Friday, March 19, 2004

Through a Glass Darkly--Part II

Through a Glass Darkly, Part I

Translation of CORRESPONDENCES, Charles Baudelaire

Nature is a temple where living pillars
Let sometimes emerge confused words;
Man crosses it through forests of symbols
Which watch him with intimate eyes.

Like those deep echoes that meet from afar
In a dark and profound harmony,
As vast as night and clarity,
So perfumes, colours, tones answer each other.

There are perfumes fresh as children's flesh,
Soft as oboes, green as meadows,
And others, corrupted, rich, triumphant,

Possessing the diffusion of infinite things,

Like amber, musk, incense and aromatic resin,
Chanting the ecstasies of spirit and senses.

The Chalice of Blood

Mademoiselle de Sombreuil was a painting by Puvis de Chavannes, a reference in Balzac's Vicar of Tours, a poem by Victor Hugo and a riddle of my childhood.

I first came across her among the paintings in my grandparents' house: an oil depicting a fair girl with long blond hair and blue eyes, her countenance a mixture of fear and resolve. She stands solitary and sacrificial against the backdrop of the guillotine, arm extended to reach for a goblet lifted up by the angry, ruddy figures in the Revolutionary mob.

Years later in Paris, seeking any possible distraction from my thesis research in the Bibliotheque Nationale (National Library), I took the opportunity to look further into her story. What light would dusty historical tomes shed on a family oral tradition where magic realism featured so prominently? The only online narrative I could find of Mademoiselle de Sombreuil's actions during the Revolution, Charlotte Yonge's The Second of September 1792, tells a story similar to the accounts in the Bibliotheque Nationale. The main difference lies in the tone that strives less for historical objectivity than a dramatization of events in the service of a moral lesson. One can just imagine the Ms. Yonge as a maiden aunt with scholarly leanings. In its moral objective and tone, The Second of September recalls the illustrated Lives of the Saints that children were encouraged to read during my brief sojourn in Catholic school. The hope that these stories would inspire us to lead saintly lives did not take into account the perspective of a ten year old girl. In the saintly life, it seemed one had a choice between youth, beauty and an early death in the throes of the most creative forms of torture known to man, or maturity and long life...lived out in a nunnery. Needless to say, neither was appealing.

Charlotte Yonge's account

"About twenty-two ladies were together, and were called to leave the prison, but the two who went first were at once butchered, and the sentry called out to the others, "It is a snare, go back, do not show yourselves." They retreated; but Marie de Sombreuil had made her way to her father, and when he was called down into the court, she came with him. She hung round him, beseeching the murderers to have pity on his grey hairs, and declaring that they must strike him only through her. One of the ruffians, touched by her resolution, called out that they should be allowed to pass if the girl would drink to the health of the nation. The whole court was swimming with blood, and the glass he held out to her was full of something red. Marie would not shudder. She drank, and with the applause of the assassins ringing in her ears, she passed with her father over the threshold of the fatal gates, into such freedom and safety as Paris could then afford. Never again could she see a glass of red wine without a shudder, and it was generally believed that it was actually a glass of blood that she had swallowed, though she always averred that this was an exaggeration, and that it had been only her impression before tasting it that so horrible a draught was offered to her....

M. Cazotte was imprisoned again on the 12th of September, and all his daughter's efforts failed to save him. She was taken from him, and he died on the guillotine, exclaiming, "I die as I have lived, faithful to my God and to my King." And the same winter, M. de Sombreuil was also imprisoned again. When he entered the prison with his daughter, all the inmates rose to do her honour. In the ensuing June, after a mock trial, her father and brother were put to death, and she remained for many years alone with only the memory of her past days."

As a child, I interpreted this story as a moral test. Given the opportunity, would I sacrifice my own life to save another? Looking at the painting of Mademoiselle de Sombreuil, I feared that I had been measured and found lacking.

Worse yet, the gesture was useless. Mademoiselle de Sombreuil later lost her father and brother anyway. What did it mean to face death to remain faithful to one's God and one's King? While the gratitude of God is not for this world, it would appear that the gratitude of kings leaves much to be desired. In one of the accounts of Mlle. de Sombreuil's life in the Bibliotheque Nationale, it told of Mademoiselle, now Madame in later years, petitioning the Restoration king for some pension with which to educate and raise her son. While the exact details of her later life and reduced circumstances escape me, the suggestion of a less heroic and penurious middle and old age lend perspective to the second painting of Mlle. de Sombreuil

Who is that old woman?

To my ten year old self, the idea of my own aging seemed distant and unreal, thus I experienced great difficulty in reconciling the earlier and later portraits of Mademoiselle de Sombreuil. While I was not particularly interested in the imagery of self-sacrifice, I did appreciate that certain standards of beauty had been respected in young Mademoiselle's portrait. The same could not have been said of "Mademoiselle" de Sombreuil, the twilight years. The earlier portrait memorializes one moment that came to define her life for others, frozen in time, romanticized, a small paintstroke in the larger tableau of Nineteenth century French literary and artistic fascination with the Revolution and the phase known as La Terreur...a tendency to seek solace for impersonal and senseless acts of violence in individual acts of faith, courage and devotion. The latter portrait presents the older woman, independent of any dramatic context, montage or romanticization...a pinched expression on her face, wrinkles, wart on her chin, dark hair that sits unnaturally on her head (did I read that she lost her hair, was it a wig?). The face in the portrait of young Mademoiselle Sombreuil reflects the instantly recognizable archetype of the girl martyr. In the later portrait, the old woman's facial expression represents no archetype, no solace, no resolution.

From The Vicar of Tours, Honore de Balzac

"In the "citta dolente" of spinsterhood we often meet, especially in France, with women whose lives are a sacrifice nobly and daily offered to noble sentiments. Some remain proudly faithful to a heart which death tore from them; martyrs of love, they learn the secrets of womanhood only though their souls. Others obey some family pride (which in our days, and to our shame, decreases steadily); these devote themselves to the welfare of a brother, or to orphan nephews; they are mothers while remaining virgins. Such old maids attain to the highest heroism of their sex by consecrating all feminine feelings to the help of sorrow. They idealize womanhood by renouncing the rewards of woman's destiny, accepting its pains. They live surrounded by the splendour of their devotion, and men respectfully bow the head before their faded features. Mademoiselle de Sombreuil was neither wife nor maid; she was and ever will be a living poem."

Translated stanza from The Death of Mademoiselle de Sombreuil, Victor Hugo

Her life was a pure mystery
Of innoncence and saintly remorse;
This soul that passed along the earth

In between the living and the dead.
Often, alas, the unfortunate one,
As though, from her destiny
Death broke the bond,
Felt with vain terrors
The icy passage in her pale veins

A blood that was not her own!

The Rose

My parents' rose garden was a true labor of love in the American South. The bushes would initially flourish in the early temperate months of spring. However, when the air took on the moist shimmer that gives way to the crashing violence of afternoon thundershowers, which punctuate the heat of summer, the roses began to look a little beleagured. They required constant watering (on the roots only in the early morning), fertilizing and spraying, lest they be consumed by aphids, parch and dry or fall victim to an outbreak of black spot. They had whimsical names: Mr. Lincoln frequented Queen Elizabeth in a court composed of Peace, Double Delight and Voodoo, staid reds and pinks gave way to a veritable Mardi Gras of color--flouncy whites, swirls of hot pink on white, canary yellow blending to deep orange.

As they tried out different varieties, they learned that modern, hybrid tea roses, bred for hardiness and a longer blooming season, display a sort of uniform and regular beauty that, alas, leaves much to be desired in the perfume category. To get a rose that smelled like a rose often meant going back to the older varieties, notably antique tea roses. In researching those varietals, I discovered that "Mademoiselle de Sombreuil," in addition to being a vampire of virtue, was also a rosa rugosa.

From The Lady of the House of Love, Angela Carter

"When he returned from the mess that evening, the heavy fragrance of Count Nosferatu's rose drifted down the stone corridor of the barracks to greet him, and his spartan quarters brimmed with the reeling odour of a glowing velvet, monstrous flower whose petals had regained all their former bloom and elaticity, their corrupt, brilliant, baleful splendor.

The next day, his regiment embarked for France."

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