I have already lost, Kingdom after Kingdom, province after province, the more beautiful half of the universe, and soon I will know of no place in which I can find a refuge for my dreams. — Gerard de Nerval
The first moments of sleep are an image of death; a hazy torpor grips our thoughts and it becomes impossible for us to determine the exact instant when the “I,” under another form, continues the task of existence. — Gerard de Nerval
Gérard de NERVAL – Vie et mort de Gérard de Nerval (conférence, 1955)
‘Gérard de Nerval lived from 1808 to 1855, dying one year after Arthur Rimbaud was born. He was an acquaintance of Baudelaire, his junior by thirteen years. Nerval’s Journey To The Orient is said to have inspired Baudelaire’s poem A Voyage To Cythera and his interest in the orient. Gerard’s real last name was Labrunie. Nerval was a pseudonym based on his belief that he was a descendent of the Roman emperor Nerva.
‘Nerval was widely regarded as being a distracted soul, a dreamer perpetually lost in a state of supernatural reverie. He studied the Occult and was fascinated by antiquity and dead religions for which he always felt a spiritual affinity. Nerval’s taste in literature tended towards the macabre or mystical which in his day and age meant Edgar Allen Poe, E. T. A. Hoffmann, Swedenborg, and Goethe’s Faust. He was particularly influenced by Faust and gained literary renown as one of the foremost French translators of the German play.
‘Nerval eventually lost the ability to distinguish dream from reality and his bizarre behavior resulted in numerous anecdotes. He was seen walking a pet lobster on a leash in the gardens of the Palais Royal. He came to believe that he was the son of Napoleon’s brother. Nerval was committed to an insane asylum, described as being more of a literary rest home than a true institution, where he believed he was being put through an initiation ritual. Nerval came to a tragic end, hanging himself from a bar in a sewer grate.
‘There are many inaccurate accounts of exactly where he hanged himself. The back cover of Journey To The Orient claims “He died in 1855, hanging himself from a lamp-post in the snowy streets of Paris with an old apron string that he believed to be the Queen of Sheba’s garter.” The Anchor Anthology of French Poetry’s brief introduction to Nerval tells a different story, “…hanged his humble and gentle self in a cellar in the rue de la Vieille-Lanterne on a freezing January morning”. However, Solomon Rhodes’ biography of Nerval provides the most detailed account of Nerval’s suicide so it is probably the most reliable. He describes the spot as where “…the street sank down and was connected with the lower level by a stairway…at the foot of it, level with a man’s head…there was a vent-hole with an iron-grating and cross bars”.
‘Nerval is a significant literary figure because he was unusually absorbed in his inner life. He spent so much time lost in reverie that his surprisingly considerate friends remarked, “Sometimes one would catch sight of him at a street corner, hat in hand, in a sort of ecstasy, obviously far withdrawn from his immediate surroundings. . . . When we found him absorbed in this way, we were careful not to accost him bluntly for fear of causing him to fall from the height of his dream like a somnambulist suddenly awakened with a start while walking with eyes closed in deep sleep along the edge of a roof.” Nerval has become closely identified with the power of dreams to lure us away from the world and for this he is worthy of close study.’ — Robert Robbins
Under his name, which appears under his portrait, Gerard de Nerval wrote, in his own hand, as a legend: Je suis l’autre (I am the other); above the portrait these cryptic words: feu G.rare; and, in the upper left-hand corner, these even more obscure words: cigne allemand.
Gérard de NERVAL – Gérard Labrunie (DOCUMENTAIRE, 1966)
‘The poet Gérard de Nerval had a penchant for lobsters, or at least for one lobster. Nerval was seen one day taking his pet lobster for a walk in the gardens of the Palais-Royal in Paris. He conducted his crustacean about at the end of a long blue ribbon. As word of this feat of eccentricity spread, Nerval was challenged to explain himself. “And what,” he said, “could be quite so ridiculous as making a dog, a cat, a gazelle, a lion or any other beast follow one about. I have affection for lobsters. They are tranquil, serious and they know the secrets of the sea.” (The episode is captured by Guillaume Apollinaire in a collection of anecdotes from 1911). Was there any basis to this story? A generation of Nerval scholars attempted to debunk it, but then a letter to his childhood friend Laura LeBeau was discovered. Nerval had just returned from some days at the seaside at the Atlantic coastal town of La Rochelle: “and so, dear Laura, upon my regaining the town square I was accosted by the mayor who demanded that I should make a full and frank apology for stealing from the lobster nets. I will not bore you with the rest of the story, but suffice to say that reparations were made, and little Thibault is now here with me in the city…” Nerval, it seems, had liberated Thibault the lobster from certain death in a pot of boiling water and brought him home to Paris. Thus we know that it was Thibault, and not just “some lobster,” who went for that celebrated promenade in the gardens of the Palais-Royal.
‘But Nerval’s attitude towards animals is not, as his contemporaries supposed, a casual eccentricity. Rather, he follows in the footsteps of the great Pythagoras, whose thinking has come down to us only in the fragmentary accounts of other writers—including the “Golden Verses” which provide direct inspiration to this remarkable poem. Pythagoras was a vegetarian of a very strict sort; indeed, he would not even harm beans, a fact which according to some accounts led to his death.
‘“All things feel,” says Nerval’s Pythagoras. There is a ribbon, though it may not be blue, that ties all the forms of life on our planet; their interrelationship is very profound. And humankind is too quick to assume its own mastery and to turn all other things and creatures to its use. But the lobster is a special case, as animal rights activists argue (still much disputed, particularly by the seafood industry) that lobsters are sentient beings with a great capacity for feeling pain which is maximized by the once-favored cooking technique of emersion in boiling water. When Nerval proudly took his lobster for a promenade, he was making the same point he made in this poem: humans make themselves the masters of their environment and the beasts around them, and in so doing have they not lost a sense of the universe and the natural order among beings? Do they not recognize obligations that go with that mastery? It was not, perhaps, quite so comic an act as it may have seemed.’ — Scott Horton
Appearance of the spirit of Gérard de Nerval in the presence of Mr. Dumont. Spiritist photography by Jean Buguet, at 5 boulevard Montmartre in Paris, c. 1873.
from Sylvie (1853)
I passed out of a theatre where I was wont to appear nightly, in the proscenium boxes, in the attitude of suitor. Sometimes it was full, sometimes nearly empty; it mattered little to me, whether a handful of listless spectators occupied the pit, while antiquated costumes formed a doubtful setting for the boxes, or whether I made one of an audience swayed by emotion, crowned at every tier with flower-decked robes, flashing gems and radiant faces. The spectacle of the house left me indifferent, that of the stage could not fix my attention until at the second or third scene of a dull masterpiece of the period, a familiar vision illumined the vacancy, and by a word and a breath, gave life to the shadowy forms around me.
I felt that my life was linked with hers; her smile filled me with immeasurable bliss; the tones of her voice, so sweet and sonorous, thrilled me with love and joy. My ardent fancy endowed her with every perfection until she seemed to respond to all my raptures—beautiful as day in the blaze of the footlights, pale as night when their glare was lowered and rays from the chandelier above revealed her, lighting up the gloom with the radiance of her beauty, like those divine Hours with starry brows, which stand out against the dark background of the frescoes of Herculaneum.
For a whole year I had not sought to know what she might be, in the world outside, fearing to dim the magic mirror which reflected to me her image. Some idle gossip, it is true, touching the woman, rather than the actress, had reached my ears, but I heeded it less than any floating rumours concerning the Princess of Elis or the Queen of Trebizonde, for I was on my guard. An uncle of mine whose manner of life during the period preceding the close of the eighteenth century, had given him occasion to know them well, had warned me that actresses were not women, since nature had forgotten to give them hearts. He referred, no doubt, to those of his own day, but he related so many stories of his illusions and disappointments, and displayed so many portraits upon ivory, charming medallions which he afterwards used to adorn his snuff-boxes, so many yellow love-letters and faded tokens, each with its peculiar history, that I had come to think ill of them as a class, without considering the march of time.
We were living then in a strange period, such as often follows a revolution, or the decline of a great reign. The heroic gallantry of the Fronde, the drawing-room vice of the Regency, the scepticism and mad orgies of the Directory, were no more. It was a time of mingled activity, indecision and idleness, bright utopian dreams, philosophic or religious aspirations, vague ardour, dim instincts of rebirth, weariness of past discords, uncertain hopes,—an age somewhat like that of Peregrinus and Apuleius. The material man yearned for the roses which should regenerate him, from the hands of the fair Isis; the goddess appeared to us by night, in her eternal youth and purity, inspiring in us remorse for the hours wasted by day; and yet, ambition suited not our years, while the greedy strife, the mad chase in pursuit of honour and position, held us aloof from every possible sphere of activity. Our only refuge was the ivory tower of the poets whither we climbed higher and higher to escape the crowd. Upon the heights to which our masters guided us, we breathed at last the pure air of solitude, we quaffed oblivion in the golden cup of fable, we were drunk with poetry and love. Love, alas! of airy forms, of rose and azure tints, of metaphysical phantoms. Seen nearer, the real woman repelled our ingenuous youth which required her to appear as a queen or a goddess, and above all, inapproachable.
Some of our number held these platonic paradoxes in light esteem, and athwart our mystic reveries brandished at times the torch of the deities of the underworld, that names through the darkness for an instant with its train of sparks. Thus it chanced that on quitting the theatre with the sense of bitter sadness left by a vanished dream, I turned with pleasure to a club where a party of us used to sup, and where all depression yielded to the inexhaustible vivacity of a few brilliant wits, whose stormy gaiety at times rose to sublimity. Periods of renewal or decadence always produce such natures, and our discussions often became so animated that timid ones in the company would glance from the window to see if the Huns, the Turkomans or the Cossacks were not coming to put an end to these disputations of sophists and rhetoricians. “Let us drink, let us love, this is wisdom!” was the code of the younger members. One of them said to me: “I have noticed for some time that I always meet you in the same theatre. For which one do you go?” Which! why, it seemed impossible to go there for another! However, I confessed the name. “Well,” said my friend kindly, “yonder is the happy man who has just accompanied her home, and who, in accordance with the rules of our club, will not perhaps seek her again till night is over.”
With slight emotion I turned toward the person designated, and perceived a young man, well dressed, with a pale, restless face, good manners, and eyes full of gentle melancholy. He flung a gold piece on the card-table and lost it with indifference. “What is it to me?” said I, “he or another?” There must be someone, and he seemed worthy of her choice. “And you?” “I? I chase a phantom, that is all.”
On my way out, I passed through the reading-room and glanced carelessly at a newspaper, to learn, I believe, the state of the stock market. In the wreck of my fortunes, there chanced to be a large investment in foreign securities, and it was reported that, although long disowned, they were about to be acknowledged;—and, indeed, this had just happened in consequence of a change in the ministry. The bonds were quoted high, so I was rich again.
A single thought was occasioned by this sudden change of fortune, that the woman whom I had loved so long, was mine, if I wished. My ideal was within my grasp, or was it only one more disappointment, a mocking misprint? No, for the other papers gave the same figures, while the sum which I had gained rose before me like the golden statue of Moloch.
“What,” thought I, “would that young man say, if I were to take his place by the woman whom he has left alone?”
I shrunk from the thought, and my pride revolted. Not thus, not at my age, dare I slay love with gold! I will not play the tempter! Besides, such an idea belongs to the past. Who can tell me that this woman may be bought? My eyes glanced idly over the journal in my hand, and I noticed two lines: “Provincial Bouquet Festival. To-morrow the archers of Senlis will present the bouquet to the archers of Loisy.” These simple words aroused in me an entirely new train of thought, stirring long-forgotten memories of provincial days, faint echoes of the artless joys of youth.
The horn and the drum were resounding afar in hamlet and forest; the young maidens were twining garlands as they sang, and binding nosegays with ribbon. A heavy wagon, drawn by oxen, received their offerings as it passed, and we, the children of that region, formed the escort with our bows and arrows, assuming the proud title of knights,—we did not know that we were only preserving, from age to age, an ancient feast of the Druids that had survived later religions and monarchies.
from Auerlia (1838)
—“Nonetheless,” I told myself, “it is certain that these sciences are interspersed with human error. The magic alphabet, the mysterious hieroglyphs arrive to us incomplete and partially distorted by time as well as by the efforts of those who have an interest in perpetuating our ignorance; were we to find the lost letter or an erased sign, reassembling the dissonant whole, we would gain force in the spirit-world.”
It is in this way that I thought to perceive the connections between the real world and the spirit world: The earth along with its inhabitants and their history are a theater where physical actions take place in preparation for the existence and determine the situation of immortal beings tied to its destiny. Without addressing the impenetrable mystery of the eternity of the universe, my thoughts went back to the period when the sun, like the planet which shares its name-sake, which while inclining it head follows the revolution of its astronomical path, sowed on earth the fertile seeds of plants and animals. This was none other than fire itself, which, being compounded of souls, formulated instinctively their communal dwelling. The spirit of the God-Being, reproduced and, as it were, reflected upon the earth, became the prototype of human souls, each of whom, was by turns both man and God. Such beings were the Elohim.
from Journey to the Orient (1851)
In 1851, Nerval’s first prose book Le Voyage en Orient, resulted from his extended hashish-filled trip of 1842 to Cairo and Beirut. It puzzled readers of conventional travel books by retelling Oriental tales like Solomon and the Queen of Sheba in terms of the artist and the act of creation. appeared. Under the guise of a travelog, it concerns itself with the pilgrimage of a soul, being more revealing of the inner geography of Nerval than of Egypt, Lebanon, or Turkey.
While Soliman welcomed Balkis at his country residence, a man, crossing the heights of Moriah, looked pensively at the twilight dwindling in the clouds and at the blazing tapers which pierced the shadows around Millo like a multitude of stars. He bid his beloved a silent farewell and took a last look at the rocks of Solyme and the banks of the Kedron. The weather was cloudy, and before the pallid sun fully set, it had time to see the night advancing upon the earth. At the noise of the hammers on the bronze bells, sounding the call to muster, Adoniram struggled free of his thoughts and hastened on his way. Soon he passed through the crowd of assembled workmen to preside over the distribution of salaries. He entered the temple through the west door and emerged at the partly open east door to place himself at the foot of the column of Jachin.
Lighted tapers below the peristyle crackled under drops of tepid rain to which the panting workmen merrily offered their sweating limbs. The crowd was large, and Adoniram had at his disposal, besides the book-keepers, stewards in charge of the different categories. To divide the workmen into the three hierarchical grades a watchword was used, replacing in these circumstances the hand signals which would have taken up too much time. Then the salaries were distributed on the declaration of the password.
The apprentices’ watchword was Jachin, the journeymen’s Boaz, and the masters’ Jehovah. Arranged in their appropriate groups and lined up one behind the other, the workmen presented themselves to the stewards at the counting-house. Before each one received his wages, Adoniram touched his hand, and the workman whispered a word in his ear. The password had been changed for this final day.
The apprentices said Tubal-Cain, the journeymen Shibboleth, and the masters Giblim.
Gradually, the crowd thinned out, the precincts grew deserted, but when the last petitioner had withdrawn, it was clear that not all of the men had attended the ceremony, for there was still some money in one of the coffers.
‘Tomorrow,’ Adoniram said to his stewards,’summon the men
together again to discover whether they are ill or have been visited by death.’
As soon as Adoniram’s officers had left, Adoniram himself, zealous and vigilant to the last day, took hold of a lamp, as usual, to inspect the empty workshops and the various locales of the temple, to make sure that his orders had been executed and that the fires had been extinguished. His footsteps echoed sadly along the flagstones. Looking once more at his monuments, he stopped, for a long time, in front of a group of winged cherubim, the last work of the young Benoni.
‘Sweet child,’ he sighed.
Once this pilgrimage was over, Adoniram found himself in the temple’s huge hall. The dense shadows around his lamp unrolled into red volutes, revealing the high mouldings on the vaults, and also the walls of the hall, the exits of which were three doors facing north, west, and east. The north door was reserved for the people, the west for the king and his warriors, the east for the levites, and outside this latter door stood the bronze columns of Jachin and Boaz. Before leaving by the west door, which was the nearest to him, Adoniram glanced at the dark recesses of the hall, and, deeply moved as he remained from looking at the innumerable statues, his imagination evoked the shade of Tubal-Cain in the shadows. Concentrating his gaze, he tried to penetrate the darkness; the phantom grew taller but glided away; it reached the very depths of the temple and vanished close to the walls, like the shadow of a man spotlighted by a torch which slowly withdraws. A woeful cry seemed to resound among the vaults. Then Adoniram turned round and prepared to depart.
Suddenly, a human form detached itself from the pilaster and said to him in a ferocious voice :
‘If you wish to leave, tell me the password of the masters.’
Adoniram carried no weapons upon him. Respected by everyone, accustomed to command by only a sign, he did not even dream of defending his sacred person.
‘Wretch !’ he exclaimed, recognizing the journeyman, the Hebrew Methuselah,’step back at once ! You will be welcomed among the masters on the day that crime and treachery are honoured ! Flee with your accomplices before the justice of Soliman falls upon your heads.’
At these words, Methuselah lifted up his hammer in his muscular arms and brought it down with a crash upon Adoniram’s skull.
Stunned but still conscious, the artist staggered towards the north door, but the Syrian Phanor was waiting for him there.
‘If you wish to leave, tell me the password of the masters.’
You have not worked for seven years,’ Adoniram managed to
‘The password !’
Phanor the mason thrust his chisel into Adoniram’s entrails, but he was unable to aim a second blow, for aroused by the pain, the architect of the temple flew like an arrow towards the east door in order to escape from his assassins. There, the Phoenician Amrou, journeyman among the carpenters, was waiting for him, and he, too, cried out in his turn:
‘If you wish to leave, tell me the password of the masters !’
‘This is not the way that I learned it myself,’ Adoniram gasped.
‘Request it from the one who sends you here.’
As he strove to open the door, Amrou plunged the point of his compasses into Adoniram’s heart.
At that moment the storm erupted, heralded by a mighty stroke of thunder.
Stretched out upon the temple floor, Adoniram’s body covered three flagstones. The three murderers reassembled at his feet and linked their hands together.
‘This man was great,’ Phanor murmured.
‘He won’t take up more space in the tomb than you,’ Amrou said.
Gerard de Nerval ‘reads’ his poem ‘Epitaphe’ (1:21)
Salvador Dali’s etching ‘Angel Melancholy/Gerard de Nerval’
Monument to Gerard de Nerval, near Chatelet, Paris
Gerard de Nerval’s home, Montmartre, Paris
Etching of Gerard de Nerval by Georges Stall
Original manuscript page from Gerard de Nerval’s ‘Pandora’
The illustrations in Gerard de Nerval’s ‘Sylvie’
Gérard de Nerval, Introduction à Les Ballons, de Julien Turgan
Gérard de NERVAL, letter to Théophile Gautier
Galérie Viro-Dodat (1826), site of a café where Gérard de Nerval had a last drink before he hanged himself.
Etching of the spot where Gerard de Nerval committed suicide by Pierre Gevres
Painting of the spot where Gerard de Nerval committed suicide (artist unknown)
The Death of Gérard de Nerval (La Rue de la Vieille Lanterne, La Mort de Gérard de Nerval), 1855, by Gustave Doré
suicide de Gérard de Nerval – Lithographie de Gustave Doré
The Class of 1972, Lycee Gerard de Nerval, Paris
Class of 2008, le collège Gerard de Nerval, Vitré, France
The grave of Gerard de Nerval, Cimetière du Père-Lachaise
Gérard de Nerval – Le Valois chimérique (13:23)
p.s. Hey. Today I’m on my way to Holland in order to visit Efteling. While the p.s. and I are indisposed, please enjoy this restored post about Gerard de Nerval, won’t you? And leave comments, if you like, which I will interact with when I return here on Wednesday. The blog will see you again tomorrow.