“Let us tell you the story of the most singular madman…”
Thus opens Nerval’s The King of Bedlam (in Richard Sieburth’s translation of Gérard de Nerval: Selected Writings. Penguin, 1999).
Friend of Liszt and Berlioz and the French author credited with starting the craze of Wagnerisme in Paris (following his review of Lohengrin’s historic 1850 premiere in Weimar), Nerval deserves more attention. In honor of Wagner’s 199th and Nerval’s 204th birthday (they were both born on May 22), this is a humble effort in the direction of correcting that imbalance (see my opera blog for essays on Wagner).
According to Sieburth, whose introductory essays are among the finest I’ve encountered in such an anthology, Proust considered Nerval one of the greatest writers in all of the 19th century. His gargantuan novel, In Search of Lost Time is indebted to – and partly inspired by – Nerval’s novella, Sylvie. Countering the claim that the institutionalized poet was incomprehensible, Baudelaire praised the “forever lucid” work of a visionary Artaud compared to Hölderlin, Nietzsche and Van Gogh. Foucault would include Artaud himself in the list of “mad” geniuses whose biographies are inextricably bound up with their works.
Nerval (1808-1855) was most famous in his day for his translation into French of Goethe’s Faust. It was Nerval’s version of the mythic legend that enflamed the imagination of Berlioz, inspiring both his early Eight Scenes from Faust and his masterpiece musical drama, The Damnation of Faust. Admirers of Berlioz should note the connections between the visionary composer and his colleague. Both artists were ahead of – and thus out of sync with – their time. Their eccentric personalities and hard-to-classify originality have made them both easy targets. Both men cited visions and hallucinations as sources of inspiration, and Nerval articulated the dilemma this caused the lucid seer of such phenomena.
If the mind has to become completely unhinged in order to place us in communication with another world, it is clear that the mad will never be able to prove to the sane how blind they are, to say the very least!
(And all the crazy artists said “Amen.”) Like the rest of us loonies, Nerval had a self-deprecating sense of humor, a necessary attribute in our too-frequently hostile world. “The last madness I’ll probably persist in is to believe myself a poet: it will be up to the critics to cure me.”
Nerval was a mystic and syncretist, and like Poe, Baudelaire, Berlioz, Wagner and Artaud, a believer in the unique power of the unconscious. He described his artistic work as taking place in a “waking dream,” where he lived in “a state of supernaturalist reverie.” Such lofty esoterica does not endear one to the academy. Indeed, “normal” society has usually agreed on only one institution for such “unreasonable” creative types. Like Artaud after him, Nerval’s mental suffering, exacerbated rather than alleviated by his confinement, led to his suicide at what hindsight reveals as the peak of his achievement.
In addition to an amazingly rich book of sonnets, Nerval wrote essays and criticism. His fiction defies classification and prefigures avenues of modernism like Proust’s “involuntary memory” and surrealism’s “stream of consciousness.” Like mystics of every time and place, he is fluent in classical mythologies and a friend of the mysteries and rites. He keeps company with Virgil, Apuleius, Pythagoras, Dante, Bruno, and Mozart. He invokes Apollo and Dionysus, Orpheus and Prometheus. He signed a late letter with the oracular title, “Gérard de Nerval, initiate and vestal.”
The “vestal virgins” were guards of the “eternal flame” of Vesta, goddess of the proverbial fire at the center of the universe. An initiate is someone who has entered a fraternity or society through a series of tests and trials. One of the most common motifs in the initiation process is the mystical death and rebirth. It may be a literal or figurative re-creation of the descent to the underworld, as in the stories of Orpheus, Aeneas, Odysseus, Dante or Christ. The concepts of resurrection, transfiguration and transformation are universally potent symbols. The esoteric traditions, “mystery” cults and so-called “secret societies” remain clouded in misunderstanding. They are typically dismissed as “occult” or “fantasy.” In repressive times they become easy targets for witch-hunts. Do I think Nerval quotes Mozart in his writings to leave us a “clue” about his own status as a fellow Freemason? I don’t care about decoding Nerval’s “chimeras” for such superficial clues. He and Mozart are kin because they share artistic and philosophical values. These values have existed at least since the dawn of humanity. A belief in intellectual and spiritual enlightenment and a strong connection to the ancient world through faith in its meaning-of-life-enhancing mythologies (of which Christianity is one prime example) are just two core principles uniting the missions of many such fraternities. The ease with which such values are corrupted by social, economic, political and / or religious greed and hypocrisy has plagued every era. “This is my story, this is my song…” One can hardly blame the societies for guarding their “secrets.” Nerval invokes Virgil’s orders to Dante in the Inferno, “Be bold and think not of retreat;/ This way must serve us for the downward stair.” He juxtaposes Mozart's "andiam, mio bene" with it. Among other resonances, this is a poetic "shout-out" to his forbears and a signal to his readers.
One of Nerval’s early critics attempted to decode his densely layered mythic poems, The Chimeras by applying “occult symbolism of alchemy and tarot.” While alchemy and other forms of “magic” have always played an important role in the esoteric traditions, to “decode” them is to miss the poetic forest for the trees. The opening of the mind via the portals of symbolism is a main point of the process. The transformation engendered by a figurative alchemical process, rather than a literal metal-forging experiment, requires a comfort with “negative capability,” a faith in “fugitive causes” and an exceptional openness to the mysterious “other.” The critic James Parker (writing in The Atlantic about fantasy literature), cites Tolkien’s “Secondary Belief” as an example of “immersion – not the prim suspension of disbelief, but its joyful capsizing. Heavy swats of air as the dragon of imagination takes flight…” What an image – can you sense the fiery inspiration of its breath?
Countering that 1946 critic who wanted to explain away the mysteries of Nerval’s poetry, Artaud wrote, with characteristic cryptic flair,
the soul is a watchfiend, not a warehouse but a watchfiend, who always rises again and revolts from what formerly wanted to subsist, I would like to say “remanate,” to remain in order to re-emanate, to emanate while keeping all of its remainder, to be the remainder which will reascend. – Now, this soul, the poet makes it and he alone makes it… I do know that the poems of Gérard de Nerval are beings, extracted from Nerval from nothingness…
(from Watchfiends & Rack Screams: Works from the Final Period of Antonin Artaud, Edited and translated by Clayton Eshleman. Exact Change, 1995).
Artaud identified so closely with Nerval he virtually assumed the luckless poet’s mantle. The parallels between their biographies and outputs are uncanny. The opacity of a passage like the one just above should not obscure its brilliance. Writing to his erstwhile colleague, Alexander Dumas, Nerval drolly described his “hermetic” sonnets, The Chimeras. “They are no more obscure than Hegel’s metaphysics or Swedenborg’s Memorabilia and would lose their charm in being explained, if that were possible.” Poetry’s most musical gift is its rhapsodic and incantatory potential. In a visionary poet like Artaud or Nerval, the performance of the lyric is a vital element in its compound. Speak Artaud’s paragraph above aloud and note the music of his verbal invention: therein lies much of its hidden power. Like an undercurrent that is less seen than felt, the music of poetry needs to be sensually experienced. Nerval’s final sonnet, “Vers Dorés” (Golden Sayings) features an epigram of Pythagoras: “So, everything is sentient!” Sieburth’s free-verse translation reads:
Man, free-thinker, do you believe you alone are possessed of thought
in this world, where life burst forth in everything?
You are free to dispose of those forces at your command,
but the universe is absent from your plans.
Honour the spirit active in every creature:
each flower is a soul that opens on to Nature;
each metal harbours a mystery of love;
‘Everything is sentient!’ And everything has power over your being.
Beware of blind walls with watchful eyes:
even matter is imbued with a word…
Put it not to sacrilegious use!
Often the most obscure of beings houses a hidden God;
and like a nascent eye veiled by its lids,
a pure spirit buds beneath the husk of stones!
Sieburth quotes Nerval’s own preface to his translation of Faust.
All honour no doubt should be accorded to rhythm and rhyme, for they are the primordial and essential attributes of poetry. But there is in a poetic work something far more crucial and fundamental, something that produces the profoundest of impressions and that works with the greatest effects upon our spirits – namely, that which remains of a poet in prose translation, for only this conveys the true value of the material in all its purity and perfection.
Nerval’s erudite translator concludes, “poetry, in this sense, is not that which gets lost in translation, but rather that which survives it.” Thanks to readers from Artaud to Sieburth, Nerval’s “forever lucid” oeuvre has.