Monday, February 8, 2010

Gautier, "Une Nuit de Cléopâtre" (1838)

Yet another Orientalist fantasy, this short tale is more of an erotic prose poem than anything else. The burden is the story of a young Egyptian, a super-manly hunter of lions in the desert, who falls in love with the unapproachable Cleopatra. As she gets rowed down the Nile, bored and hot, he follows in a small reed boat. When she reaches one of her palaces, he follows, then shoots a mysterious love letter (attached to an arrow) into her quarters, one that inspires her erotic dreams. The next day, hl surprises her undressed in her outdoor bath. sort of like Actaeon and Diana, She stops her eunuchs from stabbing him, and offers to save his life for an amorous night before she has him killed.
"J’aurais le droit de te faire tuer sur-le-champ ; mais tu me dis que tu m’aimes, je te ferai tuer demain.
(I would have the right to have you killed on the spot; but you tell me that you love me, I'll have you killed tomorrow.)

Again with the killing of wild felines in the desert!

The decadent luxury of the desert is celebrated, the heated sensuality, the fascination with despotism, a sexually voracious woman – all typical of 19th century France.

The whole story is based on synesthesia.

First, the Nile is painted like Romantic landscape:

Une brume ardente et rousse fumait à l’horizon incendié.
(A burning, reddish mist smoked in the flaming horizon.)
des marnes verdâtres,des ocres roux, des tufs d’un blanc farineux.
(greenish shale, the red clay. the tufts of floury white.)
Then, the exotic costumes of the characters are detailed:
son corps, couvert de plumes imbriquées et peintes de différents émaux, enveloppait le sommet du crâne
(his body [of the bird on Cleo's hat]. covered with overlapping of variously enameled, enveloped the top of her skull.)
C’était un homme basané, fauve comme du bronze neuf, avec des luisants bleuâtres et miroitants.
(He was a swarthy man, tawny like fnew bronze, with shimmering blueish glow)
And the sounds:

Le seul bruit qu’on entendît, c’était le chuchotement et les rires étouffés des crocodiles pâmés de chaleur qui se vautraient dans les joncs du fleuve.
(The only noise that could be heard was the whispering and the strangled laughter of the crocodiles, swooning from the heat, wallowing in the reeds of the river.)
You've got to love those swooning, laughting crocs.

And the smells and sense of touch:

l’on ne respire pour parfum que l’odeur acre du naphte et du bitume qui bout dans les chaudières des embaumeurs.
The only perfume you could breathe in was the bitter odor of naphtha and of asphalt which boiled in the embalmers' cauldrons.
vastes jardins remplis de mimosas, de caroubiers, d’aloès, de citronniers, de pommiers persiques, dont la fraîcheur luxuriante faisait un délicieux contraste avec l’aridité des environs
(vast gardens filled with mimosas, carob-trees, aloes, citrus trees, peach trees, whose luxurious coolness made for a delicious contest with the aridity of the surroundings)
Gautier deserves his reputation as the father of the Decadent movement. His perfumed, overheated prose would be amplified through the century.

(Picture = Delacroix, Cléopârew et le Paysan")

No comments:

Post a Comment