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Triumph of Art Over Content

Mid-nineteenth century writing in France:

The saying which has stuck to Theophile Gautier is: 'I am a man for whom the external world exists.' This was very much as a reaction against the form of Romanticism that stresses over the objects. Up to a point (and Gautier is very much aware of how far he can take this) he strives to eliminate subjectivity from his verse. Poetry for him was primarily concerned with objective reality.

In the Preface to his first volume of poetry, Theophile Gautier states his indifference to all politics and revolutions. His concern is for leisurely living and the poetry which leisure will permit him to write. It is a poetry which will be resolutely asocial and non-utilitarian. Yet even for Gautier, art has one usefulness, which he himself admits since it provides the necessary stylization and transposition of natural functioning, of biological urge which, in itself, is ugly. But isn't Gautier aware that this is a displacement as much as a sublimation? Poems like A une robe rose seem highly aware that the quest for pure beauty is libidinally charged. In 1836, he published his first novel Mademoiselle de Maupin, a wildly emotional fantasy of sex, in the preface of which he first sketched out a theory of 'Art for art's sake.'

The poetry of Emaux et camees is certainly asocial; but it is by no means as impersonal as his aesthetic idealism might seem to demand. The author is continually present in his touches of humor, irony, sarcasm and sometimes of ferocity. Occasionally he recounts his own experiences. Yet on the whole the tone is restrained. The voice belongs to a commentator more than to an advocate or a victim. As to the form Emaux et camees are written almost throughout on one simple pattern: a cross-rhymed stanza of four octosyllabic lines, as in the description of Paris in winter. 

This is basically non-didactic, decorative miniature art, deliberately employed on minor trivial subjects. Indeed, although there is in the doctrine of art for art's sake no specific requirement for the subject to be trivial, it can be seen that, since the emphasis is on the artistry, the treatment of the subject rather than the subject itself, the triviality can even offer a challenge to the poet. Thus, there arises the idea that part of the task of a poet may even be to choose a recalcitrant subject and the poet's merit will be greater if he succeeds in overcoming those difficulties and makes a good poem out of such unpromising material. Even natural ugliness can be transposed by the alchemy of poetry, into a thing of beauty.

Similarly, although emotion and human feeling need not necessarily be excluded, the primarily visual nature of Gautier's art tends to push emotion into the background; any emotion will be discreet, as far as possible from Alfred Musset's passionately outspoken lyricism. Likewise, in his desire for art on a small scale, Gautier, aiming at succinctness and conciseness and accuracy, will steer clear of flamboyant rhetoric and verbosity which epitomizes Victor Hugo's work. Also, although it is not intended to have any direct utility, it has the indirect utility that Gautier sought in all art; as he reiterated that art provides the necessary stylization and transposition of life which is often, particularly for a Romantic individual, boring, disappointing and ugly. For Gautier art also had another use: in a world in which everything is impermanent, the poet can create something of more permanent value than passing forms. Art thus provided Gautier with a solace for his fear of death while he was alive and the hope of some immortality in death.

The object, therefore, is the creation of a certain type of beauty, not purely plastic but still strongly visual; not devoid of feeling but of muted feeling; not devoid of ideas - Gautier himself attacked critics who tried to see in art for art's sake a mere fondness of form for the sake of form; he wanted, he said, to use form to express the idea - it is to have a quality of suggestiveness. Nevertheless, great care must go to polishing the form: the rhythm must be varied, the theme must be adequate - in fact, despite Gautier's remark on the importance of rich rhyme, did not, on the whole, rhyme very richly; indeed, too rich a theme in such a short meter as the octosyllable could be overpowering and produce a forced or even comic effect (an effect incidentally that Gautier, who was not without humor, sometimes deliberately tried to produce) while a weak or inadequate rhyme could lead to shapelessness.

The result of all this is a miniature art that is rather bloodless, charming rather than deeply moving, fascinating rather than intellectually enthralling. But the house of art has many mansions and Gautier, often achieving the effect at which he aimed, can still delight those for whom formal perfection and visual subtlety are more significant than challenging richness of breadth of emotion or powerful temperament. His art does not lack originality, charm and consistency. It must be added that Baudelaire was going to argue forcibly the case against a strict application of art for art's sake in view of its danger to sterility; and it is clear that any claims to complete amorality (which were not made by the mature Gautier) or complete objectivity are invalid. The refusal to adopt a moral standpoint is itself a moral judgement; and however objective the treatment of a theme, the choice of one subject to the exclusion of others is bound to throw light on the poet's personal likes and dislikes; and in the treatment of themes, the personality of the poet is bound to show itself by omission or emphasis.

In the happy days of classical art, says Gautier, men did not probe beneath the flesh but accepted the outward form as the image of ideal beauty. The dead were burnt on funeral pyres, so eliminating the whole medieval obsession with the charnel house. In the final stanza of this poem, he would seem to be giving his answer to Baudelaire.

But whatever parallels may be drawn, Gautier rarely touches Baudelaire's level. His effects are superficial and mechanical in comparison. His material never became part of his life stream. Perhaps this is because Baudelaire eschews the more self-aggrandizing claims of Romantic aesthetics, to which Gautier owes much (although he doesn't articulate these much in his later work). As Gautier presents it, it may interest but never absorbs us. As an artist, Baudelaire was greatly superior. His verse shows a technical mastery, a cadence and a music which were beyond Gautier's command, for all the respect for aesthetic qualities. Yet it is greatly to Gautier's credit that he helped to show Baudelaire his way.


More by :  Attreyee Roy Chowdhury

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