Those familiar with part 1 of our look into the works of Theophile Gautier will excuse the somewhat fallacious attribution of Decadent to his somewhat more ambiguous and unclassifiable (or multifariously classifiable) standing in terms of the numerous literary movements, styles and schools of the period – Romanticism, Symbolism, and more to the point, Decadence.
While clearly related and precedent to its aesthetic and philosophical underpinnings and of a similar bent stylistically, differences soon become apparent – where the former is marked by a darker and more cynical outlook, Gautier is nothing if not hopeful and optimistic.
But in point of fact, it is his very status as irrepressible dreamer and fantasist that marks one of Gautier’s strongest ties to the Decadents, as both seek an escape from the grim grey tones of workaday life and bitter reality by means of a mixture of aesthetic absorption and appreciation of finery and the high arts in every instance or form, and an escape into the imagination of an idealized past which in all likelihood never existed (at least not in the way they would dream it into becoming).
In short, there is a strong undercurrent of the magickal, of wishing abstraction into being, of visualizing hallucinatory desire into a concrete existence. And such is the meat of Gautier, and the table which he would present to us in his invitation to the feast.
Baudelaire recognized this in Gautier, noting that “posterity will judge him to be one of the masters of writing, not only in France, but also in (all of) Europe”, and Gautier reciprocated his admiration many times over, going so far as to pen a laudatory monograph in honor of the “poet of Decadence”.
We have seen in examination of a number of his short stories that Gautier had a strong tendency to hammer away at some very recurrent themes, obsessively working out some inner goad for a full 35 years worth of fantastic fiction. Hallucinatory femme fatales come to work their wiles, with or without malice (though generally the latter – Gautier heroines tend to appear to their supplicants without any real dint of ill intent), springing forth from tapestries, vases, antiques, archeological artifacts and objets d’art to love or hopelessly enamor the protagonist. But the impossibility of the affair always intrudes at the denouement, with the offending source tearing, breaking, burning, being hidden away or lost, leaving our hero to pine eternally for his elusive ideal, dissatisfied with the commonplace worldly affairs and amours he is inevitably offered in their place.
This current collection offers both more of the same and something of an exception to the rule.