Le Retour de Flamme
René Magritte, Le Retour de Flamme, 1943
That’s Fantômas the master has painted all right, but instead of a bloody knife, he’s holding a rose, and instead of a cold stare, his eyes are closed: less murderous schemer, more dreamer mid-daydream. Loulou the Pomeranian has read all 32 volumes of the series, but he likes the first one best. And he likes this image, yes, but he liked the other one better, a close-up quasi-self-portrait of the master as Fantômas, face fading through bricks. It had been called The Backfire, and burned during the war in a London air raid.
True, Loulou is not so crazy for the books as the master, but that’s okay. He likes engulfing himself in their atmosphere — that weird bad-feeling weather — their extravagant way with time, and the crime upon crime upon crime committed by their anti-hero, merely because he can. Fantômas’ timeline is exasperatingly vague, but probably he was born in 1867.
The master was born in 1898, at the end of realism, in a little town in the Belgian province of Hainault where everyone earned his living in the local quarry. The master’s quarry is the fulfillment of his desire to not so much to deny reality as exorcise it — Is the fire in this painting a cleansing fire? Is that why it’s called Return of the Flame? — and live in something better.
That is why, Loulou suspects, Magritte painted this de-weaponized Fantômas in the middle of World War II, above a burning city, chin in hand, stepping over the rooftops in his tophat and his shining shoes and his tails. A figure who never fails at what he sets his mind to, even though it’s an evil mastermind. The master had fled Brussels and was living in Carcasonne at the time, and probably longed to possess Fantômas’ powers of escape and disguise.
“It is much easier to terrorize than to charm,” the master says when Loulou asks him about it. “I live in a very unpleasant world because of its routine ugliness. That’s why my painting is a battle, or rather a counter-offensive. The world is so strange. And can we ever know the world?”
Loulou’s quarry is understanding. Their friend Suzi is a Fantômas fanatic, too, and while she was staying with them, one night over dinner with Georgette and the master, Loulou asked her why.
“He sort of embodies the Baudelairean dandy,” she replied, “in that his very air of coldness implies opposition and revolt: the compelling need to combat and destroy triviality.”
“I see,” Loulou said. “Because according to Baudelaire, dandyism is a sunset: ‘like the declining daystar, it is glorious, without heat and full of melancholy.’”
“Yes!” Suzi said, and finished the quote, clicking her glass to Loulou’s in a toast. “A latent fire which hints at itself and which could, but chooses not to, burst into flame.”
The master is a great indoorsman, but like Fantômas, he can pass as needed through walls. Like he is not quite in any room, but somehow above it. The trick is to ignore the world and love it.