Nineteenth Century French Studies 31.3&4 (2003) 259-277
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Dandyism, Gems, and Epigrams:
Lapidary Style and Genre Transformation in Barbey's Les Diaboliques
In a letter dated May 1887, Jean Lorrain writes to Barbey d'Aurevilly, "Je me permets de vous envoyer un article où je vous ai fort pillé, mais on ne pille que des trésors . . ." 1 Lorrain had previously paid homage to Barbey in his 1897 Monsieur de Bougrelon, a parody of an eccentric based largely on the persona of Barbey. Lorrain's peculiar story of two French expatriates in Amsterdam is, in part, a tribute to Barbey and his literary influence. It is not only by dint of compliment that Lorrain refers to Barbey's writings as "trésors"; in the form of a collection of gems and precious stones, treasure is a fundamental trope in Barbey's œuvre and it is likely that Lorrain understood the relevance of lapidary metaphors in Barbey's text.
The following portrait reveals Barbey as a prototype for the protagonist of Lorrain's novel and suggests that the association between Barbey and precious stones is symbolic of both literary inspiration and creative transformation. In Lorrain's text, Bougrelon, "la silhouette épique," (Lorrain, Monsieur de Bougrelon 17) has left France for the Netherlands; he had acquired his "prestigieuse élégance" (35) from his native "Normandie royaliste," (35) which is a clue to his alias. 2 As a sign of his maverick nobility, he sports "Des gants extraordinaires, monsieur, dont chaque doigt était onglé d'agate, une patte de tigre ou la main du diable: une invention à lui d'une bizarrerie tout à fait délicieuse, et qui lui ressemblait" (36). The elegant and outlandish aspects of his appearance are basic tenets of dandyism as outlined by Barbey in Du Dandysme et de George Brummell (1844). Although there is no prescribed dress code for the dandy, the text of whatever garb he chooses signifies an attitude, a renegade parti pris by which he differentiates himself from society. Barbey claims in Du Dandysme, "Ce n'est pas un habit qui marche tout seul! au contraire! C'est une certaine manière de le porter qui crée le Dandysme . . ." (2:673). Barbey's silhouette épique [End Page 259] is testimony to his reputation as a master storyteller and his literary influence on a younger generation of artists. Lorrain's interest in Barbey was perhaps enhanced by his own desire to challenge literary convention and contemporary gender stereotypes; consequently he saw in Barbey a model or mentor, a maître 3 as the afflatus for his own work.
In this essay, I show that Barbey's apparent status as a unique "styliste" (1295) is the result of a complex process of innovation and genre transformation - specifically the genres of the epigram and the lapidary. I argue that Barbey's lapidary imagery is fundamental to his narrative dandyism and that epigrams and precious stones are stylistic features that generate the transformative process of his creative endeavor in Les Diaboliques. My allusions to Lorrain are not the basis of an intertextual analysis in this essay, but rather serve to support my claim that in Barbey's text, gems and semi-precious stones are privileged media of artistic expression and emphasize the abstraction and the multi-faceted aspect of the creative process.
Although the traditional epigrammatic genre and the formal lapidary differ significantly from each other, both genres have in common the production of meaning through the use of lapidary imagery. Epigrams and precious stones correspond to the appropriation and representation of artistic identity in the Aurevillian text. Barbey cultivated certain qualities that he desired for his own persona such as strength or power ("raconter chez Barbey signifie savoir dominer," Boucher 135), or the singularity and uniqueness he associated with genius, and cast these attributes into a permanent aesthetic form. "Barbey created others that he might form himself, all the while insisting upon his own integrity, his own sovereignty over the world of shadowy figures he commanded" (Feldman, 57). He...