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"Tall, black-haired, rouged, Kaiser-moustached, he cackled and screamed in weird attitudes, giggling in high soprano, hiding his little black teeth behind an exquisitely gloved hand—the poseur absolute:” Marie Joseph Robert Anatole, Comte de Montesquiou-Fézensac, French aesthete, Symbolist poet, art collector, and dandy. Though it barely counts more than a dozen members today, all of whom descend from the same 18th-century marquis, the House of Montesquiou is one of oldest aristocratic families in Europe, tracing its origins to the 9th century at least; other closely related branches included the Armagnac, Marsan, and d'Artagnan families. From 1777, when Louis XVI renewed the Fézensac name, the heads of the Montesquiou house were formally known as Montesquiou-Fezensac. The family has produced several Cabinet ministers, four generals and bishops, three field marshals, an admiral, a Cardinal, an archbishop, various diplomats, and countless men and women of letters. (However, the great Enlightenment social philosopher, Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu, only acquired the Montesquieu title from his guardian uncle and was not genetically part of the main line.) A distant uncle, Charles de Batz-Castelmore d'Artagnan, was the model for Alexandre Dumas' “fourth” Musketeer, and his cousin, Élisabeth, comtesse Greffulhe, was Marcel Proust's model for Oriane, the duchesse de Guermantes. His father, the son of an aide-de-camp to Napoleon Bonaparte, was a rich stockbroker, and the young Montesquieu used his wealth and lineage to cultivate social relationships and collaborations with the great artist celebrities of his time, including Alphonse Daudet, Edmond de Goncourt, Eleonora Duse, Gabriele d'Annunzio, Anna de Noailles, Marthe Bibesco, Luisa Casati, Jean Cocteau, Maurice Barrès, glass artist Émile Gallé, and Sarah Bernhardt (with whom he reportedly had sex with once, after which he vomited for 24 hours). A closeted homosexual, for most of his life he was probably chaste. He wrote the verses in the optional choral parts of Gabriel Fauré's “Pavane” (which Fauré dedicated to the comtesse Greffulhe) and much untranslatable poetry, which was poorly received by critics.
Robert Baldick described an 1883 visit by Stéphane Mallarmé to his home: “It was late at night when the poet was shown over the house, and the only illumination came from a few scattered candelabra; yet in the flickering light Mallarmé observed that the door-bell was in fact a sacring-bell, that one room was furnished as a monastery cell and another as the cabin of a yacht, and that the third contained a Louis Quinze pulpit, three or four cathedral stalls and a strip of altar railing. He was shown, too, a sled picturesquely placed on a snow-white bearskin, a library of rare books in suitably-coloured bindings and the remains of an unfortunate tortoise whose shell had been coated with gold paint. According to Montesquiou writing many years later in his memoirs, the sight of these marvels left Mallarmé speechless with amazement. 'He went away … in a state of silent exaltation…. I do not doubt therefore that it was in the most admiring, sympathetic and sincere good faith that he retailed to Huysmans what he had seen during the few moments he spent in Ali Baba's cave.'”
Though his own literary work had little or no lasting value, he in his person and in his activities were at the center of modern writing. In 1901, he and friends were rehearsing one of his costumed “tableaux vivants” on the grounds of the Petit Trianon, a small château in the grounds of the Palace of Versailles, when Charlotte Anne Moberly and Eleanor Jourdain, the principal of St. Hugh's College in Oxford and her new assistant, who were stumbled upon them. Writing as "Elizabeth Morison" and "Frances Lamont" a decade later, they claimed to have seen the gardens as they had been in the late 18th century, as well as ghostly figures of queen Marie Antoinette, the Comte de Vaudreuil, and others. In addition to thus inadvertently provoking one of the most famous 20th-century accounts of paranormal activity, Montesquieu was also the model of some of the most intriguing literary characters of his era.
In Joris-Karl Huysmans' "À rebours" [Against Nature; Against the Grain] (1884), he was the inspiration for Jean des Esseintes, the last member of a powerful, once-proud noble family who lived an eccentric, extremely decadent life in Paris and tried to retreat into an ideal artistic world of his own creation where he could spend the rest of his life in intellectual and aesthetic contemplation of the debauched events and love affairs of his past; retreating to the country, he filled his house with an eclectic art collection dominated by Gustave Moreau’s paintings, reflected on contemporary literary matters (he adored the poetry of Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Tristan Corbière, and Mallarmé and the decadent fiction of Auguste Villiers de l'Isle-Adam and Barbey d'Aurevilly), created a garden of poisonous flowers as he tried to invent new perfumes, and had gemstones set in the shell of a tortoise (the extra weight killed it). When the book came out, James Abbott McNeill Whistler (whose portrait of his friend Montesquieu he called “Arrangement in Black and Gold”) congratulated Huysmans the next day for his “marvelous” book. Paul Valéry called it his “Bible and his bedside book,” and it strongly influenced the development of Oscar Wilde’s writings. himself resumed writing poetry after eight years of silence to pen "Prose—pour des Esseintes" in 19885 (indeed, after 1868 he had waited five years before the death of Théophile Gautier inspired "Toast funèbre" (Funeral Salute) in 1873, followed by a three-year hiatus, when he was invited to write "Tombeau de Poe" (Elegy for Poe) in 1876; the next year, the death of a friend’s wife prompted "Sur les bois oubliés quand passe l'hiver sombre" (When the dark days of winter pass over the forgotten woods). With the opening stanza (Hyperbole! Can't you arise / From memory, and triumph, grow / Today a form of conjuration / Robed in an iron folio? [--tr. Donald Davie]), Mallarmé began his final phase as a revolutionary poet.
Montesquieu was also the model for Palamè de Guermantes in Proust's seven-volume "À la recherche du temps perdu" [In Search of Lost Time; or, most famously in English, Remembrance of Things Past] (1913-1927), often regarded as the greatest 20th-century novel. His full range of titles would include Prince of Launes, Duke of Brabant, squire of Montargis, and prince of Oleron, Carency, Viareggio and Dunes, but he called himself simply Baron de Charlus “"with apparent simplicity where there is a lot of pride.” Various characters had pet nicknames for him; friends called him“Meme,” his sister Oriane called him “the beautiful teaser,” and his lover, the tailor Jupien, referred to him as “my little mouth.” Proust depicted him as not only a homosexual, masochistic pervert and pedophile, but also a man of refinement and sensitivity who was able to maintain an entirely chaste (though otherwise violent and strange) with the violinist Morel for the sake of artistry. He was also protective of his public reputation: “Noticing that his embroidered handkerchief was revealing part of its coloured edging, he thrust it back into his pocket with a startled glance, like a prudish but not innocent woman concealing bodily charms which in her excessive modesty she sees as wanton.” But he was always the haughty, mercurial aristocrat. “I thought I could see a smile flicker about his lips: the smile of the man who looks down from a great height on the characters and manners of lesser men.” Charlus revealed a great deal about himself when he said, “Do you imagine that the poisonous spittle of five hundred little men of your sort, hoisted on to each other's shoulders, could even drool down on to the tips of my august toes?” [The name “Palamè” was an interesting choice; Hyginus claimed that the three Fates created the first five Greek vowels plus B and T, but that Palamedes invented the remaining 11 consonants. He was also credited with writing a work on rhetoric and inventing weights and measures, dice and the games of chess and backgammon, the solar and lunar calendars, and several military practices, including forming troops into battalions, placing sentinels to guard camps, and using watchwords. His father Nauplius had invented seafaring as a practice. After Paris of Troy abducted Helen, her brother-in-law Agamemnon sent Palamedes to enlist Odysseus, who had arranged the promise among Helen’s suitors that all of them would go to war to defend her marriage to Menelaus. Not wishing to honor his oath, Odysseus pretended to be insane and plowed his fields with salt, but Palamedes called his bluff by placing Odysseus' son in front of the plow. In revenge, when Palamedes advised the Greeks to abandon their war, Odysseus forged a letter from Paris’ father king Priam and hid it in Palamedes’ tent with gold, giving Odysseus and Diomedes a pretext to stone him to death. (Other accounts had them drowning him during a fishing expedition, or being lured into a well in search of treasure and then crushing him with stones.) A different Palamedes was a Saracen who converted to Christianity and became one of king Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table. Many medieval accounts described his rivalry with Tristan due to his unrequited love for Iseult. In some versions, Margh of Cornwall, who was Iseult’s husband before she fell in love with his nephew Tristan, killed his nephew with Palamedes's poisoned spear. Palamedes was also featured in many tales about the hunt for the Questing Beast, which could only be killed by the chosen can kill; his conversion during the Grail Quest released him from his worldly entanglements, allowing him finally to kill the beast after trapping it in a lake. After Arthur’s queen Guinevere’s adulterous affair with Sir Lancelot was discovered, Palamedes joined Lancelot in France and became Duke of Provence.]
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