Le voyez-vous, dit-elle, il meurt, ce vieux pervers,
Tous les frimas du monde ont passé par sa bouche – Nerval, “Horus”
Nerval is a poet of strange, strange lines. All the frost of the world passed through his mouth – a truth that could shatter some world, one you possibly live in, if you could find the key to it.
An anecdote: When Nerval went mad in 1841, he naturally tried to suppress the news of this from leaking out. He was the most discrete of men. So imagine his shock when his friend, the critic Jules Janin, wrote a charming mock obituary for Nerval’s reason. So funny! Nerval, in public, even played along with the image Janin had stamped upon him, but in a despairing letter to Janin Nerval denounced the article and Janin for ruining that thing in a life that you can’t get back: the seriousness that surrounds one. He’d been made a buffoon, who feared being made a buffoon.
Here’s how Jonathan Strauss, in Subjects of Terror: Nerval, Hegel and the Modern Self, describes what happened to Nerval that first time, borrowing from Aurelia: “The importance and complexity of Nerval’s role as a mad writer have evolved over the years since the evening of late February 1841 when, following the appeals and declination of a certain star hanging over the horizon, he wandered naked through he streets of Paris, into the arms of the night patrol, and into what was to be the first of a long series of voluntary and involuntary confinements.” The result of Nerval’s stay in Dr. Blanche’s madhouse (a few blocks down from Balzac’s house) was, according to the reliable introduction to the Penguin Nerval, a necronym. Nerval named himself Gerald Nerval after having given himself an immense and mythic geneology. He convinced himself that he was really related to Napoleon, the bastard child, unacknowledged, of Napoleon’s brother. But he was related, as well, to more ancient monarchies. “Gerald Nerval” complicatedly encodes a secret message from the dead – who, in Nerval’s books, are never really dead. They pass into a realm of haunting. Nerva is from the Roman emperor, Averne is the realm of death, vernal of spring, geras is the Greek for glory – and thus a portmanteau tombstone name. He put his suicide into his name – who among us can say as much?
But I have more to say about this Janin.