Thursday, June 23, 2011

Jean Lorrain’s Monsieur de Phocas

Jean Lorrain’s Monsieur de Phocas superficially resembles Joris-Karl Huysman’s Á Rebours in that it’s also a portrait of an aristocratic aesthete who is alienated from society and from his age. And both Huysman’s hero des Esseintes and Lorrain’s hero are ultra-sensitive to sensory stimuli.

There are major differences, though. While des Esseintes deliberately constructs for himself a life in which he can enjoy sensory pleasures, Lorrain’s Duc de Fréneuse is completely passive and is overwhelmed by nightmarish sights, sounds and smells. His sensitivity to aesthetic stimuli makes his life a living hell. Art affects him deeply, but it merely serves to emphasise the horror of his existence. He was probably never entirely sane, but is now spiralling ever deeper into madness. He is haunted by visions of eyes, by a particular gaze that obsesses him and which he is unable to find outside of dreams.

The paintings of Gustave Moreau also obsess him, especially the painting of Odysseus’s massacre of the suitors. He forms a strange and somewhat destructive friendship with a visionary English painter, and a mysterious Irishman. These friendships have definite homoerotic overtones – Lorrain was a homosexual, with a preference for rough trade.

Monsieur de Phocas also superficially resembles Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, but it is in no sense merely a second-rate imitation of either Wilde’s book or of Huysman’s. Monsieur de Phocas can stand very well on its own merits. A must-read for all devotees of decadence.

No comments:

Post a Comment