Ornament, Fantasy, and Desire in Nineteenth-Century French Literature

Ornament, Fantasy, and Desire in Nineteenth-Century French Literature

by Rae Beth Gordon

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In this examination of the role of ornament in nineteenth-century French literature, Rae Beth Gordon shows that ornament, far from being a simple accessory, raises problems that are at the very heart of aesthetic experience: limits and their transgression, illusion and seduction, pleasure and tension, harmony and confusion, excess and marginality. After placing

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In this examination of the role of ornament in nineteenth-century French literature, Rae Beth Gordon shows that ornament, far from being a simple accessory, raises problems that are at the very heart of aesthetic experience: limits and their transgression, illusion and seduction, pleasure and tension, harmony and confusion, excess and marginality. After placing texts by Nerval, Gautier, Mallarm, Huysmans, and Rachilde within the context of the history and techniques of the decorative arts, she reveals in these works the powerful role played by decorative figurations of syntax, diction, and composition. Gordon's detailed textual analyses yield spatial parallels with specific ornamental configurations (interlace, arabesque, decorative frame, horror vacui, trompe l'oeil). These patterns are then studied in relation to a dynamics of desire. Ornament, taken as the site of desire and illuminated by the theories of Charcot, Clrambault, Freud, Winnicott, and Lacan, highlights important differences between romanticism, symbolism, and decadence. Not only does the author relate ornament to artistic representations of the sublime, the grotesque, and hysteria, but she also reveals that the function of ornament in literature anticipated psychiatric and aesthetic research on decorative form in the fin de sicle.

Originally published in 1992.

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Ornament, Fantasy, and Desire in Nineteenth-Century French Literature

By Rae Beth Gordon


Copyright © 1992 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06927-2


The Enchanted Hand: SchlegeFs Arabesque in Nerval

La ligne mystérieuse et fantasque courait, se tordait, s'allongeait ... et prenait toutes Ies formes d'une géométrie impossible; et cela nous faisait plus rêver ... que Ies plus belles formes de la nature, Ies types Ies plus purs et Ies plus magnifiquement complets. —Mérimée, "Les Arabesques d'un tapis"

These marvels of art, in their organic infinitude and inexhaustible plenitude of form, resemble nothing so much as the creations of nature itself.—Friedrich Schlegel, Letters from a Voyage

Confusion is chaotic only when it can give rise to a new world. —Schlegel, Ideas, no. 71

Le génie n'aperiçoit pas un chaos sans qu'il Iui prenne envie d'en faire un monde.—Nerval, Préface à Faust, 1830

Schlegel's Arabesque

In one of the dreamlike, visionary scenes in Gerard de Nerval's Aurélia, the narrator wanders through an "unfinished structure" where he sees artisans modeling a monstrous animal animated by a fiery stream "[qui] se tordait, pénétré de mille filets pourprés ... [et] se revêtait d'une végétation instantanée d'appendices fibreux" ([which] twisted about, penetrated by a thousand purple threads ... [and] clothed with an instantaneous vegetation of fibrous appendages). This chef d'oeuvre seems to him to contain the secrets of divine creation. What is more, the artisans are shaping ornaments that are self-engendering: "Les ornements n'etaient ni martelés ni ciselés, mais se formaient, se coloraient et s'épanouissaient comme des plantes métalliques qu'on fait naître de certaines mixtions chimiques" (The ornaments were neither hammered nor carved, but rather took on shape and color and blossomed like metallic plants that one brings into existence through certain chemical combinations). These twisting, expanding forms, or arabesques, are at once a paradigm for divine creation and artisanal production. The arabesque, as this study of "La Main enchantée" will show, is the site of both metaphysical striving and the figuration of writing.

The vision in Aurélia follows the narrator's awareness of himself as double: "actor" and "spectator." This splitting of the self is made literal in the hero's "mad" experience of seeing his hostile Double; seen from the perspective of the theories of Friedrich Schlegel, this might be construed as a form of Romantic irony. Ironic doubling in the text inspires a decorative vision of arabesques, and a study embracing several writers would confirm the necessary juncture of these two narrative strategies in Romantic fiction. These visions of excess always take place at a moment of psychological revelation in the hero, often when the split of the Subject into hero and narrator or hero and alter ego is most keenly felt. This ironic structure, combined with the "infinite freedom" of open-ended, self-engendering form "in the process of becoming," makes such texts "true arabesques."

Schlegel considered the arabesque to be "a very definite and essential form or mode of expression of poetry" (Behler, 96). Although he did not dissect the formal characteristics of the arabesque as I will do here, his extensive use of it to describe the essential characteristics of Romantic imagination and poetry (in the Aristotelian sense of the word) stems from an appreciation of the ornamental motif as it appears in Pompeii and Herculaneum, on the ceiling of Raphael's Vatican loggias, in Gothic ornament, and in the Orient.

The arabesque is the most ancient and tenacious of ornamental motifs. Aloïs Riegl showed its origin to lie in the Egyptian lotus. Its prestige as ursprungliche Form is of capital importance, as is its geographic origin. The depth of interest in the Orient (on both the scholarly and the phantasmal planes) was as central to Schlegel's inspiration as it was to Nerval's and Gautier's. Schlegel, nearly a century before Riegl, considered the arabesque to be the "oldest form of human imagination." To be precise, it was, for Schlegel, the phenomenological mode of expression of the Imagination, for the latter is experienced as Witz, and the arabesque is the most ancient and typical form of Witz. In seeking to lay the groundwork for a "new mythology," the philosopher turned to the arabesque for its model:

Here I find a great similarity with the marvelous wit of romantic poetry which does not manifest itself in individual conceptions but in the structure of the whole.... Indeed, this artfully ordered confusion, [and] this wonderfully perennial alternation of enthusiasm and irony which lives in even the smallest parts of the whole seem to me an indirect mythology themselves. The organization is the same, and certainly the arabesque is the oldest and most original form of human imagination. (Behler, 86; emphasis mine)

As if the prestige of being not only the outward expression of the Imagination, but also its most ancient form, were not enough to confer upon the arabesque the title of the Essential Romantic Figure, its capricious meanderings are, for Schlegel, simultaneously an expression of Nature. In addition, the suppleness of its line and its caprice are able to embrace the twists and turns, the spontaneity and chance encounters of life itself. A series of arabesques reproduces life's profusion and endless variety, what Schlegel calls its plenitude or abundance (Fülle) and its "chaos." "The world of poetry is as infinite and inexhaustible as the riches of animating nature with her plants, animals, and formations of every type, shape, and color" (Behler, 53). In order to figure this plenitude, the "romantic kind of poetry" must remain "in the state of becoming; that, in fact, is its real essence: that it should forever be becoming and never be perfected.... It alone is infinite, just as it alone is free."

Romantic writing must take as its subject the quest for this Fülle. It figures forth the intuitive leap into this experience in the person of the hero who seeks to define himself, who "takes shape" before our very eyes, and out of whose often incoherent encounters with life, love, and desire emerges a vision of infinite richness and mystery. On a different level, the text must reproduce in its style these same connections and variety which bespeak the totality of existence. Romantic poetry as "eternally becoming" allows us to witness the production of the text as it unfolds, changes course, and remains open to further development. Thus the reader follows along the same sinuous, intricate, and seemingly chaotic paths to the vision as does the hero. The quest of the Subject of the narration is, then, a mise en abyme both of the writer's style (and the writing process) and the reader's peregrinations within the total structure of the text, itself a reflection of the inexhaustible plenitude of the universe.

This openness and expansiveness may be likened to the Romantic ideal of enthusiasm, and the "eternal alternation of enthusiasm and irony" of Witz is perfectly mimed in the arabesque, which, "in perennial alternation, expand[s] and return[s] to itself (Behler, 83). The line both curls inward in a gesture of closure and swings outward again to engender new arabesques. The figure's capacity to branch out into other arabesques gives it the appearance of being self-engendering, and its open-ended ramifications imply a form in the process of becoming. The formal properties of the arabesque are remarkably well suited to Romantic poetry, for the organic literary text will not only unfold out of itself, but will also shape itself. At the same time, the movement back into itself figures the necessary element of reflexivity or irony in Romanticism, just as the forking off into a second arabesque figures irony's double discourse. Indeed, the multi-directionality of these two opposing movements makes the arabesque a uniquely polysemic figure. In contemplating the actual shape of the arabesque, one begins to understand why Schlegel wrote that he "held the arabesque to be a very definite and essential form or mode of expression of poetry" (Behler, 96).

Finally, the arabesque's tendency to create an ambiguity between figure and ground, and to obfuscate the relation of its parts, also has a structural corollary in Romantic literature: the technique of digression. Digression also contributes to freedom of movement, unfolding, and openness.

Riegl also showed that the arabesque form had evolved from the lotus motif to the palmette, to the scroll, and to the acanthus leaf before taking on the shape of the arabesque per se. The metamorphosis of the figure therefore moved from an organic form in nature to the evocation of the written word and later returned to the motif of the acanthus leaf. Thus, it represents both a Naturprodukt and a Kunstprodukt, as Schlegel claimed. However, despite its suggestion of both natural and textual objects (one of the main functions of the arabesque in Near Eastern architecture was to work in combination with epigraphy), the arabesque in its final state is pure form, nonreferential ornament, in contrast to the artistic depiction of the human body or of natural objects found in, say, lace patterns. It is a "formal language ... removed from the beauty of earthly gardens." Yet it retains the prestige of an organic, natural form, though one not bound by mimetic constraints (fig. 5 and see fig. 14, left). It therefore allows the artist/poet to explore and make manifest the freedom of the imagination. Here is a cogent description of this aesthetic freedom as Nerval expresses it in Voyage en Orient.

Quand tu dessines un de ces ornements qui serpentent Ie long des frises, te bornes-tu à copier Ies fleurs et Ies feuillages qui rampent sur Ie sol? Non: tu inventes, tu laisses courir Ie stylet au caprice de l'imagination, entremêlant les fantaisies les plus bizarres.

[When you draw one of these ornaments that snake along the friezes, do you limit yourself to copying the flowers and foliage that crawl on the ground? No: you invent, you let the stylus run along with the caprice of the imagination, intermingling the most bizarre fantasies.]

As this passage from Nerval implies, the play of the arabesque line both triggers and comes out of fantasy.

Overstepping Boundaries

In Nerval, the arabesque appears in imagery and as a structuring device. The proliferating structure of narrative open-endedness, remarkable in Nerval's oeuvre, has its parallel in the profusion of ornamental objects and descriptions that constitute, in large part, the "extravagance" and fantastic atmosphere of Voyage en Orient, Aurélia, "Octavie," and "La Pandora." As I stated in the Introduction, ornament's place is usually confined to the decor, where it occupies a subordinate position and status. Here, however, ornament breaks those bonds in a movement of proliferation, effecting an interpenetration of narrative and decor, of figure and ground. This tendency will be encountered again in Gautier and in Huysmans. In each writer, however, this structure (or de-structuration) is mobilized to achieve different ends. In the "Schlegelian" Romantic text the erasure of the distinction between the decorative arabesques that make up the background and the characters who people the foreground throws the text into a primordial chaos. This loss of limits prepares the way for breaking the bonds of reason, a necessary step in finding true poetry within chaos. "For this is the beginning of all poetry, to cancel the progression and laws of rationally thinking reason, and to transplant us once again into the beautiful confusion of imagination, into the original chaos of human nature" (Behler, 86). On the autobiographical level, the risks inherent in the loss of limits (and an excessive ramification of meanings) were lived out in a very real way by Nerval, whose visions of ornamental excess crossed over from fantasy to reality.

Although Schlegel saw only positive virtues and aesthetic gains in a life and oeuvre predicated on these notions, it has also been possible to see nonsensical or even threatening gestures. A decorative artist warned in 1847 that "today's arabesques ... are so distanced [from nature] that one can only find models for them in the Chimera engendered by sleep.... Let the draftsman beware of abandoning himself to all the caprices of an unruly imagination; there are certain limits that reason and taste never allow overstepping." In a preface to a French edition of Hoffmann's tales, Sir Walter Scott wrote that "[he] spent his life ... tracing, without rules or measure, bizarre and extravagant images ... they are the dreams of a feeble mind, besieged by fever." Moreover, the words Scott used in a Fortnightly Review article to lambaste Hoffmann's technique are astonishingly similar to those Schlegel used to describe the marvelous qualities (nonreferentiality, capriciousness, freedom) of the arabesque: "The reader must content himself with watching the author's sleight of hand, as he would watch the somersaults and the metamorphoses of Arlequino, without seeking any meaning, nor any other aim than the surprise of the moment."

Curiously, it is in a text of Nerval and not of Hoffmann that sleights of hand and somersaults are explicitly named and serve to illustrate the syntax of the narrative, as well as the shaping of the protagonist.

The Enchanted Hand

In "La Main enchantée," the lightness, deftness, and wit of the arabesque are reflected in the legerdemain of the Bohemian, a juggler (the French escamoteur is simultaneously one who juggles and one who—also through sleight of hand—picks pockets). It is not he, however, who is first introduced to the reader; nor is it the hero, Eustache Bouteroue. Nerval chooses to open his tale with a page-long description of two magnificent architectural ensembles: the Place Royale (now the Place des Vosges) and the Place Dauphine. The first receives as much attention as the second (the setting for part of the story), but the narrator will never return to it; it serves no purpose other than to demonstrate the capriciousness of the narrative line. Another arabesque of the narrative line is created by presenting a secondary (albeit important) character long before the hero and his alter ego, the Bohemian, appear on the scene. The development of and commentary on this character, a magistrate, balloon out of all proportion to his function in the plot, but the fact that all of this is a digressionaiy prelude is evident only when the narrator announces in chapter 3 that he has been "outrageously prolix" and that it is time for the story to begin.

Godinot Chevassut is a convivial, facetious magistrate "[qui] aimait à hérisser sa conversation de pointes, d'équivoques et de propos gaillards" ([who] liked to spike his conversation with witticisms, double meanings and lusty declarations). In other words, he revels in language as wit, as irony, and as the transgression of propriety's boundaries. The narrator points to another means of subverting society's boundaries. "Il faut dire ... que Ies larrons de ce temps-là étaient moins ignobles ... et que ce misérable métier était alors une sorte d'art.... Bien des capacités refoulées au dehors et aux pieds d'une société de barrières et de privilèges se devéloppaient fortement dans ce sens" (It should be said ... that the thieves of that time were less ignoble ... and that this miserable trade was a sort of art then.... Many of the capacities cast outside and at the bottom of a society of barriers and privileges developed markedly in this direction) (478). Here is an art exercised in the margins of society that enjoys freedom from constraint. No quality is esteemed more highly by him than wit and agility (l'esprit et l'adresse).

Et nulle part il ne trouvait ces qualites plus brillantes et mieux developpees que chez la grande nation des tire-laine, matois, coupeurs de bourse et bohemes dont la vie genereuse et Ies tours singuliers se deroulaient tous Ies jours devant Iui avec une variete inepuisable. (480; emphases mine to stress parallels with the arabesque)

[And nowhere did he find these qualities more brilliant and better developed than among the great assembly of thieves, pickpockets and Gypsies whose generous existence and unique tricks unfurled before him each day with an inexhaustible variety.]


Excerpted from Ornament, Fantasy, and Desire in Nineteenth-Century French Literature by Rae Beth Gordon. Copyright © 1992 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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