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Nerval, Gerard de

Category: Mystic

Gérard de Nerval (May 22, 1808 – January 26, 1855) was the nom-de-plume of the French writer, poet, essayist and translator Gérard Labrunie, ‘one of the most essentially Romantic of French poets’

But this simple description does not at all do him justice.  Classified as insane on several occasions, de Nerval was what can only be described as a completely misunderstood mystic.  Three compositions –  La Reve et la Vie, Sylvie and Artemis, describe, in symbolic language, various ecstatic states.  La Reve et la Vie [also called Aurélia] - is described in many books as ‘a narrative of madness’, which is totally tragic, as it is nothing of the sort.  He may have been classified as mad, by his doctors, but if had been born in India or Africa, or amongst the Native American Indians he would have been revered as a Saint, Sant or immensely gifted shaman.


When ‘sane’ he was described as ‘graceful, kind and elegant’, but when he was classified as ‘insane’ he was then described as ‘inspired, really wise, passionate, collected and a master of himself’, which rather begs the question how on earth did the people of that day and age classify insanity? 

Arthur Symons is one of the few people to have recognised that Nerval was a mystic and I have provided an extract from his book The Symbolist Movement in Literature, as it very sympathetically describes him and his life.  Symons pinpointed Nerval’s one failing – that he had a ‘lack of spiritual discipline’, in effect he had almost constant spiritual input, but had never been taught how to channel and develop it.  Symons actually describes him as ‘an unsystematic mystic’.

Here is one who has gazed at Light until it has blinded him, and for us all that is important is that he has seen something, not that his eye sight has been too weak to endure the pressure of Light over flowing the world from beyond the world.

His writing is indeed undecipherable unless you know the symbol system which he was using.  He used the Kabbala, but the Universal symbol system is very prevalent in his work.  “Wavering among intuitions, … now audacious, now hesitating he was blown hither and thither by conflicting winds, a prey to the indefinite”.  The last fragments of La Reve et la Vie were found in his pockets after his death scrawled on scraps of paper and interspersed with Kabbalistic signs and ‘a demonstration of the Immaculate conception by geometry’.

Salvador Dali was greatly influenced by Nerval

Gerard was born in Paris, May 22, 1808. His father was surgeon-major; his mother died before he was old enough to remember her, and Gerard was brought up, largely under the care of a studious and eccentric uncle, in a little village called Montagny, near Ermenonville. He was a precocious schoolboy, and by the age of eighteen had published six small collections of verse.   In order to explain something of the extraordinary capabilities and life of de Nerval I have used Arthur Symons’ description which very clearly explains why he was such an extraordinary man.

Arthur Symons – The Symbolist Movement in Literature

This is the problem of one who lost the whole world and gained his own soul.

'l like to arrange my life as if it were a novel,' wrote Gerard de Nerval, and, indeed, it is somewhat difficult to disentangle the precise facts of an existence which was never quite conscious where began and where ended that 'overflowing of dreams into real life,' of which he speaks. 'I do not ask of God,' he said, 'that he should change anything in events themselves, but that he should change me in regard to things, so that I might have the power to create my own universe about me, to govern my dreams, instead of enduring them.' 

Lewis Carroll was greatly influenced by Nerval

The prayer was not granted; and the tragedy of his life lay in the vain endeavour to hold back the irresistible empire of the unseen, which it was the joy of his life to summon about him.

[Note:  Nerval's wisdom and inspiration was almost entirely driven by a mixture of love with visualisation and grief, the following explains this]

It was during one of his holidays that he saw, for the first and last time, the young girl whom he calls Adrienne, and whom, under many names, he loved to the end of his life. One evening she had come from the chateau to dance with the young peasant girls on the grass. She had danced with Gerard, he had kissed her cheek, he had crowned her hair with laurels, he had heard her sing an old song telling of the sorrows of a princess whom her father had shut in a tower because she had loved. To Gerard it seemed that already he remembered her, and certainly he was never to forget her. Afterwards, he heard that Adrienne had taken the veil; then, that she was dead.


To one who had realised that it is 'we, the living, who walk in a world of phantoms,' death could not exclude hope; and when, many years later, he fell seriously and fantastically in love with a little actress called Jenny Colon, it was because he seemed to have found, in that blonde and very human person, the re-incarnation of the blonde Adrienne.

Meanwhile Gerard was living in Paris, among his friends the Romantics, writing and living in an equally desultory fashion.  Le bon Gerard was the best loved, and, in his time, not the least famous, of the company. He led, by choice, now in Paris, now across Europe, the life of a vagabond, and more persistently than others of his friends who were driven to it by need. At that time, when it was the aim of every one to be as eccentric as possible, the eccentricities of Gerard's life and thought seemed, on the whole, less noticeable than those of many really quite normal persons.


But with Gerard there was no pose; and when, one day, he was found in the Palais-Royal, leading a lobster at the end of a blue ribbon, the visionary had simply lost control of his visions, and had to be sent to Dr. Blanche's asylum at Montmartre.  He entered March 21, 1841, and came out, apparently well again, on the 21st of November.

In an article about the life of Nerval by his friend, Théophile Gautier, Nerval said "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 gnaw upon one's monadic privacy like dogs do. And Goethe had an aversion to dogs, and he wasn't mad.” 

The Tarot card for the Moon contains both a 'lobster'
and a dog and a fox, barking at the Moon

It would seem that this first access of madness was, to some extent, the consequence of the final rupture with Jenny Colon; on June 5, 1842, she died, and it was partly in order to put as many leagues of the earth as possible between him and that memory that Gerard set out, at the end of 1842, for the East.

It was also in order to prove to the world, by his consciousness of external things, that he had recovered his reason. While he was in Syria, he once more fell in love with a new incarnation of Adrienne, a young Druse, Salema, the daughter of a Sheikh of Lebanon; and it seems to have been almost by accident that he did not marry her. He returned to Paris at the end of 1843 or the beginning of 1844, and for the next few years he lived mostly in Paris, writing charming, graceful, remarkably sane articles and books, and wandering about the streets, by day and night, in a perpetual dream, from which, now and again, he was somewhat rudely awakened.


When, in the spring of 1853, he went to see Heine, for whom he was doing an admirable prose translation of his poems, and told him he had come to return the money he had received in advance, because the times were accomplished, and the end of the world, announced by the Apocalypse, was at hand, Heine sent for a cab, and Gerard found himself at Dr. Dubois’ asylum, where he remained two months. It was on coming out of the asylum that he wrote Sylvie, a delightful idyll, chiefly autobiographical.

On August 27, 1853, he had to be taken to Dr. Blanche's asylum at Passy, where he remained till May 27th 1854.  Thither after a month or two spent in Germany, he returned on August 8th and on October 19th he came out for the last time, manifestly uncured. He was now engaged on the narrative of his own madness, and the first part of La Reve et la Vie appeared in the Revue de Paris of January 1st 1855.

On the 20th he came into the office of the review, and showed Gautier and Maxime du Camp an apron-string which he was carrying in his pocket. 'It is the girdle,' he said, 'that Madame de Maintenon wore when she had Esther performed at Saint-Cyr’.

Gone but definitely not forgotten....

On the 24th he wrote to a friend: 'Come and prove my identity at the police-station of the Chatelet.' The night before he had been working at his manuscript in a pot-house of Les Halles, and had been arrested as a vagabond. He was used to such little misadventures, but he complained of the difficulty of writing,

‘I set off with an idea,' he said, 'and lose myself; I am hours in finding my way back. Do you know I can scarcely write twenty lines a day, the darkness comes about me so close!' He took out the apron-string. 'It is the garter of the Queen of Sheba,' he said.

The snow was freezing on the ground, and on the night of the 25th, at three in the morning, the landlord of a 'penny doss' in the Rue de la Vieille-Lanterne, a filthy alley lying between the quays and the Rue de Rivoli, heard someone knocking at the door, but did not open, on account of the cold. At dawn, the body of Gerard de Nerval was found hanging by the apron-string to a bar of the window.

Back home.

Of all that were thy prisons--ah, untamed,
Ah, light and sacred soul!--none holds thee now;
No wall, no bar, no body of flesh, but thou
Art free and happy in the lands unnamed,
Within whose gates, on weary wings and maimed,
Thou still would'st bear that mystic golden bough
The Sybil doth to singing men allow,
Yet thy report folk heeded not, but blamed.
And they would smile and wonder, seeing where
Thou stood'st, to watch light leaves, or clouds, or wind,
Dreamily murmuring a ballad air,
Caught from the Valois peasants, dost thou find
A new life gladder than the old times were,
A love more fair than Sylvie, and as kind?



I think from the photos that Nerval was a left hander, so I have added this to the observations as another factor in his ability to 'see'.



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