Gerard de Nerval was born Gerard Labrunie in Paris on 22 May 1808. His mother died when he was two. In 1828 he published his first important literary work, a translation of Goethe's Faust (Part I), after which he worked as a literary journalist and freelance writer. Collaborating on plays with Dumas and others, he fell in love with the actress Jenny Colon, and spent most of an inheritance on a short-lived theatre magazine which he founded in 1835. An eccentric figure, famous for walking a lobster on a lead in the gardens of the Palais Royal, he suffered his first mental breakdown in 1841. Dr Emile Blanche, who treated him at Montmartre, later offered him an attic room in his clinic at Passy, where Nerval wrote the sonnet sequence Les chimeres, of which 'El Desdichado' is the leading poem. After its publication in 1854, Nerval quickly degenerated: for the last few weeks of his life he was homeless, having discharged himself against his doctor's wishes from Passy. On 25 January 1855 he wrote a letter to his aunt which ended, 'Don't expect me this evening, for the night will be black and white.' At dawn the next day he was found hanged from a grating at the foot of the stone steps in the snow-covered rue de la Vieille Lanterne.t

Nerval's sonnet 'El Desdichado' [The Disinherited] is probably more familiar to English readers through T.S. Eliot, who quoted its second line directly in The Waste Land eLe prince d'Aquitaine a la tour abolie'), and alluded to it many times throughout his early work. Julia Kristeva's book Black Sun (named after the 'soleil noir' of 'El Desdichado') argues that Nerval's melancholia represents the 'impossible mourning for the maternal object' : impossible

because this primordial bereavement occurs before the advent of signification, whereby objects might be named or exorcised or laid to rest. What the melancholic mourns, Kristeva argues, is not an object but 'the Thing', which is prior to the object and resembles the archaic 'breast' in Klein's fantasia: 'an unnameable, supreme good ... something unrepresentable, that perhaps only devouring might represent, or an invocation might point out, but no word could signify' (Black Sun, p. 13). This Thing is 'abject' rather than 'object', in Kristeva's terms, because it cannot be distinguished from the self, but· undermines the boundaries of subjectivity: 'it is a waste into which, in my sadness, I merge. It is Job's ashpit in the Bible' (for 'abjection', see Introduction above, p. 26). There is something luxurious, as well as sickening, in this collapse of boundaries, as the cliche 'wallowing in grief' implies: for 'sadness is really the sole object' of the melancholic, cherished in defence against the absence of an object and the failure of the whole objectifying faculty. According to Kristeva, melancholia eludes the 'symbolic' side of language in which objects are identified and named; it is only through the 'semiotic' that the melancholy Thing can be articulated: 'through melody, rhythm, semantic polyvalency' (Black Sun, p. 14). 'El Desdichado', for example, uses rhyme, rhythm, and alliteration to emphasise the 'network of intensities, sounds, significances rather than communicating univocal information'. In this way Nerval brings meaning closer to the body, which 'asserts itself through a glottic and oral presence'. Like Melanie Klein, Kristeva believes that art performs a reparative function: by transposing melancholy into rhythms, signs, forms, poetry at once communicates its sorrow to the reader yet also brings that sorrow under domination by the sign (below, pp. 212, 217).