Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Gautier, Darling

No, not that Gautier, sweetie.

More history. I'm talking about French wordsmith Théophile Gautier who, in 1833, agreed to write twelve articles for La France littéraire about certain under-appreciated poets of the time. These essays were to be collectively called Exhumations littéraire; making clear each writer's status as dead and buried in the public consciousness, and setting up Gautier's role as specialist excavator.

[Victor Vasnetsov. Grave-digger (1871) via ]

Editor Charles Malo must have been a patient sort, because the last essay of the batch was finally published eleven years after the contract was signed, hitting the presses in 1844. Significantly, for my purposes, these essays were then drawn together into a book titled The Grotesques.

My page numbers are from the English version of The Complete Works of Theophile Gautier volume II: "The Grotesques." This edition is translated and edited by Professor S. C. de Sumichrast, who provides the introduction and explains a few important facts.

The editor comments first on the use of "grotesque" in the title and its (in his opinion) dubious application to the poets treated within. (Already we have disagreement over which authors/texts can be called grotesque, seeming to indicate that different definitions of the term are in use.)

"It is a striking title, but it does not accurately describe the contents of the volume, or even the majority of the authors treated of by the critic; for no student of literature nowadays would dream of calling that great poet, Villon, a grotesque" (4).

He credits the appearance of the term with the recent popularity of Victor Hugo's "Preface," and quotes this text at length. I've already blogged about Hugo and the grotesque (in a double post: part1 and part 2) so I'm going to skim this and get right to the point.

"Gautier," Sumichrast explains, "fairly worshiped Hugo, and the "Preface" had very deeply impressed him, as more than one passage in "The Grotesques" abundantly proves" (6-7). This observation rings true, for Gautier puts forward a definition of the grotesque that is very similar to Hugo's.

Chapter one focuses on the poet François Villon, and Gautier's introductory remarks won me over right away. He explains his rationale for exhuming the down-trodden:

"The study of second-rate poets is both delightful and interesting, because, first, as they are less known and read, there are more novelties to be found in them; and next, because there is not a ready-made judgment for every striking passage. One has not to go into conventional ecstasies, to be convulsed, or to start with delight at certain places, as is indispensable with poets who have become classics" (15).

You had me at "conventional ecstasies," Monsieur Gautier.

For me this just captures that feeling I have sometimes when I'm reading a Very Important Book. The feeling that I must appreciate its many excellent qualities, but that there is a precise way of doing so that I'm probably ignorant of. It is not enough to simply read and enjoy the book - you must do it correctly!


Peer pressure, eh. Just when you think you've escaped it...

Gautier carries on:

"Among the second-rate poets one finds everything that the aristocrats of the Ark have disdained to make use of, - the grotesque, the fantastic, the trivial, the ignoble, the daring sally, the newly coined word, the popular proverb, the pompous metaphor; in a word, bad taste in its entirely, with its lucky hits, with its plated ware which might be gold, with its bits of glass which might be diamonds. Pearls are scarcely found elsewhere than in a dunghill, as witness Ennius" (16).

[James Gillray. An Excrescence-A Fungus,-Alias, A Toadstool upon a Dung hill (1791) via]

As well as Hugo, the mention of the word "ignoble" is a pretty obvious clue that John Ruskin's discussion of the grotesque provides inspiration here (I blogged him here: part 1 and part 2).

Most interesting to me is Gautier's understanding of "bad taste" and its potential value when taken seriously. "The grotesque, the fantastic, the trivial, the ignoble" are all grouped together under the banner of bad taste, and are all understood to have this deeper potential despite their maligned status. He is not merely excavating and resuscitating the poets, but these concepts as well.

Lest we find his passion for the distasteful unseemly, the author offers this clarification:

"I take singular pleasure in unearthing a fine line from the work of a despised poet... I rehabilitate him, I do him justice; and if at times my praise of some obscure poet appears exaggerated to certain of my readers, let them remember that I praise these writers in order to make up for all those who have insulted them beyond reason" (17).

These poets have been oppressed by the academy, "reputed poor, thanks to the judgment of a college pedant," and Gautier is having none of it (17).

[Théophile Gautier (1882) via]

Not all of the twelve essays were translated into English. In addition to Villon, this collection features essays on Théophile de Viau, Paul Scarron, Georges de Scudéry, Cyrano de Bergerac and Antoine Girard de Saint-Amant.

I can't talk about everything, but there are a few choice quotes worth mentioning. In particular, Gautier gets quite fiery in defense of de Viau. They share a special kinship, you know.

"Before I had read even a single line of his, I already felt a tender interest in him on account of his name, Théophile... I would willingly have thrashed that pedant Boileau for the harsh lines in which he insults my poor namesake."

"Forgive this foolish piece of pride, but it did not appear to me possible that a man bearing my name should be such a wretched poet" (62).

"It became necessary for the repose of my mind to confirm my entirely gratuitous supposition that Théophile de Viau was in fact as good a poet as I, Théophile Gautier" (63).

Tangent alert/ I hear Poirot's voice when I read this. Eg, "I, Hercule Poirot, world's greatest detective." Also, I understand completely. I've never read the books of Gwyneth Jones, but I feel certain that if I did they would be magnificent./

Gautier follows Victor Hugo's notions of the grotesque closely, specifically his assertion that the grotesque is "the richest source that nature can offer art." Nature is not all beauty, but equal portions of the ugly and the beautiful, and both must be represented and valued. Gautier's "bad taste" definition of the grotesque fits this bill.

"Good taste is a fine thing, but it must not be carried too far. Through excess of good taste very many subjects, details, images, and expressions which have all the flavour of life are lost" (267).

Gautier's philosophy and determination to dedicate time and energy to "bad taste" texts scorned by other critics reminds me of how popular culture was often framed during the 20th century. It also makes me think of how texts such as comics and video games continue to be looked down upon by some within academia. It is not so bad now, of course, as it once was. Perhaps if all pop culture theorists had the conviction of Gautier we would have come further, faster.

Please note: I do not recommend "thrashing" people who don't like your area of study. Not really. Maybe a little.


  1. This was really enjoyable to read, and taught me about Gautier. Thanks for writing it. Do you know which of the letters are available in English?

  2. Hi Anon,

    As far as I can work out, only the six are available in English (the essays on Villon, Théophile de Viau, Paul Scarron, Georges de Scudéry, Cyrano de Bergerac and Antoine Girard de Saint-Amant). There could be other translations, but I just haven't come across them so far.

    If you are interested in reading Sumichrast's translations, you can find the full text of his 'Complete Works' here: http://www.archive.org/stream/completeworksoft02gautuoft/completeworksoft02gautuoft_djvu.txt