Gérard de Nerval (May 22, 1808 – January 26, 1855)
In a study on Arthur Rimbaud, Henry Miller wrote that "[i]n English we have yet to produce a poet who is able to do for Rimbaud what Baudelaire did for Poe's verse, or Nerval for Faust, or Morel and Larbaud for Ulysses" and that "[i]t is my sincere belief that America needs to become acquainted with this legendary figure [Rimbaud] now more than ever. (The same is true of another extraordinary French poet ... Gérard de Nerval.)" Baudelaire called Poe, "the new Gérard."
Among the romantic notions adopted by the young poet Gérard Labrunie (known as de Nerval) were drinking sea water from a skull å la Byron and taking his pet lobster for walks on the end of a blue silk ribbon. At a time when all were emulating Hugo, Gérard and his fellow bohemians got together to exchange "bold and profound ideas; keen artistic views." They would "come to the cabaret as Hoffmann used to....perhaps to see the ideal and fantastic aspects of their art outlined in the smoke of tobacco, or in the fumes of intoxication..."
After Gérard read and translated Goethe's Faust and E.T.A. Hoffmann, "Within the mystic chapel of his inner life, and above the sirt and din of literary acclamation and romantic carousing, he was henceforth to see visions and hear melodies peculiar to him, reflecting and echoing another world and age," writes his biographer S.A. Rhodes. "The tales he published in 1830 and after recreate a Hoffmannesque mood of dream, hallucination and irreality; and reveal also a subtle concern with the problems of subconscious and divided personality, as well as a mystic interest in Pythagorean conceptions." His overly mystic inclinations cause him to be diagnosed a a victim of "theomania" or "demonomania."
Nerval had a fascination with the East, and he traveled there after a mental breakdown in Paris, publishing Voyage en Orient and Le Temple d'Isis about his travels. In Egypt he rented a house in the Coptic quarter where narghiles were common. He scaled the Pyramid of Cheops and saw himself on a journey of initiation into the worship of Isis, when initiatives were given a lotus extract to transport them to a paradisial garden. One of the tales in Voyage en Orient speaks of a celestial woman evoked by a hashish dream.
His return to the cold, rain or snow of Paris was "a rude awakening after his season beneath the bright Oriental skies." (Rhodes) He wrote, "I dream of ideals, colors, poetry, love perhaps, and all that escapes me. I have gradually lost in my travels....the better half of the universe. Alas! the sacred ibis, I have discovered, is only a wild bird, the lotus fruit is a common onion..." But 10 years later, in Aurélia, he could see that "everything lives, every thing, acts, everything corresponds," and understood "the secret voices issuing from plants, trees, and animals," and the mysterious harmonies between "colors, odors, and sounds," much as his fellow Club des Hashishins members Baudelarire and Hugo did in their more mystical writings.