Wednesday, May 27, 2009

No, fools, no, goitrous cretins that you are, a book does not make gelatine soup - but what, M. Gautier, about books of gelatine soup recipes?

I mean, I know the book does not actually make the soup, but having the recipe* helps, non?

Mademoiselle de Maupin begins with a long preface, in which Théophile Gautier stabs, hacks, batters, and mocks every critic ("eunuchs," "lice") in France, to really fine effect. The preface is better than the novel, and more influential, too.

On the prurient critics, for example: "If there is any nakedness in a picture or a book they go straight to it, like swine to the mire, without troubling themselves about the full-blown flowers, or the beautiful golden fruit which hang in every direction." Gautier has special praise for a virtuous theater critic "who has pushed this morality so far as to say 'I will not go to see his drama with my mistress.'"

To the extent Gautier makes an argument here, it is that the critics are self-serving hypocrites, and that the novels and plays of his day are no smuttier or bloodier than Voltaire or Molière, "where the husband is duly deceived in the fifth act, fortunate if he has not been so from the first."

In a preface to a moderately smutty novel, this preface might itself seem too self-interested, but, as with almost every aspect of Mademoiselle de Maupin, the arguments for immorality are misdirection. Gautier's real argument is aesthetic. He's practically John Milton, arguing for the absolute freedom of the writer. The moralists are worth a laugh, but it's the utilitarians who are the real problem (long, but worth it):

"No, fools, no, goitrous cretins that you are, a book does not make gelatine soup; a novel is not a pair of seamless boots; a sonnet, a syringe with a continuous jet; or a drama, a railway - all things which are essentially civilising and adapted to advance humanity on its path of progress...

A novel has two uses - one material and the other spiritual - if we may employ such an expression in reference to a novel. Its material use means first of all some thousands of francs which find their way into the author's pocket, and ballast him in such a fashion that neither devil nor wind can carry him off; to the bookseller, it means a fine thoroughbred horse, pawing and prancing with its cabriolet of steel, as Figaro says; to the paper maker, another mill beside some stream or other, and often means the spoiling of a fine site; to the printers, some tons of logwood for the weekly staining of their throats; to the circulating library, some piles of pence covered with very proletarian verdigris, and a quantity of fat which, it if were properly collected and utilised, would render whale-fishing superfluous. Its spiritual use is that when reading novels we sleep, and do not read useful, virtuous, and progressive journals, or other similarly indigestible and stupefying drugs."

Worth it, yes? Those horrible, greasy pennies, the early eco-criticism, the conversion of paper into wine. I've read Mademoiselle for Maupin twice, although not for a couple of years, but I recently read a couple of his other books. I reread the M. de M. preface this morning, and think it's the best thing he ever wrote. I haven't even mentioned Gautier's five-act tragedy, in which the hero "throws himself into the water-closet," or the fulsome praise for Charles Fourier, "a madman, a great genius, an idiot, a divine poet far above Lamartine, Hugo, and Byron." The novel is almost superfluous, a mechanical working-out of his ideas with some spicy seasoning mixed in.

If any of this sounds suspiciously like the one page preface of The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), where "There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written," and "All art is quite useless," that's because Oscar Wilde's preface is directly summarizing the preface of Mademoiselle de Maupin. Except for the thing about Caliban looking in the mirror; that's not Gautier. The Picture of Dorian Gray has numerous direct references to Gautier, because it, too, is in part a novelistic demonstration of an aesthetic theory.

So I'm wrong, the theory is insufficient. Gautier had to create the beautiful, ridiculous, useless thing itself. Gautier actually worked as a journalist and critic for the remaining forty years of his life, intermittently creating beautiful, useless things. Over the next two days, I'll spend some time with a few of them.

* In the same book, be sure to see, at the very least, Ch. XIV, "Count Rumford's Cookery and Cheap Dinners," and Ch. XV, "Count Rumford's Substitute for Tea and Coffee." As the Trollope heroine says, "Yummo!"


  1. I loved the preface of The Picture of Dorian Gray. It prepares the reader for a brilliantly overwritten book. Pages at a time dedicated to describing the minutiae of jewels and fabrics.... and for what?

    For his part in creating the Wilde that I love, I owe Gautier a good reading.

  2. Wilde's jewels and fabrics - that's exactly on point, since that stuff is all borrowed from a different French writer, J-K Huysmans. From After Nature, I think.

    That's a great chapter of Dorian Gray, central to the meaning of the book, and, I suspect, more skimmed than read.