Committee on LGBT History Newsletter (American Historical Association)
Book review: Lesbian Decadence, written by Nicole E. Albert, translated by Nancy Erber and William Peniston
First published in French in 2005, Nicole Albert’s Lesbian Decadence aims to explain the cultural obsession with sapphism in France during the fin de siècle, here described as “the golden age of the lesbian” (xii). For Albert, the omnipresent mythical lesbian was “demonized and poeticized at the same time” because of her association with decadence (xix). Rather than a peripheral literary and artistic movement, decadence is seen here as the key to the zeitgeist of the entire century from 1830 to 1930. Decadent aesthetic pursuit of the unnatural, artificial, and unattainable made the figure of the lesbian a perfect metaphor for “absolute, unique, and total nothingness” (235). In her eschatological nihilism, she functioned not only as the embodiment of evil, but also an “alter ego of the artist” (276), indeed the “heroine of modernity” (307).
This argument works best when applied to the decadent canon, as opposed to works reflecting other aesthetic currents such as romanticism or naturalism. But there is much more to Albert’s book than her thesis. Indeed, its great merit is to provide a virtually exhaustive survey of contemporary sources depicting lesbians across all genres and traditions, especially non- canonical literary ones. Albert organizes her abundant materials into three main parts, divided in turn into twelve chapters.
Part I takes its title from a recollection by man of letters Arsène Houssaye: “At that time, Sappho was reborn in Paris…” Three chapters examine in turn: the resurrection of Sappho’s myth in the mid-nineteenth century; the appropriation of Sappho’s myth by poets from Baudelaire to Renée Vivien by way of Verlaine, Swinburne, and Pierre Louÿs; and the topography of lesbian Paris in fin-de-siècle literature and art. The third chapter makes the important point that Paris- Lesbos, from Montmartre to the Bois de Boulogne and the suburban banks of the Seine, “has to be understood as more than the figment of predominantly male, overactive imagination. It was also a set of real practices” (63), hence the challenge for male authors of “tracking down women’s itineraries” (64). Then as today, bars played an important role in “the development of a sense of community that was evident to onlookers” (70).
Part II describes “Her Traits, Her Vices, and Her Sexual Aberrations,” in the words of a lesbian- obsessed author from 1897. The five chapters in this section address the Foucauldian metamorphosis of sapphism from a practice into an identity, a process apparent in both medicine and popular culture. Images of hybridity, androgyny, and hermaphroditism, viewed as the ultimate symptom of the decline and fall and civilization, reflect the crisis of masculinity and virulent anti-feminism characteristic of the fin de siècle. At the same time, in the hands of lesbians, they engendered a new sexual imagination and language of female eroticism.
The four chapters in Part III—“Damned Women or Exquisite Creatures?”—make the case for the lesbian as decadent heroine, inspiring both violent hatred and secret admiration. The themes of “Deadly Pleasures,” “The Half- Women,” “Female Narcissus,” and “Female Spaces, Male Gaze” are reminiscent of those considered in Idols of Perversity, Bram Dykstra’s classic study of feminine evil in decadent iconography and literature. All three parts of Albert’s book are handsomely illustrated with both black-and-white images and color plates.
Of course, works of art and literature do not merely reflect reality, but as Albert demonstrates in her discussion of lesbian topography, sometimes they do. As a social historian, I seek primarily to elucidate the lived contexts in which discourses are produced, and excavate evidence of the actual communities that evolved in tandem with the mythic imagination. Historians interested in cultural and intellectual history will find [this] book indispensable to understanding the epistemological shift that took place within Western thinking about sexuality in the nineteenth century.
Reviewed by Leslie Choquette, Institut français, Assumption College