02 August, 2006

The Loves of a Puppet and a Star

I cherish the mystery, and speak without delay;
I was born immortal, and I die each day.
I've said too much—perhaps I do myself betray;
But naïvely by these words myself I can portray:
Bad luck to you if you must know me!
Bad luck to you if you've
not known me!

— Riddle

Your eyes are of the stars
Star of my nights!
When the stars are lit from my loves,
Etc. etc. etc. etc. etc.

— Fragments of a Panckoucke classic

XVI. Intimate memories of mythological times. A zephyr painted by himself. The vengeance of Venus. A puppet who recovers his wings.

Perhaps it would be a propos to determine the duration of the puppet's disappearance; but we lack such facts as would enlighten our religion: after all, can we know the exact moment at which the bud or the crystal droplet blossoms? One thing of which we can be certain is that as he recovered his senses he could hear the cockerel announcing nature's reveille. Dawn had put on her rosy gloves to hoist delicately Night's sable curtain, and the lighter of celestial street-lamps had brought up his lantern to Sol's lampadaire.

O delights of a fine morning, what heart could remain insensible to thy magic? That of our puppet was not fashioned to resist thee. His soul was seized softly with a compulsion to pour out its feelings; the breath of the morning reanimated him, and quickly he picked himself up—as puppets do not like to be stretched out for long periods of time—scarcely on his legs as he cried out with a dolorous sigh:

«Young witness to my weaknesses, it is clear that I need hide myself from you no longer; listen, therefore, to my story.

«I am the son of an unknown mother and father. One bright day I emerged from the perfumed lips of a Nymph as she sighed, amorously—this is how all the Zephyrs are born—for, you see, I was born a Zephyr.

«I wandered in this capacity, a vagabond through space. Without parents to oversee my education, I was a very naughty little imp. I slipped across the stiffest of bodices, I frolicked in curls and lovelocks, stirring the gazes of the prudish and giddying the coiffures of all the little minxes. An old Faun among my friends taught me many a smart turn for the purpose of tormenting innocent shepherdesses, and I never missed a trick or a profit from his advice.

«One day I was playing truant with a band of Zephyrs in a forest, when there came a pretty young thing, placing barely a sentimental workboot on the lawn and casting defiant glances about her: it was quite evident that she was there for a romantic tryst. Right away I gave the signal to my comrades, and up we crept with the foot-falls of zephyrs to surround the lovely girl. I tormented her the most. We made her scarf fly in the air, and rent her fragile parasol; we peeled away the stole sheathing her breast. The old Faun, hidden behind a tree, burst out laughing. Surprised and alarmed by this sudden aggression, the girl made vain efforts to resist; but already by the hem of her dress we could make out the end of a most charming leg, and a few clothes later, our victory was consummated—when all of a sudden my comrades, the Faun, the girl—all vanished; my wings fell from me, and I found myself alone, with four feet and a beard powdered with gold, a purple tunic, a crown of roses on my head and a lyre in my hand.

«Frantic and terrified, I was trying to explain to myself the reasons for this change when a dove, perched on a nearby tree, cooed out these words:

«‹I am the bird of Venus; it is she who has just punished you. You are aware that the gods and goddesses on occasion take the figure of simple mortals, so as to share in their pleasures. Now you have disturbed Venus in one of her delicate parts. As a punishment, she has turned you into a man, by which I mean a poet; and you will only recover your former shape after having loved her, until it pleases her to pardon you.›

«This occurred in the environs of Rome, during the reign of the emperor Gallienus. I addressed epistles to the emperor during the day, and at night I composed odes to Venus, to move her to pity. I loved her in the form of a star. For two thousand years I loved her, two thousand years during which I did not cease to be a poet—a condition which begins to be quite tiring after a while!

«O Venus! Why did you take me upon your knees the other day, at the great soirée held at the house of Urania? When the comets had danced their gallop, and the stars had waltzed about the planets, I thought that you would pardon me: I was wrong! I was only a joujou to you, a vile puppet whom you let so disdainfully fall back into his own realm.

«Do not think, however, that I dislike overmuch my actual condition. When one has been poet under the emperors, during the 18th century, the Directoire, the Empire, the Restoration, and during the 13 Julys that slipped away, one can very well become a puppet without realising the change.

«And this is how my present metamorphosis came about.

«I was at the Opéra, peacefully seated by the orchestra, when the loge across from me opened up and a woman of remarkable beauty took her seat at the box. At once all eyes turned in her direction. You had to have seen the fire burning in those eyes to have any notion of this inconnue's beauty; never had admiration been swifter, livelier, or more universal. One eye, who should have been an Academician, cried out: It's Venus herself! Though a little overstated, I could readily agree. My old nature was awakened, and I cast a stinging wink at the stranger; she seemed to smile back at me. Let me tell you, I heeded only my own audacity, and scheming like an ex-Zephyr I met her at the exit, wishing to slip a little letter into her palm; the inconnue only turned around and, looking me up and down with disdain, said to me, ‹Why, you're nothing but a puppet!›

«Alas! it was only too true! The blood congealed in my veins, my joints stiffened; my arms elongated and my legs, which were trembling in fear, began to knock the one against the other with a dry noise; I saw my own nose shrink inordinately; I went to put on my gloves, but my hands were wooden. Unable to explain the force carrying me, in an instant I was hoisted from the earth and cast down upon this deserted planet. The lady at the opera was none other than Venus herself who, wishing to test me, had profited from a fog obscuring her absence in the sky. See how I have fallen!

«Since that moment, cast out on this abandoned planet, I have vegetated; it is a dead star, a makeshift Siberia, a place of exile for those disfavoured by the gods. I populated this unhappy place with my memories; by the strength of will and patience, I've reconstructed the world that I once knew; but a puppet can rule only over automata. You must perceive that I've been rather successful in creating my subjects and confecting my realm; and yet, even so, I am bored so much of the time, happy only for the opportunity, as today, to unburden my griefs upon a friend's heart!»

Hearing these last words, Hahblle could restrain his tears no longer, and he fell sobbing into the puppet's arms.

«Don't pity me», replied the ex-Zephyr; «just let me contemplate my belle; now is just the moment when she has inhaled the evening's freshness at her balcony, and has lighted that beacon that guides lovers through the night. Let us see if her eyes are telling me to keep faith. . . »

The puppet approached the magic lantern, and cried out «O heaven!»

Hahblle, turning around, could see no longer the puppet, nor the lantern; only a slight wind, which moved keenly over his head, and joyously stirred up his hair—from which Hahblle hastened to conclude that Venus had at last returned to the Zephyr his original form.


The above is a chapter translated from J. J. Grandville's fantasy masterpiece, Un Autre Monde (1844), about which I already wrote a short post a long time ago. (BibliOdyssey has a selection of Grandville links here.) This is one of my favourite books, and I own proudly a beautiful full-colour reprint of it. Hyperlinked are tangential pieces and snippets which Grandville's text made me think of, some deliberately—Ovid's exile, The Golden Asse, Katsuhiro Otomo's Memories, Astrophel and Stella, and so on. I wish I could have done a better job of the line about the lamplighter—the Parisians have a whole mythology about that figure, which we Anglophones don't quite understand. Max Ernst's Loplop character, for instance, was inspired by a lamplighter. More details about this obscure and mesmerising text can be found scattered throughout Walter Benjamin's Passagenwerk, where Grandville's aesthetic is seen as part of a bourgeois, utopian-socialist, pro-technological inclination among the intelligensia of 19th-century Paris.


Andrew W. said...

This is great work.

Your treatment of the obscure forces us to ask why these works are no longer part of the popular imagination.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Gracias; alas, the translation doesn't do justice to the calm elegance of the original French. I don't know why Grandville is not better known today, as his stories are perfectly accessible, and his drawings undeniably exquisite. (I can't help thinking Tenniel had seen these, too.) You can really see the fantasies and dreams of 1840s Paris realised in this work. There is a Dover book of Grandville's drawings, shorn of their text—not a volume I recommend, but probably better than nothing:


Andrew W. said...

Thanks for the link! I know this sounds strange, but my toddler son would love this stuff.

Grandville's obscurity reminds me of the curious status of Guillaume de Machaut's poems, except as an influence on Chaucer.

I know the French still read his poems, but there's very little work on his poetry in the english-speaking world. It's odd, especially when you take into account the wealth of materials on Machaut as a composer.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Doesn't sound strange, it's really not so different from the child-friendly Alice.

A lot of obscure people can be picked up with reference to others. The thriving Shakespeare industry ensures some interest in his contemporaries and sources, eg. Nashe, Dekker, Lyly, Cinthio, etc. I know virtually nothing about music, but I suspect it's similar. Grandville can be picked up from the Charles Fourier thread (he devotes a chapter to Fourierisme), who in turn is generally discovered via the much greater Marx thread.

So it goes.

peacay said...

Thank you for this. I just happened to note an inbound visitor.

I would dearly love to find a biography of Grandville. His last years were not particularly happy - I seem to recall he witnessed the death of more than one child and his illustration work turned darker (and more absurd too perhaps). I had not read any of his writing previously

Via Lines and Colors I was recently made aware of a big cache of his illustration work at Visipix -- all very rare (at least on the internet).

Conrad H. Roth said...

PK, thanks. The writing really adds to the illustrations for me, gives it a richness and added dimension. (A friend of mine disagrees and thinks the text adds nothing.)

"I would dearly love to find a biography of Grandville."

I've seen, but not read, a couple:

Anne Renonciat, La vie et l'œuvre de J.J. Grandville (préface de René Huyghe ; catalogue de l'œuvre par Claude Rebeyrat), Paris : ACR : Vilo, 1985.


Laure Garcin, J.J. Grandville, révolutionnaire et précurseur de l'art du mouvement (Paris, E. Losfeld, 1970).

Both are in French of course. Anyway, thanks for the extra links.

peacay said...

Ah yes. French. That would be logical. That would also be a struggle. Un petit peu better describes my present command rather than the amount I've forgotten since school. There just never was much call for it in the antipodes. C'est dommage. Taa.