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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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As Des Esseintes’s inability to tolerate solid food worsens, he acquires a device called a patent digester which works by boiling food down into small quantities of a thinish soup that his stomach will accept. In the same chapter in which he begins to use this device, Huysmans also gives us what is probably the depiction of Des Esseintes’s ideas about contemporary literature. Importantly, he has Des Esseintes describe the modern prose poem as ‘a novel concentrated in a few sentences and yet comprising the cohabited juice of hundreds of pages… the dry juice, the osmazome of literature, the essential oil of art’.100 Towards the end of the chapter, Huysmans alludes more and more to Des Esseintes’s digestive problems – paralleling his sporadic, whimsical and fastidious way of absorbing nutrition with his manner of absorbing literature. We are told that he regards Mallarmé as ‘the quintessence of Baudelaire and Poe; their refined and potent substances distilled yet again to give of new savours, new intoxications’.101 Des Esseintes has – both literally and figuratively – a problem with taste. This motif builds until, his health having gotten so bad that he has been forced to send for a doctor, we see him enthusiastically embracing the enemas that he has been prescribed to rebuild his strength: ‘Des Esseintes could not help secretly congratulating himself on this experience which was, so to speak, the crowning achievement of the life that he had planned for himself; his taste for the artificial had now, without even the slightest effort on his part, attained its supreme fulfilment’.102 Excited by the potential of this new experience, Des Esseintes immediately sets his imagination to work on it, ‘composing novel receipts and even planning meatless dinners for Fridays’.103 The message here is obvious: Des Esseintes’s desire to distinguish himself has reached such an extreme pass that his aesthetic doctrines are in the end, quite literally, shoved up his own arse. As well as pointing out the ridiculousness of Des Esseintes’s compulsion to be different – a recapitulation of the eighteenth-century theme that the curious man would end up by becoming a curiosity


Gagnier, Idylls of the Marketplace, 57.

Huysmans, Against Nature, 183.

Huysmans, Against Nature, 184.

Huysmans, Against Nature, 193.

Huysmans, Against Nature, 194.

198    himself – Huysmans also establishes a link between his philosophy and his illness. Des Esseintes’s doctor tells him that, to have any chance of recovering, ‘he would have to abandon this solitary existence, to go back to Paris, to lead a normal life again, above all to try to enjoy the same pleasures as other people… The radical change of life that he prescribed was in his opinion a matter of life and death – it meant the difference between a good recovery on the one hand and insanity speedily followed by tuberculosis on the other’.104 Des Esseintes’s taste literally does sicken him; it is both an effect and a cause of his condition. As the novel ends, his rebellion against bourgeois mediocrity becomes a symptom of this disease; not a revolution but a sort of existential vomiting. Yet it is this sickness that makes him admirable and tragic. In the last lines of the novel, as he contemplates returning to Paris as his doctor has ordered,

he despairs:

–  –  –

Here we can see something of the self-consciousness that the contradictions of decadent ideology provoked. While Des Esseintes tries and fails to reject the society into which he has been born, his eventual condition also affirms the status quo. The novel cannot fully endorse Des Esseintes’s plan to escape consumerism and bourgeois values by retreating into a personal phantasmagoria; presumably because Huysmans could sense the flaws at the heart of Des Esseintes’s agenda: the difficulty of opposing materialism by being materialistic, the fear that by trying to outrage the bourgeoisie, one might reveal oneself to be one of them. This is not to say that, even as Huysmans was codifying decadent ideology, he was also aiming to negate it, but he could obviously see the inherent problems it presented.


Huysmans, Against Nature, 196.

Huysmans, Against Nature, 204.

199    Given the underlying sense of these contradictions, the concern that the phantasmagoria might simply be bad taste, it is not surprising that some of the most phantasmagorical of decadent writing appears in a comic form. Although it was left unfinished at the time of his death in 1898, Aubrey Beardsley’s Venus and Tannhäuser resolves many of the difficulties of the decadent phantasmagoria into an ironically comic and elaborately pornographic fantasy. The book is a retelling of the classic German folk tale (made even more popular by Wagner’s 1845 opera based on the same story) of the poet Tannhäuser who spends a year living in the subterranean realm of the goddess Venus. Eventually Tannhäuser becomes convulsed with remorse and leaves the ‘Venusberg’ to seek forgiveness for his sins from the Pope. His Holiness, however, refuses, saying that it is as impossible for him to forgive Tannhäuser as it would be for the papal staff to sprout flowers. After Tannhäuser leaves Rome, the staff does indeed begin to bloom, showing that he has obtained God’s forgiveness after all, but before the Pope’s messengers can reach him, Tannhäuser returns to the Venusberg, never to be seen again. The section of Venus and Tannhäuser that Beardsley completed covers Tannhäuser’s arrival at the Venusberg and the early part of the time that he spends there but ends before his attack of guild and his return to the surface world.

Like Dorian Gray’s vast collections, Beardsley’s phantasmagorias largely consist of massive lists of luxurious objects. Venus’s boudoir, for example,


–  –  –

Again, we can see the materialist fantasy of the decadent phantasmagoria. The Venusberg is insulated from the cheapening effect of mass production – from the conditions of modernity which, in Walter Benjamin’s terms, strip an object of its uniqueness, of its aura.107 As such, all of the objects in the Venusberg are elaborately fashioned and intricately decorated. In many ways, Venus and Tannhäuser is the most explicitly and completely phantasmagorical of all decadent works. The idea of the collection dominates the book even more fully than in Against Nature; each new scene leads into a new mass of people, furniture, shoes, frocks, masks and other objets d’art that Beardsley enumerates in detail. Even individual objects seem to erupt outwards into accumulations of attributes, characteristics and qualities, becoming almost like collections in themselves. In the middle of one of the Venusberg’s terraces, for

example, there is ‘a huge bronze fountain with three basins’. Beardsley tells us that:

–  –  –


Aubrey Beardsley, Venus and Tannhäuser, ed. John Glassco (Ware: Wordsworth Editions, 1995), 30.

See Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, translated by Hannah Arendt and Harry Zorn (London: Pimlico, 1999), 217.

201    children’s curls, the water played profusely, cutting strange arabesques and subtle figures.108 Like the fountain, everything in Venus’ domain is complex and variegated, everything is covered in baroque encrustations of decoration until each individual object and setting becomes essentially phantasmagorical because of the sheer number and variety of different forms they seem to contain.

Similarly, the book is structured around the idea of large-scale, disconnected visual spectacle. The narrative of Venus and Tannhäuser is, in reality, a sequence of scenes or tableaux that are to some extent disconnected from each other even though they include the same characters and take place in proximal locations.

Despite, or rather because of, the façade of ceaseless activity produced by the book’s

phantasmagoria, there is an oddly static, pictorial quality to Venus and Tannhäuser:

the narrative does not seem to move organically between different scenes: ‘Each chapter, while centring on one elaborate scene, unravels in a plethora of static heterogeneous details, disrupting any narrative line’.109 We see characters most often in a state of inactivity: we see Tannhäuser pausing to arrange his attire and contemplate a series of carvings before entering the Venusberg, we see Venus in her dressing room preparing for a party to celebrate his arrival, but we don’t see Tannhäuser actually enter Venus’ kingdom, we don’t see them meet or see them arrive at the party; the next scene is them sitting together at supper. The novel, perhaps because Beardsley’s imagination was that of an illustrator, is arranged as a series of hugely detailed, intensely phantasmagorical ‘pictures’. The narrative jumps from one to the next while most of the actions that the characters perform are skipped over by Beardsley’s writing or hidden between chapters. This is the prioritisation of description over narration taken to the extreme. Although the novel superficially contains a great deal of confusion and activity, this is most often presented as a list of occurrences; action becomes, in effect, a collection of events that do not progress to a definite end. For example, after Venus’ preparations for the party to celebrate

Tannhäuser’s arrival:


Beardsley, Venus and Tannhäuser, 35-36.

Chris Snodgrass, Aubrey Beardsley, Dandy of the Grotesque (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 172.

–  –  –

In this way, the story is flattened out into a kind of perpetual pictorial synchronicity in which events seem to happen either in an indeterminate order or all at once. As is common in phantasmagorical literature, Beardsley’s narration imitates the perspective of the curious observer, apparently selecting those incidents that strike him most powerfully – implying the existence of a great many others – and transforming Venus and Tannhäuser into a collection of singularities, an endlessly reforming, living phantasmagoria that takes place without any comprehensible order. In this sense, the novel is more completely phantasmagorical than Against Nature or Dorian Gray because it more completely ejects plot in favour of a simulated act of observation;

what happens to the characters is less important that what happens around them; where the characters go is less important than what the reader observes (as it were, in the background) while they are on their way. Venus and Tannhäuser is, in effect, a sequence of phantasmagorias; a collection of collections.

In common with other decadent phantasmagorias, the febrile materialism of Venus and Tannhäuser has its roots in an intensely anti-bourgeois sentiment. The voice of the novel is the voice of the elite connoisseur, continually referencing obscure details of works such as ‘the well-known engraving by Lorette that forms the frontispiece to Millevoye’s Architecture du XVIIIe siècle’111 and comparing the works of great and obscure artists. It tells us that ‘a painting of Carrot’s is like an exquisite


Beardsley, Venus and Tannhäuser, 31.

Beardsley, Venus and Tannhäuser, 61.

203    lyric poem, full of love and truth; whilst one of Claude’s recalls some noble eclogue glowing with rich and concentrated thought’.112 While there is an element of selfawareness, nor to say self-parody, in Venus and Tannhäuser’s use of it, this was clearly a pose that Beardsley himself was keen to maintain in his public image. In an interview in the March 1897 edition of The Idler (much of which Beardsley seems to have written himself) the artist, ‘faultlessly dressed’, points the interviewer towards ‘a goodly collection of Chippendale furniture – two rare old settees in particular’ that he owns, as well as towards ‘the titles and dates of some of his rare editions, making up a collection sufficient to cause a bibliophile’s eyes to bulge with envy’.113 In reality, Beardsley was forced to live much more frugally than the interview suggested and, as with Poe, Huysmans and Wilde before him, there was clearly an element of wish fulfilment at work in his rendering of the Venusberg’s huge reserves of material finery. Venus and Tannhäuser represents, in classically phantasmagorical style, the imagination let loose to indulge itself and expand without limits. However, it is also obviously an imagination set free from the restraints of economic necessity and social order. The collections in the book clearly reject bourgeois consumerism by creating an exaggeratedly elite form of connoisseurship. Again, though, they clearly also represent the fantasy of materialism without the requirement of material production. This is more literal in Venus and Tannhäuser than in other works because the book takes place in an actual magical kingdom. Even within the fictional setting, the objects that appear in the novel are disconnected from reality, requiring no labour to produce and having no value beyond their own aesthetic qualities. The social aspects of the book are similarly unreal. The social structure of the Venusberg is like a greatly exaggerated version of that found in Dorian Gray; the population of Venus’ realm belong entirely either to the class of servants or the aristocracy of the goddess’s court. In an even greater social subversion, there are almost no formal divisions between these two classes: anyone seems to be able to more-or-less freely associate with anyone else, and more importantly, anyone seems to be able to have sex with anyone else as well.

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