Odoevsky’s phantasmagoria

“The Cosmorama” and “The Salamander” are the longest and most substantial of the stories in The Salamander and other Gothic tales, translated (and possibly edited) by Neil Cornwell. Both are excellent examples of the Romantic tale and very much in the style of Hoffmann; “The Golden Pot” and “The Sandman” both come to mind as close siblings in the form.

While the shorter stories tend to contain elements of the supernatural and fantastic, it is in these longer works that characters have time and space to delve into a darker fantasy world, where they, enchanted or otherwise intoxicated, see terrible creatures, evil spirits, parallel worlds, the dead. Odoevksy gives ever-creepier images, of “lions, dragons, the dead skeleton and monstrous birds…flying round them”; “little blue flames running down her body, and her body was going black and blacker”; “a being whose gaze I shall never forget: its face was a dull green colour; crimson hair, like blood, streamed over its shoulders; from earthen coloured eyes there dripped fiery tears.”

These scenes give a bit more of a sensational aspect to Odoevsky’s stories, and also invite further comparison to Hoffmann. And along with the endings to the most phantasmagorical stories, which are less than happy ones, they create an impression of a more pessimistic Romanticism, without resolution in the union of reason and feeling.

“The Sylph,” an exploration of madness and possibly my favorite of these tales, contains such pessimism. A young man writes several letters to his friend in the city after he himself retires to the country for his health. The “high society whirl” was driving him mad, as were books:

When there’s a book lying on the table, then you can’t help but reach for it, you open it and you read it. The beginning is enticing, promises you the earth, but you get a bit further and all you see is soap bubbles and you get the horrible feeling that all scholars have experienced, from the year dot to this year, inclusive: seek, and ye shall not find!

Things are not looking good, then, for a successful resolution in a story like this one. Two months after his first letter, the unfortunate man has now also shut himself off from country society after discovering “the same ambition, the same vanity, the same envy, the same selfishness, the same spite, the same flattery and the same meanness” as in high society. So much for “salvation in ignorance,” or the elevation of the naive.

The young man turns back to books and has unlocked the secret library of his uncle, a student of alchemy. He begins to believe that though “[m]any of these thoughts may have seemed fallacious in the eighteenth century,” they may now be confirmed just as other things previously thought magical can now be achieved through science. Rather than ignorant country folk, the writer is now seeking “a kind of knowledge that has now been lost,” a typical Romantic ideal.

Soon the young man begins to believe in his alchemical experiments, and can be found sitting in front of a carafe of water all day long. In it, he can see a beautiful flower and a tiny woman, a sylph. Deemed a madman, he is to be cured by his friend, “a highly reasonable man.” But Odoevksy’s pessimism comes through when the sylph-watcher explains he would choose madness over this life:

You are very pleased that you have, what you call, cured me: that is to say, blunted my perceptions, covered them with some impenetrable shell, made them dead to any world except your box…. Wonderful! Now, when in the midst of the daily round I can feel my abdominal cavity expanding by the hour and my head subsiding into animalistic sleep, I recall with despair that time when, in your opinion, I was in a state of madness, when a charming creature flew down to me from the invisible world, when it opened to me sacraments which now I cannot even express, but which were comprehensible to me… where is that happiness? Give it back to me!

The friend, reasonable man that he is, chides him for being “a poet and that’s all there is to it.”

2 comments to Odoevsky’s phantasmagoria

  • “The Sylph” is my favorite, too, although Finnish business made “The Salamander” unusually interesting.

    I was pondering how to write about this book (which I think I’m nt going to do). You’ve got a good solution here – isolate the different elements. Odoevsky is fundamentally derivative, so it’s useful to separate out the Gogol and the Hoffmann and see what’s left.

    That joke about the fire engine, in the last post, though – that’s classic.

  • nicole

    Yes, the Finnish stuff was pretty awesome really. You don’t see that every day.

    At first I was a little too focused on how derivative it was, and risked “disappointment” (!). But I thought it was mostly good fun, and from the introduction am interested in reading more of him someday for sure.

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