«Small, Douglas Robert John (2013) Dementia's jester: the Phantasmagoria in metaphor and aesthetics from 1700-1900. PhD thesis. ...»
These lines read like a colossally inflated version of the perfumes, pins, combs, ‘Puffs, Powders, Patches, Bibles and Billet-doux’124 that Belinda’s maid hands to her and which cover her dressing table. In a further parallel with The Lock, Beardsley creates a sense of equivalence between the people that attend on Venus and the objects they carry. People and objects have an equal place in the phantasmagorical confusion of her dressing room, so that the people, bearing strange names and fascinating items, become another part of the disordered spectacle of the chamber. The attendants and the things around them seem to have similar properties so that both appear to be vibrantly but also artificially alive. The people are animated only in the illusory way that the beautiful objects are animated, as an alluring but also insubstantial and phantasmagorical surface. Their identities as people become fragmented and distributed into the superficial decorations of their bodies and the objects they carry.
Also, in the Toilet scene, Venus’s elderly manicure is portrayed as a collection of
strange and vaguely grotesque characteristics:
Mrs Marsuple’s voice was full of salacious unction; she had terrible little gestures with her hands, strange movements with the shoulders, a short respiration that made surprising wrinkles
Beardsley, Venus and Tannhäuser, 27.
Alexander Pope, The Rape of the Lock, ed. Cynthia Wall (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1998), 57.
The old woman becomes an inverted version of Venus or of Pope’s Belinda. Where they seem to be created from glittering decorations and cosmetics, Mrs Marsuple is the result of heaping together a mass of monstrous elements; she is the aggregate of separate monstrosities. Beardsley’s presentation of her highlights the separateness of her different parts; he disintegrates her body so that each piece seems to come from a different species or a different body, stitched together like an anatomical prank. The bizarre and subtly disquieting list of nicknames Venus gives her suggests another layer of disturbing behaviour on top of her disturbing physicality. Her relationship with Venus is apparently a mostly maternal one, an idea reinforced by the name ‘Marsuple’ which would seem to suggest ‘marsupial’ and the marsupial ability to raise offspring in a pouch. The names Venus gives her, though, suggest the strange contradictions and confusions of her character. They imply ugliness, maternity, childishness, bestiality, manliness and sexuality, as well as alarming combinations of these. Her ugliness and her motherliness are both sexualised; she is both a mother and a child at once; she is something to be doted on like a doll and repelled by like a brute. In this way, Mrs Marsuple becomes the end result of a collection of different pieces. Her body and her personality are discontinuous; each part of her body and each aspect of her character is a separate object unrelated to a unified whole. Like Venus and Tannhäuser themselves, and like their exemplars in Rape of the Lock, she is not so much a person as an accumulation of singularities.
This objectification of the characters in Venus and Tannhäuser reaches its apex in the masquerade scene in Chapter Three. In one of the most massive and
phantasmagorical passages in the book, Beardsley tells us that:
Beardsley, Venus and Tannhäuser, 28.
212 [The company] boasted some very noticeable dresses, and whole tables of quite delightful coiffures. There were spotted veils that seemed to stain the skin with some exquisite and august disease, fans with eye-slits in them, through which their bearers peeped and peered; fans painted with figures and covered with the sonnets of Sporion and the short stories of Scaramouche; and fans of big, living moths stuck upon mounts of silver sticks. There were masks of green velvet that make the face look trebly powdered; masks of the heads of birds, of apes, of serpents, of dolphins, of men and women, of little embryons and of cats; masks like the faces of gods; masks of coloured glass, and masks of thin talc and of india-rubber.
There were wigs of black and scarlet wools, of peacocks’ feathers, of gold and silver threads, of swansdown, of the tendrils of the vine, and of human hairs; huge collars of stiff muslin rising high above the head; whole dresses of ostrich feathers curling inwards; tunics of panthers’ skins that looked beautiful over pink tights; capotes of crimson satin trimmed with the wings of owls; sleeves cut into the shapes of apocryphal animals; drawers flounced down to the ankles, and flecked with tiny, red roses; stockings clocked with fêtes galantes, and curious designs; and petticoats cut like artificial flowers. Some of the women had put on delightful little moustaches dyed in purples and bright greens, twisted and waxed with absolute skill; and some wore great white beards, after the manner of Saint Wilgeforte. Then Dorat had painted extraordinary grotesques and vignettes over their bodies, here and there. Upon a cheek, an old man scratching his horned head; upon a forehead, an old woman teased by an impudent amor; upon a shoulder, an amorous singerie; round a breast, a circlet of satyrs; about a wrist, a wreath of pale, unconscious babes; upon an elbow, a bouquet of spring flowers; across a back, some surprising scenes of adventure; at the corners of a
The party-goers are here subjected to fantastical transformations wrought on them by their costumes. Their humanity is less important than the decorations covering their bodies, making them into marvellous elements of a phantasmagoria. The components of the human body are systematically obscured: their faces covered with exotic masks, real hair replaced with metal, plants and fabrics, their skins covered with inks and paints; the body is transfigured by disease, morphed into different species, reconfigured into a painting or a page of print; they convey the fascination of the beautiful and the aberrant. Venus and Tannhäuser reaches almost the ultimate extent of dandification; the complete metamorphosis of the person into the art object; the substitution of a material identity for a personal one.
This was another aspect of its expression that the decadent
phantasmagoria inherited from its prototype in eighteenth-century curiosity culture:
the idea of the collected self; the self externalised as a collection of objects and the self as the finest and rarest of these objects.
The character of Dorian Gray is a particularly obvious example of this;
the mysterious transference of identity between Dorian and his portrait is the main action of the book’s plot. The ‘magic’ of the picture, though, works in two directions at once: not only does Dorian become a kind of object, a fixed image of unchanging, never degrading beauty, but his portrait acquires a life of its own, registering the form of a living soul. The scene in which Basil unveils the portrait is full of allusions to Dorian’s relationship with objects and his sense of himself as object. When Dorian first sees the picture it is ‘as if he had recognised himself of the first time’,127 an idea which reappears when he comes into contact with the poisonous French novel that Lord Henry gives him. Wilde writes that for Dorian ‘the hero… became to him a prefiguring type of himself. And, indeed, the whole book seemed to him to contain the
Beardsley, Venus and Tannhäuser, 37-38.
Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, 27.
214 story of his own life, written before he had lived it’.128 Dorian’s image of himself is principally resolved through objects; it is only by acquiring objects that seem to reflect some part of himself that his selfhood acquires any definition. Even if we assume that the text, as opposed to the book, is not an object per se, Dorian principally thinks of it as an object and interacts with it as one, acquiring ‘from Paris no less than nine largepaper copies of the first edition… bound in different colours, so that they might suit his various moods.’129 Even before he becomes a collector, his identity – whether he wills it or not – is strongly externalised. In his first encounter with it, the painting is referred to as his ‘shadow’130. When Basil asks Dorian if he appreciates the painting, Dorian responds with ‘Appreciate it? I am in love with it, Basil. It is part of myself.’.
Basil’s ironic response is to tell him that ‘as soon as you are dry, you shall be varnished, and framed, and sent home. Then you can do what you like with yourself’.131 Even at this early stage, the portrait is, in fact, Dorian’s Self.
It is also Basil – crucially, the only character in the novel who produces objects rather than objectifying himself – who asks Dorian, ‘you are not jealous of material things, are you?’,132 a question that may be said to define the decadents’ relationship with the collected self and the phantasmagorias that it is predicated upon.
Dorian is envious of material things; not only that, he has the supreme empathy with them that makes them part of his own being. The chapter in which Wilde describes Dorian’s collections is also a description of Dorian’s personality, a description of who he has become as a result of contact with the picture and Lord Henry’s aesthetic doctrines. His frightening musical instruments, dazzling jewels, ‘veils of lacis worked in Hungary point; Sicilian brocades, and stiff Spanish velvets; Georgian work with its gilt coins, and Japanese Foukousas with their green-toned golds and their marvellously plumaged birds’133 are all elements of his personality that exist independently in the world outside himself. Like the eighteenth-century virtuoso showing off his collection, Dorian becomes the collection; he is the one object that is a microcosm of all the others, and from which all those others are derived. The exoticism of his self exists in direct proportion to the exclusivity of his consumption. Susan Stewart describes something like this when she writes about the appeal of eclecticism in interior design.
Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, 123.
Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, 123.
Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, 27.
Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, 29.
Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, 28.
Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, 134.
215 In furnishing a space in an eclectic style, an individual asserts something about their own identity: ‘eclecticism, rather than pure seriality, is to be admired because it marks the heterogeneous organisation of the self, a space capable of transcending the accidents and dispersions of historical reality’.134 The collected self embodied by Dorian is a more extreme version of this. The self does not merely assimilate different cultures and styles, it seems to assimilate things which are fantastical or otherworldly.
The phantasmagoria seems to disassociate those who experience it from reality.
Similarly, the phantasmagorical object conveys an existence beyond its physical properties. Both conditions signify that, by defining itself through the existence of the phantasmagoria, the collected self takes on these properties. Such a person is no longer simply an arbiter of fashion, but a wondrous entity beyond human norms – a phantasmagoria made manifest, the dream made flesh. Stewart writes that the ownership of exotic objects produces ‘an exoticism of the self’135. In these phantasmagorias, the self is exoticised not only by the separate, individual exoticism of the objects (their remoteness from typical, familiar cultures and aesthetics) but also by the fact that they are chaotically juxtaposed with one another. The self seems to contain this bewildering discontinuity, these fantastic reversals and transformations, so that we are left with a human being that is superhumanly bewildering and fantastic.
The collected self is, therefore, another negation of conformity and capitalist practicality. In part, it is a state of being that seems to embody the conditions of exclusive consumption, of an aesthetic refinement and elaboration unavailable to any but the most dedicated. As well as this, though, it is the realisation of the ambition of the decadent dreamer: by its presence it conveys the essence of the dream and implies an existence outside normal reality. The collected self is, therefore, not only a self created from objects but a self created to oppose normality: a dandification of the soul.
In the same way that the eighteenth-century collector tried to create a curious selfhood that was also the modern self, the decadents’ collected self was also meant to express an idealised version of the decadent principles of the modern age.
The collected self of the decadents rejects conformity, utility and practicality; it simultaneously affirms both a dominance and a dismissal of the principles of capitalism by rejecting consumption but claiming for itself the aura of the precious
Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham, N.C: Duke University Press, 1993), 158.
Stewart, On Longing, 148.
216 object. However, if Wilde portrayed the collected self as the apotheosis of decadent principles, then a later decadent writer, Jean Lorrain, perceived in it something far more equivocal.
Of all the decadent phantasmagorical writers, Lorrain was perhaps the one who felt most keenly the parity of living human beings with inorganic items.