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OPIUM FANTASY - LIGNE, Charles-Joseph de (attrib.)

Voyage à Visbecq.

[Brussells?: ca.1794] Stock Code: 139702
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Original manuscript of an 18th-century opium-induced imaginary voyage

Original manuscript of an extraordinary dreamlike fantasy which describes an opium-induced journey to the centre of the earth. The existence of the novel remained unknown for more than 200 years until it was discovered in a Parisian bookshop and published in 2007 with a long essay by Éric Lysøe (see below).

The text is written in the first person, and addressed to a group of women. By page 3 the protagonist, a young man from Brussels, is standing before a chemist, asking for enough opium to be rendered unconscious for the next six weeks, being too impatient to await a rendezvous with friends at the Château de Visbecq (c. 30 km from Brussels). The prescription is fulfilled and the protagonist slips into a dream. Like Alice, he falls down into a deep well, and at the bottom a long, dizzying slide propels him to the centre of the earth.

He finds himself in a fabulous underworld lit by a green star; the visible horizon line is not flat, but curved upwards. With its pyramids and grottos, one can imagine scenes from the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, but this particular world is populated by orange elephants, lions with green manes, trees bearing weird multicolored fruits, and much more. There are descriptions of the surrounding gardens, and musings on the future of this imaginary world, the latter taking on a dreamlike dimension. The inhabitants, described as "seven or eight hundred people," turn out to be sheep and cattle, and the background music of the dream emanates from the bells around their necks. The protagonist is received by a royal couple, and a creature dressed like a human but with physiognomy of a large gosling (the Queen's favourite). Our hero meets warriors and magicians with oriental-sounding names such as Ramazan, Abdalon, Androbolan, Barmangor, and Grambouc.

He is soon imprisoned in a tower made of lead and coal; one of the inmates is a Flemish gentleman who endlessly recites a long epic poem that he has written on his shirt. It was clearly inspired by childhood memories, and describes the love a man named Florent de Borsèle. A certain proto-Proustian strain is apparent in reflections on early childhood's vivid sensations. The man wonders why a smell of turpentine pleases him so much, and describes the memory of a toy soldier given to him when he was four years old: "We displayed it above the fireplace, and since they didn't always give it to me when I asked, and I was too small to reach it, I had to just admire it and sniff the smell of turpentine with which it was painted; and now this smell still awakens in me the memory of my little soldier; oh happy days of my early childhood!"

This mysterious novel continues the tradition of Dante's subterranean journey, and builds upon the fantastical humour of the Adventures of Baron Münchausen (first published in French in 1783); it anticipates aspects of Alice in Wonderland, and Proust's À la recherche; and it engages too in what can only be described as the automatic writing of the Surrealists. Alternating between passages of prose and occasional verse, in the middle of the narrative are three songs that celebrate the history of the Burgundian Netherlands; the first song commences with a philosophical reflection on the varying perceptions of time; for instance, the narrator tells his lady: "Near you, time passes with the speed of lightning; far from you, it is found to be unbearable in length."

Our hero eventually escapes from the dream and arrives at the Château Visbecq, while the reader is left amazed. Imaginative, bizarre, dreamlike, and totally original, this long-lost novel merits inclusion among the very best of the eighteenth century imaginary voyages. Skillfully composed, and with many references to contemporary philosophy, history, and culture, the Voyage à Visbecq beckons students, scholars, and armchair tourists of opium-induced imaginary voyages.

Éric Lysøe, in his edition of the Voyage à Visbecq (Toulouse: Anacharsis, 2007) proposed that the author was Charles-Joseph de Ligne (1735-1814), 7th Prince de Ligne, a Habsburg courtier and prolific writer. Charles-Joseph was famous in his day as a socialite and cultural tourist; he was on intimate terms with the likes of Frederick the Great, Catherine the Great, Emperor Joseph II, and Madame du Barry, and corresponded with such luminaries as Rousseau and Voltaire. He wrote penetrating assessments of the French Enlightenment, the birth of German nationalism, the wars of Napoleon, the decline of the Ottoman Empire, Crimean history and culture, and the art of landscape gardening. He championed the rights for women, Jews, and the economically disadvantaged. It is well known that he had a pronounced taste for fantastic literature concerning the Orient and also the Underworld. De Ligne was born in Brussels, at that time Austrian Netherlands. As an Austrian officer he distinguished himself in the Seven Years War. Upon his father's death, in 1766, he inherited a vast fortune, including the fabulous Château de Belœil (Hainaut, Belgium), and lived in splendid luxury until his Brabant estates were overtaken by the French in 1792-3.

De Ligne's famous gardens were created by him in the English style, and were described in his bizarre pastoral-fantasy Coup d'oeil sur Beloeil (1781, 1786, and 1796), a book suspended between reverie and reality. In the dream world of the present novel, the author's first encounter is with two gentlemen, their only topic of conversation concerns gardens, particularly the jardins anglais. Even before the narrative itself begins, we find a transcription from De Ligne's own published writing: on page 1 of the manuscript appear eight lines from his epic poem Les Jardins, ou l'Art d'embellir les paysages (Book II). First published in 1782, the poem went through numerous editions in the eighteenth century alone. Herein De Ligne extolls the virtues of the English style of landscape gardening, that of particularly William Kent. That De Ligne was a proud Belgian, an author of considerable imagination, talent, and erudition, and the owner of a Château located just 40 km from the Château de Visbecq, strongly suggests that he was indeed the creator of this remarkable work.

Included here is a copy of Lysøe 2007 printing of the text.

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Octavo (200 x 120 mm). Contemporary quarter calf over blue paste-paper boards. Housed in a custom cloth folding case. Together with a copy of the printed text.


Extremities a little worn, rear hinge with small worm track not touching paper stock, trivial traces of damp to upper margins of final two gatherings, final blank and pastedown somewhat stained, binder's blank at rear excised. Very good condition overall.


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