«Small, Douglas Robert John (2013) Dementia's jester: the Phantasmagoria in metaphor and aesthetics from 1700-1900. PhD thesis. ...»
230 second-hand, proximal souls. Perhaps what prevents Fréneuse from fully explaining this fear to himself is the deep attraction that this quality also has for him. The immobility of the statue has a beauty that humans can never equal. The paradox is that it seems to be ‘animated by divine breath’; there is ‘softness and warmth’ in its gaze while ‘there is nothing but instinct, nervous ticks and the batting of eyelashes’163 in living eyes; the portraits have an ‘eternal life’ in museums but the eyes of Antinous are the eyes of the ‘long dead’. Fréneuse is a man lost in the phantasmagorical merging of people and things. What appals and attracts him is that while objects have been imbued with a magical pseudo-life, humanity has been contaminated by a germ of the undead. For Lorrain, the attraction of the phantasmagorical object is the attraction of the vampire or the possessed; the compulsive desire for – and fear of – the human being that is animated by something other than humanity.
The Duc de Fréneuse’s fear of objectified people leads him quickly into a recurring hallucination in which he sees people as nothing but objects (and occasionally vice versa). This fear often resolves itself – like the statues and portraits – into objects that imitate human features. Masks feature in some of his most vivid delusions: ‘Masks! I see them everywhere… I see masks in the street, I see them on stage in the theatre, I find yet more masks in the boxes. They are on the balcony and in the orchestra-pit. Everywhere I go I am surrounded by masks. The attendants to whom I give my overcoat are masked; masks crowd around me in the foyer as everyone leaves, and the coachman who drives me home has the same cardboard grimace fixed upon his face!’164 Similarly, when he is in a party of people with a fashionable singer, he becomes convinced that ‘I did not hear the singing of a living woman but of some automaton pieced together from disparate odds and ends – or perhaps even worse, some dead woman hastily reconstructed from hospital remains.’165 Here, perhaps more vividly than in any work since Swift’s ‘Progress of Beauty’, we can see the link between artificially beautified, objectified humanity and death; in Fréneuse’s mind, the two concepts are essentially the same. Ethal tries (or claims to try) to relax the Duc’s fixation on masks by exposing him to Ethal’s own collection of masks. When he visits
Ethal’s studio, Fréneuse observes:
Lorrain, Monsieur de Phocas, 46.
Lorrain, Monsieur de Phocas, 65.
Lorrain, Monsieur de Phocas, 66.
231 In one corner [there was] a tall Imperial cheval-glass, mounted in a mahogany frame decorated with masks.
There were Debureau masks: the pale faces of Pierrots with pinched nostrils and tight smiles. There were Japanese masks, some in bronze and others in lacquered wood. There were masks from the Italian commedia, made of silk and painted wax, and a few of black gauze stretched over brass wire. There were enigmatic and cleverly horrid Venetian masks, like those of the characters of de Longhi.
An entire garland of grimaces had been posed around the sleeping pool of the mirror.
[…] Moving aside, with the peculiar grace of a dancer, Ethal displayed to me a mahogany sleeping-couch decorated in the same fashion as the cheval-glass: a whole heap of masks encumbered the cushions.
There were charming ones as well as terrible ones, that I must admit. The painter was particularly entranced by Japanese masks: warriors’ actors’ and courtesans’ masks. Some of them were frightfully contorted, the bronze cheeks creased by a thousand wrinkles, with vermillion weeping from the corners of the eyes and long trails of green at the corners of the mouths like splenetic beards.
‘These are the masks of demons,’ said the Englishman, caressing the long black swept-back tresses of one of them.
‘The Samurai wore them in battle, to terrify the enemy. The one which is covered in green scales, with two opal pendants between the nostrils, is the mask of a sea-demon. This one, with the tufts of white fur for eyebrows and the two horsehair brushes beside the lips, is the mask of an old man. These others, of white porcelain – a material as smooth and fine as the cheeks of a Japanese maiden, and so gentle to the touch – are the masks of courtesans.’
Ethal’s masks achieve a variety of phantasmagorical effects. Most obviously, they ape the forms of human beings and in their very natures suggest the fantastical situation in which objects assume the features of living people. Ethal’s arrangement of them intensifies this; they parody the human form by staring back at us out of mirrors and reclining on couches. Lorrain implies that this is a deliberate decision on Ethal’s part.
The painter claims that he is familiar with Fréneuse’s spiritual distress and that this is one of the reasons for his leaving London. ‘The fuliginous atmosphere and the fogs which rise out of the Thames fashion spectres and mannequins out of all mankind, in a manner too dreadful by far to be endured. I can breathe so much more easily since I began to live with masks!’167 Ethal poses the masks in such a way as that Fréneuse will be more inclined to conflate them with people. Similarly, Ethal maintains that there is an essential parity between the masks he owns and the ‘spectres and mannequins’ he is confronted with in the street. In Ethal’s view, there is no real difference between an increasingly artificial humanity and the objects that imitate them: in effect, they represent only differing degrees on the same uncanny continuum.
As such, his ‘treatment’ for Fréneuse is an almost homeopathic one, exposing him to a
Lorrain, Monsieur de Phocas, 72-74.
Lorrain, Monsieur de Phocas, 73.
233 lesser form of the phenomenon that extends throughout late nineteenth-century society, so that he can cultivate a resistance to it. Whether this is really what Ethal wants to happen is another matter, since the younger man frequently points out that all Ethal’s ‘medicine’ seems to do is to further irritate his condition by cementing his delusions. Ethal is far more comfortable and better able to comprehend the plastic nature of modern life than Fréneuse is; he can diagnose and treat himself with a skill Fréneuse could never achieve. As Monsieur de Phocas progresses, Ethal seems to become increasingly manipulative and Mephistophelean in his character, and he also comes to be more completely associated with collections of objects that are both magical and vaguely suggestive of undeath.
The masks Fréneuse comes to see, as well as addressing the hybridisation of people and possessions, also partly reiterate the familiar magical or wondrous qualities of the phantasmagorical object; they summon up the romantic, exotic aura of the Japanese Nō or the Venetian Carnival. Ethal describes them as having an ‘ugliness born of dreams’ and encourages Fréneuse to ‘study them at [his] leisure; handle them; penetrate their inspiring and horrifying ugliness’.168 These injunctions, particularly the one to handle them, are reminiscent of the ways in which Dorian Gray behaves with his collection. Again, the vaguely sensual, tactile interaction with the objects implies a contact between their possessor and a distant dream world; again, the objects themselves are portrayed as having emerged from dreams, as being composed from a material of unreality. In the opening chapter of the novel, Fréneuse has a similar conversation with the narrator in which he praises the
narrator’s articles on a goldsmith of whose work they are both admirers:
Lorrain, Monsieur de Phocas, 73.
These lines at first appear to conform to the familiar rhetoric of the phantasmagorical object. The goldsmith Barruchini is not only an artisan but a magician; the phantasmagoria of his gems is also the phantasmagoria of history as they summon up Egypt, Byzantium and the Renaissance, as well as the legends of Solomon, Thule and Ys. The designs of the gems themselves are also suggestive and curious: they are ‘golden flora’, ‘glazed fruits [and] flowers of polished stone set in gold’.170 While the fashionability of using floral forms in jewellery at this time probably contributed to this description,171 it also suggests a kind of curious workmanship in which the organic is confused with the metallic. Fréneuse rhapsodises that these jewels ‘make one dream’, but for Lorrain, the nature of the dream is more disquieting than it is for other authors. After extolling their charms, the Duc rapidly changes his tone, warning the narrator that ‘no one has suffered more than myself from the morbid attraction of these jewels; and [I am] sick unto death – seeing that I am being carried away by their translucent glaucous poison’.172 Remember that these wondrous things – both Barruchini’s jewels on the one hand and Ethal’s masks on the other – are always in some way associated with Fréneuse’s madness- his obsession with the interconnectedness of living eyes, jewels and works of art. Just as Ethal drives the Duc more fully into distraction and hallucination, Fréneuse himself asks the narrator, ‘do you want me to tell you how the showcases of Barruchini have exasperated my illness?’173 These objects cannot help but suggest the horrible overlapping of life and death that Fréneuse so fears; the dream into which they propel him is not the sheltered haven of Des Esseintes or Dorian Gray, rather it has the compulsive and destructive quality of some addictive drug. This is the poison that Fréneuse imagines dripping from jewels and the eyes of portraits. In this context, it is worth remembering how
Lorrain, Monsieur de Phocas, 27-28.
Lorrain, Monsieur de Phocas, 27-28.
Pierrot, The Decadent Imagination, 217.
Lorrain, Monsieur de Phocas, 28.
Lorrain, Monsieur de Phocas, 29.
235 Ethal dies, not only ‘by his own hand’ (the very hand that so vividly symbolises his artificiality) but by swallowing the poison that is concealed in his emerald ring. The way phantasmagorical objects seem to work for Fréneuse is similar to the way they work for the bereaved husband in Poe’s ‘Ligeia’. The narrative makes it obvious that Fréneuse’s desire for phantasmagorical objects is a compulsion that he cannot control and that it is part of his aberrant state of mind: the common connection between personal grotesqueness and a taste for the grotesque, here taken to an even more extreme degree. Lorrain also makes it clear that these phantasmagorias intensify the young man’s hallucinatory obsessions. Like Rowenna, the second wife from ‘Ligeia’ who gradually succumbs to ‘the phantasmagorical influences’174 of her husband’s home, Fréneuse is subjected to subtle and maddening influences from these objects.
The phantasmagorias of materiality generate the phantasmagorias of the mind, preying on its mutability and the frenetic vulnerability of the imagination. For Lorrain, the phantasmagoria is associated with a feeling of claustrophobia, an impression that the characters are trapped in a place, or a society, that has the potential to derange them. In Monsieur de Phocas, the phantasmagorical object is not a magical, dream-inducing panacea but a proof of the vulnerability of the mind to suggestion and of the contamination of the soul produced by modern life.
As Ethal shows Fréneuse more of his collections, the Duc’s fears and uncertainties about the relationship between people and objects continue to build.
Ethal shows him a life-size wax doll of a thirteen-year-old Spanish Infanta, like ‘a little princess… captive in a block of ice’.175 This is the crowning glory of Ethal’s collection of wax death-masks, comprised entirely of the faces of women and young boys, some famous – such as Marguerite de Valois and Mary Stewart – and some everyday. His sentimental favourite is the bust of a young Italian boy called Angelotto that Ethal sculpted himself. Ethal recounts how he found Angelotto dying of consumption on the streets of Paris and brought him back to his studio to model for him before he died. ‘I sensed that he was living on borrowed time and might easily slip through my fingers. The very next day I made him pose. What could I do?’ While working on the bust Ethal claims that he felt he was ‘moulding a soul’176 and this statement is strangely echoed in a delusion that grips Fréneuse a few minutes later.
Poe, The Portable Edgar Allan Poe, 121.
Lorrain, Monsieur de Phocas, 97.
Lorrain, Monsieur de Phocas, 101.
236 While Ethal caresses the head of the sculpture with his hand, Fréneuse seems to see that hand turn into the claw of a vulture, decorated with bejewelled rings. At the same time, the head of Angelotto seems to come to life: ‘By means of some bizarre retrospective hallucination, I saw that vulturine claw wringing the last gasp out of the little Italian’.177 This impression returns to him more powerfully at the end of the novel and it is this recurrence which gives him the final impetus to suddenly and
violently turn on Ethal: