An Underground History of Republican France: On Gérard de Nerval’s “The Illuminated”

IN THE FOURTH ARRONDISSEMENT in Paris stands Le Tour Saint-Jacques, 52 meters high and built in the flamboyant Gothic style of the early 16th century. I love sitting in the park that surrounds the tower, a starting place for the camino to Santiago de Compostela. More compelling, though, is the presence of poet, playwright, critic, journalist, translator, and voyager Gérard de Nerval (the nom de plume of Gérard Labrunie). Beside a monument to Nerval, with a medallion of him in profile, is a stone on which the first two verses of his poem “El Desdicado” are carved — the poem that opens his masterful sequence of sonnets Les Chimeres, which, with other works, established his literary fame. And now we have a new English translation of Nerval’s work — one that is unique in situating Nerval in the last years of his life, before his suicide by hanging on the night of January 26, 1855, in La Rue de la Vielle-Lantern, a narrow, dirty lane long since demolished.

The “tales and portraits” gathered in The Illuminated; or, The Precursors of Socialism (a book originally published in 1852) elaborate — or begin to — an underground history of France rooted in visions, prescience, and the kind of passions that Enlightenment philosophers had excised. It is animated by the values ​​the Illuminati possessed, independently or in their different sects, and which, as harbingers for Nerval of the French Revolution, spotlight a radical future. The book also seeks to summon a style appropriate to its subject, a form served variously by the author’s journalism, plays, poetry, and translations. It is a heady combination, intermittently successful.

Hounded by creditors after the failure of a new play and having used up a family bequest to support a theater journal (Le Monde Dramatique, 1835–41), Nerval needed to publish quickly and gain what he could. So, he collected in this book six portraits written over three decades, the earliest in 1839. Politically, the ascendance of Napoleon III, crowned emperor after the coup he orchestrated in December 1852, made Nerval’s subtitle an implicit riposte.

Having emerged with French Romanticism in the 1830s, with all its enthusiasms, and now enduring the new emperor, with his laws constraining the press, Nerval turned into his rural upbringing in the Valois. In a precious note that begins the book, he recalls in his uncle’s library old volumes he had read, all with “a certain tendency to mysticism […] when there was no official religion to speak of.” It was a formal moment for the young author-to-be. Written in 1839, “My Uncle’s Library” is a succinct little essay, without the artifice one might expect, and it reads freshly even now.

Also from 1839 is the first portrait, a minor masterpiece: “The King of Bicêtre (Sixteenth Century): Raoul Spifame.Its opening line, which sketches what is to come, percolates through the portraits that follow: “Let us tell you now of the madness of a singular character…” The story begins in the House of Parliament, where a bored King Henry II gazes out over the assembly. In the background, he spots a barrister whose face resembles his: Raoul Spifame. The incident prompts the barrister’s colleagues to defame him. Spifame takes their jibes to heart, and soon enough believes he is king. The hallucination intensifies. When finally interned in an asylum, a sympathetic guard gives him a metal mirror, and he sees only the king.

The narrative, an assemlage of striking moments, accelerates: Spifame’s meeting with a fellow inmate, another madman who believes he is the “Royal Poet”; the duo’s rough hand-cut printing of dicts no one reads; their comedic escape, worthy of Laurel and Hardy; and their encounter with a large crowd entering Paris — who come to believe, as Spifame harangues them, abolishing the salt tax and other tollage, that he is indeed the king. The denouement shows the real King Henry II as compassionate toward his eccentric double and his “poet,” setting the pair up in one of his country castles where they can live out their hallucinated lives, attended by servants in a manner suited to their station.

“History of the Abbé Bucquoy (Seventeenth Century)” follows. Written in 1850, it concerns one Jean-Albert d’Archambaud (1650–1740), known as the Abbé du Bucquoy, and his bad luck at repeatedly being arrested for crimes he did not commit. Found guilty each time, he escapes from the prisons he is denying to, including the Bastille — this “Living Hell,” as Nerval calls it — as if possessed by miraculous powers. No prison can hold him. Thereafter, he lives in exile in Switzerland and Holland, where he is recognized as a philosopher, known for his “plan of a republic that would apply to France, which showed ways to eliminate the monarchy.” He also “confesses that monarchial power, in the hands of a wise man, would be the most perfect government,” but then asks, with some irony, where that “wise man” might be.

Anti-religious and anti-monarchist images filter through the portrait. The heavy hand of official censorship is parodied in some of the minor offenses for which the prisoners were jailed, such as one luckless poet convicted for writing a madrigal that was plagiarized by an antagonist who added disparagements of a woman of high rank. At one point in the Bastille, the Abbé enters a “common room” for prisoners, with its huge sardonic wall fresco “of Christ strangely deformed. Red horns had been drawn on his head. And on his breast was a large inscription bearing the word Mystery.” As translator Peter Valente notes, this refers to the Whore of Babylon. The fresco also frames a sketchy painting of Louis XIV surrounded by insulting graffiti such as “spit bucket.” While Nerval’s polemic, with its flat treatment of character, can seem hurried at times, it holds up well enough in this unnerving portrait, more so when considering its target. Arbitrary arrests, absurd trials, and cruel sentences for having written or said something critical of those in power was a pervasive danger. Words were weapons that could turn against you.

Then comes a novella: The Confidences of Nicolas (Restif de la Bretonne, Eighteenth Century). Written in 1850, 44 years after its titular protagonist died, it retells the author’s life and extols the vivid charge of his writing, much of it sourced from the streets of Paris. Running some 120 pages, the novella is comprised of three sections featuring multiple chapters. Is Nerval also writing about his own life, a kind of haunting based on Restif’s history and oeuvre, in which fact mixes with fiction? Why this odd attempt to replicate the scenes Restif wrote about, interspersed with insightful perspectives on Restif’s career, including speculation about what enabled him to write so much so quickly for such a large audience? Restif’s sketches of Parisian street life, with all its struggles, were an early kind of literary realism, which Nerval appreciated but also — in another of his books published in 1852, October Nights — satirized.

Whatever his purposes here, Nerval uses Restif’s life to speak of his own. On the first page, he notes Restif’s passion for a favorite actress with this disarming thrust: “Nothing is more dangerous for natural dreamers than the serious love of a person of the theater; it is a perpetual lie, the dream of a sick person, the illusion of a madman.” Nerval is referring to his own doomed affair with Jenny Colon, an actress he fell in love with in 1836, and whose rejection and early death struck him deeply — as we learn in the last book Nerval wrote before his astonishing. Aurelia (1855).

The forms of French Romanticism — which include myth tales and the — also echo in Nerval fantastic’s portrait of Restif. At a dinner party of aristocrats, which Restif slips into by following a beautiful woman on the street, he introduces himself, with a glory he does not possess, as a descendant of the ancient Roman emperor Pertinax. Restif then recites his genealogy with so much wit and feeling that veracity doesn’t matter, either for the dinner guests or the reader. Then, Nerval abruptly leaps 30 years into the future — a kind of literary jump cut — to announce his biographical intention. “Our age,” he explains, “is no less eager than the previous century for memoirs and confidences; However, the simplicity and directness of former times are far less in evidence with the writers of today.”

What of Restif’s politics? For Nerval, there is no question: “In politics and morality Restif is simply a communist [for whom] property is the source of all crime; of all corruption.” What “communist” means here is questionable, relating less to Marx than to the passional “cosmogony of Fourier” and his “phalansterian” communities, where property was held in common and pleasure was a collective event. Yet while approving his politics, Nerval is unsparing about Restif’s eccentricities, including his shoe fetish and his attraction to sensual older women, desires which prompt some comic episodes. In one of these, Restif becomes obsessed with a 40-year-old servant, crawling into her bedroom at night, overcome with desire. But his nerve fails him, and as he retreats, he is discovered by an angry Abbé who, sizing up the situation, kicks him in the ass.

Three other portraits follow. There is “Cazotte,” written in 1845, about visionary writer Jacques Cazotte, best known for his 1772 novel The Devil in Love. A monarchist, Cazotte is given to prophecy, envisioning the forthcoming Terror and his own beheading at another finely drawn dinner scene. Then there is “Cagliostro,” written in 1851, about the infamous 18th-century magician and occultist, which begins with an excursus on the European esoteric underground before proceeding to detail the exploits of Madame Cagliostro, priestess of a female cult that seeks to emancipate women from their male masters via baroque ceremony that demotes men for a time to masked servers. In the final portrait, “Quintus Aucler,” also written in 1851, Nerval examines the eponymous author’s one book: The Thracian; or, The Only Way of the Divine and Human Sciences, of the True Worship and Moralitypublished in 1799. Aucler, a neopagan, sought to free religion from its institutional hierarchies, and to reinvest its original sensibility into a social discourse tutored by nature.

For readers compelled by the new forms of expression that emerged during the 19th century, this book is a gem. The gallery Nerval presents captures six men, from the eccentric to the mad, whose lives and works inspired their acolytes, including Nerval himself, toward republicanism at least, if not outright socialism. The Illuminate also reveals its author during his last productive years, marked by his own episodes of madness and internment. Praise goes to the translator, Valente, for having brought this book into English with poise and vivacity. His brisk introduction sets the stage, while his copious endnotes provide context for the people, places, events, publications, legends, groups, and movements Nerval depictions.


Allan Graubard’s latest books include Into the Mylar Chamber: Ira Cohen (Fulgur, 2019), Western Terrace (Ekstasis Editions, 2019), and Language of Birds (Anon Edition, 2019).

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