Magazine article New Criterion

Gerard De Nerval's "Chimeras"

Magazine article New Criterion

Gerard De Nerval's "Chimeras"

Article excerpt

Born Gerard Labrunie in Paris in 1808, Nerval was, under his assumed name, Baudelaire's model of the "poete maudit," the doomed poet with a vision so intense the world will destroy him if he does not destroy himself. His masterpiece, "Les Chimeres" (named for the mythic she-monster with lion's head, goat's body, and serpent's tail), is one of the greatest sonnet sequences ever written.

Like Poe, another of Baudelaire's heroes, Nerval suffered from manic depression and delusions of grandeur. After a manic episode in 1841, he was judged insane and hospitalized for nine months. During this period he wrote "Christ on the Mount of Olives," and a version of "Delphica." During that initial stay in the Clinique du Montmartre, Labrunie became Nerval. The nom de plume is based upon a genealogy the poet invented to replace his real family tree. Like those who discover past lives through hypnosis, Gerard fancied that he was descended from the Roman emperor Nerva, via relatives of Napoleon. So, the voice of "The Chimeras" is not merely that of the mortal Labrunie, it is also the voice of a much-reincarnated prophet who speaks with the wisdom of the ages.

The emotion that inspired the "Chimeras" is like the theme of Dante's La Vita Nuova: the yearning for a woman, the anguish of love lost, the desire to atone with the object of desire; these are the first steps in the soul's journey toward divine love and illumination. But to Nerval, Christ is merely one of the immortal prophets, along with Apollo, Orpheus, Pythagoras, and Nerval, who are leading humankind toward enlightenment. …

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