Thanksgiving Is Ruined

The Personal is Political. The Political is Personal.

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September 30, 2014

On Nerval's mad library

This is TiR's very favorite passage from AurĂ©lia, written around 1853-4:

My books, an odd assortment [amas bizarre] of the knowledge of all ages, history, travels, religion, the cabala, astrology . . . the Tower of Babel in two hundred volumes . . . They were enough to drive a wise man mad [rendre fou un sage]; let us try to ensure that there is enough to make a madman sane [rendre sage un fou].  

(above translation taken from this)

Mind you, Nerval is describing the decor of his room in a lunatic asylum.  He claims his possessions in this chamber -- "an odd interior composed of palace and hovel" -- to include also a canopy bed, ornate 17th and 18th century furnishings with porcelain inlays, a crystal vase, a hookah pipe, wood paneling from his former home, oil paintings, a huge map of Cairo, and twenty years worth of various other personal momentos.  

The reader at first may assume with some justification that the writer is madly hallucinating it all, as he has so much already throughout his book-journal.  

Not so, however.  The progressive-minded Dr. Esprit Blanche allowed his patient -- more of a houseguest, really -- to move in all of these items.

Arthur Symons, in his The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899), laid into Nerval and his library:

The madness of Gerard de Nerval . . . I take to have been essentially due to the weakness and not the excess of his visionary quality, to the insufficiency of his imaginative energy, and to his lack of spiritual discipline. He was an unsystematic mystic . . . precisely because it was this amas bizarre, this jumble of the perilous secrets in which wisdom is so often folly, and folly so often wisdom. . . Wavering among intuitions, ignorances, half-truths, shadows of falsehood, now audacious, now hesitating, he was blown hither and thither by conflicting winds, a prey to the indefinite. 

(Symon's whole book as .txt file = here)

Symons says this like it's a bad thing?