Born Gérard Labrunie in Paris in 1808, Nerval was, under his assumed name, Baudelaire’s model of the “poète maudit,” the doomed poet with a vision so intense the world will destroy him if he does not destroy himself. His masterpiece, “Les Chimères” (named for the mythic she-monster with lion’s head, goat’s body, and serpent’s tail), is one of the greatest sonnet sequences ever written.
Like Poe, another of Baudelaire’s heroes, Nerval suffered from manic depression and delusions of grandeur. After a manic episode in 1841, he was judged insane and hospitalized for nine months. During this period he wrote “Christ on the Mount of Olives,” and a version of “Delphica.” During that initial stay in the Clinique du Montmartre, Labrunie became Nerval. The nom de plume is based upon a genealogy the poet invented to replace his real family tree. Like those who discover past lives through hypnosis, Gérard fancied that he was descended from the Roman emperor Nerva, via relatives of Napoleon. So, the voice of “The Chimeras” is not merely that of the mortal Labrunie, it is also the voice of a much-reincarnated prophet who speaks with the wisdom of the ages.
The emotion that inspired the “Chimeras” is like the theme of Dante’s La Vita Nuova: the yearning for a woman, the anguish of love lost, the desire to atone with the object of desire; these are the first steps in the soul’s journey toward divine love and illumination. But to Nerval, Christ is merely one of the immortal prophets, along with Apollo, Orpheus, Pythagoras, and Nerval, who are leading humankind toward enlightenment.
The sequence is in three parts, beginning with six poems for the lost beloved, who shifts her shape to appear now as a lost bride, now as a queen, then as sorceress, muse, and priestess. In “Artemis,” she becomes death, who has loved the poet “from cradle to tomb.” (Nerval’s mother died when he was two.) Entwined with the yearning for the unattainable women is the mourning for a spiritual energy that was long ago generated by the ancient goddesses.
The second movement is the narrative “Christ on the Mount of Olives.” In despair over his betrayal by God and man, Christ actually describes his pain at the crucifixion and his chilling view of the godless void before Pilate arrests him; his fate is the more horrible because he sees it coming. Nerval’s identification with the tormented savior is poignant. The third part, the serpent’s tail of the “Chimeras,” is the lovely hymn to animism, “The Golden Verses”—Nerval’s joyful answer to the atheistic horror of the “Mount of Olives.” Christ on the cross proclaimed that everything was dead. The poet at the end of his spiritual journey sees that everything is alive.
Nerval finished his “Chimeras” in 1853. He was found hanging, dead by his own hand, in the rue de la Vieille-Lanterne at dawn on January 26, 1855.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 19 Number 4, on page 31
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