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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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However, while Wilde and Beardsley seem to have interpreted this as an elevation of the human being into a realm of more than human beauty – the elaborate and ornate sex-acts Beardsley devised for these elaborate and ornate bodies to engage in probably convey a great deal about the seductiveness he felt them to possess – Lorrain’s work conveys a mixture of fascination and repulsion. Other decadent phantasmagorias expresses the dandification of the imagination, the spectacle of creative potency and freedom, by contrast, Lorrain’s use of the phantasmagorical aesthetic recalls ‘The Mask of the Red Death’ or ‘Ligeia’. His phantasmagorias contain a combination of the spectacular and the morbid, a dread of the contamination of the senses by imagination or subtle influences.

If Huysmans began the decadent movement with Against Nature, then Lorrain may be the author with the best claim to have chronicled its end. Even before the end of the century, as an author and newspaper columnist, ‘a great deal of his rhetoric [in the 1890s] had drawn on the fact that the nineteenth century was winding down, approaching an end that was devoutly to be desired’.136 Lorrain’s use of the phantasmagorical is, in consequence, coloured by a certain post-mortem sensibility.

The decadence he portrays and the world that produced it stand (even more apparently than with other decadent writers) on the edge of an ending. For Francis Amery, with the arrival of that great monument to modernity, the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900, ‘It was as if Lorrain had fallen out of fashion instantly, by prior appointment’.137 Lorrain himself, in his 1901 novel Monsieur de Phocas, had his protagonist – the overstimulated, spiritually exhausted and probably demented Duc de Fréneuse – proclaim that ‘The beauty of the twentieth century is the charm of the hospital, the grace of the cemetery, of consumption and emaciation’.138 While this may seem at first straightforwardly morbid, it is more subtle than this. Here, the twentieth century has no identity of its own; instead it merely represents the death of the nineteenth - it is the


See Lorrain, Monsieur de Phocas, 18.

See Lorrain, Monsieur de Phocas, 18.

Lorrain, Monsieur de Phocas, 39.

217    nineteenth century that is the patient who is sick, consigned to hospital and then to the grave. Lorrain does not prophesy that the twentieth century will be an age of degradation but that it will be the death of the already terminally degraded nineteenth century. It is Lorrain’s own epoch that is the real subject of these lines: its own imminent end and, because of this, its flavour of (and taste for) images of mortality and corruption. In Lorrain’s works, the phantasmagoria does not seem to offer an escape from the iniquities of modern living; the vibrant inner life that consoled Des Esseintes and Dorian Gray is conspicuous by its absence. Instead, it figures as a means of portraying the spiritual conditions of both society and the individual. In this way, Lorrain’s writing offers something of a reiteration of the earlier uses of the phantasmagorical: in ‘Magic Lantern’ (1891) for example, it stands as a symbol for the grotesqueness and anarchy of contemporary society, a use which directly recalls its role in early nineteenth-century satire, and, in Monsieur de Phocas (1901) the thoughts and perceptions of Fréneuse are almost perpetually being influenced and distorted by random ideas, works of art and other people, a condition familiar from Roderick Usher and the characters in ‘Ligeia’. Importantly though, Lorrain’s use of the phantasmagorical repeats almost the whole of the pattern of the decadent phantasmagorical aesthetic; his works convey a vivid sense of spectacle, and include collections of material exotica, identities formed from material possessions, and a strong sense of provocative resistance to contemporary world views and values. The qualification to this is that the phantasmagoria no longer provides a shelter from the real world. Tannhäuser was never forced back into the world he had sought refuge from and while Des Esseintes was, he at least succeeded for a while in finding solace in his own dreams. This is not an option for Lorrain’s characters. Perhaps Lorrain felt that such an escape into an aesthetically and imaginatively idealised dream world was no longer possible, or even imaginable. In any case, while his phantasmagorias remain provocative, they are no longer escapist. The phantasmagorias of ‘Magic Lantern’ and Monsieur de Phocas are compelling, even thrilling, but also frightening.

In Lorrain’s short story ‘Magic Lantern’ he transforms Parisian society into a literal phantasmagoria – a collection of monsters and spectres. An unnamed narrator sits in a concert given by the Orchestra Colonne. During the interval, enlivened by the romance of the music and annoyed by its incompatibility with the scientific, industrial modern age, he voices his complaints to his neighbour, the physicist André Forbster. ‘Admit, Monsieur,’ he urges him, ‘that it is as well [the 218    composer] was born in 1803. Had he been born yesterday, he would undoubtedly have included an electrophone in his symphony, or the submarine cable or some other phonographic apparatus… Modern science has killed the fantastic, and with the Fantastic, Poetry – which is also Fantasy. The last Fairy is well and truly buried – or dried, like a rare flower, between two pages of Monsieur Balzac’.139 Forbster responds

that, in reality:

–  –  –

With the aid of his opera glasses, Forbster then proceeds to take the narrator on a ‘tour’ of the theatre, pointing out to him the ghouls, demoniacs, Vampires, Incubi and

Succubi lurking beneath the respectable exterior of civilised society. Says Forbster:

–  –  –

In ‘Magic Lantern,’ the image of the phantasmagoria (an image made explicit by the story’s title) returns to the illusionistic associations that dictated many of its early uses.

Lorrain’s story is perhaps a more overtly horrifying version of The Ghost of a Song or The European Magazine's article ‘The Phantasmagoria’ from 1801 and 1803. As in these two works, the phantasmagoria again acts as a kind of magic mirror for contemporary civilisation. By portraying modern life as the product of a magic lantern and modern humanity as spectral and hideous, Lorrain underlines the illusory and meretricious appeal of modernity; a superficial lustre of civility disguising corruption and immorality. The phantasmagoria acts as a pattern for the world, rather than a means of escaping it, inverting the normal decadent paradigm. Indeed, Forbster’s transformation of the world into a phantasmagoria arguably makes the narrator’s discontent even worse: before, modernity was merely boring, now it has become actually hideous. The imagination is not the decadent’s sanctuary, instead, it makes contemporary life even harder by inflating its soullessness to fantastic levels.

Lorrain at first seems to articulate two different and contradictory views of the contemporary world. One is capitalistic, mercantile, deprived of imagination and running only on bourgeois scientific rationalism: as the narrator complains, ‘We no longer have a trace of illusion in our heads Monsieur. We have an abstruse mathematical treatise in place of the heart, the appetites of a piglet in the belly, bridles and racing tips in the imagination, and a clockwork movement in the brain. Look at the man we have all become, manufactured by the progress of science!’142 His complaint about the lack of illusion is ironic given that it is the uncontrollable and frightening illusions suggested by Forbster that give rise to the second view of the modern world – as a gothic phantasmagoria. Both these portrayals, however, complement each other and both conform to the underlying decadent dissatisfaction with life in the fin de siècle. Just as at the end of Against Nature, where Des Esseintes imagines bourgeois mediocrity elevated into an apocalyptic deluge, in ‘Magic


Lorrain, ‘Magic Lantern’, 174.

Lorrain, ‘Magic Lantern’, 171.

220    Lantern’ the moral dysfunctions and aberrations of the ‘common man’ are transmogrified into supernatural forms. The way Lorrain ends the story makes it hard to know how he intends us to interpret the revelation that has been given to the narrator; Forbster’s description simply breaks off when the concert begins again: ‘But excuse me Monsieur, the music is beginning. Much obliged’.143 Throughout the story, though, Lorrain does inject black humour into the horrific images he describes.

Forbster’s last exhibit is a ‘pretty brunette’ who has devoured the vitality of three husbands and ‘whom the Holy Inquisitions of the fifteen and sixteen hundreds would most certainly have put on the rack, pricked and burnt’, but of whom he remarks, ‘I shall not point her out to you because she is my friend’.144 Forbster’s showman-like narration, then, transforms modern society into a spectacle, a collection of monsters to admire and be amused and horrified by. The phantasmagoria of ‘Magic Lantern’ may not be a refuge, but it is still spectacular. Lorrain’s imaginative excesses give the world a new form that is more vibrant, if more fearful than before.

The logic of ‘Magic Lantern’ is one of display, with Forbster as Robertsonian fantasmagore, guiding both the narrator and the reader through the exhibits. The way the narration moves from one ‘creature’ to the next emphasises this.

At the outset, Forbster asks the narrator to ‘take up those opera classes and follow the directions I will give you’. We proceed around the concert hall, inspecting the monsters confined there: ‘Look over there, at those three elegant women on the balcony’; ‘Would you like to read a tale by Hoffmann now? Look down there, to the right of the fore-stage; see the beautiful Madame G -’; ‘Use the opera-glasses to delve into the dim depths of the ground-floor boxes’; ‘Up there, in the second tier’ and ‘Over there, three rows of seats behind us’.145 As he gives his commentary Forbster might as well be saying, ‘If you will direct your attention, Ladies and Gentlemen…’ Underlying this, though, is not only a sense of the monstrosity of the current society – such that the only solution may be, like Forbster, to find bleak satisfaction in contemplating it – but also a sense of the objectification of modern humanity. They are ‘objectified’ in the sense that they are spectacles and objects in a collection, true, but Lorrain’s description of them emphasises something inhuman, even ‘un-living’ in their natures.

As well as the three terrible ‘ghouls’ who ‘enchant and ruin young men’, Lorrain


Lorrain, ‘Magic Lantern’, 176.

Lorrain, ‘Magic Lantern’, 175.

Lorrain, ‘Magic Lantern’, 174-175.

–  –  –


Lorrain, ‘Magic Lantern’, 174-175.

Lorrain, ‘Magic Lantern’, 175.

222    Lorrain’s rendering of these people implies something inherently mechanical or artificial about them. For the Doll this is obvious, since Forbster describes her body as a contraption of crystal, porcelain and silk, animated by springs. But the possessed, too, have skins of linen and bloodless arms, implying that they have inorganic natures;

and the ‘vague and intermediary soul’ (words which recall Marx and Benjamin’s ironic description of the commodity soul) that inhabits the doll-girl has its parallel in the possession to which the megalomaniac women are subjected. Their somnambulistic, anaesthetised actions suggest demonic possession because they appear to be animated only by some force outside of themselves; they act, it seems, as the sleepwalker acts, deprived of purpose, functioning like automata.

Beyond this artificiality, Lorrain frequently returns to the idea of consumption – the consumption of food, commodities, and human bodies. The ghoul women do this most overtly, converting their cadaverous sexuality into financial gain through cannibalistic feasting. ‘Do you see the thinnest?’, Forbster asks the narrator.

‘One of my friends killed himself for her. She has already devoured three racing stables and their proprietors, and is at this moment consuming Bompard, the fat banker of the Rue des Petits-Champs. The others are of the same ilk’.148 In the same vein, Forbster points to ‘a young woman, as honest and fresh as a rose, who never misses an execution… She is an exquisite young woman, but she has adored assassins for twenty years, and shivers with profound sensuality every time she sees the fall of a severed head – eternally young, though, as if kept fresh by the sight of blood!’ After her comes a ‘a great hearty fellow with huge russet moustaches and the torso of a horseman [who] only loves consumptive women. All his mistresses die within the year … that kind of bizarre love should be classified under the heading of Demonality’.149 Finally, there is Forbster’s friend: ‘That lovely woman is on her forth experiment; three gallant husbands have already died in harness: a master of wolfhounds and two perfectly

healthy captains of the army, one of them a cuirassier. Two years in the household:

going, going, gone. Emptied, crushed to the marrow, breasts hollow, legs shaking:

broken puppets … they melted like wax in the warmth of her bed’.150 Like Beardsley, Lorrain uses these depictions of strange and unnatural sexualities to antagonise conventional morality. Lorrain, though, implies that contemporary society is so


Lorrain, ‘Magic Lantern’, 174.

Lorrain, ‘Magic Lantern’, 175.

Lorrain, ‘Magic Lantern’, 175-176.

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