Théophile Gautier: Posthuman Decadence and the Philosophy of Closure

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…where is the image for longing? – A.R. Ammons

“Travel is perhaps a dangerous element to introduce into your life, for if some circumstance or duty prevents you from leaving, it profoundly disturbs you and causes distress like that of birds of passage held prisoner at the time of their migration. You realize that you will expose yourself to fatigue, deprivation, boredom, and danger even, and that you must bear the cost of renouncing fond habits of body and soul, leaving behind your family, friends, and relations for the unknown.”1

This sense of leaving the known for the unknown is at the heart of decadence and closure, a need to close one circle while opening another into the unexpected and the new – an exoticism of the eye that seeks in the other nothing more nor less than the pure art object. Théophile Gautier whose theory of “l”art pour l”art”, art for art’s sake would subtract itself from the utilitarian philosophies of the bourgeoisie for a more subtle and colorful, sensual exoticism of the eye – provide a seeing that would float upon the surface of things like a desiring machine whose longing was to discover the image of its own unquenched fires.

The style of decadence for Gautier was none other than “Art arrived at that point of extreme maturity that determines civilizations which have grown old; ingenious, complicated, clever, full of delicate hints and refinements, gathering all the delicacies of speech, borrowing from technical vocabularies, taking color from every palette, tones from all musical instruments, contours vague and fleeting, listening to translate subtle confidences, confessions of depraved passions, and the odd hallucinations of a fixed idea turning to madness.”

This was the style which a decadent would use to summon the extreme motion of life, through a “language already veined with the greenness of decomposition, savoring of the Lower Roman Empire and the complicated refinements of the Byzantine School and the last form of Greek Art fallen into deliquescence; but such is the necessary and fatal idiom of peoples and civilizations where an artificial life has replaced a natural one and developed in a person who does not know his own needs. Contrary to classical style, it admits of backgrounds where the specters of superstition, the haggard phantoms of dreams, the terrors of night, remorse which leaps out and falls back noiselessly, obscure fantasies that astonish the day, and all the soul in its deepest depths and innermost caverns conceals the darkness, deformity, and horror, move together nervously.”

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Camille Paglia will tell us that Gautier looks forward to the posthuman or even inhuman art of the future synthetic being. “It looks forward to modern avant-garde narrative, where it is quite permissible and even desirable for nothing whatever to happen. But we sense in Gautier the cold immobility of the object so meticulously dissected, as if by autopsy. Since he dwells so much on the external, there is no one to identify with. The treatment of persons as art objects is present as an ambition in Maupin but is not technically realized until A Night with Cleopatra. (p. 418).” This sense of the android, the robot, the golem and art object that we see in many Japanese Geminoids was first described in this decadent immersion of the human as art object.

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This history of manufactured beings has yet to be written in full details, but from Paglia we see the first entry of the hermaphrodite, the android, the sexless being whose allure and double articulation as a machine made of synthetic materials begins with the bust of Nefertiti:

The proper response to the Nefertiti bust is fear. The queen is an android, a manufactured being. She is a new gorgoneion, a “bodiless head of fright.” She is paralyzed and paralyzing. Like enthroned Chephren, Nefertiti is suave, urbane. She gazes toward the far distance, seeing what is best for her people. But her eyes, with their catlike rim of kohl, are cold. She is self-divinized authority. Art shows Akhenaten half-feminine, his limbs shrunken and belly bulging, possibly from birth defect or disease. This portrait shows his queen half-masculine, a vampire of political will. Her seductive force both lures in and warns away. She is western personality barricaded behind its aching, icy line of Apollonian identity.  (pp. 68-69).

The android as Hermaphrodite, an “ardent chimera” or “charming monster” of “accursed beauty,” that is both provocative and reclusive, it is a ritual cult-object to which gifts are brought. The Hermaphrodite is separated from society and nature. It is a Late Romantic freak, symbol of the impossible. “Dream of poet and artist,” “supreme effort of art and pleasure,” it is an artificial sex. Its “multiple beauty” unites the art object’s sexual duality with the multiplicity of response art generates in its audience. (p. 413).

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