The Lobster Crawl to Revolution

Matter did not arise from nothingness. It will not return to nothingness.

– Blanqui

Aside from his Symbolist autobiography Aurelia, Gerard de Nerval was also famous for walking his pet lobster around town on a leash. Memorably, the leash was a pink ribbon (Satie paid homage to Nerval by binding his late-period musical scores in pink bows). This lobster also seems a fine metaphor for Nerval’s historical studies in The Illuminated, or the Precursors of Socialism, first published in 1852, now superbly translated into English by Peter Valente and published by Wakefield Press. Lost on dry land, the lobster makes its sidereal way, halting and prehistoric, arriving in its own time—if it arrives at all, for this journey might be all of crustacean life—back again at the waters’ edge. Water signifies flowing time. The ripples on its face are the echoes of deep undersea currents, the origins of revolutions which bubble up and flash for a brilliant instant on the surface before receding into uninterrupted calm.

At first glance, the subtitle of his book seems mysterious and contradictory: mysticism and materialism are united. Nerval’s ‘precursors of socialism’ are six disparate figures who played some role in the making of the French Revolution. He traces their eccentric lifelines in a great web of ideas and wild biographies which forms a secretive milieu in the fabric of the times, a set of anomalies orbiting the momentous event of 1789. The book ends with the establishment of the Consulate, and with it comes the victory of bourgeois power and the final cessation of the revolutionary moment.

Illuminated does also mean illuminati, secret societies like the Freemasons and the Rosicrucians, whose lodges that were equally divided between clandestine support for the revolution and the reactionary defense of a doomed regime. These agents of influence seem to be everywhere and nowhere in times of crisis, eking out the critical place in the public conscience where they remain today, solid objects of the layman’s vivid fears and inventions. But the secret society is not so much a ‘society’ as a meeting point of various forces whose ideology depends on time and place, an elective affinity which is always in motion along erratic trajectories. So forget the Hidden Masters, and also the paranoid exposes and Protocols. Ignire their otherworldly symbols and their claims of initiatory insight. In the end, hermetic groups are the products of their class and its great dynamic dreams. As Bakunin said, until about 1830 Masonry “gathered together at its core, with very few exceptions, all the minds of the elite, the most ardent hearts, the proudest spirits, the most audacious personalities, it had constituted an active powerful, and truly beneficial institution. It was the energetic incarnation and implementation of the humanitarian ideal of the eighteenth century. All those great principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity, of reason and human justice, elaborated theoretically at first by the philosophy of that century, became in the hands of the Freemasons practical dogmas and the foundations of a new moral and political program, the soul of a gigantic enterprise of demolition and reconstruction. In that epoch, Freemasonry was nothing less than the universal conspiracy of the revolutionary bourgeoisie against the feudal monarchical and divine tyranny. It was the International of the bourgeoisie.[1]

Regardless of his reputation for fey decadence, Nerval shows himself to be a true scholar. Like any expert collector, he does not differentiate between gossip and corroborated fact. Everything makes up everything; one must be careful with omissions; facts often hide behind fantastic and theatrical evidence. The Illuminated moves along with the episodic thrill of a pulp mystery story. Its strange subjects gesture and gibber, while the author comments wryly on events as if he were watching things unfold from the wings. The cast is hard to beat. Meet Count Cagliostro, alias Giuseppe Balsamo, fraud and clairvoyant, magus and gambler; the abbé de Bucquoy, aristocrat anti-monarchist, whose life was a series of mad Houdini-like escapes from the worst prisons and whose friends included both jailors and outlaws; Restif de la Bretonne, a Fourier-type mystic, inveterate coxman and author of a truly astounding number of volumes on wildly different subjects; Jacques Cazotte, author of a randy Satanic masterpiece, The Devil in Love (most recently adapted by Polanski as The Ninth Gate), and a committed syncretic reformer of Catholicism; the louche pantheist Quintus Aucler, whose project was to revive the dead gods of Latium and Greece after the Revolution; the ‘mad lawyer’ Raoul Spifame, who believed himself to be the real King Henry II. This last case is a prime of example of mistaken identity, a constant trope in any revolutionary plot. Perhaps this confusion of faces is also an insecure admission that far from presiding over its subjects, late monarchy cannot not even recognize itself. Same goes for oligarchies.

The point is that instead of picking generals, eggheads, or puffed-up statesmen, Nerval selects lunatics, delusionals, hedonists and cranks as the harbingers of reality. Reality is overthrow, bloody streets, the Commune, restoration. The outrageousness of these peculiar lives reveals the apparent unreality which always accompanies great transformations. All the sober efforts of economists and dutiful reformers to save a worthless situation evaporate before the prophecies of several loopy outsiders and for a moment, the playing field of history seems to be suspended between a roll of the dice and the hidden whims of a blind heavenly idiot. Most aristocrats went to Madame Guillotine convinced that what was happening was not really happening. This cannot be because it must not be. This last lesson of the ruling class fell on ears that had been separated from the rest of their bodies for decades.

Nerval unearths still more curious entities from the convergence of the Occult and the political, further apparitions of an unstable time whose shadows lengthen to the realms of colonialism and art. For example, the Masonic offshoot called the Martinists, named after its founder-hierophant Louis Claude de Saint-Martin. Of their program, only a few impenetrable texts and devious rumors survive. Saint-Martin’s teacher was the even more elliptical Martinez de Pasqually, a Utopian theosopher who migrated to Haiti when France got too hot. In Saint Domingue, his writings and cult informed the mysteries of Vodou. Just as France had brought the weathervane, which was transformed by sacred Ayiti into the veve, Vodou took what it could use from Pasqually and his intricate gnostic cosmology. Magic is unpredictable, untrustworthy, able to reconcile antagonisms and recycle corrupted symbols into ecstatic purity. Vodou informed the revolutionary banner of L’Ouverture and Dessalines; a century and a half later, it also glinted on the machetes of the Ton Tons Macoute in the Duvaliers’ comprador state. Vodou is the howl for justice in an unjust world, an incomparable work of the African oppressed—and it is also the ferocity of Françafrique, a hollow distortion of living gods into supernatural police and the right of remote overlords.

Nerval is most at home with the possessed and their spirits, but he also deals with the clearer machinations of historical woof and warp. The Illuminated is both an antidote and a symptom of sociological reflection, a play against that linear, progressive and ‘redemptive’ historical view so dear to both liberals and reactionaries. Nerval offers sly parody in place of stark pronouncement and rejects strict causality in favor of ironic consequences (he shares this with Marx). Magical currents are simply the expression of materialism by other means, forces which appear mysterious when they are encountered in real time only because their laws change with each singular historical instance. So every revolution seems witchcraft, and secret societies or eternal cycles look like they could be the true worldly motor. There is an archaeology dealing with remnants, but there should also be a catalogue of the confusions around the objects and testimonies of the past. Since all revolutions are betrayed in some way, what also remains are the strange projects and competing visions of the illustrious and the anonymous. All these visions and wishes, made by everyone and articulated by someone—the impressions of ‘invisible meteors’, to borrow a phrase from the anarchist, Bruno Filippi.

So what is the lesson? Is The Illuminated even a history book at all? Or is it just a series of sketches, a collection of freak accidents and the records of impotent spells? In the deadening accounts of libertarian defeat that our schoolbooks proudly recount, victory is always won on the side of Power. And whenever Power is compelled to admit that it’s been taken to the cleaners, the facts in the case are simply rewritten or capitulation is remade into triumph by stealth (or more accurately, by ‘surge’). This inane polarity of failure and success ignores everything to do with Time—not the least being the present, the now we are told is always foreordained and forever out of our hands. But to quote Malatesta, impossibility never prevented anything from happening.

For Nerval, history is a convulsion, a movement of unpredictable streams and detours whose subterranean influences constantly threaten to erupt into whirlpools and tsunami. Isn’t such a vision a poetic volley against those educational forces which demand a closed circuit and claim the total monopoly on fact? Mystification exists also in the rigid schemas of establishment power—perhaps there most of all, thinly disguised as mathematical cause and effect. One must move sideways, edging carefully along and noting every detail, slowly but surely ending up at the mouth of the historical stream. Lesson: Observe the lobster.


[1] “Letter to the Comrades of the International Workingmen’s Association of Locle and Cheau-de-Fonds”, (1869)

Martin Billheimer is the author of Mother Chicago: Truant Dreams and Specters of the Gilded Age. He lives in Chicago.