Academic journal article Journal of European Studies

In the Name of the Other I ... Gerard De Nerval

Academic journal article Journal of European Studies

In the Name of the Other I ... Gerard De Nerval

Article excerpt

What was the French poet Gerard de Nerval thinking, when he wrote under his too realistic portrait: 'I am the other'? In attempting to distance himself from his reputation as a madman, he deprived himself of a proper self-identity. This essay approaches melancholy from the point of view of the (proper) name--its malefic power and the strategies to inscribe/erase its destabilizing virtues.

Keywords: Gerard de Nerval; other; cipher; sign


Under his name, which appears under his portrait, (1) Gerard de Nerval wrote, in his own hand, as a legend: Je suis l'autre (I am the other); above the portrait these cryptic words: feu G.rare; and, in the upper left-hand corner, these even more obscure words: cigne allemand.

For the time being, I will leave these terms untranslated, since we first have to decipher all the signs, not to mention the small drawing on the right-hand side that might represent a cage, yet no bird is present unless you mean by this 'oiseau rare', Gerard, the 'footless swift', as one of his friends would call him. But before its flight carries me away, I would like to focus and centre the background, and for this purpose I have no recourse but to biography--or, rather, thanatography.

The end is coming; he has barely six months to live. And yet never has he felt more confident in his future: that is, in his posterity, his children. The Daughters of Fire came out at the beginning of the year (1854). He also seems cured of what he always refused to consider madness, but rather a mere nervous illness. If he is not really mad, he may leave the rest home (2) headed by Doctor Blanche. He has to leave. He has to be free. He has to leave if he wants to be himself and not mad--that is, if he wants to continue his work as a writer. Writing, he believes, is the very condition for his mental health, a bit like the open air he needs, as he writes on 31 May to his father from Baden-Baden: 'My long disease has made me contract agreements that I have to fulfil. Why was I unable to work in Paris: it's because I can write only when under the influence of fantasy or enthusiasm, and for that I need the open air and freedom' (III, 858). At the same time he insists on reassuring his military father who might find these words of 'fantasy' and 'enthusiasm' disquieting: 'My situation is good, although all in the future.'

Retrospectively, from the point of view of posterity, the sentence takes a totally different turn, but is nonetheless true, except that the future is not his own, but the future of his other, i.e. his name: 'I have reached a glory that protects me: my name--the name that I made for myself, and that hopefully will one of these days gloriously unite with your good renown--is to me the warranty for the future.' Thanks to his own hand, Gerard made a name for himself and all by himself, and he is hoping that this new name, Nerval, will 'gloriously" be one with the good renown of Doctor Labrunie, towards whom he feels indebted. The name is the pledge given to the other: that which makes it possible for him to keep his word, to fulfil his engagements. With the glory of the name, he will at last be able to pay back all his debts, for in this life, and perhaps even in the next, everything has a price. He will therefore pay with his life, with what he will have made of it: his writings, 'a capital that I shall increase if God permits it and that, be it only after my death, would be enough to settle with mankind and be discharged'. With mankind, perhaps, but not with this peculiar man his father, who persists in not honouring the cheque (left blank?) that his son is handing over to him in order to erase his debt. And when 'the young man'--as the old man used to call his son even when he learned about his hanging--will pay back his overdraft with his own life, the father will still not recognize it: he will refuse to pay for the burial of his son, and the Societe des Gens de Lettres will have to assume the expenses. …

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