Cherry jam — Take 12 pounds of just ripe cherries; remove their stems and cores; add 2 pounds of currants, prepared in the same way as for the currant jam above, along with a pound of raspberry juice; put it all in the pan on the stove; boil and skim; after half an hour of boiling, add three-quarter pounds sugar per pound of juice; let boil for half an hour, remove from the heat and pour jam immediately into the pots you have prepared.
Even those who venture to prepare a complex multicourse meal only on occasion can find delight in the pages of a well-written cookbook, approached as literature. There are far worse ways to pass the time than to skim the recipes of Louis-Eustache Audot’s 1823 La Cuisinière de la Campagne et de la Ville, ou nouvelle cuisine économique. Here a parade of jams takes the form of confitures and compotes, preserves and conserves, fruit curds and spreads, confits and marmalades, chutneys and jellies, glamorized into every luscious form of dessert possible.
The preserves, which under other circumstances might seem cozy (a spread for toast as a four-’o-clock pick me up) or sentimental (Dostoevsky stirring raspberry jam into tea with a little silver spoon) are here described in such detail they come to seem almost sensual. Certain aspects of their being start to appear sinister, transforming childishness or practicality into maturity and pleasure, oriented toward death.
Is this too large a claim for a jam? Perhaps so, but the activity of preservation always holds obsession in potentia. It’s possible to preserve almost anything — sugared fruits and vegetables in wobbly molds of aspic, cheeses, meats, paintings in museums, collected works, letters, photographs, items of clothing, memories, butterflies pinned on paper, hunted animals, human bodies.
The escalation is disturbing, because there’s no clear place where you can say that this or that is too morbid, this or that isn’t natural. It’s easy to understand how one can derail into la préservation pour la préservation. How can we understand someone who saves for its own sake? And even more confusingly, how can we understand someone who pretends to save for its own sake, yet in reality uses and displays objects, corrupting the pure artistic idea of preservation?
Enter Jean Lorrain. Within the Parisian society of late-19th century France, he was a self-conscious gadfly. Rather than hermit himself away at home to write diverting fantasies, he threw himself into the swing of things, finding ample material in the fancy costumes, sights and smells of Paris to capture in prose. What he did in literary terms is akin to taking the wooden spoon used for stirring domestic and worldly elements into a sugary concoction, and employing it to batter those close to him on the head. Sallying forth everyday with his lush mustache, fat beringed fingers, heavy lidded eyes and puffed up chest, Lorrain wrote criticism so scathing that men and women frequently challenged him to duals, and he lived for the rush of excitement.
In addition to his polemical journalism, Lorrain also wrote a prolific amount of narrative literature, which got him into trouble for obscenity charges. But what an odd kind of obscenity it is: “I told you already and will repeat it: you will find the most spellbinding nostalgia in jars of fruits and vegetables… Vegetables first, what a source of the fantastic! The old Flemish painters understood this well when they introduced into their anatomies of devils and compositions of monsters, into their Sabbaths and Temptations, all the fruits and vegetables of creation.”
Monsieur de Bougrelon, the one who speaks these words, is a personage in the fullest sense, a withered old dandy wandering about Amsterdam. He introduces strange pleasures into the lives of the ennui-inflicted men who visit him in the city, but not the sort one might expect. After an explanatory spiel, Bougrelon takes his guests to look at jars of preserved vegetables and old fabrics, to imagine women who are long gone or never were.
The cloakroom of memory!
In a suite of rooms lit by high windows, display case after display case lined the walls, immense armoires of glass like blocks of ice, where the fashions of lost centuries seemed frozen. Touching preserve jars of outmoded elegance, the so-called costume galleries were where the meticulous Dutch guarded the gallant castoffs, dresses, gowns, and jewelry of former queens, shielding them from the dust and humidity. Next to the long pleated robes imitated by Watteau, there were rural scenes by Pater, gros de Tours woven with silver fleurs-de-lis upon the Bordeaux-red backdrop of sack-back gowns, delicate striped pekins beside braids of silk, brocades of green myrtle foliage, glazed satins like rivulets of frost with Astragalus flowers and love knots, and garlands of blooming carnations and sweet alyssums tied to the fabric with ribbons…
Perhaps this cloakroom is not so strange. One of my favorite still life paintings of the Dutch Golden Age is Willem Claeszoon Heda’s Breakfast Table with Blackberry Pie (1631, oil on panel). A “breakfast piece”, it preserves small moments, things that will rot or in some other way fail to survive — transient things, fleeting reflections, glints. Here is the metal spoon perfectly prepared to break the crusty surface of a tart, to scoop glistening berries onto a plate. There is the crease in the cream-colored tablecloth, unfolded for a special occasion perhaps, after months spent tucked away in the cabinet. Certain touches like a broken glass and a key remain enigmatic, speaking to something that happened off canvas.
Other Dutch paintings show interiors and families, and in the fresh scrubbed faces, reflecting surfaces and glistening shells, there is both sadness and eroticism: memento mori, flesh and death, trinkets that speak not of the past but of the future as a reminder we will die. Lorrain’s objects work in this way, turning backward and forward at the same time, suggesting in their decay that the past is over yet producing these sensual past memories anew.
Preservation as conservation becomes preservation as provocation, and in so doing transforms into preservation as perversion. Usually one conserves to prevent injury, decay, waste or loss, but the sort of conservation here actually extends loss. Pickled items are kept not to be consumed, but to be frozen in their death state and dwelt on infinitely.
What kind of pleasure exists in this kind of preservation? Can there also be perversities of the emotions? Monsieur Bougrelon certainly alludes to the pleasures of the flesh. In Lorrain’s time, it was fashionable for artists to “go mad”, perhaps in part from syphilis, which Lorrain himself had, but mostly as a performance that entitled them to otherwise indefensible extremities of behavior. Lorrain delights in the strange thrills to be found in what is decayed, which serves as a means of accessing the past.
For Lorrain, people are still lifes, and still lifes are holders of memory, representing a longing not for something concrete but for nostalgia itself, in a double remove. It’s strange to think of desire as not for a person, but for desire — a wax fruit kept on the table not to bite into, but to tap a pencil against, or juggle, or throw against a wall. Lorrain finds pleasures in the activity of remembering, the extended thought made possible by melancholy. Decades later, Proust would stay inside wrapped up for years in bandages with the lights off, turning this mummifying to glorious effect. But Lorrain wants to focus on the external preserved thing, and isn’t much interested in inner life. (Is this the absence, the not-there, the [ ] that so much French theory decries?)
Amsterdam, the city where the story transpires, is portrayed as a place of ugly northern people and fog, Schiedammers and Bruges-la-Morte. Men wander about pretending to be what they are not, intrigued by the tales of other men also pretending to be what they are not. This is a preserved city, where everything is still and stopped. The wide canal is lined with houses that have little windows, squares you’d like to open like the flaps in Cadbury Advent calendars in which the days count down to Christmas, elf-shaped chocolates waiting.
Interiors are where things happen, rooms full of revulsive old things, withered hands, faded fabrics, dolls and dolled-up girls with no souls, cadavers and “lavish historians” tending the works. In this environment of infinite sadness, a tender compassion is cultivated, the rot already in the apple. This is a brothel not of bodies but of pasts — a space dedicated to the decadent pleasures of living in one’s head, in a kingdom of eternal memory. Nothing magical here, just regrets and thoughts, someone says at one point. Coldness, ennui, preserves.
During the writing of this essay, I opened the refrigerator and looked carefully at a jar of pickles. It had a gold lid and inside, floating in the vinegar, were baby sour gherkins. Cornichons, product of France. They were delicate and green and a little repulsive, and they continued to absorb their spices as they underwent the turbulent journey within the jar in my hand to the counter. A slow drift, then they were settling back into position at the bottom of the glass cylinder with grace, in gentle collision. Almost nuzzling, the way you can imagine that dogs or other small animals do.
Within the vinegar the pickles would never be able to move very quickly, a limit on their freedom that would perhaps always exceed their comprehension, though one can never really be sure about these things. I was going to eat one of the pickles with a bit of cheese, but honestly, after considering them so long, I found I’d lost my appetite and just put the jar back in the fridge.
Ennui, the state that permits an obsessive attention to detail, which Monsieur de Bougrelon encourages and finds artificial means to bring about, is not the laziness of lying in bed, but rather a semi-humorous, semi-serious way of drifting, looking closely. How did Lorrain come to write his books? Was it the ether he consumed? Perhaps that too, but he wrote so many with such a specific preoccupation that his attraction to such aspects of the melancholic and derelict must also have just been a part of his personality.
Imaginary pleasures, bodices of nothing, cloakrooms of memory, jars of preserves, a whole philosophy of the still and quivering. It isn’t easy to square Lorrain’s reflections on sadness, objects and dead things with his sharp public personality as a dandy, always searching for the whiplash bon mot. Or perhaps it’s all too easy, since sharp writing about trivial things is one of the greatest of decadent pleasures. Perhaps harder to understand than the motives of the writer are those of the reader.
In her book The Art of Describing, Svetlana Alpers distinguishes between the textual imagination of the Italian Renaissance and visual imagination of the Dutch Golden Age. The visual imagination requires things to be still, to describe them. But to the point of deadness? Why look at a still life at all? What is the attraction of something as quiet and unmoving as a naturaleza muerta? Perhaps this is the same question as: What makes a person want to watch the slow performance of a tragedy? For the catharsis of finding joy in the trigger of old memories? Why do people purposely seek out experiences of tragedy and objects that provoke such a state?
Monsieur de Bougrelon was originally printed in 1897 by Librairie Borel. The release of two translations of the book now, along with the start of several presses over the past decade devoted to the period, makes me curious about why there’s been a resurgence of interest in this kind of book. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence of editors coming along now, at this point in time. Or perhaps it speaks to a larger cultural moment. Maybe there is a place for a decadence of thought in which nothing actually happens. “Oh the exasperating mystery of the sorbet that never melted,” says one of the characters, talking about a woman.
One of the two translations is by prolific English translator Brian Stableford for Side Real Press in the UK, the other by Californian translator Eva Richter for her own editorial house. I chatted about the book with Eva, who lives in Palm Springs, a place at first sight in all ways opposite brooding late-19th century Amsterdam. The dark underbelly and seediness concealed behind the sunshine of the place are precisely what interest her though, driving both her writing and the selections of her publishing project Spurl — a nonsense word, loosely modeled after the name of Vienna coffee shop Café Sperl but deliberately Dadaesque.
One of the last few editions Eva put out was Barbara Payton’s I Am Not Ashamed, the memoir of a blonde actress who appears in furs and a defiant look on the cover and talks about her past dealings with men. Another was the excellent Swiss writer Henri Roorda’s My Suicide. (I’d like to see someone translate his Le Rire et les rieurs.) The editions are simple and unprepossessing, the contents striking enough. “I want to do something interesting and appealing, but also boundary pushing,” said Eva. Her bookcase behind her, sheltering hundreds of never-translated volumes in French, suggests that this might become a life task, or at least a highly amusing diversion.
Imagine going about life seeing it as possible material to be preserved. Every tiny quiver of a blade of grass, every shine or shadow, every rustle, would become an optical or aural challenge to “keep”. What would stay fresh, what would spoil and go rotten? Can one create a private archive in which it is possible to save things and revisit them in privacy, away from the world? How should one think about memory, how should one cultivate it? As a private museum somewhere between sacred chapel and Mnemosyne Atlas, as a rosary for remembrance, as an eternal jar of pickles, as an Advent calendar that endlessly restocks the sweets behind its flaps, so eagerly torn open?
Different reasons exist to preserve things. They can be preserved because they are useful and later meant to be consumed, like a jam. They can be preserved for display, like the objects in a Dutch Golden Age painting, which show what a family owns and values. And they can be preserved like Monsieur de Bougrelon’s objects, intended for both display and use. The physical apparatus of modern computers works like Bougrelon’s cloaks, in that it is meant to be both aesthetic and useful. What is inside the machine is different, more like a cherry jam meant for pure use, files saved to memory in the binary code of 0 / 1.
Here, again, we come to the idea of preservation for preservation’s sake, “just in case”. Items are “autosaved”, stored away whether or not they will be used later. Data is saved not to consume like a jam or show off like a Dutch painting, but “just because” and “in case”. Maybe we will open a document later, maybe not. The things retained can potentially be opened again and revisited, the same memories relived multiple times. Just as Monsieur de Bougrelon’s physical object evokes an invisible person, a visible document evokes an invisible memory bank of data encoded in binary numbers, in computing terms “persistence”.
There are interesting consequences to the machine’s saving for its own sake. The preservation of silly, non sequitur things, for instance: items that quickly expire, pomp on behalf of nothing, material for Spontaneity: A History in 12 Volumes. Once attention has been drawn to the process of saving, there are all sorts of ways to play with the concept.
Yet here an updated opportunity is also created for those who take the idea of “saving for its own sake”, and give it a further turn of the screw, making claims on behalf of the purity of saving and but in reality displaying to show off, and using what is supposedly there “in (display) case”. Rather than embrace silliness, our waxy, wily Monsieur de Bougrelon saw opportunity and swung his walking stick — using the framework of pure art and preservation for preservation’s sake, and moving in multiple and subtle ways to corrupt it.
The decay of decay — a drollerie
One day an epidemic began of what appeared to be rot, but was not so. The people thought that what they saw was decay, genuine rot, and filed the appropriate complaints. In reality what they suffered from was false decay, the appearance of rot coating everything like gilt on a box. False, yes. The decay had been put on the canal boats by the Preservation Commission, an organization set up to preserve old things in the city. It did so, but also took steps to add “authenticity”, touches of fake rot. After some time, those living in the city started to get used to this. They withdrew their complaints, and spoke to visitors about the long history of the place where they lived. The conservation commission devoted itself to full time preparation of the fake decay, to avoid any freshness. Complaints began to be heard whenever a color was too bright or a deck too well scrubbed. Real decay became unpopular. Nobody wanted green or brown; they preferred the beautiful specially prepared verdigris of the Preservation Commission. Only one woman, more out of boredom than anything else, took the trouble to save a few samples of original rot. A bit of rust and cracked paint on her deck was tucked away in an old powder compact. Soon afterward, the authorities knocked on the door to replace what was in her backyard with a better kind of ruin.
Jessica Sequeira is a writer and translator living in Buenos Aires.