Friday, June 19, 2009

where I saw something shaped like a llama - why read visionary writing?

"I descended a dark stairway and found myself in the streets. Posters were being put up, advertising the opening of a casino and describing in detail the prizes being offered. The printed framing of the posters consisted of garlands of flowers, so well-drawn and -colored that they looked real... I entered the workshop where I saw something shaped like a llama, but apparently to be equipped with large wings. This monster was somehow being injected with a jet of fire which was gradually bringing it to life, so that it writhed about, penetrated by hundreds of crimson networks to form arteries and veins fecundating, as it were, the inert matter; its exterior was being covered instantaneously by a full growth of fibrous appendages, pinions and tufts of wooly hair."

I hadn't really quoted from any of Gérard de Nerval's hallucinatory visions yesterday. This is from one of my favorites. It ends with Nerval feeling that he "was damned, perhaps, for having attempted, in violation of divine law, to probe into a forbidden mystery."

I'm a mild-mannered, common-sensical fellow. I read, mostly, mild-mannered, common-sensical books, written by authors imaginatively engaging with a world I recognize as my own.

I've read - not understood, not hardly, but read - all of William Blake and puzzled over the mysteries of The Four Zoas. I've read a fair amount of Friedrich Hölderlin, another poetic madman, an imaginative cousin of Nerval's. Who else? Novalis, I didn't understand Novalis at all. Thomas de Quincey, where at least the mechanism (opium) and the psychology are a little easier for me to grasp. Aurélia actually echoes The Confessions of an English Opium-Eater in places, one of the few works that I'm certain Nerval pilfered. Poor Jones Very, who thought he was Christ. Emily Brontë', on the more comprehensible end of the spectrum. The esoteric Golem novel of Gustav Meyrink is another example - tarot cards, Kabbalah, secret mysteries, all of that stuff.

The visionary writers present such a powerful challenge. They're endlessly interpretable, endlessly frustrating. Sometimes it seems that if I only decode one more reference, or fit in place one more image, then the whole thing will be clear, and I will share the wisdom the poet has gathered from the stars or the sea or the deepest abyss of his brain. I don't actually believe that; rather, I suspect that most of this work is poetically stimulating but rationally unapproachable, even incoherent, the meanings too private.

What I find valuable in Aurélia is that the narrator shares my reservations. He marvels at the symbolic wonders revealed to him, but can never quite turn it all into a single system. Hints of meaning are everywhere, but ultimate meaning escapes him. Nerval would love to clue me in, but he doesn't know how. It's poignant, actually.

But what great poem or fiction does not work this way, the author and reader both wrestling with meaning, neither quite capturing it all? Nerval merely lays bare some of the assumptions.


  1. Interesting topic. One thing seems to be that the 19th century novel and realism don't seem to be well-suited to deal with extreme and altered states. You might want to look around for characters who go crazy. Dostoyevsky might be a good place to start. Melville wasn't all together when he was writing Clarel, and Moby Dick shows some signs of mental strain. I think we're discovering that Hawthorne ran a lean mixture for a long time, then got married and tried to call back states of extreme emotion or visions. It all loosens up with modernism, and Woolf seems like a pretty good example of somebody trying to swim out to the visionary world. Kafka? I'm curious about Maupassant too.

    Just because some one goes crazy doesn't mean they're crazy all the time. Is your category just crazy people writing when they're crazy? Maybe the trick is when and how they write about it.

  2. Reminds me of this from Montaigne's "On Idleness": "[My mind] presents me with so many chimeras and imaginary monsters, one after another, without order or plan, that, in order to contemplate their oddness and absurdity at leisure, I have begun to record them in writing, hoping in time to make my mind ashamed of them."

    Nerval and Montaigne were each exploring their own minds and characters, but I imagine their journeys to have been intensely dissimilar, though both honest.

    That Nerval's tendrils of meaning couldn't twine to a point is telling... and must have been frightening and interesting to read.

  3. Definitely not crazy people writing when they're crazy. Nerval, in my previous post, gives us an example of what he wrote while crazy - a series of dots. Of my list, I wouldn't want to categorize Blake, Brontë, Novalis, Meyrink, or de Quincey as mentally ill at all, although they were certainly Grade A weirdos.

    I think you're right - the history of the novel, socially observant and outward focused, was not built around this sort of thing, and it took a while for writers to figure out how to use fiction for esoteric purposes, just as it took a while for writers to turn inward psychologically. I can think of serious exceptions to everything I just said.

    Rebecca, if I were not chronologically narrow-minded, I would think that Montaigne was commenting on Nerval. Nerval, unfortunately, was not hoping for shame. Not so clear, Montaigne was, either - I suspect irony.

  4. Chronology'll get ya every time!

    And Montaigne revealed so much of himself in irony - more than most could in their most sincere and direct attempts.

  5. While my knowledge of Nerval doesn’t extend beyond what I’ve learned on your blog, I still can’t help but wonder the extent to which his mental undoing was partly for show and/or a self fulfilled prophecy of sorts. The Romantic movement (in all of the arts) was decidedly anti scientific and non-rational, and also in praise of the Exotic, and it seems the French ran with this notion further than most, as it developed into the Symbolists and later the surrealists. Interesting stuff for sure and I’ll have to read some Nerval on my own.

  6. Brian, you see why Nerval is often described as a proto-Symbolist, and why the surrealists loved Nerval's lobster almost as much as they loved Lautréamont's sewing machine / umbrella / operating table line.

    I'm not quite sure what the "proto-" is for. Respect for literary history, I guess.