«Small, Douglas Robert John (2013) Dementia's jester: the Phantasmagoria in metaphor and aesthetics from 1700-1900. PhD thesis. ...»
223 sickened and deformed that it can only express sexual desire if it is also a desire for consumption, or a desire for death. What is clear in these lines is that underlying Lorrain’s vision is a deep sense of people not only as objects but also specifically as consumables, and of a terrible equivalence between this state and death. The logic behind these connections can again be understood through Marx’s analysis of the phantasmagorical quality of the market. Lorrain’s fantastical terror of the living object is predicated upon a type of Marxist thinking, his portrayal of his characters echoes Marx’s perspective on the commodity. The pervasive illusion that the object is magical and self-generating produces the fantasy that the object may also be selfdetermining – that it may have a life of its own. Once this fantasy takes hold, it becomes more difficult to distinguish consumers from objects of consumption; people and objects begin to lose their mutual distinctiveness. We can see a subtle example of this in Benjamin’s ‘Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire’. When discussing the
flâneur, Benjamin writes:
For our analysis of Lorrain, what it is important here is that Benjamin, in the course of his analysis, begins to write from within the phantasmagorical illusory state that he is describing; he assumes the point of view of his subject by conflating people and material possessions. Not only is the experience of the flâneur best explained by comparing it with the experience of the commodity, the commodity comes magically to life – it becomes the active partner in its relationship with the customer; it empathises rather than receiving empathy, it becomes intoxicated rather than acting as an intoxicant. This language of intoxication to which Benjamin returns so frequently in this passage is also the language of the phantasmagoria and its disassociation between reality and fantasy. The conditions of living people and the conditions of objects begin to overlap, but not in a clearly defined way: both appear to merge together and to lose the integrity of their self-hoods in a druggy, hallucinogenic response to the forces of capitalism. This is why, for Lorrain, there were so many ghouls in the modern age: as man becomes a commodity, he loses his humanity and is consumed by other inhuman people; human beings devour each other. But in his eyes, there was also a more disturbing aspect to this process: as human beings become more like objects, they become less like living things and more like corpses. In ‘Magic Lantern’ Lorrain portrays the fin-de-siècle not only as a dying age but an age of the dead. The Doll, Madame G-, is a particularly vivid instance of this; her ‘vague, intermediate soul’ is the characteristic soul of the modern age, an age in which people are no longer clearly alive or dead. She is a particularly strange idea: a woman imagined to be a machine imitating a woman – in her, the human form has begun to be seen as a replica of itself. In Hoffmann’s story, the fear was of a machine being mistaken for a human – the fear in ‘Magic Lantern’ is of life itself becoming mechanical. If Beardsley (perhaps ironically in this context) thought the conversion of
the body into objects to be an enlivening process, Lorrain gives us the obverse of this:
the reduction of people to the living dead.
This is even more prominent in Lorrain’s novel Monsieur de Phocas.
The novel tells the story of the Duc de Fréneuse: young, incredibly wealthy, a lover of
Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire, 55-56.
225 beautiful objects, yet also spiritually agitated, capable only of isolated moments of contentment derived from aesthetic contemplation. Fréneuse loathes the society in which he finds himself but is also paralysed into almost total inertia, incapable of doing anything to relieve his condition or to free himself from the potent manias, hallucinations and occasionally violent urges to which he is prone. The overwhelming obsession of the Duc’s life is his quest for the sight of ‘a certain blue and green something’, a search that has dominated his life since he was a child. In the opening chapter he tells the narrator, to whom he gives a first-hand manuscript account of the
previous five or six years of his life:
Fréneuse’s story is loosely based on Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, with the difference that the Duc is a more passive and less stable character even than Dorian.
Also, unlike Dorian, Fréneuse narrates his own story via the device of the manuscript which he hands over to the narrator at the beginning of the book; though, especially towards the end, the narrator intrudes into Fréneuse’s account to point out that the dates and details of the narrative contradict each other, forcing the reader to question what is reality and what the Duc’s own fantasy. The analogue for Lord Henry Wotton in Monsieur de Phocas is an exiled English artist by the name of Claudius Ethal. Ethal acquires an almost irresistible influence over Fréneuse, manipulating his already intense revulsion from modern life and his love of the strange and the grotesque.
Throughout the novel, Ethal’s actions and their effects on his young follower are explicitly drug-like (a resemblance intensified by the fact that Lorrain may have meant
Lorrain, Monsieur de Phocas, 29.
226 Ethal’s name to suggest an adjectival form of the word ‘ether’ – a drug Lorrain himself had been semi-addicted to since about 1887); Ethal constantly promises to cure the ineffectual and tormented Fréneuse of his spiritual maladies but only feeds him progressively stronger doses of bizarrerie – in the form of exotic curiosities and art – temporarily relieving the Duc’s symptoms while aggravating his condition even further. Gradually Fréneuse forms the idea that Ethal loves evil and mental derangement for their own ‘artistic’ sakes and is trying to poison his soul for this reason – Ethal having allegedly, literally, poisoned several of his models for paintings and sculptures in order to give them a sickly, etiolated appearance and thereby achieve better artistic results. However, it is difficult to be sure of the Duc’s conclusions in this regard because he seems to be on the verge of insanity, and it is a strong possibility that Ethal may be a delusion of his in any case. Having been pushed too far by Ethal, Fréneuse murders him by the unusual method of forcing Ethal’s hand into his own mouth so that he bites down on a poisoned ring he wears, killing himself instantly.
After Ethal’s murder, Fréneuse has a vision of the goddess Astarté whose eyes may be the shade of blue green which have always haunted him; he then changes his name to Monsieur de Phocas and departs for the ancient but less degraded civilisations of Egypt and the East. Whether the departure and name-change indicate, as Jennifer Birkett suggests, that Fréneuse/Phocas plans to continue his violent, homicidal career in Egypt where there is less chance of discovery,153 or that by ridding himself of Ethal (either physically or spiritually) he has finally got his life in focus (Phocas) is unclear.
Throughout Fréneuse’s narrative, he is continually dogged by the same fear that informed ‘Magic Lantern’: the fear of people becoming (dead) objects or of objects inheriting or stealing life from people. The novel repeats ‘Magic Lantern’s depiction of the grotesque, ghoulish and blackly comic spectacle of modern society. At a party thrown by Ethal (at which Fréneuse takes opium) one of the guests is described as ‘a great opossum encrusted with diamonds’, another is said to have a become famous in England because of ‘Swinburne, Baudelaire and Incest’154, and an elderly and decrepit duchess is called ‘a splendid idol… beneath [the] spolia opima of her diamonds’ and also ‘a Madonna of the Terror, in a procession of penitents painted by
Jennifer Birkett, The Sins of the Fathers: Decadence in France 1870-1914 (London: Quartet, 1986), 207.
The guest in question is a young lady equally renowned for giving poetic recitations and for being rumoured to be sleeping with her brother.
227 Goya’.155 The chapters which cover the party are called ‘Some Monsters’, ‘The Larvae’ and ‘Towards the Sabbat’ recalling the demonic and deathly associations of Lorrain’s short story. In addition to viewing them as spectacles, though, the novel also draws attention to the overlapping identities of people and objects. When the Duc de Fréneuse is first introduced, not only is he described in terms of the objects decorating his person, his form is fragmented – most notably, great attention is paid to his hands, both here and throughout the narrative – and the individual parts of his body seem to be artificial. The narrator first realises that the mysterious M. de Phocas who has come to call on him is in fact the famous Duc de Fréneuse when he recognises the ‘thin
platinum bracelet studded with opals around his right wrist’:
When two acquaintances of the narrator discuss the Duc, they each specifically focus their attentions on his hands and his eyes – stressing the ‘icy, lax, gentleness’ of the hands, and the eyes ‘hard as diamond [with] such a frosty gleam they might have been made of lapis-lazuli or steel.’157 In the same conversation, one of them summarises his impression of the Duc: ‘That pallor of decay; the twitching of his bony hands, more
Jean Lorrain, Monsieur de Phocas, 114-116.
Lorrain, Monsieur de Phocas, 24-25.
Lorrain, Monsieur de Phocas, 31.
228 Japanese than chrysanthemums; the arabesque profile; that vampiric emaciation’.158 Fréneuse’s identity is initially made up of jewels; the bracelet gives a better clue to who he is than his face does; the narrator’s memories connect him the massed cases of the jewel-smith. Similarly, the hand almost becomes the bracelet that encircles it –
cold, metallic and smooth - when it is not being compared to some other, alien form:
waxen, feminine, bird-like, osseous or like a flower. Again, because of their artificiality, they are also death-like. Ethal’s hand too is often given an aura of the synthetic. More than once it is compared to the claw of a vulture, covered in exotic rings ‘like nacreous pustules’.159 As well as jewels, Fréneuse’s other obsession is with eyes – both human eyes and the eyes of sculptures and portraits – in which he hopes to catch a glimpse of the blue green something. Indeed, they are, at their root, different facets of the same obsession. Since they all evoke some slight trace of this ‘something’, Fréneuse conflates these three in his mind so that for him there is always the peculiar sense of his being watched by jewels, a desire to find empathy and emotion in the eyes represented in works of art and a brittle prismatic quality in the eyes of other human
beings. The manuscript entry for October 30th 1891 reads:
A later, even more unhinged entry complains:
Lorrain, Monsieur de Phocas, 32.
Lorrain, Monsieur de Phocas, 102.
Lorrain, Monsieur de Phocas, 35.
The very next lines (claiming to be from November 1896, the preceding passage is undated) complete the trifecta of interconnections by saying, ‘There are also eyes in the transparency of gems, antique gems above all… from whose depths the centuries watch you’.161 Fréneuse compares the blankness of human eyes with the ‘honest gazes’ of pictures. For him, artificial eyes are seemingly capable of an intensity that human eyes lack. Yet despite this assertion, there appears to be an inherent similarity between the two, a similarity that Fréneuse is unable, or terribly afraid, to articulate to himself. After all, both are enigmatic, dolorous and terrifying; he states that, ‘The madness of eyes is the allure of the abyss’.162 Gems also seem to draw him in, to look back into him as he looks into them. For Fréneuse, though, the most frightening thing is not to be looked at, but the soulless quality of this look. Gems, human eyes and the eyes of pictures all seem to receive a soul but not to possess one of their own. Look at the similarity of sentiments between his claim that there is nothing in the eye that is not put there by the observer and his feeling that pictures and sculptures somehow ‘inherit’ the souls of their creators. Both seem to live a kind of half life, to have
Lorrain, Monsieur de Phocas, 46-47.
Lorrain, Monsieur de Phocas, 45.