Representations in Art and Literature of Fin-de-Siècle France
NICOLE E. ALBERT
Translated by Nancy Erber and
25 b&w illustrations and 14 color illustrations
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Baudelaire superimposed himself on Sappho, erasing her from his text; Swinburne adapted her poetry without translating it; Louÿs brought her back to life in fiction; but Renée Vivien reread Sappho’s poetry from a new, overtly homosexual perspective, exploring the very concept of artistic creativity. She was the first to produce a comprehensive and entirely new translation of the classical writer’s poetry. She found in these poetic fragments, devoted entirely to female friends, a complementary echo to her own feelings, and she dedicated herself to poems of sapphic inspiration that launched a discreet cult.
On the other hand, however, women travelers in fin-de-siècle fiction rarely strayed far from familiar shores. They seem to have preferred the calmer waters of the rivers and streams around Paris to faraway oceans. Novels and society gossip columns alike began to focus more and more on women who established their own Lesbos without ever leaving Paris.
The reality in Paris was no doubt less spectacular than some of the lurid depictions offered in the wildly fantastic tales penned by men. It also enabled women who preferred to express their sexuality with other women to group together in public or semi-public spaces within the city, such as women’s clubs and cafes or cabarets around Montmartre.
4. The Birth of the Female Invert
The lesbian actually made her entrance on the literary stage in a shocking way in 1870 with the help of Adolphe Belot, the author of the popular Mademoiselle Giraud, ma femme. Fearing the temptations that young girls face in modern schools for girls, Belot decided to root out this evil by denouncing its primary cause, the convent school, with its passionate friendships and its homosexual relations, and by showing how it could destroy a married couple. The same year that Belot published his novel, Carl Westphal, a German psychiatrist, described the case of Fraulein N. She would incarnate the lesbian, now consistently defined as someone with a man’s mind inside a woman’s body, in clinicians’ as well as novelists’ writings.
The figure of the transvestite or cross-dresser fueled the anxieties as well as the representations inspired by this confusion. Consequently, she was the ultimate incarnation of the bankruptcy of sexual difference, or more precisely, its most decadent expression. On stage, some performers eagerly played at “unisexuality,” but stage wardrobes that blurred sexual identities provoked disputes among critics. The trend for cycling and boating encouraged other women to change their wardrobes and wear trousers.
For the lesbian, dressing in men’s clothes was grounded in a symbolic, or even idealized, virility that implied the annihilation of the male. It also nurtured a dual femininity that underpinned a new form of sexual difference that substituted a hybrid being, the descendant of the myth of the androgyne, for a unisexual one.
9. Deadly Pleasures
Thus, turn-of-the-century authors ritually condemned sapphism in order to express and to legitimize their own fascination with this difficult topic. They popularized the image of a disturbing figure who is open to all kinds of blasphemous behavior, a depraved woman who was initiated into these guilty pleasures in boarding schools under the nuns’ teachings. By tracking the manifestations of sapphism to the inner sanctum of the convent school, writers tried to tarnish the image of the virgin that mingled mystical and physical love, as well as Holy Communion and Marriage.
Lesbians, “women lovers without a man, wives without a husband,” brought the exclusivity of one sex, the female, into the core of marriage. Thus, sapphic marriage situates itself as the ultimate contradiction of the laws on sexuality but also those of social conventions and divine commandments. By “marrying” her female partner, the lesbian yields to irrational and satanic forces that would seal her damnation.
By refusing to perpetuate the species, the lesbian is attempting to defy the Creator. As a decadent monster without offspring, she “achieves her own end.” In fiction, her transgressions can only end in punishment, such as madness, apathy or idiocy. The lesbian body, in opposing the human race and man himself, tries to escape from the writer-analyst. What role can he play in a sexuality that is based on his negation, since it rejects the male principle and the law of quantifiable ecstasy? Decadence, itself a literary movement without a future or offspring, was gazing at its own destruction when it contemplated sapphism, the cult of sterility and the unnatural.
Decadent literature improvised on this theme with innumerable variations, sometimes playing on similarities, sometimes on differences in the image of two women lovers whose “divergent beauties complemented each other.” Fictitious lesbians pursued an artificial resemblance to each other that did not end at physical similarities or shared hair color. They developed all sorts of incestuous twinnings, a sisterhood that represented the ultimate expression of their sapphic love.
This perfect couple would engender another set of representations focused on self-contemplation, especially since the mirror had become popular in women’s boudoirs and bedrooms at this time. For Decadent writers and artists, the mirror inevitably took on a role in sapphic excesses. They also adopted other metaphors to express narcissistic doubleness, but those expressions rapidly degenerated into clichés.
The Decadent movement’s fascination with the lesbian was based on the fact that lesbians pushed the experience of the unsayable to the limit by constructing their pleasure on an absence – the absence of the male. Its experimentation with words enabled authors to explore “new sensations” and to cultivate a sophisticated form of writing. Thus, the lesbian was significant for the aesthetic and literary value of artificiality at the heart of the Decadent project, with which she could be associated by virtue of her “unnaturalness.”