To the Dreamers, To the Deriders

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Retrato de Roma-Oscar Dominguez
Jean-Marie-Mathias-Philippe-Auguste, comte de Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, the writer of my favourite world-weary bon mot, ‘Living? Our servants will do that for us.’ was, as the name and quote suggests, of impeccable aristocratic lineage: the family name that Mathias (as he was known informally) so proudly bore had been ennobled for at least eight centuries and had included a Grand Marshall of France and the founder of the Order of the Knights of Malta. However the Revolution and his father’s madcap get rich quick schemes had emptied the families coffers. His relatives decided that Mathias was the one to restore the lustre and fortune to the line with his writings and by marrying a rich heiress.

Unsurprisingly, given the nature of his genius and his other-worldliness neither plan came to fruition. For his friend Stephen Mallarme, Villiers was, ‘The man who never was, save in his dreams’, and as Villiers himself comments in his mighty Symbolist drama Axel, that he existed merely ‘out of politeness’. His trip to London to woo a wealthy English lady was an unmitigated disaster; he borrowed heavily to pay for the boat over and a set of outlandish clothes only for her to quickly flee Covent Garden when faced with the over ardent declarations of eternal love from the strange foreign gentleman.

His writing showed a complete and utter disregard for the commercial market. He achieved some recognition with his collection Contes Cruel and he was certainly possessed some influential friends, as well as Mallarme, Villiers could count Baudelaire, Wagner, Leon Bloy and Huysmans as close personal acquaintances. It wasn’t enough however, even when he secured a commission his savage satirical edge meant that no further work was forthcoming for a long while. His astounding early science fiction novel L’eve future, was serialised and then dropped midway by two different newspapers. One wonders what the readers thought of its dizzying imaginative leaps, its jaw-dropping virulent misogyny that dissects the female form body part by body part to illustrate its inherent flaws and how man can improve on nature to create the perfect woman,and the dense imagery culled from many varied disciplines including but not limited to; the Bible, Hermeticism, Cabbala, medicine, anatomy, psychology and science.

After the death of his aunt who had kept him somewhat afloat Villiers found himself penniless, a state that was to continue without remittance until his death at 51. Frequently homeless and always hungry his fierce pride refused any offers of assistance. One winter he slept on a construction site only to find one early morning a watchman’s boot grounding down on his face. He worked for a time as a sparring partner at a boxing gymnasium, basically being a human punching bag for sixty francs a month. Four days before his death he married the mother of his only child, an illiterate charwoman. On his deathbed, Villiers, a devout though frequently heretical Catholic was busying preparing his lawsuit against God.

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56 thoughts on “To the Dreamers, To the Deriders

    1. I have a fondness for old Mathias…the misogyny is really jaw dropping in the future eve…but that line, I wish I could get the servants to live for me. It makes you almost sorry for the passing of the ancien regime

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  1. “The man who never was, save in his dreams”: I wonder how many of us dreamers and writers truly deserve that epithet. I am sure that I am more alive in my dream worlds than I ever am in the real one, especially now that I have been put out to pasture and allowed to roll in a field of clover. As for ‘awaiting the verdict of other people’ … please don’t. Your readings and research stand alone and you must have faith in them. I am learning so much from you in these brief online adventures. That’s my verdict: and I am unanimous in that!

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      1. I enjoyed that article / memo … I am not sure how to categorize it. I think “savage irony” can descibe many of our lives: T. S. Eliot working as a bank clerk … Antonio Machado as a high school teacher of French … Longfellow (who has some delightful translations from the Spanish) working as a foreign languages prof …

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      2. And Kafka as an insurance clerk… Villiers irony was particularly brutal as he was throughly unsuited by nature and upbringing to live in the real world… a fine mind being battered as a sparring partner. An aristocrat marrying an illiterate charwomen. Haughty and proud but rendered homeless for long periods. It was amazing that his family thought that his writing would turn the clock to there days of grandeur. But still, what a character. Edmund Wilson study of modernism takes its title from his play, Axel’s Castle.

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      3. Oh Mr. Cake: “he was throughly unsuited by nature and upbringing to live in the real world” …this is so true for so many of us. That is why we live as we do and write as we may. The real world is a horrible place for 90% of the time. Imagine being paid a paltry sum for being a sparring partner … unimaginable … and totally masochistic … Far better the pleasant land of counterpane and the joyous adventures of the poetic intellect …

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      4. I have just read Meg’s comment: I love the idea of Cakeland © … I shall have to consider deeply the whereabouts in which I will now place my creative personae. The clerk at thetake out asked me: “Hw are you?” “We’re both fine, thank you,” I replied. He said “What?” I said “I’m a split personality but we’re both doing well. Ouch.” That’s when Clare kicked both of us: two shins with one shoe.

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  2. I see that I liked this but did not comment back in August. The painting first: where are the rest of her arms? *gasp* What a disturbing image. How on earth did you discover Villiers if he dwelt in such obscurity? Perhaps that’s a silly question to ask you, but really!

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    1. Have I gone to far with my obscurity? Really though how could I not love Villiers? If he hadn’t existed I would have been forced to create him. He is an honoured citizen of Cakeland. He barely existed, lived out of politeness, could be savage, and produced some truly unique though madder than a box of frogs books. Plus that line. I possess a rare English translation of Axel with a introduction by W.B Yeats.

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      1. Smiling! That is why I qualified that question! It really is no surprise at all. The quote is quite sublime. I can just imagine him idling away with you in Cakeland. And a rare book with a Yeats introduction? I’m positively swooning!

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      2. I hope I don’t come over like I am wilfully difficult with my recondite tastes. A fascinating life you have to say. The future eve features Thomas Edison as the inventor of the Android Eve, it is quite mad. The painting is a doozie as well, as you said. I think I am safe to say that my aesthetic is a little out of the ordinary.

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      3. Willingly difficult? I never thought that about you, Spike. I mean Cake…. Hmm, am I t assume this is where the misogyny comes in? Replacing women with automatons? Although there are times I’ve wished for a sexy robot butler….

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      1. Well, all I know is, many people I admire — Shakespeare, Kerouac, Van Gogh, Lennon, Elvis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, JFK, to name just a few — have died before or around their first 50 years on this planet, leaving behind great contributions. Which always seemed to me a strange phenomenon…

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      2. Yes, I suppose Shakespeare, at 52 would have been considered ‘old’ enough to die in his time… life expectancy between 38 and 42 (aaagh!!!) The 20th century people though, they seemed to burn bright for a short period of time…

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      3. Oh, well, I have a metaphysical theory about it. I would say they ‘got in and got out’. Some folk come in to planet earth and do their work very quickly and intensely, then they get out. It happens a lot, probably more than we even know, because we only hear about famous people.

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  3. Busy hands are happy hands, “preparing his lawsuit against God”, yet appears life was not so happy all the time, was it ever happy for Villiers? The painting by Dominguez is not only a jaw dropper, but a show stopper too. It’s completely unnerving, yet I can’t stop looking at it. ~ Miss Cranes

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    1. Poor Villiers, though I suspect he would have disdained pity. That is one of my favourite lines of all time. The painting is something else and captures the mad decadent symbolism world of Villiers well. Thank you as always Miss Cranes

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