Friday 14 October 2011

The Decadent Genius of Théophile Gautier

For those who appreciate supernatural French Decadence, Théophile Gautier (1811-1872) is a pioneer of the genre. Gautier’s enthusiasm for supernatural literature was inspired by the stories of E.T.A. Hoffman, but to this he added an erotic effusiveness all his own. Gautier’s manifesto for Romanticism was taken up by numerous other writers, most notably by Charles Baudelaire, who in 1857 dedicated Les Fleurs du mal to him.

We are publishing twelve of his best fantastic, supernatural tales in Clarimonde and Other Stories, on the 21st October 2011. For those who have yet to experience the rare delights of Gautier’s prose, we have great pleasure in presenting below ‘The Opium Pipe’. This is a short tale, but it gives a flavour of Gautier’s Decadent style:

by Théophile Gautier
First published 1838.
This translation copyright R.B. Russell/Tartarus Press

THE OTHER DAY I found my friend Alphonse Karr sitting on his divan with a lit candle, although it was broad daylight, and holding in his hand a pipe of cherry wood with a mushroom-shaped bowl into which he was crumbling a kind of brown paste like sealing-wax. The burning paste was spluttering in the bowl as he inhaled through a small mouthpiece of amber, and the smoke spread through the room with a faint scent of oriental fragrance. Without saying anything I took the apparatus from the hands of my friend, put my lips to the end, and inhaled a few times. I experienced a kind of dizziness that was not without its charms and not unlike the thrill of first intoxication. It was a day on which I was to write my regular column, and having no time to get really high, I hung the pipe on a nail in the wall, and we went down into the garden. We said hello to his dahlias and played around with his dog, Schutz, a happy animal that had no other function than to provide a shade of black against the carpet of green grass. I went home, I dined, and went to the theatre to endure some play or other. Then I returned to go to bed, because such a destination is inevitable (and through this few hours’ oblivion we prepare for our final death). The opium I had smoked, far from producing the expected effect of drowsiness, threw me into nervous agitation such as is produced by very strong coffee, and I turned in my bed like a fish on a grill, or a chicken on a spit, the bed-clothes a perpetual tangle about me, to the annoyance of my cat curled up on the corner of the quilt. Finally, long-sought Sleep poured its golden dust into my eyes, which became hot and heavy, and I finally succumbed. After an hour or two of black, uninterrupted slumber, I had a dream, and here it is:

I found myself at my friend Alphonse Karr’s, just as I had been that morning, and he was sitting on his divan of yellow damask, with his pipe and his lit candle. The only difference was that the blue, green and reds from the sun through the stained glass window was not thrown, as before, across the walls like butterflies of a thousand colours. I took the pipe from his hands, as I had done a few hours earlier, and I began to slowly draw in the intoxicating smoke. I was soon overcome by a soft indolence, and I felt the same dizziness I had experienced when smoking the real pipe. Until then my dream was rooted within the most precise limits of the real, habitable world, and repeated, like a mirror, the actions of my day. I was curled up in a pile of cushions, and I stretched my head lazily back to follow up the bluish spiral of smoke that swirled in the air before melting into a cloud of cotton-wool. My eyes were naturally on the ceiling, which is as black as ebony, with arabesques of gold. By dint of gazing at it with the attention that precedes ecstatic visions, it began to appear to be blue, but a hard blue like coat tails of the night.

‘You’ve painted your ceiling blue,’ I said to Karr, who remained impassive and silent. He had put another pipe into his mouth, and was exhaling more smoke than a stove pipe in the winter, or a steamboat in any season.

‘No, my dear fellow,’ he replied, putting his nose out of the cloud. ‘But you would seem to have painted your insides red with a great deal of Bordeaux—Chateau Lafitte!’

‘Alas! If only that were true! All I have had is one miserable glass of sugared water, in which all the ants of the earth had come to drink, and a school of insects to swim in.’

‘Well, my ceiling apparently became bored of being black and turned blue. After women, I know nothing more capricious than ceilings. It is a ceiling’s caprice, that’s all; nothing out of the ordinary.’

Whereupon Karr withdrew once more into his cloud of smoke, with the pleased expression of someone who has given a clear and satisfying explanation. But I was only half convinced, and I found it hard to believe that ceilings could be as fantastical as that. I continued to watch the one I had above my head, not without some feeling of uneasiness. It now turned blue, it turned as blue as the sea on the horizon, and stars were beginning to open their eyelids with lashes of gold. These eyelashes were of an extreme delicacy, and stretched into the room and filled it with sheaves of prismatic colour. A few black lines streaked the azure surface, and I soon realised that they were the timbers of the upper floors of the house, because the rest of the building had become transparent. Despite the ease with which one normally accepts the weirdest things in dreams, all this began to seem a little questionable, even suspicious, and I thought that if my friend Esquiros Magus was there, he would give me an explanation more satisfying than of my friend Alphonse Karr. As if the thought somehow had the power of conjuration, Esquiros suddenly appeared before us, much like the poodle in Faust comes from out behind the stove. His face was animated and triumphant, and he said, rubbing his hands together: ‘I can see as far as the Antipodes, and I have discovered the speaking Mandrake root.’ This apparition surprised me, and I said to Karr, ‘Oh! Tell me how Esquiros, who was not here before, has managed to enter without having opened the door?’

‘Nothing is more simple,’ said Karr. ‘He came in through the door when it was shut. Only ill-bred people pass through open doors. You know the insult: “He’s always trying to push through open doors”.’

 I could find no objection to such a sensible argument, and I remained convinced that indeed the presence of Esquiros was entirely explicable and proper. But he looked at me with a strange expression, and his eyes widened in an excessive manner; they were ardent and round like shields heated in a furnace, and his body continually dissolved and drowned in the shadows so that I could see no more of him than his two glowing and radiant eyes. A mesh of fire and streams of magnetic ectoplasm flickered and whirled about me, binding me ever more inextricably tight. Each sparkling filament penetrated my every pore, and established themselves in my skin almost like the hairs on my head. I was in a state of complete somnambulism. Then I saw small white flakes that crossed the blue expanse of the ceiling like tufts of cotton wool carried by the wind, or as the feathers of a dove would fall through the air. I tried in vain to guess what it was, when a voice with a strange accent whispered low and quick in my ear: ‘These are spirits!’ The scales fell from my eyes, the white vapours took on more precise forms, and I distinctly saw a long line of veiled figures who followed the cornice of the ceiling from right to left, with a very strong upward movement, as if caught in a current of air which raised them swiftly aloft. At the corner of the room, sitting on the moulding of the ceiling, was a girl wrapped in a large muslin cloth. Her feet were naked and hung nonchalantly crossed one over the other; they were, indeed, delightful, and their smallness and transparency made me think of those beautiful feet of jasper that extend so white and so pure from under the skirt of black marble of the ancient statue of Isis in the Museum. The other ghosts touched her on the shoulder in passing, and said:

‘We are leaving for the stars, come with us.’

But the phantom with the feet of white alabaster answered them:

‘No! I do not want to go to the stars. I would rather live another six months.’

The procession passed on until the phantom remained alone, swaying her pretty little feet, and hitting the wall with her heel which was tinged with pink, pale and tender as the heart of a hyacinth. Although her face was veiled, I sensed that she was young, pretty and charming, and my soul rushed to her side, with open arms and beating wings. Either consciously or instinctively, the phantom understood my feelings and said in a soft and crystalline voice like a harmonica: ‘If you have the courage to kiss the mouth of the girl who was me, and whose body is lying in the black city, I shall live for six more months, and my second life will be lived for you.’

I got up and asked myself whether or not I was the victim of some illusion, and if all that was happening was not a dream. It was my one last glimmer of rational intelligence before it was extinguished by sleep.

I asked my two friends what they thought of it all. The unflappable Karr claimed that the affair was common; he had experienced several similar, and I was very naïve to be surprised by such a trifle. Esquiros explained everything by magnetism.

‘Well, that’s fine, I’d leave, but I’m still wearing my slippers ...’

‘That does not matter,’ said Esquiros. ‘I imagine that there will be a carriage waiting at the door.’

I went out and saw, in fact, a two-horse carriage waiting for me. Although there was no coachman, I got inside, and the horses moved off on their own. They were completely black, and galloped away so furiously that their hindquarters rose and fell like waves, and a shower of sparks crackled behind them. They first took the rue la Tour d’Auvergne, then the rue Bellefond and rue Lafayette, and from there, other streets that I do not know the names of. As the carriage went, the objects around me assumed strange forms: houses squatting by the roadside like sullen old women spinning; wooden fences and street lights looked like gallows, and soon the houses disappeared altogether as the carriage sped into open countryside. We swept through a dismal, dark plain—the sky was very low, leaden, and an endless procession of small slender trees were flying by in the opposite direction to the carriage on both sides of the road, like a disordered army of broomsticks. Nothing could have been more sinister than the vast grey sky with the black silhouettes of the skeletal trees: not a single star shone, not the slightest light glimmered in the depth of this half-darkness. Finally, we reached a city, unknown to me, with houses of a singular architectural style, glimpsed but vaguely in the gloom. They seemed to me to be too small to be inhabitable; the carriage, though much larger than the streets it was traversing, was in no way delayed, for the houses to the right and left acted as frightened pedestrians might, stepping back to let us pass. After many detours, I felt the carriage melt under me and the horse vanished into vapour. I had arrived.

 A reddish light filtered through the interstices of an ajar bronze door. I pushed it open, and I found myself in a room flagged with black and white marble, and vaulted in stone, with an antique lamp placed on a pedestal of purple breccias. The dim light illuminated a reclining figure, which I first mistook for a statue such as those who sleep with their hands clasped, a greyhound at their feet, in the Gothic cathedrals. However, a moment later I realised that it was a real woman. She had a bloodless pallor that I can only compare to that of yellow beeswax, while her hands, crossed over her breast, were as matt white as the consecrated Host. Her eyes were closed, and their lashes reached down over her cheeks, and in every way she appeared to be dead, apart from her mouth, which was like a fresh flowering pomegranate, gleaming purple and succulent with life, half smiling as if in a happy dream.

I leaned over, put my mouth on hers, and I gave her the kiss that would revive her. Her lips were moist and warm, as if the breath had only just left them, and they quivered under mine, returning my kiss with an incredible ardour and life.

Here there is a gap in my dream, and I do not know how I recovered from the black city, be it mounted on a cloud, or on the back of a giant bat. But I remember perfectly that I was with Karr in a house that was neither his nor mine, nor anyone’s I knew. However, all the interior layout and details were extremely familiar to me; I can still clearly recall the fireplace in the style of Louis XVI, the floral-patterned screen, the lamp with the green shade, and shelves full of books either side of the chimney. I occupied a deep armchair with wings while Karr was in another with both of his feet resting on the mantel so that his weight was supported by his shoulders, if not his head. He listened with a pitiful, resigned manner while I related the account of my expedition, which I considered to have been a dream.

Suddenly a loud bell rang, and I was informed that a lady wanted to talk to me.

‘Show the lady in,’ I replied, excited, and sensing who she might be.

A woman dressed in white, her shoulders covered with a black cloak, entered with a light step, and stood in the shadows cast by the light of the lamp. By some very strange phenomenon, I saw three different sets of features pass across her face: for a moment she resembled Malibran, then Mme ——, and finally the young girl who had said that she did not want to die, and whose last words had been: ‘Give me a bouquet of violets’. But these resemblances soon passed like a shadow upon a mirror, and the features became fixed and definite. I recognised the dead girl I had kissed in that dark town.

Her dress was extremely simple, and she had no jewellery apart from a circle of gold in her hair, which was a dark brown and fell in clusters of ebony curls either side of her smooth, velvet cheeks. Two small patches of pink flushed above her cheekbones and her eyes shone like drops of burnished silver; she had, indeed, the beauty of an antique cameo, and the ivory transparency of her skin only added to this likeness. She stood before me and asked, strangely, what her name was. I replied, without hesitation, that her name was Carlotta, which was perfectly true. She told me she was a singer, and that she had died so young that she did not know the pleasures of existence, and before descending into motionless eternity, she wanted to enjoy the beauty of the world; all the pleasures of becoming intoxicated with and plunging into the ocean of earthly joys; she felt an unquenchable thirst for life and love. She said all this with an eloquence of expression and a poetry that is not in my power to repeat, and she clasped her arms around my neck, interlacing her slender hands in my hair. 

She began to speak in verse of a wonderful beauty, which even the greatest living poets could not have matched, and when verse could not contain her thoughts, she added music to its wings; trills, and necklaces of notes purer than perfect pearls; high, sustained notes beyond the reach of human ability; all that the heart and soul could dream of, more tender, more exquisitely pretty, more loving, more passionate and more ineffable. ‘Life for six months, for six months more . . .’ was the refrain of all her songs. I saw very clearly what she was about to say before the thought had formed in her mind or her heart and had travelled to her lips, and I completed it for myself, or started singing it. And I had the same transparency for her, and she read my own soul with equal fluency. I do not know to what heights these ecstasies would have ascended, not in the least inhibited by the presence of Karr, when I felt something hairy and rough brush against my face. I opened my eyes and I saw my cat rubbing her whiskers against my own by way of a morning greeting, as dawn was sifting through the curtains with a flickering light.

Thus ended my dream of opium, leaving no other souvenir than a vague melancholy, which is the usual consequence of these kinds of hallucination.


Théophile Gautier

Clarimonde and Other Stories contains: ‘Introduction’ by Brian Stableford, ‘Onuphrius’, ‘Two Actors for One Part’, ‘Omphale’, ‘Clarimonde’, ‘One of Cleopatra’s Nights’, ‘The Opium Pipe’, ‘The Duplicated Knight’, ‘The Mummy’s Foot’, ‘King Candaules’, ‘Arria Marcella’, ‘Jettatura’, ‘Avatar’, and various addenda.

Clarimonde and Other Stories is a sewn hardback of 366+xiii pages, printed lithographically, with head and tailbands, and d/w.
Limited to 300 copies.
Publication 21st October 2011
ISBN 978-1-905784-38-7
Price £35/$60 inc. p&p.

1 comment:

  1. A fine review of Clarimonde can be found at the Pan Review blog:


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