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THE COUCH OF ORESTES
"Father," he said to me, "I had such a strange dream that I am truly upset you will learn of it; it is perhaps the work of a demon, and ..." "I absolve you," I replied, "a dream is always involuntary; it is only an illusion. Speak from the heart." "Father," he said then, "I had barely fallen asleep and I dreamed that you had killed my mother; that her bloody shadow appeared to me to demand vengeance, and at this sight I was beside myself with such fury that I ran like a maniac to your apartment, finding you in your bed, I stabbed you."
Duhaget, formerly the priest of the charterhouse of Pierre-Châtel, as retold by Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
When Thomas de Quincey wrote of "the couch of Orestes" in the Confessions of an EnglishOpium-Eater of 1821, he was calling up two images at once: on the one hand, the barrage ofthoughts and dreams that tormented Orestes after his murder of his mother, and at the same time,the tender attention of his sister Electra. One might say that Orestes' delirium is entirely createdand aggravated not by the wishes of the god Apollo, but from within the house of Agamemnon. Ina footnote, De Quincey refers the reader "to the early scenes of the Orestes,one of the most beautifulexhibitions of the domestic affections which even the dramas of Euripides can furnish." Theimage serves De Quincey's purpose of describing his feverish opium dreams, and the extent towhich the devotion of his "own Electra," his faithful wife, Margaret Simpson, was both a comfortand a substitute for the love of his own sister.
Baudelaire's "Les paradis artificiels," an essay on opium and hashish accompanied by his translationof excerpts from De Quincey's Confessions and its sequel, Suspiria de Profundis, appeared in Paris in1860. Baudelaire explains De Quincey's theory of the mind as a palimpsest of indestructible memoriesby quoting the English author:
Yes, reader, countless are the mysterious handwritings of grief or joy which have inscribed themselves successively upon the palimpsest of your brain; and, like the annual leaves of aboriginal forests, or the undissolving snows on the Himalaya, or light falling upon light, the endless strata have covered up each other in forgetfulness. But by the hour of death, but by fever, but by the searchings of opium, all these can revive in strength. They are not dead, but sleeping. In the illustration imagined by myself from the case of some individual palimpsest, the Grecian tragedy had seemed to be displaced, but was not displaced, by the monkish legend; and the monkish legend had seemed to be displaced, but was not displaced, by the knightly romance. In some potent convulsion of the system, all wheels back into its earliest elementary stage. The bewildering romance, light tarnished with darkness, the semifabulous legend, truth celestial mixed with human falsehoodsthese fade even of themselves as life advances [...] but the deep, deep tragedies of infancy, as when the child's hands were unlinked for ever from his mother's neck, or his lips for ever from his sister's kisses, these remain lurking below all, and these lurk to the last. Alchemy there is none of passion or disease that can scorch away these immortal impresses.
This passage becomes transparent onto the family romance of De Quincey as analyzed by John Barrell:one of the memories that lurks to the last is certainly that of the last time De Quincey kissed the bodyof his beloved sister Elizabeth, a memory that remained laced with guilt. It is also a model of the mindand of memory, one which is not all that different from the stratographic model used by Freud at theturn of the twentieth century. And it suggests a recognition of the power of the hallucination and theopium-induced dream to access the experiences and feelings of earliest infancy.
Memories and experiences accumulate in the palimpsest of the mind like snows on the Himalayas,says De Quincey. And dream states blow away those "oriental" snows to reveal the earliest impressionsof mothers and sisters, kisses and embraces, just before they were torn away from us. Freud would latertheorize that a dream represented the fulfillment of a repressed wish, but De Quincey and Baudelaire,among other nineteenth-century thinkers, already recognized the elements of childhood longings thatcould resurface in dreams.
This chapter aims to map the fascinating terrain of dream theory in mid-nineteenth-centuryFrance. Although it is the paradigm of the dream image that interests me, and that I think could berelated to aspects of Manet's composition and style that have remained unexplained, in delving into theworld of the dream one necessarily encounters mostly textual accounts of these night visions. The chapter,then, will be more textual than the ones that follow. I will be paying particular attention to thethinking of writers' in Manet's circle, such as Baudelaire and Edmond Duranty, as well as to the modelsof dream theory that interested them, such as De Quincey and Alfred Maury. Some of the central questionsthat occupied these thinkers had to do with moral responsibility and individual autonomy withrespect to the appearance of desires in dreams. Near the end of the chapter, I will test the applicability ofthese notions on a few images in the work of Courbet, Manet, and Cézanne.
Manet's art is often explored as a representation of modern life, but "modern life" remains a problematicconstruction, and the extent to which modern-life subjects actually provided links to thepastsociety's or the child'sneeds to be explored. Manet's images of street people, gypsies, Spanishdancers, society personages, and artist friends are sometimes discussed tautologically, as if the artist wereinterested in those subjects because they were intrinsically "modern," and as if they were modernbecause he chose to paint them. It was, of course, equally a concern of Manet's to rework the art of thepast. The art of Vel zquez, Hals, Titian, Murillo, Marcantonio, Watteau, Rubens, Brouweradinfinitum artists and sourcesnot only presented subjects, techniques, and pictorial solutions forManet, but also seemed to represent art itself, or an aspect of "Art" or "Painting" that Manet felt it necessaryto take on, re-create, or negate. The art of the past was a more explicit concern for Manet than ithad been for his predecessor Courbet, or for many of his contemporaries in landscape; hence, it mustbe understood as particular to Manet and not as a stage through which modernism or modern-lifepainting necessarily had to pass. We could perhaps say that in addition to the art of the past as a subject,that the past itself was a subjector even, as Malcolm Bowie says of Freud"the past is acharacter" for Manet.
Let us recall the Manet of T. J. Clark, the Manet for whom modernity is not a set of exciting newsubjects just waiting to be painted, but a set of problems, or a series of dislocations: on the one hand,the sweeping changes of Haussmann's Paris, on the other hand, an ever-present sensation of thatwhich was passing away; on the one hand, a set of strange new motifs and subjects, on the other hand, acontext for seeing them that was itself shifting, which was alternately celebratory and unsettling. Onegets a sense in paintings such as The Old Musician (fig. 3) that despite the painting's evident concern forthe people marginalized further by Haussmannization, these figures are neither quite seen as victims norquite established or monumentalized by the paintingat least, not in the manner of Vel zquez's Water-Sellerof Seville. The Old Musician has a haunting, uneasy way of juxtaposing the members of this motleyassembly. They may look strikingly familiar, the way street people repeatedly encountered become recognizableto many urban dwellers. Yet neither that sense of recognition nor any amount of ink spilledon Haussmannization, Baudelaire's influence, or figures taken out of Watteau, Vel zquez, and Le Nain,will make the painting seem plausible. And this implausibility is a central problem to be contended withby any discussion of the picture's modernity, for it becomes less comprehensible on account of its glaringunlikelihood.
Seven figures sit or stand in a friezelike arrangement in the painting. The two end figures, usuallyidentified as a young gypsy girl at left and the figure possibly described in Manet's notebook as "the oldJew with a white beard," face inward; the others, including the baby held by the girl, all face frontally.The nondescript space in which the figures stand serves to focus attention on the figures, but it alsohighlights the disjunctions in scale between them: the boys look too large with respect to the musician;the cloaked figure (Manet's own Absinthe Drinker) is too small with respect to the boys but too large tobe behind the musician, and so forth. As Theodore Reff points out, the grassy setting could remindParisians of open spaces still prevalent beyond the barrières, as the types in the picturegypsy, beggar,itinerant, clownwere mostly associated with the city and its margins. Although they stand in closeproximity, they display disparate gestures and poses and appear to come together only in the most ad-hocmanner. Their very unrelatedness is key to the strange unreality of the image as a whole.
The painting's haunting quality is what prompts me to invoke the dream image as an explanatorymode. By doing so, I do not wish to diminish any account of the painting as a highly politicizedimage of figures who were subject to harassment by the police, regulation by the authorities, and displacementby Haussmann's destruction of La Petite Pologne in the Batignolles. The Old Musician isvery much a politicized painting that responds to those social realities. But it does not become transparentin its concern over the plight of these figures, or even in its uneasy homage to earlier masters. Iintroduce the term "dream image" hoping to allude to what Baudelaire, or Walter Benjamin writingabout Baudelaire and Paris, would mean if they were to consider the painting to be a dream image. Forthem, the word "dream" would likely conjure the diorama, the photograph, or the shock of a newboulevard in the space of a familiar building. The suggestion of a dream might be connoted in theeerie ways in which the image appears as a reappearance (the figures appear familiar, as if they havebeen seen before, but also gathered together inexplicably), the way it represents an internalization of anearlier series of encounters with some of these characters, or perhaps most tellingly, the way the imagedisplaces the figures from their discrete contexts and projects them onto what is almost a blank space.Such an internalizing recombination is not quite the same thing as a modern-life painting of a scenesimply out there waiting to be painted.The insistent frontality of Manet'sfigures, noted by Richard Wollheim,can be understood as another characteristicof the dream image, and it creates asituation in which the spectator, or thepainter, appears to be at the center ofthe action. What the spectator sees isless a scene of Parisian life, and more anactionless restaging of assorted perceptionsand encounters. Even Manet'sfriend Théodore Duret, recalling decadeslater the novelty of The AbsintheDrinker (fig. 4), would write: "It is truethat it was conceived in the realisticmanner which was then so much detested;but, as the unusual costume ofthe Spanish model gave it almost anair of fantasy, it seemed more or lessremoved from the reality of everydaylife." Integral to the difficulty ofManet's realism was the very way inwhich the all-too-real figure of thehomeless drunkard was somehow setapart from the ambient reality. Duret'swords "qualité d'Espagnol" and "fantaisiste"connote the quality of othernessthat gives the paintings a slightly shocking,estranging quality despite theirrootedness in social reality.
Of course, there is no such thingas an unmediated image of modern life,but it is striking to note the differencebetween the way Courbet's StoneBreakers, for example, presents a convincingscene and the way The Old Musician does not. Manet's image is not held together by the kindof sensory immediacy that binds Courbet's. One could say that Courbet in this example sought to createan illusion of unmediated perception and considered that illusion to be the animus behind thepainting's rawness. Manet, by contrast, relied on thekind of fictional license that makes possible Ingres'sApotheosis of Homer or Raphael's Parnassus: La PetitePologne as Le Parnasse contemporain. By thinkingabout the idea of the dream image in the nineteenthcentury, I suggest that we can get at the animatingfiction behind The Old Musician and Manet's work ingeneral, that we can attend to the actual oddness ofthe images, that we can begin to think about the way"modern life" in Manet is keyed in to various pasts,public and private.
Put another way, to try to incorporate aspecifically nineteenth-century idea of a "dreamimage" apropos of Manet's art is to transform, but notabandon, an idea of "context." Common sense tells usthat dream images include elements out of everydaylife mixed with highly idiosyncratic reactions, memories,and emotions, which rearrange those "real"elements and introduce fantastic and unrealelements. A work of art is certainly not a mere transcriptionof something out there in the world, andwhat art history often must tease out of the work is the extent to which it both transcribes some aspectof the world that needs to be reconstructed and struggles against that reality in its form or in its view ofthe world (what was, what could be, what would be ideal).
Another way of looking at The Old Musician, then, would begin with the social realities alreadyknown about the painting: Jean Lagrène, the gypsy violinist; figures taken from Manet's large-scalepainting The Gypsies, later destroyed (fig. 5); the repression of the outcast gypsies in nineteenth-centuryParis; the beggar-boys reminiscent of Manet's Boy with the Cherries, which pictured the young studioassistant who hanged himself in Manet's studio; the reappearance of The Absinthe Drinker, Manet's firstSalon submission, a portrayal of a shiftless drunkard not unlike a character out of Les Fleurs du mal; LaPetite Pologne, a neighborhood razed by Haussmann as the XVIIème arrondissement came to be constructed.Into the mix, add Manet's interest in Courbet, Caravaggio, Vel zquez, Watteau, and the LeNain brothers. Manet dated the picture 1862 and exhibited it at the Galerie Martinet in early 1863. Thiswas precisely the period during which Manet was in close contact with Baudelaire, and in which he wasbeginning to experiment with ways of combining poses, costumes, and compositions of Old Masterpaintings with figures and elements of modern life.
We learn from Antonin Proust that he and Manet strolled around Paris, witnessed various scenesof destruction and renovation, spotted various characters, and discussed subjects for paintings such asThe Street Singer (fig. 6). In all likelihood, Manet and Baudelaire did the same thing. Manet had beendoing paintings that involved some of the characters from The Old Musician for years. If we pictureManet and Baudelaire walking through La Petite Pologne, or standing in Manet's studio looking at TheGypsies or The Absinthe Drinker, Baudelaire might well have been reminded of a section of Thomas DeQuincey's Suspiria de Profundis of 1845 called "Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow," which Baudelaire hadjust translated almost in full in Les Paradis artificiels. Its subject also appears to have influencedBaudelaire's poem "Les Dons des fées," published in September 1862. In De Quincey's oeuvre, thepiece not only stands as a compelling prose poem in its own right, but it also figured as the author'ssketch for the philosophical and structural key for the entire Suspiria.
The prose poem concerns the Roman goddess Levana, who presides over the child's education,and the three sisters, Our Ladies of Sorrow. De Quincey's narrator, whom the reader is encouraged toconsider as De Quincey himself, claims to have seen Levana in dreams. Levana delegates an earthly representativeoftena child's fatherto raise the child to the heavens right after its birth, defying thegods in the process. This prideful gesture marks the beginning of the kinds of ambitions for childrenand for children's education that lead to the likes of sending them to Eton at age six. "Children tornaway from mothers and sisters at that age not unfrequently die," writes De Quincey. In the dreams inwhich Levana is revealed to De Quincey, the three sisters are also seen communing with the goddess.Each sister has a realm, and her works are invisible on earth except through signs and symbols, whichDe Quincey is able to translate into words. The eldest sister, Mater Lachrymarum, Our Lady of Tears,stands by the vanished: children who are taken from their parents, the children massacred by Herod, thechild who had served as guide to a blind beggar, left in darkness as his child is taken to God. Thesecond sister, Mater Suspiriorum, Our Lady of Sighs, "is the visitor of the Pariah, of the Jew," of thecriminal, the penitent, the slave, "every captive in every dungeon; all that are betrayed, and all that arerejected; outcasts by traditionary law, and children of hereditary disgrace: all these walk with Our Ladyof Sighs," writes De Quincey; "her kingdom is chiefly among the tents of Shem, and the houselessvagrant of every clime." The third sister, Mater Tenebrarum, Our Lady of Darkness, "is the mother oflunacies, and the suggestress of suicides." The work thus links the repressive stringencies of the propereducation with being snatched away from one's parents and becoming an outcast in society, a lunatic ora suicide.
There is not a figure in The Old Musician who had not already been touched upon by DeQuincey's description of the subjects in the realm of one of the three sisters: they are the forgotten, thevanished, the rejected; Alexandre the young suicide is among them either in body or in spirit. The texthas proximity to Manet via the translation Baudelaire labored over during the period when he andManet were in close contact. In his later letters to Baudelaire, Manet gives every indication of havingread Baudelaire's works with interest. Of course, there are differences in tone: De Quincey's text is personaland melancholy, and he uses the story of the sisters to illuminate his own access to various"abominable" and "unutterable" truths. Manet's painting has clear connections to modern Paris andto various sources in the history of art. But what links the characters in Manet's painting if the oldmusician himself is not in the middle of a concert, if the gypsies are away from the gypsy camp, if theabsinthe drinker has wandered away from his bottle and his perch?