undermines the normal standards of behaviour; it defies the authority of traditional values such as thrift, respectability and industry and escapes traditional aesthetic


Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, ed. Robert Mighall (London: Penguin, 2000), 23.

Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, 87.

Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, 121.

Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, 118.

159    categorisation. Interestingly, in re-emerging in the altered form of the phantasmagorical, these curious attitudes and aesthetics provoke many of the same responses as they did in the eighteenth century. The wry observation from Elizabeth Bonhôte’s The Rambles of Mr Frankly that ‘everyone who pretends to singularity is actuated by the love of fame: and was there no panegyric, there would be no antiquary’18 would not have seemed out of place over a century later. All that would have been necessary would have been to change ‘antiquary’ to ‘decadent’. Even more emphatically than in eighteenth-century curiosity satires, writers like Max Nordau recapitulated the traditional dictum that the taste for the monstrous or the unnatural revealed a person’s own inner unnaturalness and monstrosity. Thus, the curious was not only satirised but pathologised in these years.

As to the social context of decadent phantasmagorias, however, it is worth noting the words of Regenia Gagnier that ‘decadence [acts as] a tag referring to the relation between artist or work and society rather than a proper style’.19 It is therefore important to affirm at the outset that the phantasmagorical aesthetic is not the aesthetic of decadence. Rather, it is an aesthetic that fascinated many individual decadent authors and that also embodied, in its style and historical associations, the social relations that defined and shaped the wider decadent movement. Put simply, not all decadent works were phantasmagorical and, by the same token, the phantasmagorical form of writing was not confined to the decadent period – it was simply the most prominent period for the phantasmagorical in fiction. While the phantasmagoria may have been one of the favourite manifestations of decadent ideals, the phantasmagorical form endured up to our own age, beyond the social and political conditions that gave it such an appeal at the fin-de-siècle.

It does not seem unreasonable to trace the decadent love of the phantasmagoria to Edgar Allen Poe. Poe’s characters were often disturbing yet compelling, ruled by private esoteric and aesthetic obsessions and by curious tastes.

Their wealth allowed them to amass private collections of exquisite rarities which, in turn, offered them retreats from the outside world and, apparently, into their own dreams. The very strangeness of these men and the worlds they inhabited provided future phantasmagorical writers with an influential template. One intriguing


Elizabeth Bonhote, The Rambles of Mr Frankly (London: Printed for T. Becket, 1776), 160.

Regenia Gagnier, Idylls of the Marketplace: Oscar Wilde and the Victorian Public (Stanford, CA:

Stanford University Press, 1986), 67.

160    distinction, though, is that, unlike Poe, it is comparatively rare for decadent writers to explicitly reference the phantasmagoria itself. Poe, by contrast, makes the connection quite clear, describing the ‘phantasmagoric armorial trophies’20 in ‘The House of Usher’ and ‘the phantasmagorical influences’21 at work in ‘Ligeia’. The later decadent works are obviously phantasmagorical without invoking the magic lantern exhibitions that the aesthetic was derived from. (One notable exception to this is Jean Lorrain’s 1891 short story ‘The Magic Lantern’ which will be covered in more detail later.) The most likely explanation for this is that, given that almost a century separated Huysmans, Wilde, Lorrain and the other decadent phantasmagorical writers from the performances of Philidor and Robertson, the phantasmagoria was no longer as commonly understood a cultural reference as it was for Poe. In effect, later writers had been seduced by Poe’s aesthetics and his curious subject matter without fully understanding their origins in the phantasmagorias of the 1790s and 1800s. Once again, like the transference of associations from the culture of curiosity to the phantasmagoria, we can see the almost unconscious way that these aesthetics pass from one generation to the next, preserving elements of their original identities while the precise knowledge of their origins becomes obscured.

Poe’s influence on Huysmans’s Against Nature (À Rebours)  is not difficult to see; the novel’s protagonist Des Esseintes has obvious affinities with Usher, Prince Prospero and Ligeia’s husband. However, even before Against Nature, Huysmans’s ‘breviary’ of the decadence, it is not hard to find examples of the fascination that the phantasmagorical held for decadent writers. Edmond de Goncourt’s 1882 novel La Faustin, for instance, describes the life of its titular character, a famous Parisian actress, and provides an early example of the phantasmagorical aesthetic in action. At one point in the novel, overcome by ennui and a vague but pervasive melancholy, La Faustin retires to bed in the middle of the day and begins to read de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. At this point, de Goncourt breaks off his narration to address the reader directly, asking if, ‘In the unhappy times of your life, to escape from the unfriendly hours of the day have you never thought of going far away, of absenting yourself from existence during these hours, by the reading of a book by a man with an extravagant, unreasoning and


Edgar Allan Poe, The Portable Edgar Allan Poe, ed. J. Gerald Kennedy (London: Penguin, 2006), 129.

Poe, The Portable Edgar Allan Poe, 121.

161    lunatic imagination, and that in the somewhat hallucinatory surroundings of bed and darkness? Ah, well, that was the expedient that La Faustin discovered’.22 Already, before even describing La Faustin’s experience of reading de Quincey in detail, de Goncourt points us toward the alluring quality of the phantasmagoria – its power to arrest the imagination and to offer an escape from reality. What La Faustin shows us in this incident is, in effect, a miniature encapsulation of the experience of phantasmagorical literature. De Quincey’s ‘extravagant, unreasoning and lunatic imagination’ stimulates La Faustin’s own imagination so that the phantasmagorical quality of the work sets in motion a similar phantasmagoria in her own mind. Like Usher’s books, La Faustin’s reading of the Confessions elevates her to a higher state of

imaginative excitement, placing her in an ecstatic dream:

–  –  –

La Faustin’s experiences are in some ways even more explicitly phantasmagorical than de Quincey’s book itself. In fact, those passages that most excite La Faustin, the dramatic and phantasmagorical accounts of de Quincey’s opium dreams, only take up a comparatively small amount of space towards the end of his book. Her own mind concentrates the Confessions into a series of wild and disconnected visions; her imagination imposes the phantasmagoria of the book on her senses so that she sees it as a kaleidoscopic whirl of magic pictures. Importantly, De Goncourt emphasises the purely sensory and imaginative nature of La Faustin’s experiences by stressing her lack of intellectual comprehension. She, like a child, understands the book solely as marvel, only as spectacle. As a result of this, De Quincey’s writing, his scenarios and descriptions, have an explicitly drug-like function: they produce, as De Goncourt writes, an ‘intoxication of the imagination’. What is significant about this passage is that it demonstrates both the experience that the phantasmagorical reader desired to have, and the effect that the author of such a work desired to produce. De Quincey’s book was an account of his experiences with opium and the phantasmagorical nature of his work was an indirect consequence of this. However, later writers deliberately cultivated these phantasmagorias because they wished both to give their own imaginations the ‘extravagant’, ‘lunatic’ freedom that De Goncourt described and to offer their readers this same intoxication. La Faustin reads the Confessions for its ability to astound her, to transport her out of herself and, like Robertson’s phantasmagoria, ecstatically to bewilder her senses and confuse the distinction between material reality and fantasy. In addition to this, in illustrating the visions at play in La Faustin’s mind, in describing to us how she views De Quincey’s book, De Goncourt also transforms the book into a mass of singularities, a collection of extraordinary spectacles: the ‘strange world’ of water, fiery planets, dream-like architecture and women clothed in Oriental finery. Again, we can see how the


De Goncourt, La Faustin, 150-152.

163    experience of the phantasmagorical bears great similarity to the experience of the curious.

The line between the curious collection and the phantasmagoria is difficult to draw in this context – if it exists at all. In reading the Confessions, La Faustin imagines herself wandering in a fantastical landscape, observing its most astonishing and disconnected features. In effect, Confessions of an English OpiumEater is here presented to us as a collection: a collection of spectacular and curious images. Again, we must look back to De Goncourt’s description of how La Faustin reads and understands the work. She reads it as a child might read a fairy story, ‘perceiving only the marvel of the book’. What is significant in these lines is that De Goncourt does not seem to be belittling his character. He certainly does not seem to be trying to suggest anything inauthentic about La Faustin’s response or to undermine its potency. Rather, he describes an essential aspect of the experience. The phantasmagorical effect hinges upon the substitution of linear narrative for the panoptic sensation of wandering in a spectacular collection. La Faustin’s ignorance of historical context and her tendency to disregard the more traditional features of the work intensifies its phantasmagorical qualities and intensifies her own response to them. In the same way, many works of phantasmagorical literature follow the pattern of the curious collection. They de-emphasise the conventional elements of literature, such as the primacy of narrative, and instead focus on transforming themselves into collections of the marvellous and the peculiar through which the reader is implicitly encouraged to imagine themselves wandering.

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