Friday, December 24, 2010

Gautier, Préface de Mademoiselle de Maupin (1834)

Like Hugo's preface to the unperformed drama Cromwell. Gautier's preface to his novel Mademoiselle de Maupin is a manifesto of Romanticism, one that goes even further in its self-differentiation mot from the lingering shreds pf neo-classisim (killed off finally by Hugo), but from a kind of moralistic sentimentalism. The novel itself is sensual, sarcastic. and profoundly "immoral", in the sense that casual sex is in no way punished and that there is no "moral" ending for th protagonists

The essay is most famous for its defense of "l'art pour l'art" (art for art;s sake). though he coins that phrase elsewhere. In seeing the production of beauty as the main purpose of art. rather than utility, whether moral or political.
Rien de ce qui est beau n’est indispensable à la vie. - On supprimerait les fleurs, le monde n’en souffrirait pas matériellement ; qui voudrait cependant qu’il n’y eût plus de fleurs ? Je renoncerais plutôt aux pommes de terre qu’aux roses, et je crois qu’il n’y a qu’un utilitaire au monde capable d’arracher une plate-bande de tulipes pour y planter des choux. À quoi sert la beauté des femmes ? Pourvu qu’une femme soit médicalement bien conformée, en état de faire des enfants, elle sera toujours assez bonne pour des économistes. À quoi bon la musique ? à quoi bon la peinture ? Qui aurait la folie de préférer Mozart à M. Carrel, et Michel-Ange à l’inventeur de la moutarde blanche ? Il n’y a de vraiment beau que ce qui ne peut servir à rien ; tout ce qui est utile est laid, car c’est l’expression de quelque besoin, et ceux de l’homme sont ignobles et dégoûtants, comme sa pauvre et infirme nature.

Nothing that is beautiful is essential to life. - Get rid of flowers, the world would not suffer physically, but who would want there to be no more flowers? I would give up potatoes rather than roses, and I think there is only one utilitarian in the world capable of pulling out a bed of tulips to plant cabbages. What use is the beauty of women? Provided a woman is medically well formed, capable of having children, she will always be good enough for the economists. What good is music? what good painting? Who would be crazy enough prefer Mr. Carrel*, over Moxart. and the inventor of mustard over Michelangelo? There's nothing truly beautiful that can be used for anything, and everything that is useful is ugly, because it is the expression of some need, and man;s needs are ignoble and disgusting, like his poor, weak nature.
*Presumably Armand Carrel, a contemporary historian and journalist, the dieter of yje republican newspaper Le National.

A few points:

1. Gautier clearly influenced the Parnassian movement in France and the Aesthetic ,movement in England. But I think the debate goes much deeper than those rather limited movements. Do we judge any art work because of its appeal to the senses or by its ability to provoke action, whether moral, intellectual, or political? That's a debate that has raged ever since, and the current triumph of socially motivated study of literature (post-Colonialism. gay studies, etc.) is just another front in a long-term war. Is the agenda (tides) more important then the form (structure and texture)? Can a work that now seems irrelevant, vapid, or even somewhat repellent in terms of idea still be enjoyed as art>

2. Literature, of all the arts, is subject to such moral, thematic criticism. Such discussions of music, for example, are pretty thin. Yes, attacls on the moral failings of, say, Wagner or Ravel or jazz ("degeneracy") may come in reaction to change, but it's clear we are talking about taste rather than some intrinsic ideological value that music might or might not support.

3. The "beautiful" does not mean the pretty, one has to believe. Gautier wrote several unsettling, opium-induced horror stories, and the 19th century obsession with horror. the grotesque, sexual perversity, and the lower depths of society are hardly beautiful in any normal sense. The sense of beauty evolves, so that Baudelaire and Zola for example, once considered ugly. now are as far more beautiful than self-consciously decorous literature.

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