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Timeless Tomes: Occult Libraries in Villiers’ Isis and Axël John Anzalone The certitude that everything has been written turns us into phantom s. — Borges T HERE IS A COMMONPLACE of romantic texts that, beyond mere bibliomania of the type found in such writers as Nodier or Nerval, places books, whether real or invented, whether read or left on the shelf, in a place of prominence in the text. Part and parcel of what could be called the intellectual history or biography presented by the work, this is the moment in a text when the narrator defines situa­ tions, characters, or himself (in the case of first-person narration) in terms of culture and books.1 Though not exclusive elements in such definitions, reading and the book often play a crucial or pivotal role. One thinks immediately of the disproportionately dramatic effect, for Emma Bovary, of the library of romantic works smuggled by the old washer-woman into her convent; or of the many volumes of the Dic­ tionnaire des science médicales on Charles Bovary’s six pine shelves, whose unopened pages condemn his incompetence so tellingly. In Nerval’s Angélique, the journalist-narrator’s quest for a seemingly unfindable “ livre unique” calls into question the differences of history and fiction, and generates the first of Les Filles du fe u } And in one of the more spectacular examples of the relationship of books and libraries to history and fiction, there is the scene in the library tower of La Tourgue, in Quatre-vingt-treize, in which the revolutionary rent in the fabric of history is epitomized in the tearing apart, page by page, by three young children, of a rare and beautiful volume.3 Villiers de PIsle-Adam delighted in saying “ Il y a les romantiques et les imbéciles.” A latter-day romantic, he was constantly engaged in a complex dialogue with the traditions of romanticism, as recent research has reminded us.4 But Villiers was not simply involved in the play of literary conventions. He was especially drawn to the strains of roman­ ticism that implied revolt and rejection. He found the appropriate vehicle for his lifelong indictment of bourgeois ideology in that complex fusion of occult doctrine, ritual and magic commonly referred to as, simply, the Tradition. His works abound in portrayals of supernatural experiences, VOL. XXVIII, N o. 1 87 L ’E spr it C r é a t e u r and his prestige in the secret sciences was such that for the symbolist generation he was reputed and even revered as an occultist master.5The intensity of Villiers’ involvement with the occult has occasioned con­ siderable discussion, but the inscription of that involvement in the form of the Imaginary Library has never been examined. There are in fact not one but several examples of imaginary texts and collections in Villiers’ writings which reveal quite precisely the author’s attitude toward reading and knowledge. Villiers’ libraries fall into two basic but closely related categories. The first is the type described by Michel Charles as a function of intertextual memory, the memory constantly engaged in selection, segmentation, fragmentation and dispersion, “ la mémoire [qui] ordonne et désordonné en même temps.” 6 In L ’Eve future, the intertextual library takes the form of a robot. As Edison, the novel’s hero, proceeds with his explana­ tion to his friend Lord Ewald of the functioning of the android Hadaly, she who is to replace a fallen woman in Ewald’s heart, it becomes appar­ ent that Hadaly is a very special machine indeed. Her voice is provided by a series of inscriptions that function as the perfect “ machine à allu­ sions.” 7 Before Ewald can even utter the simplest need or desire, the machine, anticipating his wish, responds by quoting from its boundless archives exactly the words he wants to hear. But they are not just any words; as Edison explains, they are the essence of literary activity: Voici les deux phonographes d ’or [...] qui sont les poum ons de H adaly. Ils se passent l’un à l’autre les feuilles m étalliques de ses causeries harm onieuses—et je devrais dire célestes, —un...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1931-0234
Print ISSN
0014-0767
Pages
pp. 87-94
Launched on MUSE
2017-07-05
Open Access
No
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