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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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178    objective reality, but as a consequence of perpetual disturbances. Thus there gradually emerged a psychopathological form of the fantastic, in which phantoms became identified with phantasms’.57 The progress of this movement can be seen in Jean Lorrain’s ‘The Magic Lantern’ in which the narrator’s nostalgia for the traditional gothic is dismissed as ‘gallows, undulous plants and cemetery crosses.’ ‘Admit it,’ he narrator’s friend laughingly exclaims, ‘you miss all that Tony Johannot stuff’.58 By 1891, when Lorrain wrote the story, the terrors of the gothic were almost cosy compared to the terrors the mind could summon for itself; Tony Johannot’s early nineteenth-century gothic illustrations inspire Lorrain’s narrator only with nostalgia.

This removal of the supernatural into the brain of the observer and the consequent development of a literature that was, like Poe’s ‘Usher’ and ‘Ligeia’, one part fantasy and one part psychology, expresses the prevalence of a phantasmagorical model of the mind. The sense of the unreliable nature of sensations and a delight in the untameable nature of the imagination recur throughout discussions of decadent culture and decadent literature. Paul Bourget, in his 1889 work Etudes Anglaises (an account of a journey he made to the English lake district in 1882) eulogises both of these phantasmagorical qualities. His speculations on the nature of consciousness reveal both the problems and the potential inherent in this way of visualising the human


–  –  –


Jean Pierrot, The Decadent Imagination (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 147-148.

Jean Lorrain, ‘The Magic Lantern’ in Roger Luckhurst, ed., Late Victorian Gothic Tales (Oxford:

Oxford University Press, 2005), 173.

–  –  –

In Bourget’s writings, we can see how the Poe-esque dread of subtle influences perverting our senses and the underlying inability of those senses to truly grasp an immutable picture of our world, nevertheless gives way to a celebration of the opportunities that this sate of being affords us. The illusions produced in the brain, in fact, provide solace for the soul. In this sense we can see how decadent discourse preserves much of the ambiguous character of earlier representations of the phantasmagorical. The potency of the imagination at once threatens the stability of sanity and rational perceptions and seemingly frees us from the tyranny of the real. Its paradoxical character can be seen in Pierrot’s analysis of contemporary observations on the decadent artist, a description that might equally have applied to Usher, Ligeia’s unfortunate husband or Des Esseintes: ‘[There was an] exacerbation of their nervous sensibilities that led artists to live in a state of constant mental erethism; an atrophy of the will eventually resulting in the triumph of uncontrolled association of ideas and anarchic reverie’.60 However, this hyperactivity of the imagination is also something to be celebrated, cultivated and, as we see in Bourget’s words ‘courageously augmented’. This is, of course, what Des Esseintes does in his zealous pursuit of selfdeception and the imaginative embellishments of his experiences. His great project (enthusiastically imitated by later decadents) is, in his own words, to ‘organise a life of dreamy contemplation’,61 or, as Bourget puts it, to escape into that ‘more intense and more opulent dream world’. Indeed, the preponderance of dream imagery that appears within Against Nature, and that occurs throughout contemporary decadent discourse in general, is significant in understanding the role that the phantasmagorical plays in the literature of the period. Huysmans himself referred to Against Nature as a ‘cauchemar raffinée’ – a refined nightmare. However, throughout much of Huysmans art criticism, ‘the word is used in a favourable sense and is suggestive of escape… [Likewise] the


Quoted in: Pierrot, The Decadent Imagination, 35-36.

Pierrot, The Decadent Imagination, 61-62.

Huysmans, Against Nature, 198.

180    word ‘raffinée’ is of major importance here, for it suggests a retouching of the actual raw material of dreams’.62 Similarly, when Zola complained to Huysmans about the book’s lack of an orderly, scientific study of the development of Des Esseintes’s neuroses, Huysmans responded that he agreed and would, in fact, have liked to have set the entire novel in the realm of dreams – rather than keeping it tied to the ground of reality – where flaws in logic would have been irrelevant.63 Huysmans’ remark bears an obvious similarity to Hawthorne’s advocacy of ‘an atmosphere of strange enchantment’ in the works of the American Romancer.64 Huysmans seems to want his book to tap into a place of unreality, to exalt the fantastical and sever its connection to normal, real-world experiences. Des Esseintes’s preference for a nocturnal; existence (awake between five in the evening and five in the morning65) conforms to this. Not only is he up and about while the rest of the world is asleep – intensifying his sense of isolation – this way he lives his whole life enveloped in darkness and the time of dreams, sleeping through boring daily reality.

This is one way in which the dream is persistently figured in this period, as an alternative to reality and a means by which to break free of the real. Again, it is worth recalling that, through its phantasmagorical qualities, Against Nature both distances itself from any sense of a connection to normal experience and also revolves around a character who, himself, wishes to pass entirely into his own dreams. To more fully develop the connection between the phantasmagorical and the decadent love of dream it is worth looking back to Bourget’s remark that opium, hashish and strong drink are ‘one way of unlocking the door to a more intense, more systematic, and more opulent dream world’. This association between the narcotic and the dream world is almost endemic in decadent literature. Remembering the decadent movement in the early decades of the Twentieth Century, Camille Mauclair made the remark that ‘dreams were their cocaine’,66 suggesting that not only was the narcotic a gateway to dream but one could, in a sense, become intoxicated with dreams. This mirroring of the action of drugs in the action of dreams can be seen in Jean Lorrain’s Monsieur de Phocas. When the protagonist, the young Duc de Fréneuse, is given opium at a party,


Antosh, Reality and Illusion in the Novels of J. K. Huysmans, 88.

Antosh, Reality and Illusion in the Novels of J. K. Huysmans, 93.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance (Boston: Osgood, 1871), p. iv.

Huysmans, Against Nature, 19.

Pierrot, The Decadent Imagination, 181.

–  –  –

A more subtle example appears in Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. When Dorian contemplates opening the bejewelled ebony cabinet in which he keeps his supply of narcotics, he throws himself down upon a sofa and ‘His eyelids drooped till the long fringed lashes almost touched his cheek’.68 Even contemplating the drugs is enough to drop him into a somnambulistic reverie, as if they are capable of acting upon him at a distance, before he even touches them. The significance of this similarity between dreams and narcotics is that it exposes the way that dreams were understood in this context. One might use narcotic intoxication to reach into dreams but dreams could also create a kind of intoxication. In effect, it was possible, even desirable to become saturated with dream. Drugs mirrored this state of complete reverie, opening up a vast internal landscape of imagination in which one might become delightfully lost and consumed. The phantasmagorical is instrumental to this process because it replicates this experience of being overwhelmed by dream; it both encapsulates the dream world and allows access to it. This link between phantasmagoria and dream becomes even


Jean Lorrain, Monsieur de Phocas, translated by Francis Amery (Sawtry: Dedalus, 1994), 139.

Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, 174.

182    more apparent when we consider that the term ‘dream’ was rarely used in a sense that related to the specific, psychological exploration of the functioning of the subconscious. As Jean Pierrot writes, ‘The more one becomes aware of the extraordinary inflation to which the concept of dream was subjected in this period, the more one begins to suspect that it had ceased to have any precise meaning, that “dream” had become merely a synonym for escape from the real’.69 Implicit in this as well, is the idea that ‘dream’ also acts as a synonym for the kind of imaginative exaltation that was expressed in the phantasmagoria; that is, for the ungoverned, infinitely free imagination.

Through collections of spectacles and wonders, the phantasmagorical text rejects reality and offers the reader a doorway into dreams. Importantly though, this desire for dream works itself out in an interesting way in the phantasmagorical aesthetic. The collections we are often presented with are not merely collections of objects. As wondrous as they may be, the objects seemingly – by their very natures – have some extra, supernatural dimension; they become concrete manifestations of an


state of wonder; the collections become collections of magical elements of dream.

We can see this in action in Huysmans’s account of Des Esseintes’s library. The love that Des Esseintes feels for his books is, in part, a purely material and sensual type of bibliophilia, but it is also alloyed with something more complex. When Huysmans first introduces the reader to Des Esseintes’s collection of contemporary authors, he has him lavish his attentions on the physical charms of the volumes themselves. Des Esseintes is apparently more deeply enamoured of his books’ outward

appearance than of their contents:

–  –  –


Pierrot, The Decadent Imagination, 182.

–  –  –

Des Esseintes’s devotion to the material qualities of his books, the specifically chosen style of the type-faces, the feel of the paper and the craft of their bindings, recalls Pope’s mocking comment that the eighteenth-century collector was curious ‘in books, not authors’,71 valuing a book’s outward oddities more highly than its artistic or scholarly qualities. Despite the supposedly rarefied nature of his intellectual appetites, Des Esseintes’s love of literature is at first apparently manifested only in his love of exclusive commodities: costly objects made of the finest materials by the most skilled of craftsmen. Huysmans contrives to mock his character’s physical, almost sexual, appreciation of books in Des Esseintes’s reaction to a volume of poetry by Mallarmé.

He tells us that ‘Des Esseintes derived a certain perverse pleasure from handling this miniature volume, whose covers, made of Japanese felt as white as curdled milk, were fastened with two silk cords, one China pink, the other black. Concealed behind the covers, the black ribbon met the pink ribbon… thereby giving a discreet intimation, a vague warning, of the melancholy regrets that follow the appeasement of sexual desire, the abatement of sexual frenzy’.72 It is worth noting that Des Esseintes apparently achieves a greater degree of erotic arousal from handling this book than he ever does from any of the women that he encounters in the novel. Baudelaire might have written that ‘the more a man cultivates the arts, the less often he gets an


Huysmans, Against Nature, 131-132.

Alexander Pope, The Poems of Alexander Pope, ed. John Butt (London: Methuen & Co, 1963), 593.

Huysmans, Against Nature, 182.

184    erection… Only brutes get really good erections’,73 but Huysmans makes it clear that Des Esseintes’s sexuality has not been left behind – the useless relic of a less elevated, less aesthetically cultivated way of life – but instead displaced into perverse and ridiculous channels. Again, Huysmans’s mockery of his own character directly parallels the conventional satire of the curious men of the eighteenth century, whose lusts might run to a microscopic insect or a stuffed crocodile, but only rarely to their wives.

However, it is also clear that Des Esseintes’s love of books does, in fact, go beyond their material characteristics. At one point, he lays out the essential

qualities that a work of literature must possess in order to be of interest to him:

–  –  –

Like the library of Roderick Usher, Des Esseintes’ chief demand from his books is their imaginative potential, their capacity to allow him to dream. His perception of his favourite books is significant: their ‘vagueness’, their ‘disquieting’ properties suggest that, for him, they have something indeterminate and somewhat unreal in their natures.

He chooses books that will provoke him to dream, that have in his eyes something dream-like about them. His books are essentially a way of activating reverie, of opening up an internal world of dream, the ‘sphere of sublimated sensations’ that Des Esseintes refers to. In a sense, the books become small, tangible pieces of dream that he can interact with, that he can use to trigger his immersion into a deeper dream-state.

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