The Illuminated, or The Precursors of Socialism: Tales and Portraits

The Illuminated, or The Precursors of Socialism: Tales and Portraits

Gérard de Nerval

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Translated, with an introduction, by Peter Valente / July 2022 / 6 x 9, 336 pp. / 978-1-939663-74-0

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 Bretonne, 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.


“For readers compelled by new forms of expression that emerged in the 19th century, this book is a gem. The gallery Nerval presents captures six men, from the eccentric to the mad, whose lives and works inspired their acolytes, including Nerval himself, toward republicanism at least, if not outright socialism. The Illuminated also reveals its author during his last productive years, marked by his own episodes of madness and interment. Praise goes to the translator, Valente, for having brought this book into English with poise and vivacity.”
—Allan Grabaud, Los Angeles Review of Books

“For Nerval, history is a convulsion, a movement of unpredictable streams and detours whose subterranean influences constantly threaten to erupt into whirlpools and tsunami.”
—Martin Billheimer, Counterpunch

These are good stories, presenting often fascinating lives—both in historical context and on their own—and the translation of this collection is long overdue in English.“
—M. A. Orthofer, The Complete Review

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