«Small, Douglas Robert John (2013) Dementia's jester: the Phantasmagoria in metaphor and aesthetics from 1700-1900. PhD thesis. ...»
Like the curious travel narrative, Dunsany never makes any attempt to explain or understand the things he sees; likewise, in terms of capitalism: these Wanderers don’t seem to be in town for trade, but to dance and seduce with their strangeness.
Dunsany’s observations – or, more accurately, the inventions he pretends are observations – are purely superficial, simply passing from one weird spectacle to another, without any definite sense of purpose. This point is underscored by the frequency with which he begins new paragraphs and sentences with the word ‘And’.
The story even starts with a connective: ‘So I came down through the wood to the bank of the Yann’10. Dunsany is constantly emphasising continuity in ‘Idle Days on the Yann’, a perpetual but also indeterminate progression from one observation to the next. It was this undisciplined wandering that characterised first the curious and later the phantasmagorical impulse.
However, the phantasmagoria of ‘Idle Days on the Yann’ is to be found not only in its narrator’s curious wandering and the omnipresence of fantastic oddities in the story, but also in the way in which Dunsany handles the power of imagination.
Early on in ‘Idle Days on the Yann’ he establishes that, even within the framework of
Dunsany, Tales of Three Hemispheres, 71.
250 the narrative, Yann, the surrounding lands and everything else he describes are actually imaginary. Dunsany describes how he is a wanderer in ‘The Land of Dream’11; he has, in effect, passed out of the real world and into a separate realm that is the manifestation of human fancy. As such, the spectacular quality of the things he sees on his travels are merely a reflection of the spectacular quality of the imagination in general. The story, in fact, literalises the process of imaginative reverie so beloved of the decadent movement. The immaterial activity of dreaming is here converted into a physical act of wandering around inside one’s own dream world. Like Chesterton’s London, Dunsany’s dreamlands are a realisation of the uncontrollable, phantasmagorical character of imagination itself. And, also like Chesterton, Dunsany’s stories preserve the imprint of the decadent contempt for suburban, bourgeois normality, which he portrays as rejecting imagination in favour of respectability and social conformity. In ‘The Distressing Tale of Thangobrind the Jeweller’, a wealthy London banker promises his only daughter to the thief Thangobrind if he can steal a giant sapphire from the temple of the spider-god Hlo-hlo in the fantastical city of Moung-ga-ling. After Hlo-hlo kills the thief, sparing the banker’s daughter, Dunsany ends the story by telling us: ‘[she] felt so little gratitude for this great deliverance that she took to respectability of a militant kind, and became aggressively dull, and called her home the English Riviera, and had platitudes worked in worsted upon her tea-cosy, and in the end never died, but passed away at her residence’.12 In this way Dunsany indicates rather clunkily his mocking contempt for middle-class ‘respectability’.
Similarly, in the last story of the Yann trilogy, ‘The Avenger of Perdóndaris’, Dunsany describes the playing of musicians which he overhears in a palace in the land of
Once again, we see a repetition of the late nineteenth century’s opposition of unimaginative middle-class reality with a hyper-creative and highly individualised state of dreaming: the contrast of vibrant dreams with the aesthetic limitations and emotional etiolation of the real world. Dunsany’s transformation of this concept, though, is both subtle and significant. By imagining the ‘Kingdom of Fantasy’ (‘which pertains to the Lands of Dream [and] the region of Myth’)14 as a place that a dreamer can actually be present in and explore, Dunsany makes the act of dreaming simultaneously internal and external. It preserves the romantic idea of personal imaginative freedom but also converts this into an active undertaking different from the passive reverie of the decadents.
This kind of change is also observable in Alfred Kubin’s The Other Side.
Published in 1909, the novel recounts the story of its narrator’s attempt to live in The Dream Country, a small nation created and ruled over by the narrator’s childhood friend Patera, who has come into possession of immense wealth. Much of The Other Side reads like a parody or exaggeration of fin-de-siècle ideals of disengagement with reality. The inhabitants of The Dream Country are individually and collectively highly introverted and indolent, prone to fantasies and neurological disorders. Franz Gautsch, the agent of the Dream Kingdom’s founder who invites the unnamed narrator to move there, remarks that it is ‘non-existent things that constitute the quintessence of our aspirations’.15 The narrator himself observes that new arrivals to the dream kingdom ‘talked a great deal about the world outside, with its progress and its wonderful innovations. But we Dreamers were not at all interested; we would say casually, “Yes, yes, quite so,” and then change the subject. To us the Dream Kingdom seemed limitless and grandiose; the rest of the world was not worth consideration; we forgot
Lord Dunsany, Tales of Three Hemispheres, 103.
Alfred Kubin, The Other Side (Die andere Seite), translated by Denver Lindley (London: Golancz, 1969), 14.
252 it’.16 While Kubin’s interpretation of the dream is far less active than Dunsany’s, he produces a similar effect: the act of dreaming is changed from a purely mental process into a physical activity that takes place in the real world. The dream becomes a country that people can visit and become trapped in. This country is shrouded in a perpetual misty twilight, its houses are all old, having been bought and shipped from all over Europe, and it is wholly suffused with a deep sense of nostalgia.
As well as considering the nature of dreaming as an activity, The Other Side also maintains a version of the strange relationship between people and objects to be found in decadent phantasmagorias. Gautsch describes Patera as ‘more a collector of antiquities in general than an art collector, but he is that on a grand scale… But there is more to it than that. He has a memory that goes beyond my understanding; he holds in his mind almost every object in his Kingdom’.17 Gautsch adds that as well as hunting down rare and precious artworks and antiquities, Patera’s agents are also tasked with highly specific requests for trivial, neglected or broken objects. As the
Patera’s willingness to devote as much time, effort and money to acquiring rubbish as to acquiring rare or beautiful objects effectively undermines the idea of the exclusive commodity. Importantly, Patera does not just buy junk with as much relish as he buys
Kubin, The Other Side, 141.
Kubin, The Other Side, 23.
Kubin, The Other Side, 24.
253 artworks, he sends his agents to track down the specific pieces of junk that he wants, applying the same standards of aesthetic refinement to both the greatest and the least of material things. In a way, this is similar to the decadent approach to materialism.
Patera does not simply dismiss material culture, he instead adds another layer of exclusivity and complexity on top of it. The standards by which he judges the value of an object are more elaborate than those which are normally used. Like Des Esseintes, who assigns value to objects based in their romantic, dreamy suggestiveness, Patera also hunts for things with a ‘dream value’. Their nostalgic potency is attested to by the narrator’s comment after hearing the list of Gautsch’s acquisitions for Patera: ‘Oh, I love old things’, he enthusiastically exclaims; the love of ‘old things’ (according to Susan Stewart) implying comfort and familiarity, the ‘warmth’ of a vaguely defined but reassuring cultural ‘childhood’.19 Locus Solus displays a similarly complex relationship with objects.
Roussel’s novel describes a group of admirers being shown around the palatial gardens of the home of the great inventor Martial Canterel. ‘Locus Solus’ is the name of Canterel’s estates and the gardens of his home are filled with exotic machines, artworks and performers. Canterel escorts the group around and, as he goes, tells them various stories about the objects, describing how they came to be there, how they operate and why they look the way they do. The various narratives that are contained in Locus Solus emerge out of the objects in a way that is similar to the exotic fantasies that emerge out of Dorian Gray or Des Esseintes’s collections – the objects exist to narrate and to be narrated. Locus Solus may be considered heavily phantasmagorical because it describes a tour of a collection; its only plot is a continuously evolving account of fantastic objects: a device that constructs an elaborate mosaic out of human teeth; an antique mud statue of a child from Timbuktu; playing cards that can be made to glow because they contain – within their few millimetres of thickness – not only an exquisite clockwork engine but also a species of rare bioluminescent insects. As Canterel leads the group around his collection, he also comes to conform to the idea of the collected self. His whole identity is contained in the objects that he displays, his charisma comes principally from owning things and being able to explain them to those less well-informed than himself.
See Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham, N.C: Duke University Press, 1993), 145-146, for a more detailed examination of the assignment of nostalgic value to objects of consumption.
254 Canterel differs from the decadent version of the collected self in one or two significant ways, though. For one thing, he is an oddly conformist figure. Despite the strangeness and elaborateness of his artworks and machines, he is a good capitalist (his inventions have made him rich and he describes a number of successful investments he has made), a man of the world and an elegant raconteur. Despite having an identity derived almost entirely from his collection, he (and Roussel with him) has little interest in questioning the predominant values of his society. The decadent discourse of distaste for the populist and their desire for the privacy of dream is wholly absent from Locus Solus. In an important break from the decadent phantasmagoria, Roussel makes it clear that Canterel’s gardens are open to the public and Canterel’s party often crosses paths with other groups of tourists and idlers.
Again, Roussel ignores the notions of aesthetic exclusivity and refinement that were typically attached to the phantasmagorias of the previous century. In the end, it may be possible to read Locus Solus as representing the final result of the process by which the market converts criticisms of itself into fresh objects of consumption. Rita Felski writes that the decadent aesthete’s search for ‘ever more arcane objects not yet trivialised by mass reproduction, echoes the same cult of novelty which propels the logic of capitalist consumerism’.20 Roussel represents the conclusion of this action: in Canterel’s pleasure garden, we can see the exclusive oddities of the phantasmagoria assimilated into the world of fashion and novelty. Locus Solus tries to merge the phantasmagorical with the populist.
Taken together, the works of these four authors imply an important change in the identity of the phantasmagorical in the early twentieth century. In all of their works, the phantasmagoria largely becomes exterior and public rather than interior and private. The imaginative impulse is also externalised – to a greater extent directed outward, away from the intense introspection that characterises decadent imaginings. Underlying this change it is possible to detect a new view of society, the sense that it is no longer sickening and dying as it was felt to be in the last years of the preceding century. And alongside this there is perhaps also a new view of the individual as a person no longer automatically marginalised, no longer directly and irreconcilably opposed to the mainstream.
Rita Felski, The Gender of Modernity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), 99.
255 The possible exception to this is Kubin’s The Other Side, which ends with the annihilation of the Dream Kingdom. However, in Kubin’s novel, decadence and social decay are isolated in the Dream Kingdom and end with the death of its ruler; the outside world remains unaffected.