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  • Gaspard de la Nuit: Humor, the Eau-Forte, and the Chiaroscuro Vignette

    Dana Milstein

    Precursors of literary genres are often snubbed by contemporary readers. Skimming over dedicatory prefaces, their

    unfamiliar names generally appear as a mor

    tuary list of unknown influences on the renowned author with whose text we prefer to begin. Such is the case, for example, with

    Aloysius Bertrand. Considered the father of the modern prose poem, Bertrand made

    every concession possible to eternalize his name and text, Gaspard de la Nuit (1842). His fear of being forgotten permeates his dedica tion to Victor Hugo, wherein with pessimistic clairvoyance he proclaims "[t]he little book that I dedicate to you will have suffered the fate of all that dies, after, perhaps for one

    morning, having amused the court and city, which are amused by so little" (1994, 15).

    Despite Maurice Ravel's piano pieces, Antonio Giacommetti's guitar suite, and an adapted performance by the NewYork City

    Dana Milstein is in the

    Department of French at

    CUNY, The Graduate Center.

    She has published and presented papers primarily on comparative

    art and literature of the nine

    teenth century.

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  • 138 College Literature 30.2 (Spring 2003)

    BaUet,1 today Bertrand's name and texts remain virtuaUy unknown, save a

    brief and ambivalent homage made by Baudelaire in the preface to his Petits poemes en prose. In the manner of Bertrand's prose poems, Baudelaire propos es a text that is "poetic, musical without rhythm or rhyme, unconventional enough to adapt itself to lyrical movements of the soul, to undulating rever ies, to shocks of conscience" (1975, 1. 276; my translation).

    Instead of likening his text to the musical idiom, Bertrand applied a

    painterly rhetoric to his works. In the closing Unes of his preface to Gaspard de la Nuit, the fictional Gaspard bequeaths his manuscript to the author, Louis

    Bertrand. Explaining the parturition of style in the text, Gaspard suggests that "This manuscript wiU teU [readers] how many instruments have tried my lips before arriving at the one that renders the note pure and expressive, how

    many paint brushes have been used on the canvas before seeing born there the shadowy aurora of chiaroscuro" (1994, 11). This ekphrastic metaphor aUudes to a sequence of artists and styles that Bertrand dabbled in while per fecting his manuscript. Composed of short literary sketches or vignettes, Bertrand's text is more in keeping with the technique of etching than with painting. Surreptitiously, Bertrand utilizes engraving as a metaphor for trans ferring images from original plates onto paper as "poetic" impressions or lit erary prints.2 His personal iUustrations for his text reflect engraving tech niques, and his instructions to the printer stipulate engraved or iUuminated

    motifs of a fantastic or anachronistic nature.3 InitiaUy, Bertrand's amateur

    experiments with this new writing genre reflect an interest in the grotesque and capricious engravings of a seventeenth-century group labeled "I

    Bamboccianti." As his emerging style matured, and he became acquainted with the Parisian literary scene (and thus, more modern views of humor and art), Bertrand replaced the burlesque humor of the Bamboccianti with a

    more complex aesthetic of dualism, or the oxymoron. Encountering the

    engravings of Jacques CaUot and Rembrandt, he later subtitled his text Fantaisies a la maniere de Rembrandt et de Callot after these two artists, whose theories of etching conformed to the new and more profound antithetical dynamic present in his writing. Furthermore, presupposing linked evidence to techniques of chiaroscuro, etching, and to Rembrandt and CaUot in these literary impressions, it becomes obvious that Bertrand's aesthetic objective is to rescind traditional relationships between original and copy, and to annihi late barriers imposed between the author, text, and reader.4 The fruition of this objective, coupled with the oxymoronic dynamic of the text, is a unique aesthetic that characterizes the modern prose poem.

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  • Dana Milstein 139

    Titular Evolution: Bamboccio and the Question of Humor Modern critics and contemporaries of Bertrand often argue that the

    author made a poor decision in his subtitle Fantaisies a la maniere de Rembrandt et de Callot. It is easy enough to find rapports between specific Callot etch ings and certain prose poems. With Rembrandt, however, it is harder to cor relate any specific work to the poems. "The Rembrandtesque elements orig inate more from the impression created by this great artist's etchings than from an awareness of his vision," writes Renee Hubert (1964,83). Embracing this perspective, scholars have created a corpus of literature that is lopsided in its abounding references to Callot works and stinted explanations of

    Rembrandt. Approaching the text in this manner has permitted the injudi cious conclusion that there is little logical relation between the entire text and any specific corpus of engravings by Callot or Rembrandt. Perhaps it is

    Bertrand's own comments upon his text that have resulted in the authority of this assumption. Envisaging his work, Bertrand extends his allusions to Art beyond Rembrandt and Callot to other artists including Van Eyck, Albrecht Diirer, and Lucas Van Leyden. Many critics thus incorrectly assume that Rembrandt and Callot play a less significant role in the text than first

    thought. Scholars including Renee Hubert and Max Milner have empha sized the rapport between individual poems and specific engravings, but inadequate explanation has been provided for Bertrand's particular choice of subtitle and its relation to the entire text. Bertrand mentions other artists to emphasize that his text is not a literal illustration of Rembrandt's and Callot's

    works. Rather than transposing specific works into his prose poems, which would be an imitation of style, the subtitle cleverly reveals that Bertrand

    chooses to work "in the manner" of these two artists. The distinction between style and manner is important, yet often

    ignored.5 Style, a metonymical term for the instrument used to write (stylus), relates the text to a specific characteristic of another work. Transposition of style is mere imitation; it is the conversion of visual image into verbal phras es. Manner, a term belonging to the artistic lexicon, suggests a reproduction of taste or principles taken from another artist. Manner confines itself to a thematic reproduction of imagination, design and shade.6 Writing in the

    manner of Rembrandt and Callot, Bertrand did not desire an identifiable for mal relationship between his prose poems and their works. What Bertrand was imitating was the method or procedure of design and shade utilized by

    these two artists. Bertrand's use of the word Fantaisie in the subtitle is anoth er adoption from artistic terminology. In painting and music,fantaisie denotes a work in which the artist's caprice and imagination take precedence over stylistic rules; the painter/composer is left to treat his subject matter liberal ly without respecting traditional approaches. Thus, the phraseology of

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  • 140 College Literature 30.2 (Spring 2003)

    Bertrand's subtitle indicates merely an improvisation on CaUot and Rembrandt's methods and themes. In order to elicit this relation, we must

    backtrack along the path from which this subtitle evolved. On 12 September 1828, Le Provincial published three of Bertrand's prose

    poems with a note by the author proposing to publish a corpus of pieces in the same genre under the title Les Bambochades. More often than not, this original title has been glossed over by contemporary scholars and briefly summarized as a reference to Peter van Laer, (caUed "il Bamboccio"), a

    Dutch painter from the first half of the seventeenth century. Max Milner provides some elaboration, characterizing van Laer's work as depicting pop ular rural or burlesque scenes using a technique prevalent in Rome during the first half of the seventeenth century. Bertrand borrowed from van Laer's

    work the notion of creating provocative and lively scenes that evoke a humorous response, as Milner explains.7 Certainly this claim is valid; howev er, a more specific clarification is warranted for Bertrand's choice of title.

    Because "il Bamboccio" names a


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