By Mark Dery
Part of a Series: "Self-Help for Surrealists."
"Why should a lobster be any more ridiculous than a dog? Or a cat, or a gazelle, or a lion, or any other animal that one chooses to take for a walk? I have a liking for lobsters. They are peaceful, serious creatures. They know the secrets of the sea, they don't bark, and they don't gobble up your monadic privacy like dogs do. And Goethe had an aversion to dogs, and he wasn't mad!"
— Gérard de Nerval, when asked why he kept a lobster as a pet and walked it on a leash.
"Le rêve est une seconde vie," declared Gérard de Nerval.i The dream is a second life.
Before Rimbaud, before the Surrealists, there was Nerval (1808 – 1855), living his life as if it were a lucid dream. Of course, it didn't hurt that his mental skies flickered with the chain lightning of madness—bouts of insanity that condemned him to periodic stays in asylums and, ultimately, self-murder.
Mapping the psychogeography of Paris in all-night peregrinations that reconciled the flâneur with the somnambulist; indulging in the hashish-dream Orientalism expected of any self-respecting 19th-century bohemian by dressing up in Arab garb and drinking drug-laced Turkish coffee with Balzac, Baudelaire, and the rest of the Club des Hachichins; chronicling, in Voyage en Orient (1851), his travels in Turkey, the Holy Land, and Egypt, where he supposedly bought a slave girl in the bazaar, only to absent-mindedly leave her behind when he returned home; consorting with radical bohemians such as Petrus Borel, who perfumed his beard and went by the nickname "the lycanthrope," and Théophile Dondey, who wore spectacles to bed, the better to see his dreams;ii declaring God dead yet claiming adherence to 17 religions, many of them dead; seduced by the occult and firmly convinced that if we could only unriddle "the magic alphabet, the mysterious hieroglyphs" transmitted by antiquity, the doors of the "spirit world" would swing wide, Nerval died by his own hand at the age of 46—hanged from a window grate with an apron string that he believed to be the Queen of Sheba's garter. iii
He was wretchedly poor. To make matters worse, the lunacy that had tormented him all his life was back, scrabbling at the basement door of his mind. The only photo we have of him, taken days before his death by the celebrated portrait photographer Nadar, captures a balding man with a careworn face, his mouth—what we can see of it, behind the overhang of his moustache—set in a rueful expression somewhere between resignation and defeat. Yet he regards us with intensity; in his fixed gaze we see the dying flicker of defiance and, if we insist, the glitter of madness. "Poor Gérard's face, said Nadar, was marked equally by the memory of lunatic asylums and the foreboding of his tragic death."iv At long last, the Black Sun of Melancholia, as he put it in his poem "El Desdichado" ("The Disinherited," written in a "state of supernaturalist reverie"), had gone nova.v "Don't wait up for me tonight," he wrote, in a cryptic note he left for his aunt, "for the night will be black and white."vi
Setting the scene of Nerval's death, in A Century of French Verse (1895), William John Robertson gilded the lily just a little, one suspects: "One chill grey dawn in January…Gérard's body was found by a rag-gatherer, hanging in the gutter near the foot of a narrow staircase which led up from the squalid little rue de la Vieille-Lanterne, one of the filthiest courts of old Paris. The stones were sprinkled with snow, and on the steps a tame raven was hopping about."vii (On loan from Poe, no doubt.) In The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes, Clifton Fadiman adds a too-perfect touch, claiming that the raven—someone's pet, apparently—kept repeating the only phrase it knew: "J'ai soif!" ("I'm thirsty!")viii
T.S. Eliot sampled him in his modernist mash-up The Waste Land. Proust thought he was one of the most important French writers of the 19 th century. Yet Nerval lives on in the collective unconscious of the Google Age not as the visionary Romantic who wrote the hallucinatory sonnet sequence Les Chimères but as the eccentric's eccentric: the boulevardier who took his pet lobster for a walk, on a leash made of blue ribbon, in the jardins of the Palais-Royal. (Its name was Thibault, for those who are curious about such things.) News of his (calculatedly outrageous? certifiably cracked?) stunt made the rounds; what was it all about: inquiring minds wanted to know. Nerval's response, handed down to us by his friend Théophile Gautier, is funny and sweetly melancholy and strangely moving all at once, flickering irresolvably between Surrealist bon mot and philosophical feuilleton:
Why should a lobster be any more ridiculous than a dog? Or a cat, or a gazelle, or a lion, or any other animal that one chooses to take for a walk? I have a liking for lobsters. They are peaceful, serious creatures. They know the secrets of the sea, they don't bark, and they don't gobble up your monadic privacy like dogs do. And Goethe had an aversion to dogs, and he wasn't mad!ix
("Monadic," incidentally, derives from "monad," Goethe's term, borrowed from Leibnitz, for his conception of the soul as an irreducible, indestructible metaphysical atom.) Strolling in the park, Nerval stepped into history. His lobster walk has given rise to a thicket of theories about what happened and why, the art—historical equivalent of the Kennedy assassination's Grassy Knoll industry. Richard Sieburth, translator of the poet's Selected Writings, calls the anecdote a "piece of disinformation" concocted by Gautier, "a harmless hoax to épater le bourgeois," then hedges by adding, "I don't want to claim that Nerval's lobster is completely false: it has the truth that accrues to stereotypes, to clichés, to commonplaces, the truth of ideology or of repetition."x
By contrast, Nerval scholar Richard Holmes finds Gautier's account credible in light of the poet's well-documented fascination with odd or exotic animals; they recur, as symbols, in his work and life. "Often, on his wanderings through Paris, he would leave messages for his friends in the form of animals," Holmes informs, in Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer. On more than one occasion, unsuspecting writers were greeted, on returning home, by flustered concierges bearing lobsters or parrots—calling cards from Monsieur de Nerval. xi
Embroidered or not, the story invites close scrutiny, and not just Talmudic readings by literary critics but hard-eyed analysis by marine biologists: how long can a lobster survive out of its element? Could a decapod, stranded on dry land, really have kept pace with its master?
Among the scientists I spoke with, opinion was divided regarding the likelihood of Thibault's stroll. xii Bob Steneck, a professor at the University of Maine's School of Marine Sciences, was doubtful. "Lobsters out of water can walk a bit," he allowed, though it's "very tiring" for them. "They are more likely to get stressed and rapidly flip their tails" than traipse along amiably, taking the air. (Lobsters are designed for rapid backwards movement underwater, propelled by a flip of the tail.) And speaking of taking the air, "prolonged exposure to air will kill lobsters," said Steneck, since "unlike crabs, who have gills sealed within their [bodies], lobster gills are exposed." As a wry afterthought, he added, "I'm no expert, but I bet taking lobsters for a walk in the park is not the first un-truth uttered by a Romantic poet."
Jeffrey Shields, a professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, College of William & Mary, flagged the problem of temperature. If the weather is congenial—say, 15 degrees Celsius or below, with "relatively high humidity" moistening their gills, enabling them to breathe—a lobster "might survive up to 30-40 minutes" in the gardens of the Palais-Royal, "maybe longer."
Diane Cowan, executive director and senior scientist at The Lobster Conservancy, elaborated on the locomotion problem: "On dry land, a lobster of the size humans typically eat simply can't walk with legs extended. Large lobsters crawl on their bellies on dry land, if they have the stamina." If you insist on following in Nerval's footsteps, she said, avoid hot days, since the blazing sun will "turn the lobster vibrant red, making it look cooked because it will be cooked." Cowan wasn't charmed by the Romantic whimsy of the thing: "Taking a lobster for a walk in the park is a cruel and sadistic idea. Please do not even think about it."
Brian Beal, a professor of marine ecology at the University of Maine at Machias, was more sanguine than his colleagues. Lobsters are closer kin to cockroaches than anyone who's ever worn a lobster bib likes to contemplate—both are members of the world's most populous family, Arthropoda —and can scuttle at insectlike speed, Beal insisted. Fishing off the coast of Maine, he's seen them escape, when hauled aboard, and "quickly walk into a dark corner of the stern and hide." (Jelle Atema, a professor of biology at Boston University, told me he's seen "unsupervised lobsters drag themselves off the dock back into the sea.")xiii
Mindful of his colleagues' objections, Beal argued,
It is not too far-fetched to imagine that if de Nerval had methods [of keeping] a lobster in captivity (not an easy thing because it requires a large tank with relatively cool seawater and it would have needed some kind of aeration), then the lobster most likely would have [needed to be] taken out of its tank from time to time for cleaning [the tank]. What do you do with a lobster when it isn't in its tank? Take it for a short walk, if conditions permit. A short walk on a cool, damp day or at dusk? Sure. It wouldn't have walked a great distance, but as long as it was not out in the hot sun for any great length of time, I can see this happening. Certainly do-able, and why not? We should all extend the boundaries of what we think is possible, and lobsters as pets taken for short walks (with or without a leash) is a boundary we can step over!
A dissenting view, given credence by the discovery, circa 2008, of a letter to his childhood friend Laura LeBeau, holds that Nerval was an early animal-rights activist. Returning from a visit to the coastal town of La Rochelle on the Atlantic, Nerval recounts a droll dust-up with the locals: "And so, dear Laura, upon my regaining the town square I was accosted by the mayor who demanded that I should make a full and frank apology for stealing from the lobster nets. I will not bore you with the rest of the story, but suffice to say that reparations were made, and little Thibault is now here with me in the city…"xiv On this evidence, some conjecture that Nerval intervened to save a peaceful, serious creature from Death by Lobster Pot and in so doing earned himself a hallowed place in the history of animal-rights activism, well over a century before lobster liberator Mary Tyler Moore.xv
Let's not forget, however, that Nerval was a fervent scholar of the occult, steeped in classical myth, Egyptian magic, medieval fables, Teutonic tales of Lorelei, the Gnostic wisdom of the Druses of Lebanon, alchemy, the Kabbalah, the Tarot, the secret teachings of the Illuminati, "the strange legends and bizarre superstitions" of the Valois countryside outside Paris, where he grew up; his work is hermetic, rich in arcane allusions and hidden meanings.xvi Holmes believes Gautier intended the lobster story as an example of Nerval's all-consuming affair with symbolism, a fixation that extended beyond the page, shadowing his daily life with obscure subtexts.
Holmes draws our attention to the Tarot card called The Moon (number 18 in the Major Arcana), which is associated, he notes, with "the Unconscious, the Irrational, the Feminine Mysteries, the Imagination"—perfect for an artist dedicated to blurring the line between dreaming sleep and waking reality, not to mention a man plagued by mental illness who couldn't always tell the difference between the two.
At the foot of this card lies a deep, mysterious pool, out of which a Crayfish or Lobster is attempting to crawl onto the dry land. A path leads up from the pool and twists like a ribbon towards the horizon. The path is guarded by two animals—in most Tarot packs, these are both Dogs, in others they are a Dog and a Wolf. … Above, a full moon hangs in the night sky. Drops of moisture like diamonds float in the air, as if being slowly drawn up from the Pool by the power of the Moon. The Lobster raises its claws from the water, and the Dog and Wolf lift their heads and bay at the Moon. xvii
In the classic Rider-Waite version of the Tarot deck, the Moon card tells an allegorical story about the imagination. According to Waite's Pictorial Key to the Tarot, the road, which winds between two towers, leads to what Waite rather redundantly calls "unknown mystery"—Unknown Unknowns, as Rumsfeld would say. The cold light of the moon is intellectual insight, a pale reflection of the more profound illumination yielded by the imagination, with its access to the unconscious and the irrational. As well, says Waite, the moonlight "illuminates our animal nature…the dog, the wolf, and that which comes up out of the deeps, the nameless and hideous tendency which is lower even than the savage beast." xviii The lobster—Freud's id?—struggles toward enlightenment, clambering out of the black lagoon of our primordial selves, "but as a rule it sinks back whence it came" (Waite). The mind, in the person of the grave, contemplative Man in the Moon, gazes tranquilly "upon the unrest below, and the dew of thought falls. The message is: 'Peace, be still,' and it may be that there shall come a calm upon the animal nature, while the abyss beneath shall cease from giving up form.'"xix
Some sources associate the Moon card with confusion, fear, anxiety, romanticism, sleep, and dreaming. Rather than succumb to a moon-maddened confusion of dream and daylit world, they advise, the seeker should strive to sublimate his turbulent psychic energies into creative expression. Holmes reads Nerval's turnaround, from the quest for illumination in exotic lands to an inner odyssey through memory and madness, as a parable about Romantic excess: "The imagination of the Hero had finally doubled back on itself, and the rivers and mountains, the visions and revolutions had become…those of a purely internal landscape, or moonscape, the world of dreams."xx
At times, Holmes himself seems to teeter on the brink of a hermeneutic rabbit-hole, perilously close to the semiotic madness I've called the Casaubon Complex, after the scholar of occultism and conspiracy theories, in Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco, who, "wanting connections, …found connections—always, everywhere, and between everything," plunging him into a frenzy of intertextuality where "the world exploded in a whirling network of kinships, where everything pointed to everything else, everything explained everything else…" xxi Holmes worries about getting lost in the "labyrinth that Nerval himself made of his life; a maze of fantasy and memory."xxii
I…began to interpret Nerval's life almost entirely in terms of the magic world by which he himself was so fascinated. … Everything in Nerval's life came to have symbolic meaning, full of archetypes, alchemical processes, astrological signs, mystic correspondences and invisible harmonies. … I saw his whole life as a pilgrimage, or journey of initiation, intended to reunite the spiritual and material values of his generation. xxiii
Read through the magic glasses of occult symbolism, Nerval's life does indeed encourage overinterpretation. This, after all, was the man who said, "I like to arrange my life as if it were a novel"; the man whose first breakdown, brought on by the frenzied delirium of the Paris mardi gras in 1841, was marked by manic talk of numerology and astrology and "mystical systems" under his control (a condition his doctors diagnosed as "Theomania or Demonomania," he claimed).xxiv Doesn't his description of the awakened consciousness that follows his mystical epiphany, in his novel Aurélia (1855), sound like a variation on Casaubon's theme? "The talk of my companions took on mysterious turns of meaning which I alone could understand, and formless, inanimate objects lent themselves to the calculations of my mind." xxv Hadn't Gautier noted, in his review of Nerval's magazine dispatches from Cairot, Beirut, and Constantinople, Scènes de la Vie Orientale (1846-7), the author's uncanny ability to penetrate "the profoundly mysterious spirit" of the myths and folklore of the East, "in which each object contains a symbol"?xxvi
One could even say that he took from them certain occult meanings intended only for the neophyte, certain cabalistic formulae and overtones of theIlluminati, which made one believe, at times, that he was writing directly of his own personal initiation. xxvii
Was the lobster walk-initially dismissed as symptomatic of Nerval's nuttiness, more recently historicized as anti-bourgeois performance art—an occult transmission, broadcast to anyone with a working set of gnostic antennae? Is Nerval's famous quote a compressed meditation, informed by the Tarot, on the importance of balancing the rationalism of industrial modernity and the repression of bourgeois society with the creative energies of the unconscious? (Well over a half-century later, Andre Breton would take a page not only from Nerval's writings but from the book of his life, acknowledging his "supernaturalism" as Surrealism's antecedent.xxviii Salvador Dali, never one to miss a marketable trick, would resurrect Nerval's totem in his Surrealist object Lobster Telephone (1936), cannily mystified with the usual Dalinian flapdoodle about phallic symbols and castration complexes.) Were Nerval's barking, ravening dogs the rough beasts of the id, familiar from the Moon card? Was his "peaceful, serious" lobster a Surrealist reconciliation (perhaps even an alchemical or Kabbalistic synthesis) of the Moon's ruminative intellect with "that which comes up out of the deeps," the unconscious? Are his "secrets of the sea" the Hidden Meanings of Things, accessible only through a meeting of our rational and irrational minds, a conjunction symbolized by the primordial lobster scrambling into the sunlight of reason? Is that why Thibault's leash was blue—blue for the marriage of Heaven and Earth; blue for the empyrean and the briny deep; blue for midnight blue, the color of the conscious day when it yields to the dreamworld of sleep; blue for "the real, or rather climate, of the unreal—or of the surreal," as The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols has it? "Blue stands still and resolves within itself those contradictions and alternations of fortune—day following night—which modulate human life," the Dictionary tells us. "Indifferent and unafraid, centred solely upon itself, blue is not of this world: it evokes the idea of eternity," or, for our purposes, surreality.xxix When Nerval says, of the descent into dreams, "I have never been able to cross through those gates of ivory or horn which separate us from the invisible world without a sense of dread," is he also alluding to the twin towers guarding the Moon card's twisting, turning path, perhaps the "royal road to the unconscious" of Freudian dream analysis?xxx
The Lacanian psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva calls the Black Sun of Nerval's melancholia "a dazzling metaphor that suggests an insistence without presence, a light without representation…bright and black at the same time."xxxi For Kristeva, the oxymoronic sun of Nerval's sonnet is that unnamable, unrepresentable "supreme good" of which the depressed narcissist believes he has been deprived. But given Nerval's mystical Surrealism (or, if you prefer, Surrealist mysticism), couldn't it also stand in for the gnostic mysteries that taunted him, a lowly lobster making his painful way along the road to Unknown Mysteries? Could that be why he hoped his last night would be black and white, bright and dark at the same time, closing the curtain on this world and parting the veil to reveal…something, some ineffable truth beyond the symbolic realm?
Then again, the proposition that Nerval expected any sort of posthumous payoff seems dubious in light of his black-humor homily, decades before Nietzsche, "God is dead! the heavens are empty… Weep! children, you have no father now!"xxxii In Aurélia, published shortly after his suicide, he sends one last message, encrypted as always: "I said to myself: eternal night is upon us, and the darkness will be frightful. What will happen when they all realize there is no more sun?" xxxiii
God may be dead, but I can still amuse myself with extinct religions. At the same time, I must beware of staring too long into the Black Sun. My irrational mind and my animal nature are essential aspects of my best self; they should follow me wherever I go (though always on a leash). Each night, I will descend into the abyssal depths of the unconscious without fear, secure in the knowledge that seeking the secrets of the sea is its own reward, even if I don't remember them in the morning. Likewise, I will arrange my life as if it were a novel, even if no one will ever read it but me. As its author, I have the power to edit out people who gobble up my monadic privacy, making room for peaceful, serious types who remind me of arthropods.
About the Author
Mark Dery is a cultural critic who suffers from the Casaubon Complex.
His books include The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink and Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century. He edited the trailblazing anthology of digital-culture criticism, Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, and popularized the culture jamming phenomenon through his widely reprinted monograph, Culture Jamming: Hacking, Slashing, and Sniping in the Empire of Signs. His latest book is the essay collection I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-By Essays on American Dread, American Dreams. He is at work on a biography of the author, illustrator, and legendary eccentric Edward Gorey (Little, Brown: 2014).
i Quoted in H. Kay Moon, "Gérard de Nerval: A Reappraisal," Brigham Young University Studies, Vol. VII, No. 1, Autumn, 1965, https://byustudies.byu.edu/PDFLibrary/7.1MoonGerard-7867cea9-73a6-42ad-9410-cb9c51b3af3a.pdf .
ii Borel and Dondey, along with Nerval, Théophile Gautier, and others were part of a group of Parisian bohemians, equal parts salon and cultural insurgency, who called themselves the Petit Cénacle. They were Young Romantics, says the critic Richard Holmes, "in effect the literary groupies of Victor Hugo." (See Richard Holmes, Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer (New York: Vintage, 1996), 223.) Soon, the group changed its name to the Jeunes-France and ultimately to the Bouzingos, a slang term that translates, roughly, as "shit-heels." According to the critic and cultural historian Luc Sante, "Most of them were poets; they were fascinated by the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, by upheaval, delirium, and death. They flirted with nudism, smoked hashish, dressed extravagantly, waved daggers, drank from skulls, lived every minute in a state of heightened artifice, as if they were onstage." (See Luc Sante, "Petrus Borel," HiLoBrow, June 26, 2011, http://hilobrow.com/2011/06/26/petrus-borel/.)
iii Gérard de Nerval, Aurélia, in Gérard de Nerval: Selected Writings, ed. Richard Sieburth (London: Penguin Group, 1999), 291.
iv Holmes, Footsteps, 210.
v Quoted in Richard Sieburth, "Introduction," in Nerval, Gérard de Nerval: Selected Writings, 350.
vi Quoted in Sieburth, "Introduction," xxxi.
vii William John Robertson, A Century Of French Verse: Brief Biographical and Critical Notices of Thirty-Three French Poets of the Nineteeth Century With Experimental Translations From Their Poems (A.D. Innes & co., 1895), 75.
viii Clifton Fadiman, The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes (New York: Little, Brown & Co., 1985), n.p.
ix Quoted in Madeleine Schwartz, "Lobsters and Lies," The New Yorker,
August 19, 2011, The New Yorker.
xi Holmes, Footsteps, 213.
xii All quotes from scientists taken from e-mails to the author.
xiii Dr. Atema wonders if Nerval's lobster was really a crayfish. In an e-mail to me, he speculated, "People sometimes confuse (marine) lobsters and (freshwater) crayfish. If it were a freshwater crayfish, it could take an occasional dunk in the Palais pond. Crayfish can make short overland excursions across moist terrain as do eels and some catfishes. The European lobster could be one- to two-feet long, a memorable appearance. In Europe, the crayfish would be no more than six inches long, which would not inspire lobster lore." Then again, "as Ovidius said: rumors grow with time, thus turning a crayfish into a lobster," explains Atema, adding, "a crayfish is more likely to have been a 'pet' with a home tank of fresh water and a palace pond to wet his gills, now and then, during strolls on a blue ribbon leash."
xv Moore, an outspoken animal-rights activist, is well known for promoting the idea that there's no cruelty-free way to kill a lobster. See the unbylined article, "New Animal Rights Cause Urges, 'Free the Lobsters!,'" The New York Times, December 31, 1995, NYT .
xvi Holmes, Footsteps, 220.
xvii Holmes, Footsteps, 215.
xx Holmes, Footsteps, 236.
xxi Umberto Eco, Foucault's Pendulum (Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989), 463-4.
xxii Holmes, Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer, 214.
xxiii Holmes, Footsteps, 267.
xxiv "I like to arrange…": Arthur Symons, The Symbolist Movement in Literature (Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2010 edition of E.P. Dutton & Co., 1919 edition), 69. "Mystical systems": Holmes, Footsteps, 237.
xxv Quoted in Holmes, Footsteps, 268.
xxvi Quoted in Holmes, Footsteps, 248.
xxviii Breton in 1924: "I believe that there is no point today in dwelling any further on this word [surrealism]…[W]e could probably have taken over the word SUPERNATURALISM employed by Gérard de Nerval. It appears, in fact, that Nerval possessed to a tee [sic] the spirit with which we claim kinship." Quoted in Nancy Frazier, I, Lobster: A Crustacean Odyssey (Durham, NH: University of New Hampshire Press), 117-18.
xxix Jean Chevalier, Alain Gheerbrant, and John Buchanan-Brown, ed. (London: Penguin, 1996), The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, 103.
xxx Nerval, "Aurélia," in Selected Writings, 265.
xxxi Julia Kristeva, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), 13.
xxxii Nerval, "Christ on the Mount of Olives" in Selected Writings, 369.
xxxiii Nerval, "Aurélia" in Selected Writings, 369.