«Small, Douglas Robert John (2013) Dementia's jester: the Phantasmagoria in metaphor and aesthetics from 1700-1900. PhD thesis. ...»
Ethal’s hand is described immediately after this as an ‘armature of livid jewels’; it is telling that the bust of the young boy seems to come to life at the same time as Ethal’s hand becomes more artificial, becoming at once intensely predatory and intensely synthetic. Both Ethal and the bust seem to have some oddly vital but also unliving quality about them. Fréneuse’s fantasy, however, is not that Angelotto’s bust has acquired life from Ethal, but that, with the boy’s death, he has somehow been transformed by Ethal into his own bust. This is a fantasy founded upon Lorrain’s association of death with objectification. The illusion is all the more potent because not only does Ethal seem – as he recounts the first time he shows the bust to Fréneuse – to have stolen Angelotto’s life in order to create his sculpture of him, but because this seems to be a fundamental feature of his art. Ethal loves to paint and sculpt the sick and the dying. At the interview at which his protégé kills him, Ethal displays three
Lorrain, Monsieur de Phocas, 102.
Lorrain, Monsieur de Phocas, 252-253.
237 portraits of his which he is overjoyed to have reacquired (thanks to the resolution of a lawsuit brought by the husband of one of his subjects). In his diary for that morning, Fréneuse wryly observes that ‘Bluebeard has invited me to come and visit his dead women this evening’.179 The Bluebeard comparison not only reflects the submerged danger of Ethal’s personality, it also speaks to the spectacular and supernatural elements of his portrayal. The way Ethal shows off the portraits is intensely theatrical.
As the Duc arrives Ethal announces that he has come to ‘The ball of victims!’; ‘What a showman!’ Fréneuse remarks, ‘His studio was full of amaryllids and huge lilies mounted high and low’.180 The flowers are ostensibly arranged like this to suggest a wake for the women in the portraits. But it is interesting that while feasting his eyes on the pictures of the women, Ethal muses: ‘Are they not beautiful lilies themselves: three delicately tormented lilies; three great white lilies in the process of withering away?’181 By comparing them to the flowers surrounding them, Ethal objectifies the women in a strange way. He seemingly collects these three women – turning them into their portraits; he displays them in the same way he displays the huge bunches of flowers and in the same way that he displays Angelotto. Fréneuse, looking at one of the portraits, cannot help but imagine it to be ‘a psychic painting – for that figure […] seemed more like the image of a soul than a flower’.182 Lorrain may very well have been inspired here by Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray in which Dorian’s portrait objectified not only his body but the essence of his selfhood. Lorrain, though, makes a different use of the idea. Rather than revealing the inner life of a character or implying the limitations of that inner life, Lorrain returns to the images of supernatural, ghoulish consumption that dominated ‘Magic Lantern’. Ethal apparently enchants people into objects, capturing their souls and imprisoning them in his artworks. The conditions that define Ethal’s art are the conditions of the phantasmagoria of the marketplace: the semblance of magic about the object, and the fear that life can no longer be said to belong exclusively to people but must be divided between them and the things they consume.
As an aside, in Lorrain’s works, wax would seem to be the substance that most clearly symbolised this horrible indeterminacy of being alive. Lorrain almost obsessively returns to it and whenever it appears, it suggests a tactile but also corpse Lorrain, Monsieur de Phocas, 242.
Lorrain, Monsieur de Phocas, 244.
Lorrain, Monsieur de Phocas, 244.
Lorrain, Monsieur de Phocas, 245.
238 like quality to the thing that is being described. There are Ethal’s wax death masks and dolls, in the first part of Monsieur de Phocas the Duc’s hand is compared to a ‘waxen bird183’ and a great emerald that he wears in his cravat catches the narrator’s eye because ‘its fine, polished facets seemed almost as if they had been modelled in pale wax184’, implying a fundamental link between the inanimate object and its possessor.
In ‘Magic Lantern’ as well, there is the doll Madame G-, whose fearful, deathly sexuality is conveyed by ‘lips, as cold as lips of wax’185 and the story ends with the image of the three husbands of the ‘pretty brunette’ who ‘melted in the warmth of her bed’186 – an image that not only suggests putrefaction but also impotence. Wax, being synthetic but also at the same time evoking the feel of skin obviously stood out for Lorrain as an image of the modern blurring of life and death, synthetic and organic.
In Monsieur de Phocas, Fréneuse is a man tormented by materiality;
Ethal, on the other hand, is a man inspired by it. If the goldsmith Barruchini is a magician, then Ethal is surely a necromancer of the world of objects. We have already seen how, in those moments when Ethal’s artworks seem most alive – when the ‘captured souls’ within them seem to visibly writhe in pain – Ethal himself is often at his most malevolently artificial. This fact exposes the heart of Ethal’s personality: his entire being is defined through objects; the main way that he asserts himself in the narrative is through his control of objects and his display of objects. Fréneuse himself sees that Ethal’s instincts are principally those of a showman. In another parallel between the decadent phantasmagorical aesthetic and eighteenth-century curiosity culture, Ethal represents another form of the collected self. Like the curioso, his identity is projected outward into the objects he owns, objects which are themselves supernatural, which assume the qualities of the living and which trigger strange fantasies in the febrile soul of Fréneuse. Ethal sends his friend engravings by Goya, Ensor and others; Fréneuse writes that: ‘I sense that all these dispatches of hideous and hallucinatory engravings are starting something. They are deranging and depriving my brain, populating my imagination with the produce of stupor and trance […]’187 Fréneuse’s cousin cautions him about Ethal’s ‘Candaridian cigarettes, opium pipes,
Lorrain, Monsieur de Phocas, 24.
Lorrain, ‘The Magic Lantern’, 175.
Lorrain, ‘The Magic Lantern’, 176.
Lorrain, Monsieur de Phocas, 90-91.
In these statements, we often see foregrounded the idea of Ethal’s influence over others. Like many other aspects of Fréneuse and Ethal’s relationship, the passage reads like an exaggerated and more frightening extrapolation of the relationship between Dorian Gray and Lord Henry Wotton – Wotton’s power to influence Dorian taken to a gothic extreme. But there is more here than simple force of personality; there is much in the way that Ethal is presented that recalls the phantasmagorical Prince Prospero from ‘The Masque of the Red Death’. Like the Prince, Ethal becomes a sort of fantasmagore – a collector and master of strange and frightening spectacles – the summation of his whole collection. The fact that Ethal occasionally appears to lose his human nature is a literal reflection of the fact that his identity is displaced into objects – as his self is distributed into possessions, possessions are reflexively displaced into him. The influence that he wields over people is the influence of the wondrous object;
Lorrain, Monsieur de Phocas, 96.
Lorrain, Monsieur de Phocas, 146.
240 he has the power to make himself into a collection and also to ‘collect’ those around him. The hand caressing Angelotto’s head brings this process into sharp and terrible focus for the Duc. It starts him on a chain of thought, at the end of which he realises that while he was being shown the monsters at Ethal’s party, he too was being shown off: the revelation comes to him that ‘I was part of the collection myself’190 – he has come to be ‘owned’ by Ethal. This realisation of Fréneuse’s demonstrates that Ethal’s influence is also an act of appropriation, a function of his collected nature which allows him to aggregate objects into himself and turn people into objects. His personality becomes almost unreal and reaches satanic dimensions.
Like the Prince, Ethal places himself in a position above those he takes an interest in, he develops and ‘improves’ them according to his designs – this is why both the party-goers and the subjects of his paintings are compared to flowers.
Welcome even goes so far as to make the connection for us: ‘Ethal cultivates and develops these flowers of criminality, much as he is accused in London of cultivating pallor, anaemia, languor and consumption in his models’.191 Likewise, he is cheerfully above normal moral and social constraints – he happily admits to stealing those objects in museums that he finds intriguing. Not only does this put him above the law, it also intensifies his power of ownership: he has mastered the system of capitalist acquisition so that anything he desires may belong to him but he acknowledges no claim to ownership on the part of anyone else – not even of their own selves. He appears, therefore, in the light of a wondrous being (or an intimidating one, given his obvious villainy) exceeding both the boundaries of the human body and moral restraints: his being is made up of objects, he has power over objects and has the power to turn people into objects. In this regard, it is worth looking at the language Welcome uses to describe Ethal’s love for his ‘flowers of evil’. (Remember that, according to Benjamin, Baudelaire was – like Ethal – a ‘connoisseur of narcotics’.
Remember also that, in Lorrain’s world, there is very little difference between the narcotic and the poisonous.) In these lines, Ethal is portrayed as a collector – hunting for sin in the same way that another man might hunt for a Sèvres china teacup – but also as something akin to a researcher, or an investigator. He is compared to a ‘great doctor or philosopher’, to a horticulturalist who ‘cultivates and develops’. Only a few paragraphs later, Welcome tells Fréneuse: ‘it is for his own edification that he
Lorrain, Monsieur de Phocas, 251.
Lorrain, Monsieur de Phocas, 146.
241 contrives marvellous spectacles. He will collaborate wholeheartedly with a man’s vices, in order to see how far that man will carry the torch of depravity’. Above all, Ethal ‘has an inquiring mind’.192 Before the murder, Fréneuse recalls the party and remembers how, then and later, Ethal described his guests to him: ‘Not one of them found favour […] all their ignominies and all their lusts had been slowly stirred by the abominable Englishman […] [all] had been evaluated […] and found equally wanting’.193 What unites all of these remarks about Ethal is the sense of the almost empirical attitude that he has towards what Fréneuse calls his ‘menagerie’;194 not a completely scientific detachment – he is far too enthusiastic for that – but a superiority of vision that is quasi-scientific: the separation between scientist and specimen that is here also the separation between connoisseur and objet d’art. Ethal’s character creates a parallel between the critical gaze of a scientist examining a specimen and the critical gaze of an aesthete examining a work of art. Like Forbster, who takes the narrator of ‘Magic Lantern’ on a tour of society’s evils, Ethal enjoys the omnipresence of moral corruption while being above his subjects’ vices; if not morally superior, at least possessed of a superiority of vision – the ability to see their vices and comprehensively analyse their failings. What unfolds for us here is a system in which this clarity of vision, the capacity to comprehend society’s flaws, automatically suggests acquisition and ownership. Owning an object allows one to develop one’s comprehension of it, to investigate and examine it; understanding and display become visible signs of control.
Ethal and Forbster’s unfolding of the state of modern man results in a theatre of mastery: people are examined by them, assessed by them, admired by them and ultimately displayed and owned by them. The dissecting power of their gaze transforms their relationship with people into a relationship between consumers and commodities. This is another part of Ethal’s charisma as a collected self: not only does he fantasise and exoticise his personality and form by aggregating them into objects, he has an insight into those around him that, because of the condition of the society in which they live, is synonymous with possession.
In this sense, Ethal is a subversive figure without being an aspirational one. He critiques the hypocrisy of contemporary society and rises above the demands of institutionalised capitalism. However, in keeping with Lorrain’s perspective on the
Lorrain, Monsieur de Phocas, 146-147.
Lorrain, Monsieur de Phocas, 250.
Lorrain, Monsieur de Phocas, 251.
242 decadent phantasmagoria, Ethal offers no promise of escape from these conditions despite his own phantasmagorical nature. The great question that dogs Lorrain’s portrayal of Ethal is, if being a commodity is to be dead, what is it to be an owner?