The inherently illusory nature of the catalogue of Dans le Rêve is suggested by its very name, translated to English as In the Dream. Plate V from the series, The Gambler, has the unique quality of revealing in full detail the setting of the picture. No area of the picture plain is left in obscurity and doubt, merely alluded to or washed out in shadow. In fact, rendering of the foreground and the illustration of grass and rocks is quite thorough and sensitive. This contrasts the rest of the collection- starkly, at times- and indicates the more straight-forward nature of its central allegory.
The image depicts a lone man carrying a large die on his back through a landscape sparsely populated by leafless trees and a smattering of distant birds above. The Gambler repeats the motif introduced on the Frontispiece, which I covered in an essay on that piece here, of trees bare of leaves. This conjures the somber atmosphere of winter, where the viewer is reminded of the mysteriously cyclical and ephemeral quality of life as symbolized by the “dead” tree. The evocation of death, with its long history in Western art of Memento Mori (remember that you will die), is remarkable in context of the figure of the gambler and the corollary of “chance.” Dormancy, repose, slumber (and, by extension perhaps, dreaming)- these are all connected to the tree that has shed its leaves completely.
This image was created in 1879, many years before the famous poem Un Coup de Dés (the name of this very blog is derived from that poem) by Stéphane Mallarmé- a fellow Symbolist and friend of Odilon Redon. Nonetheless, The Gambler appears to observe the same phenomenon as Mallarmé’s verse: “A throw of the dice never will abolish chance.”
The die is inseparable from chance. He who throws the dice submits himself to the opaque and hidden laws of chance. In The Gambler, the weight of that die- the weight of chance- is enormous and burdensome. The poignancy of this image relies on the viewer’s sympathy with that feeling of the enormity of chance that we all carry.
It is unclear whether the man is standing with a wide stance to brace against the weight of the die or whether he is advancing through the landscape. Perhaps he has been walking the path through the fields and has stopped to catch his breath. We could also see the figure as lifting the die in the aims of casting it, though the manner he uses to do so would not be the only or best way to achieve that.
Does The Gambler throw the die, or must he simply carry it on his back? Can he be freed of his burden? Even if he managed to throw the die, we know that he “never could abolish chance.” In that way, we are all The Gambler, and this fifth plate from Dans le Rêve is a dream-mirror, a glimpse at ourselves through the filter of exaggeration.
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