decadence from dedalus, fin de siecle, French literature, Journal of Decadence, L'Morte Amoreuse, My Fantoms, Romantic movement, Symbolists, The Mummy's Foot, Theophile Gautier, third eye cinema podcast
Those “in the know” may have already detected a note of disingenousness in the titling of this review, as it makes a bit of a stylistic leap in directly associating Theophile Gautier with the French Decadent movement of the fin de siecle. Because while the writing style remains close enough in sensibility and aesthetics to be quite readable, it becomes glaringly apparent from the outset: Toto, we’re not in Decadence anymore.
In point of fact, while he does boast strong ties to both the members and stylistic flourishes of the Decadents, Theophile Gaultier is, in essence, more truthfully described as belonging to one of the related literary and philosophical movements of the Romantic. or perhaps even Symbolist in style.
While his focus is indeed on the aesthetic, and stories tend to revolve around the doomed (or at least weakened by passion, dreams, and implied opiate usage) hero at the mercy of the cruel feminine, there’s a distinct difference, a certain je ne sais quoi that puts him closer to a particular strain of archaism more commonly found in the weird tale of the period (which movement and style he also straddles).
What this amounts to for the casual reader: tame, if somewhat descriptively florid tales of femme fatales and Les Belles Dames Sans Mercies. My favorite of the four herein, by far, was the titular vignette, involving the purchase of an unusual curio and a hallucinatory visitation that may or may not have been real…
Also of note was “La Morte Amoreuse”, a curious vampire tale of similar bent, with a priest who may or may not be hallucinating his nightly double life with a beautiful revenant. “One of Cleopatra’s Nights” was of far lesser interest, but still followed the same pattern of our heroes willing to give all for the sake of promised and resplendent passion.
A story in a very different vein, or at least with an unusually realistic and happy ending, was “the Fleece of Gold”, in which a typical Gautier hero travels to the Netherlands for his unusual obsession over a Rubens of Mary Magdalene. What marks this particular tale as unusual in the Gautier canon is that rather than the portrait coming to life to share his love in dreams or some other hallucinatory state, he actually goes out in search of a real life analogue to the object of his amour etrange. Wooing her with success, the story shifts a bit to the perspective of the female of the piece, and how she learns of her “rival”.
What’s interesting (and results ultimately in an unusual happy ending) is that she does not walk off in a huff when she finally realizes he is only in love with the reflection of that painting that she represents, and not her for herself (as most modern women would in an instant), but loves him enough to force him to come around, turning the tables and making herself the object of his own artistic expression. The one story in Gautier’s oeuvre that truly says “Romantic” in any real sense, I was taken quite unawares by this one, and appreciated the shift in focus (as well as the pleasant twist ending).
The curious and intrepid may present their applications herein.
Next on the menu is My Fantoms, an odd and ill chosen transliteration of title that offers another strange, if diverting and well enough written collection of stories by the somewhat unclassifiable Theophile Gautier.
Straddling the flights of fancy of the fairy tale, the trappings and stylistic flourishes of the contemporaneous weird tale (Lovecraft is quoted as praising the man for his work here), and the schools of Romanticism, Symbolism and Decadence, he once again delivers some truly bizarre explorations of first person narrative that blur the borders of rational description and the derangement of the senses into drug induced hallucination, oneiric dream states given equal weight to waking life, and perhaps even descent into insanity (de Maupussant is brought to mind more than once here).
Carried over from the previous collection, albeit under a new and rather generic bearing as “The Priest”, is one of his more famous short works, “L’Morte Amoreuse”, which on one level deals with the inherent regrets of choosing the monastic life, but equally seems to treat the events as literal (at least in some sense, or to some extent), evoking Le Fanu’s Carmilla somewhat more than in a passing fashion.
“The Adolescent”, one of the briefest stories in the collection, remains its best, evoking the same sentiment (and in fact, treading nearly identical narrative pathways) as the earlier collection’s “mummy’s foot”. A young man, staying in his uncles evocatively dilapidated country chateau, discovers a long dead relative’s mistress, immortalized in a wall hanging tapestry in his room, comes to life to love him in his dreams (which again, may or may not be reality). His jealous uncle removes the offending article and chases the boy from his home, with the tapestry (and the boy’s one lifelong love) being lost to auction and the vagaries of time.
“The Opium Smoker” is another abbreviated vignette, with a hallucinatory female who comes to love the protagonist only while he’s high. Insert wisecrack here.
“The Painter” presents us with yet another of Gautier’s tales of love lost to madness or waking from dream, taking a weird detour into Poe territory with a sequence where our hero is buried alive (albeit only in a long hallucination or dream), and encounters a sinister double from behind the mirror who takes over his woman, career and life ala William Wilson as he descends into insanity.
“The Actor” treads similar territory, but nods more towards Hawthorne, as a seminarian turned actor discovers his triumphant mephistopheles to be offensive to the real personage in question, who takes over his role to great acclaim and encourages our hero to drop out of the profession thereby.
“The Tourist” once again treads now-hoary Gautier territory wherein “the woman of (the hero’s) dreams comes to life due to his passionate embrace of aesthetics” tale that Gautier swears by as his stock in trade, with a viewing of a mummified victim of Vesuvius and subsequent visit to old Pompeii resulting in a midnight visitation through time and space between the protagonist and the object of his affections.
While there’s something to be said for this sort of passion for art and haute culture, those with a more pragmatic mindset may find themselves sorely tempted to picture Gautier as a loon running about Paris throwing loving caresses on rubbish bins and sensuous kisses on passing carriages (or at least posters advertising the Folies Bergere). Taken in succession, this all smacks of the absurd more than any Romantic striving or even Quixotean embrace of dream.
“The poet”, a maudlin recollection of Gautier’s early close friendship with poet Gerard de Nerval and the man’s eventual descent into madness and suicide ends the collection on a real downer, but irrespective of this sore thumb of an inclusion (and conclusion), you get the general idea here.
Despite the poorly titled and rather blase retitlings of the tales involved, this is nearly as worthy a collection for the literary aesthete and connoisseur of dream as The Mummy’s Foot, and as such, each comes reasonably recommended for lovers of the style.
Those interested in losing themselves to the hallucinatory charms of phantom lovers, doppelgangers and madness apply here: