decadence from dedalus, fin de siecle, French decadents, French literature, Journal of Decadence, Rachilde, Romantic movement, Spirite, Symbolists, the coffee pot, the fleece of gold, Theophile Gautier, third eye cinema podcast
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.
Featuring and contrasting Gautier’s first foray into fantastic fiction, the short story “The Coffee Pot”, with his very last, the novel Spirite, a subtle shift has taken place, and it is both a positive (in terms of the clear improvement in his writing skills and the attention to detail and characterization that long form literature provides over its more direct and abbreviated cousin in the short story) and somewhat prophetic (as the last of his tales, and quite near to the end of his life).
“The Coffee Pot” is best described as an extremely brief vignette stylistically similar to the sort of thing Poe or Lovecraft were wont to produce, if wholly without their macabre bearing. An unnamed narrator joins two friends in accepting an invitation to a weekend at an isolated estate somewhere in Normandy (read as “way out in the country”). Arriving through a torrential storm, they pull themselves together sufficient to have dinner and subsequently retire to their rooms.
Unable to sleep, the narrator awakens to see a coffee pot dancing its way over towards the fireplace, and stoking its embers through unseen means. A man steps out of a portrait, and producing a key, unlocks the other portraits in the room, releasing a succession of musicians, huntsmen and dancers.
A beautiful woman catches our hero’s attention, and he pays her court. She is advised against consorting with him, but chooses to pay no heed, and they dance divinely to the applause of those assembled, then snuggle and coo through the course of the evening. With first light, she raises herself up with a start, only to collapse before the fireplace. Our narrator goes to help her up, but only finds the coffee pot, shattered to bits. He faints.
Next morning, he is awakened by his friends, who find him back in bed, but dressed in their host’s grandfather’s wedding suit. Apparently they had discovered him lying on the ground, clutching a piece of the pot “as if it were some pretty girl”. Later at breakfast, he doodles a portrait of the girl absentmindedly, and is told the picture looks astonishingly like their host’s sister Angela, who had died 6 months agone, “after catching pneumonia at a ball”. The narrator ends the tale with a grand proclamation that “I then realized there was no happiness left in the world for me at all”.
The Coffee Pot is textbook Gautier, in every respect conforming to the vagaries and stylistic flourishes of his subsequent works such as “L’Morte Amoreuse” or “the Mummy’s Foot”, and in no real way deviates from the pattern – one he would stick to for decades.
Spirite, on the other hand, is another matter entirely.
Bearing far more in common in terms of sensibilities with the work of the savvier female writers of the era such as Jane Austen and Rachilde than either his earlier writings or those of his male peers, in Spirite Gautier enters a world of manners and satirical assessment of the workings of haute societe rarely touched on by males outside of Wilde or the earlier Moliere.
Displaying an unusual sensitivity if not bias towards the difficulties presented to females in achieving desired ends amidst a nigh-absurdist structure of “propriety” and highly ordered “acceptable” mannerisms and mores, Gautier approaches a truer synthesis of the masculine and feminine perspective than most or all likeminded auteurs who work within and comment on the strictures of “society” and “properly civilized” comport. In his deft maneuvering between the perspectives of de Malivert, Mme d’Ymbercourt and “Spirite” herself, Gautier develops a sympathetic understanding of each of our main characters in turn, but with a special emphasis on the females of the piece – not a perspective he was noted for exploring in his work otherwise.
Further, in Spirite, we find perhaps the only truly (depending how broad your definition) “happy ending” in his oeuvre outside of the earlier short story “the Fleece of Gold”, in that unlike most Gautier protagonists, de Malivert actually ends the tale united with the object of his desires.
The tale concerns one Guy de Malivert, age 23, a man of letters who has become attached more through happenstance and rumor to Cecile d’Ymbercourt, a pleasant enough if altogether bland and mildly scheming widow. In point of fact, while he finds her not entirely unpleasing in an aesthetic sense, Guy has become something of a regular caller at her salon less out of any real attachment than for the fact that she provides an easy entree to the social circles to which he has become accustomed – mainly fellow writers and intellectuals, from the look of it. He also patronizes the arts in her company, and as a huge of Italian opera (and one diva in particular) is often tempted to join her there, despite the fact that gossip among their social circle has escalated to the point where they have been “confirmed” as engaged (when no such courtship has ever actually taken place).
Feeling these social pressures more intensely than he, Mme. d’Ymbercourt uses every trick in the book for a properly bred society lady of the era to attempt to force his hand into an actual liason, otherwise, it wouldn’t seem in order for her to be seen so often in his company!
But before Guy can be manipulated into marriage by default, he becomes keenly aware of an otherworldly presence seeking to divert his attention into another direction…
Enter the Baron de Feroe, occultist and mystic, and an acquaintance of Guy and Cecile’s circle. De Feroe shocks Guy by pulling him aside and confirming his suspicions, warning him to stay free of any earthly entanglements, as “the spirits have their eye on you…keep yourself free for love”.
In short order, with the Baron as advisor, Guy becomes keenly aware of the presence of a beautiful vision, first in the mirror, then via numerous instances of automatic writing in which his hand becomes directed by the spirit in question, who he rather appropriately dubs “Spirite”.
Through the course of various evenings and writings done through his hand, but in a feminine script, we become acquainted with one Lavinia de Aufideni, cum Sister Philomene, who left this mortal vale at the age of 18. As it happens, she had developed a terminal crush on Guy early in her teens, which grew and stayed with her through her untimely passing.
The story unfolds how Guy’s sister had been boarding at the same convent school as Lavinia, who was a year or two younger. Falling for Guy’s look and mannerisms without his ever noticing her, she proclaims the sort of devotion most men could only dream of hearing:
“I was your conquest and I belonged to you. I was the soul marked with your seal, the woman who since childhood had devoted herself to adoring you, quite simply the woman created expressly for you.”
Unfortunately, despite her shortly coming of age and running in more or less the same social circles, she never manages to catch his attention. In a series of missed opportunities, they continually fail to run into each other like passing trains in the night – he failing to show for this event or other, or being distracted by conversation, her being caught up in social propriety and dancing with other suitors, and so it goes. When she gets wind of the supposed “engagement” of de Malivert and d’Ymbercourt, she rashly commits herself to convent life, becoming a novitiate. But her only thoughts and prayers are of earthly nature, and she dies of exposure and in desire of this man and he alone.
His fascination and obsession growing with each successive vision, visitation and reading of her mediumistically dictated memoirs, Guy eventually comes to the point where he seeks to attempt suicide to be united with his ethereal beloved. Warned away from this final act by his ghostly paramour, which we are told would in fact separate them eternally, he continues on, in an ever increasing state of distraction and disaffection, until Mme. d’Ymbercourt finally submits to the inevitable and lets him go. During one of his travels abroad, de Malivert is waylaid by bandits and killed, and they are frightened away by the appearance of Spirite, who finally wins her man.
As noted earlier, Spirite represents both an apotheosis of and a variation from the notable regularity of Gautier’s fiction and its themes. While it bears the mark of nearly everything he put his name to, it contrarily bears closest association to the sole “happy ending” of his earlier work, the aforementioned short “the Fleece of Gold.”
Where it differs from the former tale lies in two major points: first, in “the Fleece of Gold”, the heroine recognizes the “rivalry” posed by the protagonist’s obsession with the unattainable (in that case, a Rubens of Mary Magdalene which drives him to the country of its origin and to a halfhearted romance of the lady in question as her looks echo that of his romantic ideal), and takes the bull by the reins, as it were, willfully transforming herself and putting herself into the place of his objet d’desire, effectively forcing him to notice her by substituting herself in its place. Unlike Madame d’Ymbercourt, she sees and recognizes the visionary nature of her beau and tackles it head on, with the unspoken corollary that we can presume a “happily ever after”, as it were.
But secondly, where the former represents a triumph (or at least strong contention for the title) of the real over fantasy, Spirite returns to the more standard Gautier Romanticism where the fantastic ideal, the woman who once was, or never was, who “comes to life” in some form or another to seduce and obsess the male protagonist (who serves as substitute for the reader, if not Gautier himself), becomes the be all, end all, who walks away with the heart and soul (or eternal, unattainable admiration) of the hero.
But unlike the numerous examples of Gautier’s primarily short fiction which end with the narrator exclaiming with a sigh that he will never find (or posthumously looking back on the events of his youth, confirming that he never did attain) a passion, love, desire, et al like he had during his brief communion with this fantasy ideal, Spirite actually feels like the closure on Gautier’s literary career that it did in fact represent. As if, having stated the same aim and dramatic point innumerable times over, he finally closes the book on the story, and in fact, his life.
Written a mere 6 years before his passing, there is a strong sense of final statement here, a palpable longing for union with a spiritual, or at least non-physical ideal for which he, the author, had been searching and directing his energies towards throughout his life and writings – as if he could see how close he was to approaching his own “Spirite”. And without any sense of melancholy or requiem whatsoever, and in fact, with a strong sense of youthful celebration, Gautier seems to be embracing that end of the mundane, and union with the infinite, which he would all too shortly thereafter achieve at last.
While all of the Gautier fiction to which I’ve been exposed thus far has been diverting and of interest in an antiquarian sense and for its links to, yet strict divergence from, the Decadent school to which it bears strong relations, I can say with assurance that Dedalus chose the right one to publish under its aegis.
This Spirite congeals into a hazy form of existence before you in a manner quite recommended.