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Eyes Wide Open

A fresh look at “The Sleeping Beauty”

Eyes Wide Open

The writer Stéphane Barsacq returns to the mythological roots of Perrault's tale and retraces its history up to the 20th century.

As early as the mid-nineteenth century, people were beginning to ask the question: is there still room for poetry in a world given over to industry? Is there still a place for enchantment with its promise for the future in a society that gives pride of place to Richard Wagner? Richard Wagner, as we know, was not only a musician but also a thinker and for him, love achieves its most perfect expression in death.
Put another way, how do we reassert the prerogatives of the spirit of childhood, genius renewed at will if we are to believe Baudelaire, in a society undergoing profound changes and obsessed by progress despite the resultant rural exodus and the overcrowding of the towns to which the poor flocked.
These important questions find an echo in the works of the artists of the period.

If we look closely, The Sleeping Beauty and its mythology, which draws on the legend of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, are at the heart of this debate. It is clear in the work of Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky, a musician who contested German cultural hegemony not least out of a need for self-affirmation against Richard Wagner. In 1921 in a presentation text, Léon Bakst, the ground-breaking designer of the Ballets Russes, who worked with Tchaikovsky on the first production of the ballet in 1890, wrote as follows:

There is no doubt that, without the inflated interest provoked by Bayreuth, in the great struggle between melody and musical theme, this doctrinal Wotan would have already been eclipsed by lovers of music, by Mozart and Haydn. It is impossible, according to Stravinsky, to prefer plastic to tortoise shell, to enjoy theme as much as poetry. I have never been afraid to state my personal opinion, even against the current, and I confess without being paradoxical that next to Tchaikovsky’s free and generous outpourings of melody, the endlessly reworked “thematism” of Wagner strikes me as cerebral and overblown!” [1]

Let us pause here to consider the most profound and mysterious aspects of this ballet: aspects of sacred origin. As early as 1871 in Les Déserts de l’amour, Arthur Rimbaud cited the legend of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus –The Sleeping Beauty’s predecessor:

From the dreams that followed, - transports of love! – which came to him in his bed or in the street, and from their continuation and from their end, sweet religious considerations emerged – one will perhaps be reminded of the unbroken slumber of the legendary Mohamedans, - good men however and circumcised!

The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus are common to both Christian and Islamic culture. In 1954, Louis Massignon went so far as to bring the two religions together when he created a Catholic-Muslim pilgrimage to the chapel known as the Chapel of the Seven Saints, situated between Saint-Brieuc and Morlaix in the Côtes d’Armor. What does the legend say? The 3rd century story tells of seven young men who brave the persecutions of the Emperor Decius who wanted to impose the “peace of the gods”, in other words the worship of idols. Emboldened by their faith in the one true God, they refused to deny their religion and took refuge in a cave which closed its mouth upon them. There they slept for three hundred years, watched over by an angel. On leaving the cave, they were surprised to find that they were no longer persecuted, that their enemy was long-since dead and that life could resume its course. This legend is to be found in the Quran in Surah 18 verse 27, known as “The Cavern”.

In another poem, Jeunesse, Rimbaud refers to what is revealed when, on waking, one opens one’s eyes wide, which is the aim of any poetical undertaking:

As for the world, when you emerge, what will have become of it? Whatever the case, it will be nothing like it is now.

The key to the popularity of the legend of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus is that, unlike other legends that survived the Middle Ages, in particular that of Tristan and Isolde, which Wagner seized upon a few years before Tchaikovsky appropriated the story of The Sleeping Beauty, death is not seen as an inescapable fate. Decius intended to kill the young men, just as the original purpose of the spell was to kill the princess: now, in both cases, sleep must be considered as a way of refusing one’s destiny. Rather than death, a new world.

La princesse endormie,  Edward Burne-Jones. Étude pour « La Belle au bois dormant »
La princesse endormie, Edward Burne-Jones. Étude pour « La Belle au bois dormant » © Sotheby's / akg-images

What happened to the legend of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus over the centuries until it was transformed into the tale written down by Charles Perrault? No one knows. A number of earlier versions exist. But for us, it is impossible to imagine this story without Perrault and the style of the 18th century. It is important to add that the tale is itself impossible to dissociate from the engravings of Gustave Doré, as from the music of Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky and the sets and costumes by Leon Bakst. In other words, we have here a legend originating far back in the past and which develops with each new reading – a dynamic legend; a legend in which each level is maintained and interacts with all the others, fusing historical periods. Isn’t that exactly what Leon Bakst implied when he defined his work?

It is a delight, to my mind, to have costumes to create, as I tried to do in The Sleeping Beauty, in the style of the 17th century mixed with the 16th century, with a soupçon of 18th century and a dose of the Middle Ages; the courtiers of a slightly Polish Louis XIV, or a Spanish Scheherazade. I also think that any tragic situation, in life as in art, needs to be sustained and reinforced and made more ever concentrated, more secret by contrasting it with an ironic, voluptuous or even comic situation.[1]

Another characteristic which does not fail to surprise is that Tchaikovsky’s version and then that of Walt Disney, end with a grandiose finale, which is nothing other than a reprise of a well-known French song: Vive Henri IV! (Long live Henry IV!) The ballet ends on a majestic note. But who still remembers the words?

Vive Henri IV !
Vive ce roi vaillant !
Ce diable à quatre
A le triple talent
De boire et de battre
Et d'être un vert galant.

Long live Henry IV!
Long live this valiant king!

This boisterous reveller

Has a three-fold talent
For drinking, fighting
And womanising.

These words excite some amused comment in War and Peace: “It has a good ring to it, all the same!” Did Tchaikovsky first encounter this song in Tolstoy’s masterpiece? Was it, as it was for the novelist, the living vestige of the presence of French troops in Russia in 1812? Like all origins, this one has inevitably been lost: it has been transformed.

The essential thing is that for more than a thousand years, Sleeping Beauty has been gradually developing into the monument it is now: combining tradition, legend and spells that will continue to be renewed as with all major works that highlight both the anxieties and hopes that animate human beings. One could argue that the tale is a parable in which love is designated as the world of truth and light by opposition to that which constrains it, that is, the world of illusion and obscurity, a state between sleeping and waking from which the princess is liberated by a salutary kiss.

Furthermore, one can consider it as an allegory, an idea supported by psychoanalytical theory – over-supported, some might say – as if it were a matter of solving an enigma by assimilating its mysterious aspects into what is already familiar in order to neutralise them. An example? We have all observed the phallic shape of a spindle. Indeed, it is clear enough that the tale, faithful to a certain moral injunction, is an invitation to marry young and thus avoid the fate of the evil women of the story: the old fairy excluded from the festivities who casts her spell out of jealousy; the spinner in the tower who lends her spindle, the ogress queen who pursues the heroine. It is important here to emphasise that the strength of The Sleeping Beauty lies elsewhere: it belongs to mythology, just like the dream of Faust or the immortal tale of the Phoenix, the magical bird rising from its own ashes. Who is this young princess sleeping for a century in the depths of an impenetrable forest in a castle where time has been suddenly abolished? What is this power capable of defying death? It is a power stemming from our deepest desires. It is the very nature of poetry. Like the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, the princess is cut off from the world; she retreats within herself, into her inner being in order to create a more intense world, in that sort of waking-sleep, in a sense, which characterises her and which is also the sleep of the Romantics and of Rimbaud.

A perfect representative of the Enlightenment, and more so of Classicism, André Chénier said of Perrault, that hero par excellence of the modern mind, that he couldn’t bear the “madness” of those works showing “how far the human spirit can go when it walks on all fours.” Here, however, we are dealing with something of an entirely different nature, evoking dance, the spirit of poetry: a flight into weightlessness, the overthrowing of destiny, the reversal of time – all that is made possible or, better still, all that is revealed by the combined powers of darkness and dreams. Perrault holds out his hand to the music of Tchaikovsky, and what better than music to express the inexpressible. The deaths of the lovers in the masculine universes of Tristan and Romeo find a response in the survival of Aurora and the Prince and in the Princess’s dream – a product of elaborate artistry.
The power of the Wagnerian love filter evaporates, destroyed by enchantment itself.

[1]  Léon Bakst, « Tchaïkovski aux Ballets russes », Comoedia, 9th October 1921
[2] « Bakst parle », Comoedia, 13th November 1921

Writer, Stéphane Barscq’s publications include essays on music (Johannes Brahams, Actes Sud, 2008), philosophy (Cioran, Ejaculation mystiques, Seuil, 2011) and poetry (Rimbaud, Celui-là qui créera Dieu, Seuil, 2014).

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