Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Three Symbolist cities: Bruges, Ravenna, Toledo

Thanks to the archetypal 1892 novel by Georges Rodenbach, Bruges has long enjoyed the status of the ultimate Symbolist city. Its stillness and desertion created an atmosphere of melancholy and muted expectation. Below I have copied portions of an interesting essay that has just appeared in the Times Literary Supplement (TLS)

Bruges declined because its port lost its link to the sea. A similar fate befell Ravenna, its Italian counterpart almost a millennium before. During the fifth and sixth centuries, as the city of Rome was increasingly revealed as unsafe, Ravenna became the capital of the Roman Empire. Protected by canals it was linked with its port of Classe. Gradually, though, the soil brought down by the Po River accumulated on the Adriatic shore, severing the city’s connection with the East and its security from invasion.

In 1877 Oscar Wilde was attending Magdalen College, Oxford. That year he chose to spend his vacation in Greece, stopping off at Ravenna. The city engendered a long poem, “Ravenna,” which garnered the Newdigate Prize in the following year. Trenchantly, the Irish writer captures the city’s situation, “Discrowned by Man, deserted by the sea./Thou sleepest, rocked in lonely misery. A special place in the poem is accorded to Dante Alighieri, who died in exile in Ravenna in 1321. Wilde does not seem to have responded to the mosaics, as they were in a style to which he was not yet attuned.

Wilde approached the city on horseback. For others, though, the city was conveniently reachable by train. It is not always realized that the spread of Europe’s railway network opened up various places, hitherto little visited. The mosaics of S. Vitale and the two churches of S. Apollinare clearly struck some visitors. Arguably the faceted treatment the technique requires influenced the emergence of the Divisionist variant of Neo-Impressionism.

For some observers, especially those of Decadent leanings, Ravenna was tied up with Byzantium. In San Vitale, of course, it housed the only notable portrait of the Empress Theodora, a historical femme fatale. In 1884 the French dramatist Victorien Sardou brought Théodora before the Parisian public. Conceived as a vehicle for Sarah Bernhardt, this play crossed the personality of the empress with that of Salome.

In 1907 William Butler Yeats visited Ravenna, where the mosaics especially impressed him. Recollections of this visit formed the basis for his two later poems “Sailing to Byzantium” and “Byzantium.”

Appreciation of the third city, Toledo, was bound up with the rediscovery of El Greco. Long ignored the Cretan-Spanish artist was rediscovered in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Arsène Alexandre (1859-1937) was a French art critic who wrote for Le Figaro. Together with Félix Fénéon he introduced the term Neo-Impressionism in 1886. Later, recalling the cultural climate of the 1880s, Alexandre noted that at that time there were only a dozen persons in Paris who were capable of appreciating El Greco. Edgar Degas owned one significant canvas. The influential critic Théodore Duret urged a visit to see his works in Spain. Joris-Karl Huysmans placed one in the imaginary collection of his decadent hero Des Esseintes in his 1884 novel Against Nature. (Some may miss the allusion, as the artist appears under his birth name of Theotocopuli.)

The connection was consolidated by a short book El Greco, et le secret de Tolède (1911), by the then-popular novelist Maurice Barrès (1862-1923). The French writer evoked the loss to the city of its Jewish and Muslim inhabitants. In 1561 it also forfeited its status as capital to Madrid.

Geographically, the situation of Toledo, ensconced high on a hill, differs from that of Bruges and Ravenna. Yet the Spanish city also became silent and mysterious, owing to a combination of factors that deprived it of its original significance.


“Bruges, Paris and the spectres of Symbolism”
Patrick McGuinness

. . .

The central figure in the dead-city cult was the Belgian poet and novelist Georges Rodenbach, and the totemic city was Bruges, or, to give it its full fin-de-siècle name, Bruges-la-Morte, the title of Rodenbach’s novel of 1892. Rodenbach may not have invented the “dead city” genre, but he became its most influential practitioner. He was the archetypal Symbolist: spectrally complexioned, delicately Nordic and stricken with all the right lung problems, he also produced books with titles such as Le Règne du silence and Les Vies encloses, and poems that display the Symbolist aesthetic at its most mystical and oneiric. His subjects are the deserted beguines and quaysides of “la Flandre insolite”, correlatives of a poetic voice that is reflective, monotonous and introspective. There are poems with titles like “Aquarium mental” and “L’Âme sous-marine” through which the Symbolist keywords – lassitude, exil, sanglot [sobbing] – parade like unclaimed luggage on an airport conveyor.

But it was Rodenbach’s novel that made him famous, and gained him something like a mass audience (the only other Symbolist to achieve this was his fellow Belgian Maurice Maeterlinck). Bruges-la-Morte generated poems and plays, films and operas, and made its author, for a time, as influential as Mallarmé, though far more easily imitated. Mallarmé famously wrote of the “double état de la parole,” the double state of the word, by which he meant language in its brute and in its ideal forms. For the Belgians, caught between French and Flemish, north and south, Symbolist theory was simply an intellectualization of their own cultural, linguistic and psychological duality. The Symbolist moment was also the moment when Belgian literature emerged internationally as a distinct phenomenon, but that distinctness was always invested in paradox and ambiguity, artistic sublimations of Belgium’s linguistic and cultural conflicts: between French, the language of the bourgeoisie, and the then second-class Flemish; between the Latin and the Germanic; and between the north and the south. Belgium was and still is the “double état”: doubleness nationalized, where, as Jacques Brel put it, “les rues pissent dans les deux langues”.

Rodenbach wrote about Belgium for the French paper Le Figaro, where Bruges-la-Morte was serialized, and about France for the Journal de Bruxelles. His first contribution to Le Figaro was a series of essays on “Agonies de villes” (“the death throes of towns”), atmospheric meditations on the urban decrepitude of Bruges, Saint-Malo and Ghent. In his piece on Bruges, Rodenbach describes the city as a sort of coastal Miss Haversham: “Bruges aujourd’hui oubliée, pauvre, seule dans ses palais vides, fut vraiment une reine dans l’Europe d’autrefois, une reine avec le faste d’un train de cour légendaire, au bord des vagues, une reine que Venise saluait comme une soeur plus heureuse et jalousait d’au-delà les horizons.” (Bruges, now forgotten, impoverished, all alone with her empty palaces, was truly a queen in Europe in another age, queen to a sumptuous court of legend, beside the waves, a queen that Venice, envious beyond the far horizon, bowed down to like a less fortunate sister.)

He has also been at the fin-de-siècle medicine cabinet for his metaphors of the city’s economic decline: Bruges is “consumptive,” “spits out her stones as from her lungs” and has the “pallor” and “lethargy” of the terminally sick. For all this dramatic imagery, Rodenbach had a point: Bruges had once been a great port connected to the sea by the Zwijn. One day in 1475, the North Sea retreated, and the Zwijn dried up, cutting the city off from the water that had sustained it. In the words of Ernest Reynaud, one of many who tried their hands at writing a Bruges poem, the place became an “estuaire inutile oublié par la mer,” a useless estuary abandoned by the sea. Baudelaire’s ports are buzzing with colours, smells and sounds, they are gateways to other worlds; Rodenbach’s Bruges is both relic and reliquary, tomb and stricken corpse. In his last novel, Le Carillonneur (1897), the hero wants to preserve the old Bruges, Bruges as museum-cum-mausoleum, against the civic authorities’ hope to bring the water back to the city and create a new port. Today’s Zeebrugge, a complex of duty-free hangars and late-night bars, is the result of their wishes, and in Le Carillonneur Rodenbach allows himself a degree of attention to contemporary social reality that is almost absent from Bruges-la-Morte.

Despite its melodrama and symbolism, Le Carillonneur touches on Flemish nationalism and cultural resistance, industry and commerce, tourism and engineering, and is Rodenbach’s most complex and textured work of fiction. It was not a big success – his readers wanted their Bruges shimmering with torpor, shrouded in crepuscular murk and lost in self-contemplation. Construction of the port of Zeebrugge began in 1897, five years after Bruges-la-Morte, and the year Le Carillonneur appeared. (It was completed 100 years ago this year.)

Rodenbach gave the French an exoticized Bruges, an epilogue-city that could function as an other to bustling Paris, city of Heracleitan flow. The cult of Bruges comes from a fixation with stalling time in an era of frenetic change and movement: Rodenbach’s Bruges is a stagnant pool, its water stilled or slowed to a trickle. The novel’s extraordinary popularity in France is due in part to the fact that his Belgium is made for export, like those luxury products one never sees in their country of origin. For Rodenbach, Belgium becomes more itself the further one gets from it:

“Paris donne du recul, crée la nostalgie . . . . Or on peut dire de tout art qu’il provient d’une nostalgie, du désir de vaincre l’absence, de faire se survivre et se conserver pour soi, ce qui bientôt sera loin ou ne sera plus.” (Paris gives you distance, creates nostalgia . . . . We could say that all art comes from nostalgia, from the need to conquer absence, to help survive and to keep for oneself what will soon be far away or not be at all.)

The suggestion is that exile from Belgium is the best position from which to write about Belgium, and that literal exile may well be a correlative, or a double, of the Belgian writer’s internal exile. Belgium is more Belgian when one – or it – is not there.

Bruges-la-Morte came out in the same year as Maeterlinck’s Pelléas et Mélisande, and both works have come to represent the high points of Symbolism. They are as redolent of their period as Mallarmé’s poems, Debussy’s music and Khnopff’s paintings. Maeterlinck specialized in a theatre of inaction – “static theatre”, he called it – and it is interesting to think of his plays, like Rodenbach’s novels and poems, as islands of stasis and reflection in an age of tumult: the early to mid-1890s was a period of anarchist bombing campaigns, state paranoia and financial crisis. The social and political contexts from which Symbolism averted its gaze were busy ones. In an age saturated with spectacle, Maeterlinck’s theatre was the only place you could go and be able to rely on nothing happening. By the same logic, Rodenbach’s Bruges promised an antidote to the flux of Parisian life, and Paris was where the cult of Bruges really took hold. “Bruges-la-Morte” is really a Symbolist anti-Paris, the static, inverted double of the French capital, and the majority of tourists who visited Bruges for its deadness were Parisians. Dead-city tourism took off. Swarms of weekend city-break necrophiles descended on Bruges, and found more or less what they were looking for.

What they were looking for can be seen in the famous portrait of the Belgian Symbolist painted by Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer in 1895, three years after the publication of Bruges-la-Morte, which is now in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. It depicts Rodenbach in an open-necked white shirt, with a stylized Bruges behind him. There are gabled housefronts and a beguinhof on his left, a cathedral tower on his right, and, below it, a low stone bridge. His shoulders seem to merge with the canal at his back, and he looks thin and ghostly (he died three years later, in the same year as his friend and master, Mallarmé). Rodenbach appears as the city’s emanation, a pale flower from its watery depths; at the same time, Bruges is like a crepuscular think-bubble, existing only as the writer’s projection. The persistence of that image, or its persistent vagueness, is attested to by the fact that in the Pisan Cantos, meditating on the lost world of European Symbolism, Pound remembers, or half-remembers, “somebody’s portrait of Rodenbach.”

. . .

That Pound cannot quite remember the painter or the location seems in keeping with the Symbolist aesthetic of the lacuna, and with the book’s paradoxical status as, on the one hand, the ultimate novel of place and, on the other, French literature’s finest example of place evacuated and dematerialized. Mallarmé’s poem “Remémoration d’amis belges” imagines Flanders as an ideal Symbolist region, a place on the border between presence and absence, reality and imagination, concreteness and immateriality. One of the recurrent images in Rodenbach’s prose and poetry is lace, “dentelle”: the ubiquitous nuns are in lace shawls, the windows are shivering with lace curtains, the surf of the sea resembles Brugian dentelle. It is also one of Mallarmé’s favourite images, and he compared Rodenbach’s novel to a piece of Flemish lace: a delicate knit of matter and void, emptiness coalescing into form, form composing itself around emptiness.

The premiss of Bruges-la-Morte is simple: Hugues Viane, a young widower, settles in the city because it is a propitious place to mourn his wife. The novel is not without its suspense, and Rodenbach is able to draw the thin plot out as far as it will go before the ending brings everything crashing into Gothic melodrama. For all his delicate poeticism, he could tell a tale, and he had always been interested in the unconscious, in medical disorders and in aberrant psychology: among his short stories (collected in Le Rouet des brumes and still untranslated) are small masterpieces of fin-de-siècle fiction about mesmerism, murder, suicide, narcissism and automatism. It is significant that Hugues has left Paris – where, the novel tells us, he had led a happy and eventful life – and is looking for somewhere whose every stone and curtained window endorses his grief. The novel is an experiment in decadent psychogeography, where everything submits to the poetic, and to the poetics of reflection: the canals are “analogies” to Viane’s sorrow, the winding streets map his own convoluted inwardness, the city rhymes with his bereavement. We might think of Bruges-la-Morte as an attempt to transfer into prose the period’s poetic fascination with rhyme: Hugues looks in mirrors, he watches the trees and houses reflected in the still waters, sees versions of himself in the darkened windows which are described as being like eyes clouded over before death. In the original edition, Rodenbach included sepiatone photographs of Bruges, and it was these that Lévy-Dhurmer worked from, having never himself set foot in the city. Subsequent editions left them out, but the original photographs, like the haunted Bruges cityscapes painted by Fernand Khnopff, had fixed on the canals reflecting the quays and streets back at themselves in such stillness and detail that it was hard to tell which was the reflection and which the original. Upside down, the images would look no different: they were more than visual rhymes, they were visual palindromes, and nicely suggested both the novel’s concern with reflection and inversion and its atmosphere of entrapment and claustration. (Mallarmé asked Rodenbach whether Bruges-la-Morte was the tale of a hero who projected his inner world onto the city, or of a city whose human inhabitants were just figments of its own imagination.)

The book’s central rhyme is between the dead wife and Bruges, and just in case the reader was going to miss this, Rodenbach helps out:

. . .

Viane meets an actress and dresses and grooms her to resemble the dead woman, getting drawn further and further into an erotic relationship that, while being more “real” than the ritualistic mourning, is also a vulgar copy of the original love. This is the fausse rime on which the novel depends. The whole of Bruges-la-Morte is a tesselation of doublings and pairings, reflections and inversions. The only element of the story that is unpaired is Viane himself, and Rodenbach has him muse on his widowhood: “Veuf! Etre veuf! . . . Mot irrémédiable et bref, sans écho. Mot impair et qui désigne bien l’être dépareillé”. That word “impair” reverberates in French prosody too: famously, in the imparisyllabic line of the master of regretful decadence, Paul Verlaine, who in “Art poétique” celebrates the beauty of the uneven and the asymmetrical: “De la musique avant toute chose, / Et pour cela préfère l’Impair . . .”. That is Hugues Viane: a lost syllable in a world of rhyming, scanning pairs. His lament is untranslatable, not just because the French measure their poems in syllables and not feet (perhaps in English an odd sock might carry the same weight of personal loss and prosodic awkwardness), but because “widower” and “widowed” have too many syllables.

The lure of what the French called la Flandre insolite has worked on a number of English-language writers. One of the few pieces of writing about Bruges that injects life into the place, and breaks free of Rodenbach’s compelling though simplified version, is Henry Miller’s “Impressions of Bruges”, in which Bruges contrasts happily with the “rectilinear nightmare” of American cities. It is precisely because he is coming at it from the American city and not from Paris that he makes out its secret life. For Miller, Bruges is not dead; it isn’t even sleeping. It is living and breathing, its winding streets and circular walks offer a challenge to the dull straight lines of “Progress”, a different way of thinking about time and movement, and a more organic rhythm of urban life. Most recently, Alan Hollinghurst, in his novel The Folding Star, has drawn on the mix of eroticism, occultism, and psychosexual geography that characterizes Belgian fin-de-siècle art and literature. His novel is a glittering updating of the genre: set in a Flemish city that may or may not be Antwerp (with elements of Bruges), it involves a modern story of love and sexual obsession intertwined with an investigation into the dark world of the late-nineteenth-century artist Edgard Orst, who may or may not be James Ensor or Fernand Khnopff. As in Rodenbach, so in Hollinghurst: what makes a dead city so attractive is that it pulses with a darker shade of life.

There was always something of the stage Belgian to Rodenbach, and his detractors accused him of producing a kind of literary camelote, a kitsch Flanders that bore no relation to the reality of the place. More locally, the upstanding burghers of Bruges were dismayed to have their city given the epithet of morte, and be depicted as a place of economic stagnation, religious superstition and twisted eroticism. Today’s visitor to Bruges will look in vain for a memorial to Rodenbach. A statue in his honour, offered by no less a sculptor than Rodin, was refused by the authorities, and even now there is only a small plaque to his memory. The Rodenbach you see on menus in Bruges’s cafés is a dark fruity beer and has nothing to do with the man who thought that Belgium was always at its best when viewed from elsewhere. It is also available by the crate in Zeebrugge’s “Mr Booze” duty-free supermarket.


Patrick McGuinness's translations of Québecois poetry will be published next year.


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