For someone so frequently name checked in discussions of the French Decadent movement, Jean Lorrain proves somewhat disappointing. In retrospect, his work, of which Monsieur de Phocas is nigh-universally acknowledged as the pinnacle of achievement, falls somewhat short of the efforts of those within his social circle, and has a flat, somewhat ostentatious feel.
Like comparing the pretentious pseudo-intellectualism and name-checking of Paul Simon to the genuine poetry, insight, and naturalistic flair of the earlier Bob Dylan, Lorrain is to Huysmans, Mirbeau, Rachilde, Gautier and the rest something of a parasitical pretender.
A social climber by nature, but with far less success than the similarly bourgeois-by-birth Rachilde, Lorrain’s life story holds strong parallels to that of the Duc de Freneuse, who adopts the titular namesake as a renunciation and attempt at self-reimagining. Born Paul Duval, scion of a middle class shipping magnate, Lorrain even grew up in Decadent (or proto-Decadent) circles, acquainted with Guy de Mauppasant and at least by vicinity and the influence of local reputation, the expatriate Algernon Swinburne.
An apparently one sided affair (or at least infatuation) with one of Theophile Gautier’s daughters reputedly pushed him into both dissolution and adoption of a homosexual lifestyle, and he would spend the rest of his life beset with a recurrent tubercular consumption and habitual morphine use.
The story begins with an unnamed narrator, who recieves an unusual visitor to his salon – the titular Monsieur de Phocas. While the name rings no particular bells, some of the jewelery the strange, somewhat aloof guest sports marks him as the Duc du Freneuse, a dandy about town marked with a somewhat unsavory reputation and beset by some unspoken scandal which prompts both the adoptive pseudonym and a departure from the region. Delivering a manuscript and apologia into the hands of said narrator, he departs, and the tale within a tale begins…
The remainder of the novel consists solely of Freneuse/Phocas’ manuscript, without interjection or comment* by the narrator (who entirely vanishes from the proceedings, his narrative purpose having been fulfilled).
* there is an extremely brief explanatory note late in the tale, noting that the narrative has become a bit unhinged, and written with shaky hand and jumbled dates suggestive of illness, but this is exceedingly brief and inobtrusive.
The narrative follows Freneuse through his Gautieresque obsession with a self-conjured phantom image. But where Gautier’s hallucinatory sirens were of Romantic ideals, the perfect women suggested by fine art and the imagination of youthful aestheticism, Lorrain’s are sickly, diseased, indicative of personal destruction and dissolution and leading to death.
Haunted by this vision of a green eyed death goddess (Astarte by name, who is later depicted as an idol sporting a grinning skull in place of vaginal pubis) and repulsed by the culture and society around him (whose forced artificiality and propriety he projects onto a literal terror of masks), Freneuse seeks a cure for his obsessions by consulting a fellow sufferer of said fears and fixations, the expatriate Englishman Claudius Ethal.
From here on out, things get interesting, as Freneuse allows himself to be led by the nose through some pointedly staged events aimed at pulling him ever further into a sort of physically unrequited S&M relationship, with Ethal the jaded father/instructor figure exposing and enslaving Freneuse to the depths of his own inner depravity and lusts in the name of an ostensible “cure”. A dark yet oily-suave personage, Ethal proves both charming and fascinating, despite (or perhaps due to) his vile and poisonous nature and impact on the life and bearing of his young disciple.
Along the way, we are introduced to Ethal’s mirror image, the fellow Briton expat Thomas Welcome, who like Ethal has been through a similar obsessive affliction to Freneuse, but claims to have cured himself by departing to sunnier climes and adopting a lifestyle of world travel and exposure to other cultures. Welcome recognizes the symptoms in Freneuse, and attempts to free him of Ethal’s pernicious influence, but it’s a measure too little, arriving too late to effect any sort of salvation.
Exposed to a world of ever increasing darkness and vice and a new circle of amoral and jaded aesthetes such as the incestuous brother-sister pairing of Maud and Reginald White, Freneuse continues to cleave to the side of the sinister Ethal until he is driven to his ultimate denoument. After a chapter entitled Lasciate Ogni Speranza, or “abandon all hope…” which describes a failed attempt at returning to his countryside estate and place of birth in the hopes of freeing himself from his vices and obsessions, Freneuse returns to find some letters and packages from his sinister mentor, as always calculated towards driving Freneuse ever closer to the edge and limitations of his own self control.
In the end, advised by both Ethal and, perhaps unintentionally, his would-be savior Welcome to visit a museum dedicated to the works of Decadent artist Gustave Moreau, Freneuse discovers what he believes to be the source and meaning of the green eyes that haunt him. This discovery ultimately drives him, ironically enough, to the cold blooded murder of the very person who led him to the state of utter anomie that allows and advises him to so do…
While all in all, this summary would make the novel sound quite enticing if not exciting, in point of fact, whether due to Lorrain’s shortcomings as a literary stylist or the limitations of his inescapably bourgeois imagination, the proceedings tend to drag, and fall short of their stated aim. This flatness of affect and lack of substance resolves and expresses itself in a surfeit of florid language, social climber name-checking and a lack of cohesiveness, which makes the boundaries between concrete description of events and hallucinatory flights of fancy irritatingly blurred and nebulous.
Of the three, perhaps the most distracting (if not unforgivable) is the running strain of tips of the hat to (if not direct quotes from) his peers and influences: a short list of fellow Decadents directly referenced, named, and bits of whose texts are repeated herein include Lorrain’s friend Huysmans…though strangely not his longtime friend and social companion Rachilde, an omission that strikes one as exceedingly odd, all told…Swinburne, the Decadent leaning artists Gustave Moreau, Francisco Goya and Felicien Rops, Alfred de Musset (lover of George Sand and author of the Sand-inspired erotic novella Gamiani), Remy de Gourmont, Charles Baudelaire and Symbolist poet Albert Samain (whose ‘Lust’ is recited herein). And mind you, this is an incomplete listing.
While a running theme of my study of the Decadents has been the direct parallels and appropriate applicability of their observations on relations between the sexes, metacognitive self-examination, and assessments of society, cultural mores, and the blight of industrialization and ostensible “progress” in the mercenary corporate sense to the world of today, there are in fact few real gems to be found herein – which beggars the question as to just how self aware Lorrain actually was in the end.
That said, we do get this powerful reiteration of Gautier’s horror of aesthetic ugliness, whether in humans or their creations, mixed with a positively Mirbeauesque assessment of the ultimate nature and causes of the problem, chief and most vile among which is the curse of industry and the pursuit of the almighty dollar:
“I have always had some defect which makes me suffer from the ugliness of people encountered in the street, especially…laborers going to work, clerks in their offices, housekeepers and servants. The ugliness of a sad and miserable clown is further aggravated by the vulgarities of modern life, (with its) degrading promiscuities…the poor downcast faces of aged artisans and shopkeepers display all the everyday cares of menial work: the burdens of petty preoccupations and the anxiety of the unpaid bills which make the end of every month fearful.
The lassitude of the penniless at odds with life – a soured life without foresight – and all the unhappiness of simply existing, without a single elevated thought in their heads, has created those flat and mournful horrors…and only sees the light of money and theft glimmering in their eyes…each one in his secret thoughts dreams of nothing but the means to cheat and rob others.
Modern life – luxurious, pitiless and sceptical, has formed the souls of these men, and their women likewise, into those of prison guards or bandits. It has given them the flattened heads of venomous snakes, the pointed and twisted muzzles of rodents, the jaws of sharks and the snouts of pigs. Envy, desperation, hatred, egoism and avarice have re-created humanity as a bestiary in which every low instinct is imprinted with animal traits...”
and again, on the ugliness of utilitarianism and the modern school of drab, soulless construction, bean counting accountancy and “progress” over nature:
“…you, who are tortured by the malady of beauty and oppressed by the unanimous ugliness of modern cities, whose palaces are banks and whose churches are factories, must flee from (therein)…”
Later we get another pseudo-Mirbeauian assertion of freeing oneself from the burdens of ‘polite’ Western society and its ridiculous self-imposed restrictions on human nature and relations:
“…to depart towards the sun and sea…to rediscover oneself in lands…where faith still endures, and which have not been tamed by our bleak civilization…to liberate oneself from all those conventions, futile attachments, relations and prejudices that are so many burdens weighing us down, and so many dreadful prison walls erected between ourselves and the reality of the universe; to live at last the life of the soul and instincts, far from the artificial, overheated and hysterical existence of Paris and London, far from the whole of Europe…”
Finally, in one of the character’s few lucid moments of self-analysis, Lorrain has Freneuse deliver a long speech relating to something we’re seeing far too often in today’s world of emotion-deadening Prozac and Ritalin (over)prescription and the unpalatable sensory overload of contemporary porn (both in a literal sense as well as with the disturbingly more mainstream movement towards “torture porn” and the schadenfreude of “reality TV”) as well as the voyeurism that results therefrom, which leads to a culture of recording every minor life event for Youtube, in the hopes that abject strangers will get some form of entertainment therefrom:
“I have never loved. The joy to which even the least of artisans and most humble of bureaucrats lay claim – that minute of superhuman existence which every man and woman is supposed to enjoy at least once, thanks to love – has always been a closed book to me. I am a freak and a fool…I have never known the gift of tears.
I have always sought to fill up the illimitable void which is within me by recourse to the atrocious and the monstrous. Lust has been my damnation. It has deformed my sight and depraved my dreams, multiplying tenfold all the horrors of ugliness and transforming all the beauty of nature, so cleverly that only the repugnant side of persons and things is apparent to me…I subsist in the punishment of my sterile depravity.
Evil survives the annihilation of everything else.
I have never (felt)…sentiment…more than that, rancour has always led me to scoff at it, to jeer at (it)…when found…in the hearts of others. I have never had a true friend and have never had a true mistress. I have only known…one night stands or month-long caprices; all the girls that ever had…my lips were girls that I paid…in the morning; they must have always known that I did not love them.
…Avid for sensations and analytical by temperament, I have studied myself in association with (women) as if they were so many anatomical models. Not one ever provided me with the anticipated thrill – and rightly so, because I watched…for that thrill as if I were hidden in a bush, lying nervously in wait for it. It is not to be discovered by knowing sensuality, but rather in unconscious and wholesome joy. I have spoiled all the pleasure in my life by making an instrument of it, instead of living it…(this) lead(s) to decomposition and to annihilation.”
In the end, what Lorrain has given us is something of a cross between Wilde’s Dorian Gray (in the sense of recording the decline and fall of the titular character), Camus’ The Stranger (in regards to treating murder as a cold hearted experiment and the detached, flattened affect that allows such a horrific act to be executed in cold blood), Gautier (but a perverted version thereof – perhaps a more apt comparison would be Guy de Maupassant’s “La Horla”, or even Poe, with their imagined phantoms leading an obsessive drive towards self destruction) and even perhaps Mirbeau or Sade, who traded regularly in sinister characters who initiate their charges into ever increasing perversities.
While the material tends to falter by comparison to the best works of any of those authors and get bogged down by its own self-reflexiveness and obsessive referentiality towards admired contemporaries* it’s still an interesting book, and worthy of spending some time with, particularly for the existentialist or moralist, who may find more material ripe for discourse herein.
*(Just picture if a horror novelist spent a good part of their latest quoting from, praising and chattering on about Anne Rice, Stephen King, Brian Lumley and Poppy Z. Brite – a reductio ad absurdam example, as only Rice can be considered an actual author of any note among the rather sorry, if mass market-populist group noted).
This somewhat homoerotic tale of dissolution and being led astray by evil father figures pursues its phantom obsessions to your door at the very moment in which an irresistible impulse leads you here.