«Small, Douglas Robert John (2013) Dementia's jester: the Phantasmagoria in metaphor and aesthetics from 1700-1900. PhD thesis. ...»
Once we understand the almost magical idea that Des Esseintes seems to have of his books, then his compulsion to fit them up in fine covers, archaic types and exotic
Baudelaire, Mon Coeur mis à nu. IN: Regenia Gagnier Idylls of the Marketplace. p. 82 Find original?
Huysmans, Against Nature, 165.
185 papers becomes less simply materialistic. While it is undoubtedly still a materialistic impulse, it is an elaborate form of materialism. Des Esseintes’s desire for his books to appear in a beautiful form is here depicted as a reflection of the depth of influence that they have over his imagination. Their attractiveness as physical objects is linked to their imaginative potency, their ability to propagate the dreams of their reader. In this context, Huysmans’s observation that ‘[Des Esseintes] could not bear to have his favourite authors printed on rag-paper, as they were in other people’s libraries, with characters like hobnails in a peasant’s boots’75 takes on a more subtle implication. By being such exquisite objects, the books – in the mind of their owner – better serve their function as tangible triggers for Des Esseintes dream life. Their physical beauty seems to merge with the effect that they have on his imagination, producing a composite identity. In a way, Des Esseintes’s books become a type of dream-object; by being so appealing to look at and to handle, they are made into physical manifestations of the dreams they provoke; pieces of wonder made physical, or the abstract state of dreaming rendered into a tangible form.
In many ways, this is the basic condition of the phantasmagorical object, and the condition that most directly parallels Marx’s use of the phantasmagoria to illustrate the nature of consumerism. A more direct example occurs in Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. When Wilde describes Dorian’s vast collections of exotic and expensive objects (an exercise that occupies almost the whole of the chapter in which it occurs) it quickly becomes apparent that Dorian’s love of his possessions is not predicated only upon the objects themselves but also upon the images and associations
that they summon to his mind:
Huysmans, Against Nature, 131.
As Wilde describes them, the instruments are not merely objects of great rarity, they become material embodiments of the alluring monstrosity that Dorian finds in the music they produce. Again, like Poe’s description of Usher’s books, as Wilde continues to enumerate the items that Dorian has in his collection, an increasingly magical, legendary dimension begins to emerge and to assert itself beyond the mere corporeal fact of the objects’ existence. The actual instruments themselves become a type of material synecdoche for the half-fabulous accounts of South America and its inhabitants. Although Dorian’s collection of instruments is apparently make up almost exclusively of South and Central American items,77 this air of abstract exoticism
Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, 129-130.
Wilde obtained his information about these instruments from a short chapter on ‘The American Indians’ in Carl Engel’s Musical Instruments which he found in the South Kensington Museum (later the Victoria and Albert Museum). See G. A. Cevasco, The Breviary of the Decadence: J.-K.
Huysmans's À rebours and English Literature (New York: AMS Press, 2001 ), 83.
187 mingled with an equally abstract barbarism is even more apparent in Wilde’s depiction of the ‘curious concerts’ Dorian gives in a ‘long, latticed room, with a vermillion-andgold ceiling and walls of olive-green lacquer’. Wilde describes how ‘mad gypsies tore wild music from little zithers, or grave yellow-shawled Tunisians plucked at the strained strings of monstrous lutes, while grinning negroes beat monotonously upon copper drums, and, crouching upon scarlet mats, slim turbaned Indians blew through long pipes of reeds or brass, and charmed, or feigned to charm, great hooded snakes and horrible horned adders. The harsh intervals and shrill discords of barbaric music stirred him at times when Schubert’s grace, and Chopin’s beautiful sorrows, and the mighty harmonies of Beethoven himself, fell unheeded on his ear’.78 The use of the word ‘barbaric’ is significant here, because it highlights the music as something wholly alien and threatening. It is not merely a different sort of music, or a different musical tradition; it implies something radically different and shocking, a violation of the very idea of music itself. There is also no differentiation between the different nations or cultures that the various musicians come from – they are lumped together, portrayed collectively as inhuman, deranged and monstrous. They are representations of an abstract, infinitely heterogeneous exotica; they are presented to the reader like the headless skeletons, goblins and spectres in Robertson’s phantasmagoria. They, like the instruments Dorian owns, are representatives of an unspecified, dream-like ‘other’ – a remote fantasy land of wonder and of horror. The instruments that Dorian owns are material embodiments of this fantasy land. Rather than serving a scientific or ethnographic function, rather than being understood as artefacts of a specific culture, Dorian’s instruments exist for him purely in this ‘magical’ dimension; they exist only as signifiers of the exotic, the fabulous and the demonic. Dorian’s love of ‘touching and trying them’ implicitly puts him in touch with this mystical dream-scape.
Similarly, when Wilde describes how Dorian can ‘often spend a whole day settling and resettling’79 his collection of jewels in their cases, considerably more time is spent recounting the ‘wonderful stories’ Dorian has learnt about jewels than is spent on Dorian’s collection of real stones. He may own ‘wine-yellow topazes, carbuncles of fiery scarlet’, ‘three emeralds from Amsterdam of extraordinary size and richness of colour and a turquoise de la vielle roche that was the envy of all the connoisseurs’, but these are of less importance than his other, imaginary, collection. His handling of these
Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, 129.
Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, 130.
188 gem stones allows a magical transposition to occur, whereby he is placed in contract with the ‘gem in the brain of the dragon’, ‘the bezoar found in the heart of the Arabian deer’ and the legendary ‘rosary of three hundred and four pearls, one for every god that he worshipped’80 that the King of Malabar showed to Marco Polo. Tactile contact with these objects activates the dreams of other even more fabulous objects and cultivates a fantastic reverie. The objects cease to be simply themselves and become artefacts of dream.
In this sense, these collections serve the function of the phantasmagoria, overwhelming the characters and readers with a sense of the unreal, giving free rein to the excesses of imagination. However, this can also be directly related to Marx’s critique of the phantasmagorical nature of materialism. The fantasy that these real objects can stand in for other, unreal objects, the belief that they contain within themselves some remote projection of a distant wonderland of dream and myth, is
strikingly similar to what Marx identifies as one of the great delusions of capitalism:
the fantasy of the object as self-producing. The attribution of a magical quality to these objects conceals their presence within a cycle of economic exchange; their actual monetary value and the resources that go into obtaining or producing them are veiled behind the romanticisation of the object itself. When the object become magical, when it exists only as a corporeal manifestation of wonder, when its only point of origin is a disordered dream of history and legend, it ceases to be an item that can be manipulated, exchanged, purchased and consumed: it is elevated out of the system of capitalism. This, then, is one of the inherent paradoxes of the decadent use of the phantasmagorical aesthetic. There is the desire to portray the allure of objects, of the phantasmagoria of the marketplace, of collection, of elite consumption and sumptuous materialism that, however, exists without a capitalistic materialistic framework. This is the fantasy of a materialism which doesn’t include acquisitive, capitalist impulses and which venerates objects beyond their worth as commodities. If we return to some of the examples that were used to illustrate the lavish materialism of Against Nature, we can see the evidence of this desire.
When Des Esseintes comes to furnish his sitting room, we are told that he includes ‘a massive money changer’s table’81 from the fifteenth century. Likewise, his morning cup of tea (that impeccable blend of Si-a-Fayoun, Mo-you-Tann and
Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, 131.
Huysmans, Against Nature, 8.
189 Khansky that Huysmans may or may not have intended as a joke) comes ‘from China into Russia by special caravans’.82 Both the money changer’s table and the tea caravans suggest commercialism, but not a modern, industrial variety. Instead they imply a form of commerce resonant with historical romance: Eastern caravans and Renaissance bankers. In this way, the materialism of the book is carefully disengaged from any modern commercial activity. Similarly, when Des Esseintes imagines the locomotives of the northern railway as beautiful women, he strips the machines of their industrial, commercial function and converts them into objects of elite connoisseurship. He no longer has to contemplate the railways’ place in the economic and social realities of his time – realities which he finds profoundly distasteful anyway. To paraphrase Marx, through Des Esseintes’s phantasmagorical imagination the steam engines no longer embody the relations between men – the relations of labour and capital – but can be processed in purely aesthetic terms, as exotic spectacle, like an actress of a courtesan. As such, the phantasmagoria of the collection is, in decadent literature, also in part a Marxist phantasmagoria: it enables an elevation into dream but also disguises the social relations expressed in the objects themselves.
Des Esseintes’s rejection of the values of bourgeois capitalism is wholehearted and throughout the novel it becomes clear that this defines the majority of his aesthetic opinions. While he loves material finery, he resents its connection to the world of commerce. His materialism is, therefore, linked to the celebration of his own imagination and his desire to escape from reality into dream. By imaginatively alchemising his dream world into physical form in the objects he possesses, he comes into closer contact with the dream and also signals his rejection of the system that values these objects on solely economic grounds. He interprets these objects into a new scheme of values which removes them from profane capitalism. This is most obvious when he come to select a number of gem stones for the typically idiosyncratic
purpose of mounting them on the shell of a pet tortoise:
Huysmans, Against Nature, 44.
Des Esseintes attempts to redefine the criteria by which value is assigned to an object.
He rejects familiar stones that are highly regarded only because of their monetary costs, and instead selects more unusual specimens, both real stones and artificial ones.
Des Esseintes’s desire is to attribute a higher form of taste to himself, to separate himself from the ‘commercial and financial stupidity’ of the ‘common herd’84 that, in his eyes, know only conformity and understand only money. It is clear that he completely rejects the aesthetic characteristics of the more common stones; their popularity automatically renders them repulsive to him. The exception to this is the sapphire which, thanks to its lack of popularity or prohibitive cost, Des Esseintes still considers acceptable. In describing the sapphire, Des Esseintes creates an interesting
Huysmans, Against Nature, 42.
Huysmans, Against Nature, 43.
191 association of ideas. The jewel has both an aristocratic and a soporific character. In delineating its appeal, Des Esseintes creates a link between aristocracy, beauty and sleep. This association does much to illuminate the nature of Des Esseintes’s aesthetic standards: the aristocratic superiority to bourgeois manners and bourgeois moneygrubbing, the love of material finery unsullied by mass production and mass consumption and the cultivation of a highly personal, highly somnolent state of reverie and imaginative indulgence. These three factors merge together to form the pattern for Des Esseintes’s behaviour and aesthetic preferences: beautiful objects better serve their function as aids to dream, objects can only qualify as beautiful if they are obviously disconnected from bourgeois tastes and by living an isolated haughty life of dreamy contemplation, he consistently reaffirms his superiority to middle class mediocrity and common sense.