Thursday, June 18, 2009

No more death, no more sorrow, no more anxiety - the mad dreams of Aurélia

Aurélia (1855) is hard to describe. It is Gérard de Nerval's account of the effects of his mental illness, which was perhaps schizophrenia with manic episodes. Most of the short work (75 pages or so) consists of dreams, or visions, or hallucinations, and only a few passages describe the circumstances of Nerval's breakdowns, or the workings of mental hospitals, or his friends' attempts to help him.

I understand the book as an intermittently sane man's attempt to understand his insanity. This particular man is an artist, a poet, so his method is poetic. He wants to understand his illness artistically. To me, this is a challenging idea. I want Nerval to undergo a course of pharmaceuticals and psychotherapy, and am skeptical that any ideas of value can be found in schizophrenic dreams. But that's not this book.

Nerval is a skeptic himself, who wants to believe. He wants his suffering to be rewarded by insights, his breakdowns to have meaning. Perhaps he creates meaning through his poetry, through his writing. Aurélia is in two parts, the first more coherent, with long descriptions of dreams that suggest something, even when bizarre or violent: a new creation myth involving the Elohim, or a promise of an afterlife:

"No more death, no more sorrow, no more anxiety. The deceased relatives and friends I loved were giving me unmistakable signs of their eternal existence, and I was no longer separated from them except during the hours of daylight. I awaited those of night in a bittersweet melancholy."

Part II, though, becomes more disoriented, more dangerous. His manic episodes become more frequent. The prose is often reduced to fragments. Nerval becomes convinced that he possesses a messianic message, or alternately that God has abandoned him, or the universe. He considers suicide. In the mental hospital, he is, or thinks he is, surrounded by his books, "a bizarre accumulation of the learning and knowledge of all eras: history, travel, religions, cabala, astrology," and he writes:

"Let's read it all though once more . . . Many of the letters are missing, many others torn across or full of crossed-out passages; here is what I find:

....... ................................."

In the second part, especially, there is this continual swerving from transcendent meaning to complete emptiness. As Aurélia ends, Nerval claims to be "happy with the firm convictions I have acquired, and I compare this series of trials I have undergone to what used to be represented, for the ancients, by the idea of a descent into Hell." Even without taking these as Nerval's last words before his suicide, I find the conclusion chilling.

Have I given a sense of what this book is? I strongly doubt it. Tomorrow I'll try to suggest why a mild-mannered fellow like me reads such things.

Translation by Kendall Lappin.


  1. I may be wrong on this, but what you're describing reminds me of Van Gogh's letters to his brother Theo, which gave me an appreciation for how much someone with a mental illness suffers in their moments of lucidity.

    However, like you, I shy away from artistic interpretations of insanity and am skeptical at the link that is often made between genuis and insanity...I think humans have an awe for the sublime and very often insanity brings us closer to or shows us the sublime and so we try (mistakenly perhaps)to make sense of it from an awed perspective.

  2. It's human to try to make sense of, well, everything, certainly of an experience as powerful or terrifying as these attacks. The difficulty, for the poet, at least, is how to transform these experiences into something else.

    A genuine mystic - Swedenborg or whoever - has a different problem. He wants to communicate THE TRUTH. Nerval and Blake can do something more slippery, and more interesting to me.

    I think I just said "I agree."

    I should read those van Gogh letters sometime.