Who is Théophile Gautier and why is there a street named after him?

Avenue Theophile Gautier, 1811-1872, Writer and Critic

Whenever I'm walking around Paris, I'm hit by a barrage of information. Some of it makes sense and some of it doesn't. One of the questions that I've had for some time concerns Théophile Gautier - who was he and why is there a 550 meter long street named after him? If you speak French, you're probably grinning because you read the sign and already know that he's an author. But what did he write?


Feeling like a detective, I was pleased to find an additional clue about Gautier in an unlikely place -- the exhibition, Pompeii: an art of living, at the Maillol Museum. Amongst the silverware, ceramics and erect phalluses that represented the life force to Pompeians, there was a signboard next to the body casts of the victims that read:

In the middle of the 19th century, Théophile Gautier's short story Arria Marcella: Souvenir de Pompeii (1852) famously described a fragment of solidified ash bearing the mark of a young girl's breast, discovered in the Villa of Diomedes in 1772. This fragment was taken to Naples where it aroused great curiosity before finally crumbling into dust. 


Aha, he wrote a short story! Wondering if there was anything else that I should know about Théophile Gautier, I pulled Alistair Horne's Seven Ages of Paris: Portrait of a City from the bookshelf and was amazed to see that there are six entries about him. Here's one from the section, Morale Collapses, that tells about the heinous conditions during the Siege of Paris:

By mid-December Henry Labouchère, the 'Besieged Resident' of the London Daily News, was telling his readers, 'I had a slice of spaniel the other day', adding that it made him 'feel like a cannibal'. A week later he reported that he had encountered a man who was fattening up a large cat which he planned to serve up on Christmas Day, 'surrounded with mice, like sausages'. Théophile Gautier claimed that cats and dogs in the city rapidly sensed their changed status:

Soon the animals observed that man was regarding them in a strange manner and that, under the pretext of caressing them, his hand was feeling them like the fingers of a butcher, to ascertain the state of their embonpoint*. More intellectual and suspicious than dogs, the cats were the first to understand and adopted the greatest prudence in their relations.


*Since embonpoint is not a word with which I was familiar, I looked it up at dictionary.com. It means excessive plumpness or stoutness.

Comments

  1. oh my, what a macabre street you lead us down.

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    1. And to make matters worse, it's a street that I walk down almost every day! Imagine the macabre thoughts that I'll have on my way to Picard (the frozen food store).

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  2. I knew I knew this name. I went to one of my two copies of Paris by John Russell and learned that he was also a neighbor to Baudelaire when they both lived in the Hotel de Lauzun. Amongst the other denizens of that particular hotel was the Hashish-Eaters Club, some of which Gautier chronicled. Russell puts him in the company of Hugo and Maupassant. I'd like his company I do believe.

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  3. You would like Gautier's company as long as you weren't a plump dog or cat! ;) But in all seriousness, it must have been terrible to live in Paris during the Siege.

    It's hard to believe, but "Paris" isn't a book that I own, especially after you wrote the following comment on the post where I asked for suggestions for books about Paris:

    For history and cultural history, Paris by John Russell is indispensable, I have two copies, just in case. I do not however travel with it.

    Looks as if I really need to add another book to my Paris collection!

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  4. Gautier was also one of the poets of the Parnasse movement. He wrote a fabulous poem called "Symphonie en blanc majeur" - among others.

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    1. Thanks for the additional information about Gautier! I'm going to google "Symphonie en blanc majeur".

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  5. Wow, what a great story. They say a dog is for life, not just for Christmas, except during the Siege of Paris :-)

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    1. Welcome back from your ski holiday! I can't imagine what the English people would have eaten during a siege - certainly not their dogs.

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  6. I've just told Caiti, the cat lover of the family, that they eat cats for Christmas in Paris, but she's still set on going to Uni there!
    Thanks for another fascinating post Mary!

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    1. Good for Caiti! She shouldn't be discouraged by the acts of people who are only trying to stay alive during a siege. Most of the time the fare in Paris is much better - snails, intestines, cow cheeks and such.

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