The Parisian Dandy and acclaimed wordsmith Theophile Gautier (1811-72) was a little before the time of Decadence, and he never really identified himself with the movement despite a friendship with, and admiration of, Charles Baudelaire. However, he was a self-proclaimed aesthete, often writing in support of the ‘art for art’s sake’ philosophy, and I think that a lot of his work has a distinctly Decadent ring to it. I recently read a collection of his short stories published by New York Review Books, called My Fantoms, which is available on Amazon. The tales are full of mysterious femme fatales, opulence, sinister nemeses, and artistic bohemians, and I think that there’s a strong element of Decadence to be found in them.
The Adolescent tells the tale of a young man who, while staying in the house of his uncle, becomes enchanted with a lady depicted in the tapestry hanging in his room. He is more than a little astonished when his attentions are returned, and the woman pays a nocturnal visit to him.
The Priest, elsewhere known as ‘Clarimonde’ is perhaps the best known of Gautier’s shorter fiction. It tells the story of a young man who, on the eve of his ordination, sees and falls in love with a mysterious young woman. He is thrown into a spiritual crisis, but proceeds into the priesthood nonetheless. He is saddened to learn, some months later, that Clarimonde, the object of his affections, is dead. But his despair soon turns to fear, and then to delight, when his lover returns to him in vampiric form. He begins to lead a double life – holy man by day, aristocratic lover by night. It is only when his mentor, an older priest, learns of Clarimonde, and banishes her spirit, that the duplicity ends, leaving the young priest heartbroken and desolate. The element of Decadence lies in Gautier’s clear sympathy with the beautiful vampire, rather than the merciless and cruel elder priest.
The Painter concerns a young, eccentric artist, who slowly becomes convinced that he is being haunted by the devil. Gautier leaves it unclear whether he is right, or whether he is simply losing his mind.
The Opium Smoker is a surreal account of a man’s exotic dreams, full of beautiful, doomed girls and exotic colours, under the influence of the drug.
The Actor tells the story of an aspiring young thespian who is delighted to receive the role of Satan in a new play. His performance is a great success, much to the chagrin of the real devil, who turns up to teach him a lesson or two.
The Tourist is about a young man travelling through Italy with friends. While visiting Pompei, he is enchanted with the imprinted form of a beautiful female body which has been cast in the volcanic rock. That night, he finds himself transported back to Ancient Pompei in order that he can spend one night with his beloved.
The Poet is not truly a fictitious story. Rather, it is Gautier’s obituary for his friend, the tragic and gifted poet, Gerard de Nerval. Gautier skilfully combines the tragedy of lost life, of lost youth and innocence, and a celebration of a man who lived as fiercely as he could, in spite of the world