Gérald de Nerval: Epitaph of my Mind

Wandering through the unique mixture that is Gérard de Nerval’s Selected Writings (Penguin Classics, 1999, translated by Richard Sieburth) is an experience of stumbling towards a howl. If you are fortunate you will know nothing of Nerval’s biography and be better placed to wallow in the aesthetic bliss that his prose delivers. If you are open to the illusion that Nerval conjures up in his writing, you will greatly appreciate his ability to open up a world that exceeds that outside of the book.

Such a reading was not available for me. Nerval’s novella Sylvie came to my awareness through discovering its influence on Proust, but the deeper furrows were left by Nerval’s enigmatic Les Chimères, opaque poems with an undertow of sorrow and nothingness. Sieburth provides a prose translation in this collection, but I prefer Will Stone’s version, published by Menard Press (1999). Those poems opened up my curiosity about Nerval and to understanding more about his use of writing as a way to turn into literature his experience of madness: “Someday I will write the story of this descent to the underworld, and you will see that it was not entirely deprived of reasoning even though it always lacked reason.”

Dante’s journey in his Commedia is not so very different than Nerval’s in Aurelia, but, as always, timing is everything. As Foucault wrote, “Madness begins where the relation of man to truth is disturbed and darkened.” Nineteenth century Paris, though no longer expecting the residents of its asylums to sleep on straw, was accustomed to confining those deemed to have lost their reason. At the peak of their usage, one in a hundred inhabitants of Paris found themselves confined in such asylums for several months. Nerval’s experience, though given treatment during his stay in various clinics, contrasts with that of Nietzsche and Hölderlin, his less impoverished contemporaries across the border in Germany.

This collection includes Sylvie, a partly autobiographical recreation of Nerval’s Valois roots, lyrical and philosophical, reminiscent in some ways of Gide. Although Nerval touches on his dream life, he gives them none of the sovereignty bestowed in later work, with primacy given to the simple memories of rural life and adolescent infatuation. There is an undertow here of more than Romantic allegory, but whether that complexity is available if a reader is not already exposed to Nerval’s biography is arguable. It is a beautifully subtle piece of writing in which the symbol is the language. Each reading will open up fresh reflective considerations, but as a simple tale of the loss of illusion it is first rate: “Illusions fall, like the husks of a fruit, one after another, and what is left is experience. It has a bitter taste, but there is something tonic in its sharpness.”

After Nerval’s second confinement his friend and sometime publisher Alexandre Dumas wrote:”[Nervals’] is a charming mind . . . in which, from time to time, a certain phenomenon occurs . . . imagination, that resident lunatic, momentarily evicts reason . . . and impels him toward impossible theories and unwritable books.” Nerval’s response: “Several days ago everyone thought I was mad, and you devoted some of your most charming lines to the epitaph of my mind . . . Now that I have recovered what is vulgarly called reason, let us reason together . . .”

Aurelia is that reasoning, Nerval’s disavowal, though not denial, of his madness, but an attempt to argue that his writing should not be annulled by his unreason. It is his uncanny ability to translate madness into language that survives and is utterly fascinating. It may be, as Dumas wrote, unwritable, but it is far from unreadable:

Dream is a second life. I have never been able to cross through those gates of ivory and horn which separate us from the invisible world without a sense of dread. The first few instants of sleep are the image of death; a drowsy numbness steals over our thoughts, and it becomes impossible to determine the precise moment at which the self, in some other form, continues to carry on the work of existence. Little by little, the dim cavern is suffused with light and, emerging from its shadowy depths, the pale figures who dwell in limbo come into view, solemn and still. Then the tableau takes on shape, a new clarity illuminates these bizarre apparitions and sets them in motion – the spirit world opens for us. 

It is, in Sieburth’s translation, quite beautiful and an encouragement to pay attention to our condition of human fallenness. Nerval translated Faust, and though it is tempting to see in Aurelia a Faustian succumbing to a series of psychotic episodes for the sake of great literature, that would be to ignore a desperate sadness that is all too evident. That it is a work of unreason, paradoxically, takes nothing away from the fact it is equally a joyous explosion of strange beauty, and rings with truth.

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