Cockaigne: the Orient of the Occident

The final poem in “Le Spleen” that I wanted to post on is titled “Invitation to the Voyage.” it continues the colonialism thread that i went a little crazy on in my last post.

The poem opens with a utopian vision of an orientalized, european Utopia:

“There is a superb land, a land of Cockaigne, it is said, that I dream of visiting with an old friend. A singular land, drowned in our Northern mists, and which one could call the Orient of the Occident, the China of Europe, so much is warm and capricious fancy given free rein there, so much has it patiently and stubbornly honored that land with its cunning vegetation.”

Cockaigne, like Atlantis and El Dorado, is a fictional utopia. In Specimens of Early English Poets (1790), George Ellis printed a 13th century French poem called “The Land of Cockaigne” where “the houses were made of barley sugar and cakes, the streets were paved with pastry, and the shops supplied goods for nothing.” (in B. it is “pays de cocagne” or land of plenty – also in french “vie de cocagne” – life of pleasure.

In Cockaigne, “roasted pigs wander about with knives in their backs to make carving easy, where grilled geese fly directly into one’s mouth, where cooked fish jump out of the water and land at one’s feet. The weather is always mild, the wine flows freely, sex is readily available, and all people enjoy eternal youth.”

Cockaigne was a medieval peasant’s dream, offering relief from backbreaking labor and the daily struggle for meager food.

The idea of Cockaigne was popular in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, in writing and in illustration (Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted it under its German name Schlaraffenland – which is the painting above).

B.’s modification of this land as the “orient of the occident” is not only indicative of his times, but conceptualizes a vision of a shrinking world, where it is possible to bring the orient to europe, to orientalize the west in their own image of the orient:

” A true land of plenty, where everything is beautiful, rich, tranquil, decent; where luxury takes pleasure in mirroring itself in order; where life is rich and sweet to breathe in; from which disorder, turbulence, and the unexpected are excluded; where happiness is married to silence; where even the cuisine is poetic — unctuous and exciting at the same time; where everything resembles you, my dear angel.”

This poem enacts the escapism inherent in the utopian vision – there are no old women, old acrobats, catastrophic dogs, or gaunt beggars in Cockaigne. There is not the disorder and turbulence and indeterminacy of modern life. (The mention of “cuisine” reminds me of Cendrars’s menu poems.) The resemblance here is the resemblence between the utopian vision of the orient (orientalism) and the projection of this image onto the orient itself (a problematic maneuver taken up by E. Said) : “my dear angel” probably refers to B.’s lover in the poem “Dorothy.”

The poem continues along the same lines of escaping Ennui through “curiosity”:

” You know that feverish illness that seizes hold of us in our cold miseries, that homesickness for an unknown land, that anguished curiosity? There is a country that resembles you, where everything is beautiful, rich, tranquil, and honest, where fancy has built and decorated an occidental China, where life is sweet to breathe in, where happiness is married to silence. It is there that we must go to live; it is there that we must go to die!

Yes, it is there that we must go to breathe, dream, and lengthen the hours with an infinity of sensations. A musician wrote ‘Invitation to the Waltz’: who will compose an ‘Invitation to the Voyage,’ which one might offer to the woman one loves, to one’s chosen sister?

Yes, it would be good to live in that atmosphere — there, where slower hours contain more thoughts, where clocks chime happiness with a deeper and more significant solemnity.

Upon polished wood paneling or upon gilt leather of a somber richness, beatific paintings, calm and profound, live discreetly, like the souls of the artists who created them. Setting suns, which color so richly the dining room or the salon, are sifted by beautiful fabrics or by those high, figured windows divided into numerous small panes by lead-work. The furniture is vast, curious, bizarre, armed with locks and with secrets, like refined souls. The mirrors, metals, fabrics, silverware, and china play a mute and mysterious symphony for the eyes; and from all things, from all corners, from the cracks in the drawers and from the folds in the fabrics, a singular perfume escapes, a Sumatran ‘return-to-me’, which is the very soul of the apartment.”

The bizarre and curious furniture, the beautiful fabrics, the Sumatran perfume…this portrait of an Orientalized Occidental apartment illustrates the “when the oriental was in vogue” – the kind of art-nouveau flavor that fed europe’s desire for the Cockaigne, for an exotic utopia unaffected by modernism.

“A true land of plenty, I tell you, where everything is rich, clean, and shining, like a good conscience, like a magnificent set of cookware, like splendid silverware, like multi-colored jewelry! The treasures of the world abound there, as in the house of a hard-working man who has earned the good favor of the entire world. A singular land, superior to others, as Art is to Nature, and where Nature is improved by dreams, where she is corrected, embellished, recast.

Let them search and search again, let them ceaselessly extend the limits of their good fortune, those alchemists of horticulture! Let them offer prizes of sixty and one hundred thousand florins to the one who solves their ambitious problems! I myself have found my black tulip and my blue dahlia!

Incomparable flower, recovered tulip, allegorical dahlia — it is there, in that beautiful land, so calm and so dreamy, that you should go to live and flower, isn’t it? Would you not be framed in your own analogy, and could you not mirror yourself, to speak as the mystics do, in your very own correspondence?”

The poem becomes more interesting at this point. The analogy of an Oriental Occident as Nature improved by Art perhaps reveals B.’s sense that the utopian image is an ennabling fiction – that Europe can be corrected, embellished and recast by the projection of its own orientalism onto itself (the idea of being “framed in your own analogy” in “your very own correspondence”) – and that Art analogously provides this architecture:

“Dreams! Always dreams! And the more ambitious and delicate one’s soul, the more dreams draw it away from the possible. Each man carries within himself his dose of natural opium, ceaselessly secreted and renewed, and, from birth until death, how many hours do we count that are filled with positive enjoyment, with successful and decisive action? Will we ever live in, will we ever pass into this painting that my mind has painted, this painting that resembles you?

These treasures, this furniture, this luxury, this order, these perfumes, these miraculous flowers — they are you. These great rivers and these tranquil canals are also you. These enormous ships that they carry, laden with wealth and from which arise the songs of the rigging — they are my thoughts, which sleep or turn over in my mind upon your breast. You lead them gently toward the sea that is Infinity, all the while reflecting the depths of the sky in the limpidity of your beautiful soul; — and when, tired out by the surge of the sea and gorged with Oriental goods, they return to their native port, they are, again, my enriched thoughts that return from Infinity toward you.”

Although the you first seemed to refer to an “exotic” lover, i think by the end of the poem, the you is the reader itself – that each person carries that “natural opium”, what he referred to as the “mysterious intoxications” in my previous post, that allows the bourgeious to desire the painting, the projection of the orient as resembling the projected western self. If the I is the other, or at least has the power to enter and occupy the other as B. suggests, then the other is I (or you, in this case). The image of the ships are rather frightening (similar to Cendrars’s ship loaded with coffee) and of course B. can’t help it, he allegorizes everything! (in the same way Duncan mythologizes everything) the ships are his thoughts and now the you becomes the sea that is Infinity…etc… but that last line, the ships “gorged with Oriental goods” provides the proper anthropomorthism to illustrate the anthropophagic quality of colonialism…The desire to create a Oriental Occident, and fulfill the utopian prophecy of Cockaigne, a legend that has sustained many generations of the european wretched, can finally be realized thanks to the colonial enterprise!


3 thoughts on “Cockaigne: the Orient of the Occident

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