Discuss the treatment of identity in Nerval’s Les Chimères, paying particular attention to matters of poetic technique.
Nerval’s work is famously difficult to categorise. Was he a romantic? A surrealist? Or something else? The collection of poems Les Chimères could certainly be said to express elements of all of the above and perhaps more. Not originally intended as a collection, the poems nevertheless share many attributes, not least the question of identity. The treatment of this theme within Les Chimères is interestingly key to an understanding of the collection and one which raises several points pertaining to Nerval’s particular poetic technique.
The reader might first notice the continuous use of the first person within these poems, particularly the pronoun ‘je’. The first and most obvious conclusion would be to claim that the ‘je’ is in fact Nerval and that any emotions, desires or beliefs expressed are those of the author. The link between identity and the complexity behind the ‘je’ is a common poetic device. Whether the ‘je’ is fictional or a representation of Nerval’s hidden self, lines from the poem El Desdichado illustrate a confusion of identity, an example of self-doubt:
Amour ou Phébus? … Lusignan ou Biron?
Despite initial hesitancy to take it for granted that Nerval is in fact describing himself here, there is evidence to support this assertion. Michael Hamburger believes that “in one of [Nerval’s] visionary sonnets [ El Desdichado ] he describes himself” and that the “medieval and modern illusions contribute to the self portrait.” This last point could be especially relevant; the ‘medieval illusions’ mentioned look back to his classical education in Paris. No doubt he would have come across the mythology in his Greek and Latin studies and seems to have found an affinity with the myths. Norma Rinsler agrees that, for Nerval, Greece and Rome were not dead, but “existed for him as a universal lost paradise which reflected his own.” This comment further expresses the longing behind his words as Nerval often refers to objects or people as being lost.
The contrast between the two mythical figures in the lines above, Amour and Phébus, is just one of many instances of duality in this poem and the other Chimères. Amour is a French term for Eros, the Greek God of romantic love, while Phèbus, or Phoebus, represented spiritual union. The two of these would have been considered opposites, just as the chivalrous knight Lusignan juxtaposes bawdy warrior, the French Marshal Biron. Underlining the struggle evident throughout El Desdichado is a key poetic function of the historical and mythical references. Following this, Alison Fairlie suggests that this line is a “hesitation over the nature of self”. It is as if by exploring the myths and contrasts of these figures, Nerval is exploring the contrasts within his own identity.
Similarly, his poems comprise many examples of unusual and frequently turbulent imagery which may represent many things but could again be considered a glimpse of a part of Nerval’s identity, arguably the more erratic portions of his mind. In the second section and second stanza of Le Christ aux Oliviers, disconcerting imagery describes a chaotic vision of Earth:
Partout le sol désert côtoyé par des ondes,
Des tourbillons confus d’océans agités…
Un souffle vague émeut les sphères vagabondes,
Mais nul esprit n’existe en ces immensités.
The language describing the oceans and the waves is distressing and the fact that ‘nul esprit n’existe’ is disheartening. The protagonist seems to have given up and believes they have nowhere to turn. Frederick Burwick has considered the idea that Nerval puts himself, or at least part of himself, into his texts. Burwick refers to this as “a displacement of the very agonies of his own identity”. The above passage is certainly reminiscent of these ‘agonies’ and it is said that one of Nerval’s doctors thought the writing process would help stabilise the condition of his mind, while others thought it may worsen his mental illness.
 De Nerval, Gérard, Les Chimères: Bilingual Edition. Translated by William Stone. (London: Menard Press, 1999) page 28
 De Nerval, Gérard (1999) pages 10 & 12
 Rinsler, Norma, Gérard de Nerval (London : The Athlone Press, 1973) page 2
 Fairlie, Alison, Imagination and Language: Collected Essays on Constant, Baudelaire, Nerval and Flaubert (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981) page 276
 Burwick, Frederick, Poetic Madness and the Romantic Imagination (Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press,1996 )page 229
 Burwick, Frederick (1996) page 229
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- University of Birmingham
- 72 (A)
- Gerard de Nerval Les Chimeres French Romantic Poetry 19th Century French Literature 19th Century French Poetry