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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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The reduction of human beings into the undead creates a reflexive reaction whereby Ethal becomes more than moral. His actions and his state of being are more complex than the consumption engaged in by the ghouls and succubae who feed off their fellow men. As Jennifer Birkett points out, in Lorrain’s world ‘consuming, using and killing are not choices that mark out individuals for distinction. They are acts of submission and co-option into a system which is both repugnant and desirable’.195 If anything, the actions of Fréneuse and the grotesques that pack the opera boxes in ‘Magic Lantern’ mark them out as losing their individuality, losing their identity in an exploitative system. The fact that this system is both horrible and attractive is confirmed by the mixture of desire and fear that Fréneuse experiences when he looks into people’s eyes or the depths of gems. Ethal alone avoids being subsumed by this system because he embodies the system. Ethal, the collected man, is also the optimal man of capitalism.

His existence is bound up in objects and he therefore lacks human vulnerabilities. In Fréneuse, Ethal sees a man who cannot free himself from the fear of the commodity.

For the Duc, objects suggest only existential dread and confusion; they signify the uncertain definitions of life and death, this is the poison he sees congealed in the eyes of portraits. By contrast, Ethal’s objects transmit coherent narratives; he gives Fréneuse detailed accounts of Angelotto and the three women who posed for his ‘lily’ portraits. Similarly, the emerald ring he wears (the poisoned ring that eventually kills him) is an exact replica of one worn by Philip II of Spain. The gem in the ring originally (according to Ethal) served as a false eye in the face of Philip’s mistress, given to her by him after he had himself torn out the real one in a fit of rage.196 The story not only fits into the pattern of Fréneuse’s obsessions, it also demonstrates Ethal’s relationship with objects. Here, we have another object that claims to be a metaphorical human being. For Ethal, even though it is a replica, it not only conveys the woman but also her story. Ethal makes objects his servants while Fréneuse is enslaved by them; Ethal’s objects speak to him while they rob Fréneuse of whatever articulacy he may once have had.


Birkett, The Sins of the Fathers, 201.

Lorrain, Monsieur de Phocas, 103-105.

243    In this, we can see the frequently repeated logic of decadent resistance to conformity and capitalism. The decadents adopted the paradoxical strategy of using elite connoisseurship against mass consumption; paradoxical since it is reliant on the same mechanisms of capitalism that it tries to reject. This is the attempt to resist bourgeois consumerism by perpetually outpacing it; by refining consumption to a point beyond what is commonly available. The collected self works in the same way.

When the self becomes comprised of objects, then the refinement of the self is also the refinement of consumption. The collected self is the sign of an individual who has perfected their relationship with things. In Monsieur de Phocas, Lorrain produces Claudius Ethal as an illustration of demonic aspects of this process – a man who is free only because of the frightening skill with which he enslaves others.

The underlying impulse governing the use of the phantasmagorical in decadent literature was the rejection of the normative, conformist values of the society in which it was produced. In the early nineteenth century, the phantasmagoria became a symbol for the disintegration of rational certainties: political certainties, moral certainties and empirical certainties. Faced with a middle class that defined itself by rationality, order and practicality, decadent writers claimed the phantasmagorical as a symbol of resistance – an aesthetic which dispensed with order, undermined rationality and sacrificed the real world in favour of the dream. In the decadent rhetoric that eulogises the dream, we can see real-world social conflict, the desire for writers and artists – the majority of whom were themselves middle-class – to embrace an alternative way of life to that offered by bourgeois capitalism. Here also, the phantasmagoria became their weapon of choice. In resisting the acquisitive impulses of capitalism and petty consumerism, the phantasmagoria offered a way to effectively beat them at their own game. Marx identified the magical, phantasmagorical quality that attached itself to objects in the marketplace. For the decadents, this aura that surrounded these objects lifted them out of the realm of profane capitalism and into a more complex, more fabulous context. Their ideology was intensely materialistic but at the same time it was intensely anti-capitalist; objects were imagined to have a higher value than mere money and collecting them not only put the collector in contact with a wondrous fantasy world, it also became an emphatic signal of the resistance to the mind-set which valued objects only as commodities to be traded.

The final result of collecting these objects was that their owner came to be defined by his collection. The collector’s identity became assimilated into his 244    objects, through them he transformed into a phantasmagoria himself. In this, there was also a final signal of the rejection of the appropriate identity for a Victorian gentleman and the decadent’s devotion to an alternative mode of living.

In the collector’s becoming a collected self we can see just one example of the connections between the decadent phantasmagorical aesthetic and the curiosity culture of the eighteenth century. There is a continuum which links the curious collection to Robertson’s phantasmagoria, Robertson’s phantasmagoria to the stories of Edgar Allan Poe and Poe’s stories to the phantasmagorias of the decadence. The curious object that combined opposites within itself and projected exotic strangeness was also beloved by the decadents; the curious collection that emphasised shocks and juxtapositions was also the form of their collection; the curious vision that ignored the system in favour of the singularity was also their way of seeing the world. Even where the ‘real’ culture of curiosity did not provide the genesis of the decadent phantasmagoria, its satires did, through the imaginative spectacles of Pope and Swift.

The vision of the decadents was a curious vision, the dreams of the decadents had phantasmagorical forms. The decadent movement resurrected the culture of curiosity and refitted it for its own needs in its own age.


After the turn of the twentieth century, much of the social dissatisfaction that had fuelled the decadent use of the phantasmagoria transferred itself into new forms. Despite this, the phantasmagorical aesthetic remained an influential presence in Modern literature. As the decadent movement began to fade into the new age’s collective memory, the phantasmagoria underwent another of those metamorphoses that had often characterised its history. Successive generations of writers – often in surprisingly well-known works – return to the spirit of the phantasmagoria, drawing on its essential tropes and themes; chief among them being the idea of the fabulous collection and of a manic, quasi-magical fecundity of the imagination. As the intellectual and social landscape changed, writers adapted the aesthetic to fit new preoccupations; the hectic images of the phantasmagoria put on new forms for the new century.

In the immediate post-decadent period there were several writers who reinvented elements of the decadent phantasmagoria in their work. G.K. Chesterton’s first novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904) displays the same reverence for the imaginary dream life and disdain for capitalist ‘common sense’ as the decadent phantasmagoria. Decadent ideas about the fabulous, transformative power of the imagination are also developed in the work of the Anglo-Irish fantasy writer Lord Dunsany who, between 1910 and 1920, produced some of the most intensely phantasmagorical writing to be found after the fin de siècle. Outside of the English speaking world, novels like Alfred Kubin’s The Other Side (Die andere Seite) (1909) and Raymond Roussel’s Locus Solus (1914) both imitate and reinterpret the late nineteenth century’s fascination with the dream and the fantastic collection.

Chesterton’s Napoleon of Notting Hill tells the story of the changes that are wrought on the city of London when the newly elected king of England, Auberon Quin, attempts to reformulate everyday life on a pattern of medieval pageantry, designing ceremonial robes and coats-of-arms for the different London boroughs, commanding men at arms to carry swords and pikes and so on. Quin’s ideas (which even he considers to be little more than an elaborate joke) are taken up by a young man of Notting Hill called Adam Wayne and, due to Wayne’s enthusiasm, military 246    skill and force of belief, London is gradually transformed into a kind of wonderland based on chivalric romances. Both Wayne and Quin are repeatedly described as artists and dreamers, men out of step with everyday reality who long for a more romantic and imaginatively exciting way of life. Early in the novel, Quin’s friends talk about him in a way that makes him sound very similar to the decadent dreamer and collector: ‘Do you know that he has the one collection of Japanese lacquer in Europe? Have you ever seen his books? All Greek poets and medieval French and that sort of thing. Have you seen his rooms? It’s like being inside an amethyst’.1 Later, once his orders have been put into effect and he is at a meeting of the newly-costumed provosts of the London boroughs, Quin sees the room ‘roaring in a sunset of colour, and he enjoyed the sight, possible to so few artists – the sight of his own dreams moving and blazing before him’.2 Similarly, Wayne is ‘a genuine natural mystic, one of those who live on the border of fairyland’;3 a man who ‘finds himself in the midst of a heraldic vision, in which he can act and speak and live lyrically’.4 The personalities of these two men suggest more active, more playful (in Quin’s case) and more passionate (in Wayne’s case) versions of the decadent dreamer. The principal subject of Notting Hill is the process by which the personal fantasy of these two men spreads to an entire city, and possibly to the rest of the country as well. Chesterton gives this process a specific manifestation so that the reader can see the extent of the changes. Before Quin’s dream has been fully embraced by Londoners, Wayne wanders into a grocer’s shop and gives the confused grocer Mr Mead a romantic and spectacular interpretation of

his own profession. Wayne says:

–  –  –

Twenty years later, Auberon Quin visits the same shop and finds the same Mr Mead now dressed in a robe of blue, brown and crimson, ‘interwoven with an Eastern

complexity of pattern’:

–  –  –

The comparison of the grocer to an ‘educated virtuoso’ is especially telling here because it connects him not only with Quin specifically – who has been established already as an aesthete and collector – but with the general mind-set of the artist and the collector, in which objects are viewed as visual spectacle, romanticised and given the appearance of magic. Now that he is transformed into a collector, the grocer’s goods are no longer so much for sale as for admiration and amazement; they no longer exist as part of a capitalist exchange of commodities, but as an artistic statement. The primary function of his wares is no longer to be sold but to be imaginatively


Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, 139-141.

Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, 261-262.

248    suggestive; the primary function of the shop is no longer to sell objects, but to show them off, like the laboratory of a wizard or the treasure house of an Ali Baba. In effect, the whole of London now lives in Wayne and Auberon’s phantasmagoria. As well as transforming the spirit of the age, the two have seemingly done away with the spirit of capitalism. The book conveys the same romantic longing for an idealised dream world and disdain for reality that was to be found in the decadent uses of the phantasmagoria.

Likewise, the phantasmagoria (for this is how Chesterton presents the wondrous and elaborate vision of transformed London) is the form of that dream.

The same sort of phantasmagorical dream world appears, even more obviously, in several of Lord Dunsany’s short stories. Dunsany’s first book, The Gods of Pegāna (1905), was advertised as ‘a pagan phantasmagoria’7. Another collection of Dunsany’s stories called A Dreamer’s Tales, from 1910, includes the short story ‘Idle Days on the Yann’, probably the most clearly and self-consciously phantasmagorical of all Dunsany’s works. ‘Yann’ is essentially a kind of fantasy travel narrative, with the conceit that Dunsany himself is narrating in first person an actual voyage he has made down the imaginary river Yann, describing the various spectacular sights and civilisations he encounters on his journey. (Dunsany later wrote two sequels to this story, describing further wanderings of his. These three tales, ‘Idle Days on the Yann’, ‘A Shop in Go-By Street’ and ‘The Avenger of Perdóndaris’ were collected as a trilogy named ‘Beyond the Fields We Know’ included in Tales of Three Hemispheres in 1919.) On a basic level, ‘Idle Days on the Yann’ follows the structure of the curious travel narrative. Dunsany often makes it clear to the reader that he is simply wandering through ‘a land of wonders’8 in search of marvels to enjoy, rather than for any commercial or scientific purpose. The narrative is essentially a collection of disconnected fantastical observations, including the passage on the Wanderers who

Dunsany finds in the city of Nen:

–  –  –

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