One of the more bizarre displays in the Raymond Roussel exhibition mentioned yesterday (a show hardly lacking in eye-popping oddities) was a piece of biscuit, almost 90 years old, preserved in a holder. Mark Ford explains the origin of this artefact in his biography Raymond Roussel and the Republic of Dreams:
Camille Flammarion was an extremely popular quasi-mystical astronomer, and one of Roussel’s most venerated heroes. An intriguing item of Rousseliana survives as testimony to his admiration. In the mid-1930s Dora Maar, best known as Picasso’s lover and the subject of many of his paintings, purchased in a Parisian flea market a small, star-shaped glass box containing a star-shaped fragment of biscuit. A label attached declares: ‘A star originating from a lunch I attended on Sunday, 29 July 1923, at the Observatory at Juvisy with Camille Flammarion presiding. Raymond Roussel.’ For a time this fetishistic object was in the keeping of Georges Bataille, who wrote of it in André Masson (first published 1940, reprinted in Oeuvres complètes, Paris: Gallimard, 1970): ‘[The star] did not belong to me, but it remained in my drawer for several months, and I could not speak of it without feeling troubled. Roussel’s obscure purpose appeared to be closely connected to the fact the star could be eaten; he obviously wanted to appropriate to himself this edible star in a manner more important and actual than simply by eating it. This strange object signified for me the way in which Roussel had achieved his dream of eating a heavenly star’.
The catalogue to the Reina Sofia exhibition largely echoes this account, though it maintains that it was in fact Georges Bataille who discovered the object and passed it on to Dora Maar. Now this illustrious morsel is the subject of a new opera by David Toop, premiering next week as part of Faster Than Sound, Aldeburgh Music’s experimental sibling. The composer has more on the piece here, including the bewildering range of elements and influences which inform it:
Voices are everywhere: the sotto voce comments and responses of singers to the main voice, along with recorded whispers, low voices and murmurs are heard all through the piece as an undertow that interweaves with sung voices, a confusion of stories, invisible presences, angels and devils, interior monologues and passages quoting either directly or obliquely from Dora Maar, and from other stories of island exile and haunting such as Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Shakespeare’s The Tempest; from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket; Zeami’s 15th century Noh play Tsunemasa; writings by those associated with Dora Maar, including Jacques Lacan, Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Andre Breton and Georges Bataille; by anthropologists and artist-explorers such as William Seabrook, Maya Deren, Henri Michaux and Antonin Artaud, by authors such as Vernon Lee, Virginia Woolf, Joseph Conrad, Marcel Proust and James Joyce, from Hans Anderson’s The Snow Queen and Peter Davidson’s book, The Idea of North, and from Benjamin Britten’s Parable for Church performance, Curlew River. These fragmented texts set up polyphonies, interruptions, implications, interrogations and choruses out of which the live voices emerge.