Sunday, August 8, 2010

The horror of the dream world: Nodier’s Smarra (1821)

This novella, with the alternative title of “les Démons de la nuit”, is a nightmare-based tale of horror that has links with German Romanticism and Gothic tales. It prefigures the dream narratives of Théophile Gautier and the Decadent movement later in the century, and anticipates Freud and Jung by a century.

It is also an early vampire story. Already in 1820, Nodier co-wrote a sequel to John Polidori’s pioneering and sensationally popular story “The Vampire”, and also came out with a play with the same title. Both were big public successes, and Smarra offers an even more extreme and dark story.

The narrative itself – said to be opium-induced – has the logic of a nightmare, of a Walpurgis night. That is to say, that time and place keep shifting, endless waves of voluptuousness and bloody cruelty, and logic has no place.

The first-person narrator is Lorenzo, a young man recounts a dream to his half-sleeping mistress. He has dreamed that he is Lucius, a young man of the ancient Roman empire, who, having studied Greek philosophy in Athens, goes to visit Thessaly, famous of its magicians. On horseback and at night, he passes through a haunted forest, loses his way in the labyrinthine underbrush, and falls asleep. His dreams, if they are dreams, are full of sensuality, a synesthesia at first of luxury, then of horror.

Lucius meets his dear and deceased friend Polémon, who recounts his daytime luxury in the afterworld, surrounded by sensuous female slaves, and his nightly blood-drinking torment by monsters, led by the vampiric demon Smarra

Here’s a small sample:
les mille démons de la nuit escortent l'affreux démon … Des femmes rabougries au regard ivre; des serpents rouges et violets dont la bouche jette du feu; des lézards qui élèvent au-dessus d'un lac de boue et de sang un visage pareil à celui de l'homme; des têtes nouvellement détachées du tronc par la hache du soldat, mais qui me regarde avec des yeux vivants, et s'enfuient en sautillant sur des pieds de reptiles...

*The thousand demons of the night escort the horrid demon… Stunted women with a drunken look; red and violet serpents whose mouths spurt fire; lizards who lift a human-like face above a lake of mud and blood; heads newly detached from the body by a soldier’s axe, but who look at me with living eyes, and flee, bouncing on the feet or reptile…)
This prose-poem pits the classical rationality of Lucius/Lorenzo against the irrationality and horror of the dream world. The use of extremely vivid language, dripping with perfume and blood and devoid of rational thought makes Smarra a monument of Romantic fantasy, blurring the line between reality and dream. There’s no pretense at a moral ending; the work just exists

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