THE ILLUMINATED, OR THE PRECURSORS OF SOCIALISM
First published in French in 1852, on the heels of the previous year’s appearance of Journey to the Orient, The Illuminated was the first of a string of Gérard de Nerval’s major works in his final years that would culminate in his posthumous fantastical autobiography Aurélia in 1855. The “male” counterpart to his 1854 Les Filles de feu (Daughters of fire), The Illuminated collects six portraits of men whom Nerval mysteriously dubbed “precursors of socialism”—visionaries who together formed an alternative history of France and a backdrop to a mystical form of madness that Nerval ultimately claimed for himself.
Nerval here presents the reader with Raoul Spifame, a mad lawyer who imagined himself to be Henry II; the Abbé de Bucquoy, a man who opposed the monarchy and whose amazing escapes suggested the possession of magical powers; Restif de la Betonne, the eighteenth-century theosophist, sensualist, and pantheist who defined God in human terms rather than spiritual; the Count Alessandro di Cagliostro, the famous magus and alchemist; Jacques Cazotte, author of The Devil in Love who created a synthesis between hermetic ideas and Catholic thought; and Quintus Aucler, a lawyer who sought to revive paganism in the unstable world of French society in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution of 1789.
An overlooked work by Nerval, The Illuminated combines the picturesque with pathos: a peculiar gallery of portraits that blur the boundaries between mysticism and mystification, and offers an outline for a communitarian rendition of the imagination.
Gérard de Nerval (1808–1855) was a writer, poet, and translator who wedded French and German romanticism and transformed his research into mystic thought and his bouts of mental illness into such visionary works as the posthumously published Aurélia, or Dream and Life. After his suicide, his work would grow in stature and go on to influence everyone from Marcel Proust, André Breton, Antonin Artaud, and Michel Leiris.