«Small, Douglas Robert John (2013) Dementia's jester: the Phantasmagoria in metaphor and aesthetics from 1700-1900. PhD thesis. ...»
The sexuality of Venus and Tannhäuser is the most direct way in which the novel seems to militate against bourgeois morality and here too, the logic of the phantasmagoria predominates. Sex in the Venusberg is omnipresent as well as multidenominational; not only does the novel portray a universal freedom and openness
Beardsley, Venus and Tannhäuser, 58.
Snodgrass, Aubrey Beardsley, Dandy of the Grotesque, 322.
Similarly, not only do Tannhäuser and Venus have sex in public at various times, Tannhäuser appears to be equally open to sex with men, women and young boys.
Beardsley places the main emphasis of the book on sexual variety and erotic strangeness. In effect, as well as being a phantasmagoria of materialism, the novel is also a phantasmagoria of sexuality – its main interest is in the scale of sexual activity and the exoticism and grotesquery to be found therein. Snodgrass points out that Beardsley ‘manages to call into question the nature of bourgeois ideology by, in effect, dandifying as well as scandalising the entire landscape’.115 Beardsley dismisses the conformist ideal of heterosexual monogamy by creating a world in which everyone and everything is a source of sexual and aesthetic pleasure. As such, the
Beardsley, Venus and Tannhäuser, 71.
Snodgrass, Aubrey Beardsley, Dandy of the Grotesque, 212.
205 phantasmagorical nature of the novel is fundamentally linked to its rebelliousness, giving it an uncontrolled anarchic quality that resists middle class order and normality.
The phantasmagorical quality of the book’s eroticism can also be seen in the way in which Beardsley handles specific sex acts in Venus and Tannhäuser. Although he describes the general nature of the acts that take place, he rarely describes them in detail; Beardsley almost entirely avoids telling the reader who did what to whom and in what order. In keeping with the novel’s preference for spectacle over action, Beardsley is always more interested in the spectacle of sex than the action of sex. The sex in Venus and Tannhäuser is, in reality, a collection of sex acts, with the strangest, most imaginative and unusual varieties of copulation laid out for the reader. The sense of a collection is intensified when we realise that many of the acts that the characters engage in have literary and historical origins. Tannhäuser, for example, calls the boys that attend him in his bath his ‘pretty fish’, ‘because they love to swim between his legs’,116 a description that recalls the Roman historian Suetonius’s remark in The Twelve Caesars that the Emperor Tiberius ‘trained little boys whom he called his “minnows”, to chase him while he went swimming and get between his legs to lick and nibble him’.117 Just as Poe populated Usher’s library with real books, collecting them within his own text, so Beardsley collects different literary-sexual oddities for his characters to indulge in.
In this way Venus and Tannhäuser’s eroticism is treated in the same way as its materialism, as something huge, exotic, dandified, and subject to highly sharpened connoisseurship; something that repels bourgeois scrutiny from its hardened and bejewelled surface, whilst at the same time entertaining a deep sense of irony and mischievousness about it rejection of normality. Deborah Lutz asserts that the ‘real’ pornographic qualities of Venus and Tannhäuser ‘can be found not in the meeting of
bodies in penetration, but in the sheer debauchery of materialism’.118 Similarly:
Beardsley, Venus and Tannhäuser, 62.
Suetonius. The Twelve Caesars. p. 132 ?
Deborah Lutz, ‘Dandies, libertines and Byronic lovers: Pornography and Erotic Decadence in Nineteenth-Century England’, in Paul Fox, ed., Decadences: Morality and Aesthetics in British Literature (Stuttgart: Ibidem, 2006), 265.
Here, Lutz creates a parallel between the orgasm and the supreme imaginative freedom offered by the phantasmagorical. The phantasmagoria is the form of the imagination at its most active and explosive, the realisation of the imagination not bound by any restraint. The decadents had turned this attribute into a social function by using the phantasmagoria to show the individual imagination freed from bourgeois control.
Similarly, the phantasmagoria seemed to catapult the reader into a dream, away from the constraint of the normal, allowing them a sort of transcendence. The ‘dissolution of the soul’ that Lutz associates with the materialism in Venus and Tannhäuser is the function of the phantasmagoria, the intoxication of the imagination and its elevation into a realm less bound by reality. Again, though, Beardsley undergoes this process more literally than other decadent writers. Des Esseintes retreats out of reality into his dream hermitage at Fontenay; both Tannhäuser and Beardsley retreat out of reality and into the Venusberg where the phantasmagoria can be more fully realised and is more completely shielded against the problematizing influences of real life. The Venusberg is the dream world that the phantasmagoria aspires to. Once again, the phantasmagoria acts as an aesthetic of resistance, an aesthetic characterised by its inability to be ordered or restrained, rejecting normal aesthetic and social dictates. The Venusberg is both expressed in phantasmagorical terms and is the ‘place’ that the phantasmagoria attempts to access. The phantasmagorical aesthetic of the novel is fundamentally aligned with its social agenda – the campaign of rejecting bourgeois sexual and social conformity and of breaking through to some state of being where this conformity no longer applies. However, in keeping both with the nature of the phantasmagorical aesthetic and with the self-awareness that often underlies decadent applications of it, this resistance to normality does not translate unequivocally into a definite social agenda.
Lutz, ‘Dandies, libertines and Byronic lovers’, 266.
207 The social stance of Venus and Tannhäuser is clearly of a different ‘flavour’ to the Gnosticism of Des Esseintes or the semi-spiritual, Pater-esque aspirations of Dorian Gray. It is much more fabulous, more burlesque, and the characters – most notably Tannhäuser himself – are far less tormented. In part, this is again explicable by the fact that the Venusberg is the ideal location to which the phantasmagoria aspires. The contrast becomes more evident if we take the example of Des Esseintes, who exiles himself from society first into the aesthetically cultivated haven of Fontenay and then into his own dreams; his only prospect of escape is an imaginative one. Although the original Tannhäuser legend is also one of a man who exiles himself from the world that he knows, in Beardsley’s rendering of it, Tannhäuser arrives in a literal dream world; he doesn’t have to develop his powers of reverie because his dreams are actualised in the world he inhabits. Similarly, the principal struggles of other decadent characters come from their inability to assimilate their selves (or, more romantically, their souls) to the modern world that they inhabit.
The characters in Venus and Tannhäuser do not have this problem because their world is completely fantastical: they escape from the problems that the aberrant individual encounters when they try to assimilate themselves into a society that does not share their values. As such, the idea of a wholesale but also quite generalistic rejection of contemporary values that appears in works like Against Nature is even more pronounced in Venus and Tannhäuser because it severs all of its connections to the society that enshrines those values. Consequently, its tone is lighter but it is even more provocative in the extremity of its imagination. Venus and Tannhäuser is a more impish piece of work; it is less focused and articulate in its rejection of bourgeois values, taking delight in the shock and excess of its own invention, celebrating a kind of festive anarchy. This is the idea of the phantasmagoria as an aesthetic of resistance taken almost to its limit. The novel has the superficial qualities of satire – the fabulous materialism and transformations of Pope’s The Rape of the Lock are an obvious influence – but it lacks the moral imperative of satire or considers the moral imperative to be irrelevant; it is a satire without a target, or which targets itself, expressing only a highly personal imaginative freedom.
Like other phantasmagorical writing, however, there is also a certain amount of self-consciousness about this imaginative indulgence. This in turn contributes to the difficulty of pinning Venus and Tannhäuser down to a particular social agenda, because of its willingness to be seen to be mocking its own affectations.
208 As we have seen, the sexuality of the book is so outlandish and exaggerated that it is hard to interpret it as a serious manifesto for reforming Victorian sexual morality.
Chapter Eight, for example, is entirely taken up with Venus administering a hand job to her pet unicorn, Adolphe. At the end of the chapter we learn that the extreme volubility of Adolphe’s orgasm is the daily signal for the population of the Venusberg to sit down to breakfast. Like Saveral, with his sexual attachment to earwax, as Venus and Tannhäuser goes on its eroticism persistently veers toward the comic and the ridiculous. Likewise, Beardsley appears to be quite happy to mock Tannhäuser’s dandified pretensions. Although he is obviously meant to oppose the Victorian ideal of masculinity, Tannhäuser is also frequently a figure of fun. We first encounter him before he enters Venus’ domain, preening himself and ‘troubled with an exquisite fear lest a day’s travel should have too cruelly undone the laboured niceness of his
dress’.120 He is momentarily inconvenienced by the fact that:
The joke here is that not only is Tannhäuser’s lace more delicate than the rose – so much more so that the flower seems ‘hardy’ by comparison – but that Tannhäuser himself is so artificially cultivated and precious, so over-refined, that the rose becomes more violent than him. He also attributes a kind of roguish insouciance to the flower, demonstrating the inherent pretentiousness and self-indulgence of a world-view that perceives literally everything as an aristocratic aesthetic exhibition for the benefit of
Beardsley, Venus and Tannhäuser, 21.
Beardsley, Venus and Tannhäuser, 23.
209 the observer; Tannhäuser imaginatively figures the rose as being like an impish urchin vying for his notice and his patronage. In effect, the world centres on him and on the question of where he will choose to bestow his attention. Here, Beardsley’s hero is obviously supposed to recall figures such as the foppish Sir Plume from The Rape of the Lock and the illustrations he produced to accompany Venus and Tannhäuser reinforce this connection. They are very similar to those he created for an edition of The Rape of the Lock itself, and it is worth examining this resemblance.
The two images are elaborately overdrawn, the different elements of the pictures – people, furniture, clothes – all tending to merge into a single mass of overwhelmingly grey detail. Max Beerbohm said that the picture of Venus ‘cries aloud for some blank spaces that would… distinguish the many figures’.122 Both the pictures of Venus and the pictures of Tannhäuser show, as The Rape of the Lock does, people in the process of merging with the ornate decoration of their environment and their clothes and losing their unequivocal identity as human beings in the process.
The image of Tannhäuser shows him as a comically tiny (and comically feminine) figure lost in the massive folds of cloak, hair and lace sleeves. His body is seemingly composed more from fabric than flesh, and the elaborate corrugations of his clothing blend into the bizarre vegetation surrounding him, so that the feathers on his head are not immediately recognisable as part of him or part of the background. In the same vein, the lute poking up over his shoulder has a deceptively organic form, hinting that it might be another flower, a spider’s web, or something else entirely.
The effect is even more confusing in the picture of Venus where at first it is almost impossible to tell, for example, whether the structure behind Venus’s head is part of a folding screen or if it is an elaborate rococo headdress; whether the leg jutting out from under Venus’s gown is her own or the leg of a chair; where her dress ends and where the dressing table begins; and whether the hands touching her hair and holding a mirror belong to the goddess or to the androgynous, black-swathed form of Cosmé, the coiffeur, who stands behind her. Venus at her toilet resembles an exaggerated version of Belinda’s toilet from The Rape of the Lock. Despite the intensive eroticism she gives off, the goddess is more readily identified with artificial decoration than she is with humanity. Beardsley’s references to Pope are even more
obvious when he writes that: