Reflections on philosophy and culture


Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Speculative Modernism I: Villiers de L'Isle-Adam's "Swan Killer"



(This entry is the first of a series I'm grouping under the label 'Speculative Modernism.'  For the introduction to this series, click here)


Auguste Villiers de L'Isle-Adam is one of those writers you'd probably only encounter if you had a specialist's interest in French Symbolism or Surrealism.  His reputation as a precursor to Symbolism has largely to do with his inclusion in two early critical works that helped to define the Symbolist canon: Paul Verlaine's The Accursed Poets (1888), and Remy de Gourmont's The Book of Masks (1896) (from which Felix Valloton's drawing of Villiers to the left is taken).  Later, when the Surrealists were harnessing Symbolism's enthusiasm for the weird to their own ends, Villiers was carried along for the ride: for example, in André Breton's Anthology of Black Humor (1940).


But Villiers also holds an interesting place in the history of science fiction, fantasy, and horror.  For example, in his novel Tomorrow's Eve, we find a man who replaces his unpleasant fiancee with a android double; in Tribulat Bonhomet, we find a vampire story that predates Bram Stoker's Dracula by almost thirty years; and in Axel, we find an elegant precursor to the 'Dying Earth' subgenre of science fiction.  For this reason, his work is a good place to turn to find lines of intersection between high modernist and fantastic literature - the common theme of this series of blog posts.


I recently discovered Villiers' work through The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, which contains an entry on him in which John Clute and Peter Nicholls sketch Villiers' influence on fantastic literature.  I recommend reading this entry for some basic insight into Villiers' significance for fantastic literature.  I'm sure I'll have more to say about Villiers more generally in future entries, but for the present I'd like to talk a little bit about his short fantasy story "Swan-Killer" and some of its themes.  


Poetry and the Song of the Dying Swan


Kierkegaard begins the "Diapsalmata" section of Either/Or with a stunning definition of the poet:

What is a poet?  An unhappy person who conceals profound anguish in his heart but whose lips are so formed that as sighs and cries pass over them they sound like beautiful music.1

He goes on to compare the poet to a figure from Lucian: Phalaris's bull.  In Lucian's account, a sadistic metal-worker constructs a bull designed for a particularly gruesome form of punishment: two flutes are inserted into the bull's nostrils, so that when a prisoner is placed inside and the bull is suspended over a roaring fire, the prisoner's screams and moans of agony are transformed, for those outside the bull, into 'the sweetest possible music.'  Kierkegaard continues:

And people crowd around the poet and say to him, "Sing again soon"--in other words, may your lips     continue to be formed as before, because your screams would only alarm us, but the music is charming.  And the reviewers step up and say, "That is right; so it must be according to the rules of esthetics."  Now of course a reviewer resembles a poet to a hair, except that he does not have the anguish in his heart, or the music on his lips.  Therefore, I would rather be a swineherd out on Amager and be understood than be a poet and misunderstood by people.2




Anna Pavlova in Fokine's ballet "The Dying Swan" (1919)


There could be no better epigraph to Villiers' "Swan-Killer," a short story from his collection Tribulat Bonhomet.3 In it, we can recognize Kierkegaard's image of the poet whose internal agony spews forth as music - namely, in Villiers' figure of the swan that "really does sing before dying."  And just as the poet is often at the mercy of an audience hungry to consume the affects they expect her to produce, so a poor group of swans finds itself at the mercy of a certain Doctor Bonhomet.  Villiers describes Bonhomet as 'middle class' and a 'dilletante.'  In the words of Villiers biographer A.W. Raitt, he is a character into whom Villiers "incarnated everything he hated in the bourgeois mentality."4  In "Swan-Killer," we are told that he is, in particular, a connoisseur of the dying songs of swans.  He preys on them with the lunatic meticulousness of a rapist or serial killer, taking hours on end to creep up slowly on them, snap their necks, and enjoy the sounds of their deaths - a perfect image for those whose craving for aesthetic enjoyment is untempered by any ethical concerns.  


In this way, Bonhomet can plausibly be paired up with Alfred Jarry's most renowned character: that embodiment of bourgeois avarice, cruelty, and absurdity, Père Ubu.  In both, we find seeds for the all-out war that the high modernists were to rage against the bourgeosie and its culture: both are monstrous parodies of the bourgeoisie, prophetic harbingers of the discontent with high culture and the purported achievements of post-Enlightenment civilization that would form the background of the 20th century avant-garde.  In the latter, this discontent was often expressed in texts and works of art that seem as if they are designed to be completely inaccessible to a middle-class dilettante.  The Symbolist's love of the shocking, the arcane, and the difficult blossomed until it was taken as almost a necessary condition on being a serious artist that one produce artifacts of this kind.  


This is an attitude that began to take shape among the romantics, but the high modernists added something new to the mix: they often thought that to escape what was corrupt in bourgeosie culture requires us to abandon any concern with the properly aesthetic dimension of art and poetry - art's capacity to produce sensuous experiences of any distinctive kind.  This particular conception of art is also prefigured in "Swan-Killer" - again, in the cruel Doctor Bonhomet.  He concerns himself with the social world of the swans: upon discovering a bevy of them in an abandoned park, he observes that they flee in alarm if and only if their elder - a stately black swan - flings an alarm-stone into the pond.  But his concern for such details is merely instrumental - a means to the aesthetic experience he craves, and which "alone could help him endure the disappointments of life."5  This is the source of his casual cruelty: he does not simply take his own aesthetic experiences to be more important than the lives of the animals he is slaughtering; rather, it simply doesn't even occur to him that any considerations could trump his longing for such experiences.  And it is clearly the sensuous dimension of the swan-song that he values, and not the form of life given expression in it:


Then the souls of the dying swans exhaled themselves, oblivious of the doctor, in a song of undying hope, and deliverance and love, toward the unknown heavens.
    The rational doctor smiled at this sentimentality, of which he did not, as a serious connoisseur, choose to savour anything except for: THE TIMBRE.  Musically, he prized nothing except for the singularly sweet timbre of those symbolic voices, which vocalised Death like a melody.6


There is an important dramatic irony here.  For Bonhomet, what is sentimental is the notion that a swan-song is expressive of anything at all.  But we can justifiably complain that it is he who is guilty of sentimentalism - of indulging in the sensuous dimension of the secret song he witnesses, while stripping it of its normative significance.  


This is a good working definition of sentimentality in the pejorative sense.  When we suspect that someone is merely being sentimental who tears up at the sight of children begging in the streets, but who nevertheless isn't motivated in the slightest to help them, what exactly does this suspicion amount to?  This: that she harbors a secret enjoyment - of the feeling that accompanies compassion,  Yet, her experience, we suspect, is only a simulacrum of compassion.  Detached as that experience is from any of its normative significance, it seems, rather, that she is a connoissuer of this feeling, just as Bonhomet is a connoisseur of the swan-song.  When seen in this light, the notion of sentimentality has a wider application than it typically does today. Someone is sentimental who is a connoisseur of any sensuous experience.  The sentimental individual might not only hunger for the feeling of sadness, but also for the feeling of anger, fear, or aesthetic enjoyment.  


Sentimentality in this sense is often harnessed to feed vanity.  To take the example above, just as Bonhomet's consumption of the swan-song allows him to entertain the pleasant image of himself as a "Maecenas of our era," a regal patron of the arts, so also might sentimental compassion allow someone to entertain the pleasant image of herself as a compassionate person.7


Thus, in Bonhomet, we find a nightmarish potential in a certain orientation to art and poetry, a potential likewise manifested Kierkegaard's character of Johannes the seducer in Either/Or: someone who is sentimental, vain, and above all bored.  But while Johannes feeds his vanity and quells his boredom in the process of seduction, Bonhomet does so through a sociopath's pursuit of aesthetic enjoyment.  Bonhomet is fully immersed in what Kierkegaard called the aesthetic stage of existence, an immersion all the more nightmarish for the fact that he has a bourgeois' conviction that he is thereby the loftiest, most refined sort of man.  Villiers closes the story with a chilling image of this:

Bonhomet, eyes closed, breathed the harmonious vibrations into his heart: then, staggering, as if in a spasm, ran aground on the bank, stretched out upon the grass, on his back, in his heavy and impermeable clothing.
    And there, this Maecenas of our era, lost in a voluptuous torpor, savoured anew, and to his very depths, the memory of the delightful song - though tarnished by a solemnity out of fashion in his eyes - of his beloved artists.
    And, reabsorbing his comatose ecstasy, he pondered in this perfectly middle-class manner on his exquisite impression until sunrise.8


In future entries, I'll return to these themes.  I'd also like to say more about the techniques that Villiers employs - the narrative hallmarks that make his story a fantasy story.  What I think is most interesting in pre- and post-Symbolist writers like Villiers, Jarry, and Lautréamont is that they harness certain techniques - techniques that get taken up or re-discovered in 20th century fantastic literature - to think through what is at stake in art, poetry, and our consumption of them.  Their aesthetic concerns become decisively important for the high modernists, and their techniques become decisively important for fantastic literature.  However, this particular combination - of these techniques with these concerns - becomes relatively uncommon until the late 20th century, when New Wave sci-fi and fantasy writers like M. John Harrison, J.G. Ballard, Samuel Delany and Michael Moorcock reinvigorate fantastic literature with a healthy dose of modernist reflexivity.



(1) Kierkegaard, Søren (H.V. and E.H. Hong, eds. and trans.) Either/Or, Part I (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), p. 19
(2) Ibid.
(3) "Swan-Killer" can be found in Gourmont, Remy de. The Book of Masks: An Anthology of French Symbolist & Decadent Writing, with texts selected and translated by Andrew Managravite, and illustrations by Felix Valloton (London: Atlas Press, 1994).  To my knowledge, Tribulat Bonhomet has not been translated into English as such.  However, a comprehensive collection of Villiers' Doctor Bonhomet stories can be found in The Vampire Soul, and other sardonic tales (Hollywood Comics, 2004) and The Scaffold, and other cruel tales (Hollywood Comics, 2004), both of which have been compiled by Brian Stableford.
(4) From Raitt, A.W., The Life of Villiers de L'Isle-Adam (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), p. 74, quoted in Hackett, C.A., "Villiers de L'Isle-Adam and Tribulat Bonhomet," The Modern Language Review, Vol. 78, no. 4 (Oct., 1983), p. 804.
(5) Ibid., p. 279
(6) Ibid., p. 280.
(7) Ibid.
(8) Ibid.

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