Diableries: Stereoscopic Adventures in Hell by Brian May
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Let's get the obligatory cataloging information out of the way first, shall we?
Diableries: Stereoscopic Adventures in Hell comes as slip-cased book, with a hologram of Satan and his minions going to war on the cover. It was compiled by Brian May (yes, THAT Brian May), Denis Pellerin, and Paula Fleming (No, not that Paula Fleming, whoever she is). Included is an "OWL" stereoscope for viewing the dozens of 3D stereoscopic photographs reproduced throughout. Contents include an introductory preface written by May, a section revealing "The Magic of Stereo Photography," detail pages including Diableries (dioramas taking place in hell, usually, and featuring Satan and his minions), a timeline, a section on "Peripheral Diableries," which don't quite fit into the formally-recognized diableries, a section giving instructions on how to take stereo photographs with your cell phone(!), a segment on the historical background of the diableries, which helps to contextualize them, and biographies of the men who sponsored and created the sculptures and photographs themselves.
What did I think of the book?
This book will be a family heirloom that will hopefully be passed down for generations long after I have joined the choir eternal. Yes, it's that good. Not just because of the content (which I will briefly discuss in a moment) but because it is an amazing artifact. A shrine, really, or an immersive space dedicated to the artists that created these scenes and the time in which they were produced.
The main character, as one would expect, is Satan aka Lucifer aka Old Scratch aka Mr. Nick (incidentally, my favorite portrayal of the devil is that of "Mr. Nick" by Tom Waits in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus). The setting, as one would also expect, is Hell.
What is unexpected is the whimsical ways in which the devil and his minions are portrayed. The vignettes portrayed in the diableries are as varied as life itself. We see Satan on his wedding day, at supper, in his laboratory, in a gaming room, walking in the park with Misses Satan, in a bicycle race, leading his legions to war, at the lottery, at the stock exchange (I found these last two particularly appropriate), at a regatta, at the wheat harvest, and on and on and on. These scenes are typically light-hearted, even zany (see, for example, "A Lecture by Miss Satan - Satan's daughter educates an audience of men - er, male skeletons - on the merits of the new feminism by standing on a stage, dressed in a man's suit, lifting a glass of champagne while kicking her leg up in a Can Can dance to the cheers of the . . . er, men . . . uh, skeletons . . . minions . . . whatever).
But let's not lose sight of the fact that this is a book about Satan. Remember? The Deceiver? The Father of Lies?
All is not as it seems . . .
Behind the thin veneer of raucous entertainment is a social commentary. When one understands the symbols used and some of the situations represented, the book takes on a more . . . sinister tone. The authors point out some points that hint at underlying messages about and in opposition to France's Second Empire (1852-1870), a period about which I knew almost nothing. Apparently, I am not alone. We are told, in the historical section at the back of the book, that most French schools skip right over this period when teaching French history. Thankfully, this section provides a great survey of the period, which I will not repeat here, so as to not spoil the fun.
It is in the biographies of the artists (there were several, with two, Louis Alfred Habert and Pierre Adolphe Hennetier being the most prominent) and the primary producers of the diableries, Francois Benjamin Lamiche and Adolphe Block, that we come to realize the impetus for referencing and disparaging the French Emperor, Napoleon III.
Napoleon was a notorious womanizer who admitted remaining faithful to his wife for only six months after their marriage. The many portrayals of Satan's dalliances with "Ladies of easy virtue" are really representations of Napoleon III. In one scene, a castle is represented which, to those who know the place, is modeled after a chateau gifted by the Emperor to one of his many mistresses. Satan leads his skeletal soldiers against some un-named enemy, the armies of whom wear the Prussian Picklehaube - a clear reference to the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War and Napoleon III's defense of Paris. One of the more damning diableries is "Satan the Journalist" in which the devil is portrayed as a two-faced being, one face looking cruelly on, whip in hand, as a demon made from a pair of scissors (a reference to the extreme government censorship of the Second Empire) cooks up scandalous news beneath a bank of drawers containing "Lies," "New Mistakes" (per the label on one drawer), and absurd pieces of made-up news. The other side of his face looks approvingly on those journalists who write and disseminate trivial, vacuous news about celebrities and social happenings that will keep the masses distracted from any real problems in the Empire (the early equivalent of People magazine). Behind these purveyors of schlock, the allegorical figure of Truth is locked up, half clothed (i.e., not naked) in a cage.
As I said, in the biographies, one finds the reason behind these scathing, if carefully veiled (they made it past the censors, after all!) accusations: Francois Benjamin Lamiche, who owned the copyright to the earliest diableries and who must have hired Hennetier and, later, Habert, was a bitter opponent of the regime. His son, Alphonse Benjamin, had died of typhus while en route to the Crimean War, and the government, it seems, did not notify the family in a timely manner. Or, at least, it is unclear when they were notified. Also, Lamiche was arrested, fined, and imprisoned for possessing and distributing obscene pictures and for having conspired with other Parisian photographers, to write a petition to the Emperor asking for an appeal on their collective cases. This backfired when the police used the petition to track down, investigate, and further condemn those who were already out of favor with the law. These experiences seem to have informed, to some extent, the negative, if obfuscated, lampooning of Napoleon III throughout the diableries.
Knowing all of this (and more - there is more, but I shall forbear . . .), the book still works on the level of pure enjoyment. The 3D images are spectacular (though headache-inducing if you look for too long), and the portrayals are mostly quite fun, with a wry, dark sense of humor throughout. For those of us who are trained historians, however, the book takes on deeper social meaning in light of the fantastic historical overview and bibliographies presented at the end. This book is a keeper - one of my "chained" books that I hope to never see leave my library (NO! You can't borrow it! Rawr!) except as I share the delight I've found in this artifact with friends and family who come to visit.
Before i go inviting everyone over, however, I should put a sign above the doorway into my house:
Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch'entrate
Come on over . . . if you dare!
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