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South Central Review, Volume 22, Number 3, Fall 2005, pp. 113-132 (Article)
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THE DIFFICULT GUEST / GANTZ
The Difficult Guest: French Queer Theory Makes Room for Rachilde
Katherine Gantz, St. Mary’s College of Maryland
WHILE QUEER THEORY RELENTLESSLY REINVENTS ITSELF in pace with the changes in postmodern theoretical discourse, it also encourages its literary practitioners to find as yet unmined potential in the treasures of past works. Long since liberated from the rigid critical parameters of “authorial intent,” scholars may now apply queer theory to a canon predating not only the popularization of “queerness” (as a political and philosophical construct), but even of the open discussion of homosexuality in mainstream discourse. When conferences a few years ago first began to propose sessions on the intersection of French studies and queer theory, I initially daydreamed about a chic and anachronistic gathering at the close of the day’s panels in appreciation of queer theory’s unwitting pioneers, inviting for drinks all of French literature’s past voices whose writings have lent themselves so aptly to the development of a new form of textual criticism now known as the queer reading. Academics would meet at the cash bar to offer their thanks and to chat with such luminaries as Renée Vivien and Marcel Proust. In this scenario, the writers upon whose texts modern-day literary scholars have made a living would surely suffer some confusion about how their works have come to be embraced by “queer theorists,” but they would undoubtedly sense the crowd’s ardor for their work as well. One troublemaker at this imaginary party would most certainly be Marguerite Eymery Vallette a.k.a. Rachilde, both famous and infamous for her novels, plays, and poetry at the turn of the century. She would be unwilling to goodnaturedly take her place in the pantheon of Writers Now Queered, appalled by the pluralist, anti-essentialist rhetoric espoused by her admirers and, more significantly, occasionally applied to her texts. The fantasy, as it played out in my mind, was equally unpleasant were she to wander into the Gay and Lesbian Studies caucus a few doors down the hall; more on that assumption to follow. Having made a name in fin-de-siècle Parisian literary circles as “Mademoiselle Baudelaire,” Rachilde preferred to write outside the clearlydemarcated boundaries of social propriety. Her fiction enthusiastically embraced the non-traditional, the outlandish, and often the profane. An
© South Central Review 22.3 (Fall 2005): 113–132.
literary decadence of this period is firmly rooted in classist conservatism. to expose the stunning ways in which. then. and second. her novel Monsieur Vénus (1884) provided exactly the kind of controversy that Rachilde craved. in this very same work. both conclusions are reductive and would profit from a more collaborative and expansive cross reading. and secured her reputation as France’s only recognized female writer of the decadent period. the question arises: What makes Rachilde’s work worthy of inclusion in the unofficial canon of queer French fiction? Or posited in the language of that initial daydream. and finally. Monsieur Vénus may conversely be interpreted as a novel fixated on preserving traditional notions of heterosex.1 What is especially engaging about Monsieur Vénus is the ease with which its readers of today might jump to one of two entirely opposite conclusions. how did Rachilde get invited to the cash bar? The work of this argument is twofold: first. sexual strangeness in Rachildean terms simply tends to be one of the privileges enjoyed by the social élite. her worldview rests upon a misogynist predicate of the inborn weaknesses of women. that erotic difference does not necessarily equal queerness. Mademoiselle Raoule de Vénérande. One reading points to its racy descriptions of sexual eccentricity (seductive gender role ambiguity. at its most stripped down. is the very embodiment of Rachilde’s love of the marginal— her strangeness and fervent disdain for conformity make her at once aversive and bewitching. Monsieur Vénus is readable as yet another novel about tortured passion between a man and a woman. Raoule speaks scornfully of the vulgarities of homosexuality.114 SOUTH CENTRAL REVIEW immediate succès de scandale. Despite its salacious overtones. The novel’s protagonist. however unconventional its approach. A second opposing reading argues that this text is hardly a manifesto for the radical dismantling of gender and sexual categories. references to sadomasochism) as evidence of queer readability. Juxtaposed as such. in concert with Rachilde’s own publicly espoused anti-feminism2. . in which Rachilde’s seemingly radical agenda is brought into dialogue with her unapologetic conservatism. to face head-on the elements of Rachilde’s Monsieur Vénus that seem to sustain the oppressive ideals of static. heteronormative literature. routinely adhering to notions of gender that are both fixed and essentialized. At different points. In fact. However. she anticipates a number of the debates and developments that have fueled the last ten years of queer theory. It should be noted.
the volatile cross-wiring of gender play and the trappings of high culture (eponymous references to aristocratic station and to classical mythology. transvestitism. should not be understood as the binary opposite of “heterosexual” (in fact. adding an important caveat: the word “queer” must not become a mere umbrella term for gays. and gender. oppressive. As their titles reflect. The notion of “queer. surpassing constructions of gayness to also include bisexuality. Rachilde’s work comes into sharp focus. queerness works against binarism). for example) was a favorite source of inspiration. the fin-de siècle novel La jongleuse (1900. but is best illuminated in juxtaposition to the term “straight. in this iteration. QUALIFICATIONS. to challenge. they argue.studies critics further extended the definition of “queer.” suggesting a similarly inclusive category of that which is prohibitive. film-.” then. more about one’s motivations than one’s particular essence or history. a clever corruption of a familiar fairy tale in which. a domineering and sexually powerful parisienne finds that the only man she has ever loved is one willing to fully inhabit the “female soul” he was born with.” relating the term to a vast compass of “nonnormative” sexualities.6 The story begins benignly as the young man pursues the beautiful woman leaving the ball. APPLICATIONS In the history of what is now known as queer theory.THE DIFFICULT GUEST / GANTZ 115 INVITATIONS. queerness as a postmodern identity. bisexuals. In the similarly depraved Monsieur Vénus. as the Prince soon discovers. fetishism. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s monumental Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire and Epistemology of the Closet3 were among the seminal works responsible at the close of the twentieth century for the transformative suggestion that literature—regardless of the sexuality of the author—may be read with an openness to the homoerotic and/or homosexual valences available within the text itself. transform- . Creole. and. to provoke. and Cinderella is older. will only have sex with inanimate objects. and the transgendered. Prince Charming is immoral and impoverished. hers is a literary mission meant to disrupt. is more about an individual’s intended trajectory than the path one leaves behind. Enthusiasts of French decadence might be familiar with Rachilde’s equally outrageous La marquise de Sade (1887) and Madame Adonis (1888). The Juggler) depicts the doomed relationship between a young French medical student and a celibate society widow.4 Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner have recently finetuned that understanding. and other ambisexual sensibilities. Much in that same tradition. A few short years later. a barrage of literary-. and static about culturally-dictated definitions of “normative” sexuality.5 In this light.
. we find that much of Rachildean fiction defies easy classification into “queer readability”. however.”). indulging in the two-pronged pleasures of exclusion and infiltration. intertextuality and parody are often cited as defining characteristics of such intertextual postmodern literature. des roses fort larges de satin chair velouté de grenat. Rachilde’s contempo- . running up to his shoulders and wound about his neck . Raoule discovers the transcendently fetching Jacques at work. We might be tempted to believe from these thumbnail sketches of Rachilde’s novels that her work would serve well as the mandatory texts for any introduction to queer studies.9 Rachilde’s propensity for subverted myths (biblical stories. qui lui passaient entre les jambes. Monsieur Vénus trades a sly wink with the knowing reader who. his half-clad body draped in flowers.and homo-erotic positionings are well within the scope of queerness. Rachilde fortifies the reference with the smell of apples. et cetera) is far from unique in her era. fairy tales. sur la blouse flottante. for example.8 Lest the images of the Garden of Eden be too obscure. In his own take on the Genesis myth. while young Jacques Silvert plays the role of Eve. courait en spirale une guirlande de roses. Upon closer inspection. while her ambiguous hetero. . As evidence of this complexity. passing between his legs. Marie. more willing to accommodate a knowing and clever variation on an old story than to invest in the dubious possibility of a new one. I would argue that the difference here is one of intent. “Autour de son torse. a disagreeable scent that will become increasingly tempting to Raoule the longer she admires Jacques’s beauty. Raoule has come looking for Jacques’s sister. a maker of silk flowers. In Rachilde’s Eden. velvet-skinned and garnet-red. French decadence reveled in the game of rewriting the stories and legends that comprised the cultural canon. similarly. recognizes cleverly reworked but unmistakable references to the Bible’s most famous couple. however. fat satin roses. the postmodern recomposition of myths is predicated on the belief in a savvy postmodern readership. there amid the exotic (if artificial) flora. a text that insists we stretch the perimeters of both subversion and convention in ways that are admittedly often uncomfortable. filaient jusqu’aux épaules et venaient s’enrouler au col” (MV. it is Berlant and Warner’s question of motivation and trajectory that proves problematic. it is the mannish Raoule de Vénérande who encounters the temptations of Adam. from the novel’s first page. 24) (“A garland of roses spiraled round his body and over his loose-hanging smock. Making use of the same narrative device as the warped Cinderella story. consider the contorted path of Monsieur Vénus.116 SOUTH CENTRAL REVIEW ing him into her feminized “mistress” and her into his masculinized lover.7 In her place.
It is to privilege the part at the expense of the whole. the Bible’s Eve. At the same time.11 The knowing act of writing against the grain of tradition. Jean de Palacio has discussed at length the fin-de-siècle passion for combining traditionally lush. magical fables and fairy tales with turnof-the-century cynicism. . . C’est faire violence. grossir le détail minuscule. C’est encore privilégier la partie aux dépens du tout. better-educated readership. L’ironie sous toutes ses formes: parodie. resulting in what Palacio has called “la perversion du merveilleux” (“the perversion of the marvelous”). It is doing violence.THE DIFFICULT GUEST / GANTZ 117 rary the Comte de Villiers de l’Isle-Adam challenges the reader of L’Eve future10 (1886. to the extenuating circumstances of the marvelous. si la fée voyage en guimbarde dont un essieu se brise et qu’il faut dépanner. The Future Eve) with an onslaught of arcane references to figures of Antiquity—a kind of discursive act of attrition on the part of the author. to magnify the minuscule detail. Palacio explains the act of perverting the marvelous as one of calculated subversion: C’est altérer les lois du genre. si l’enchanteur se trompe dans ses formules magiques. the decadent author may corrupt a part of the cultural canon already embraced by a more conventional readership. de quelque façon que ce soit. the grotesque. être infidèle aux proportions. brouiller les rôles.12 (It is altering the laws of the genre. grotesque. abâtardir le langage . There is perversion if the Prince . favoring a more sophisticated. deforming its register. the burlesque—is fatal to the marvelous. est fatale au merveilleux. se conduit comme un voyou. to be unfaithful to the proportions. burlesque. to jumble up the roles. behaves like a common hooligan. of taking pleasure from corrupting the literary marvelous. . in one form or another. y introduire la disparate. if the sorcerer makes errors in his magic potions. aux attendus du merveilleux. dénaturer les mobiles. . to vulgarize the language . is a telling indicator of what I contend are Rachilde’s queer sensibilities. .) . Villiers clearly delights in twisting that most renowned of female personages. if the fairy travels in a jalopy that breaks down and must be towed. en déformer le registre. to distort the motives. . . however. . by invoking a literary figure almost universally recognized by the mainstream. introducing the discordant into it. Il y a perversion si le Prince . Irony in all its forms—the parodic.
. She wanted to take a step back. he a monster of whose flesh and blood reality she was still uncertain. Une sensualité folle l’étreignit au poignet . doing violence to the circumstances of “the marvelous. as she might have stroked a blond head. passim) (“a singular torpor. Alongside such symptomatic behavior are frequent and explicit diagnoses of hysteria on the part of male doctors and jilted suitors. 31) (Mademoiselle de Vénérande felt a dull ache across the back of her neck. deforming its register. a delicious languor” [LH. passim]). In the malodorous atmosphere of the garret her nerves were reaching a fevered pitch. (MV. I will return to the association of queerness and disruption. un tremblement nerveux.) (LH.118 SOUTH CENTRAL REVIEW Even from the level of genre. she stroked the workman’s chest. comme elle l’eût passée sur une tête blonde.” which. a nervous trembling. The young protagonist’s exposure to it and its accompanying engravings prompted an immediate and irrevocable change in her. . represents Western culture’s most primary tale of heterosex. . Son bras se détendit. Rachilde’s Monsieur Vénus ushers in a queer readability. a wild sensuality clasped at her wrist . flee . her initial conversation with Jacques is clouded by “une torpeur singulière. Une sorte de vertige l’attirait vers ce nu. her arm reached out. . une langueur délicieuse” (MV. willfully and knowingly distorting the motives. . 27– 33. s’arracher à l’obsession. The sight of Jacques’s bare chest beneath his open smock inspires a reaction seemingly straight out of the files of Charcot’s Salpêtrière: Une douleur sourde traversa la nuque de Mlle de Vénérande. eager to explain Raoule’s unwillingness to conform with the conventions of acceptable feminine sexu- . in this depraved and deeply ironic Eden. 13–18. The textbook symptoms are all there. 16) This hypersexuality on the part of Raoule is directly attributed to her girlhood discovery of a lewd book kept stashed in the attic. tear herself away from what obsessed her. compromising her otherwise rakish exterior. Elle voulut faire un pas en arrière. . un monstre dont la réalité ne lui semblait pas prouvée. . She was vertiginously drawn to this half-clad youth. and in effect. Raoule’s violent passion for Jacques is couched in the all-too-familiar fin-de-siècle trope of hysteria. fuir . Ses nerfs se surexcitaient dans l’atmosphère empuantie de la mansarde. then. . combining cataclysmically with her delicate feminine sensibilities and transforming her on the spot into Rachilde’s very own madwoman in the attic. elle passa la main sur la poitrine de l’ouvrier.
ce souvenir de mâle frais et rose comme une fille” (MV. 65) (“common custom” [LH. déjà elle en faisait une proie. her arms taut. or in response to her male lover’s appetites. . les bras crispés. avec de temps à autre un soupir de lassitude. sat with her head flung back. her breast a-swell as her mouth bit into her furs and now and then released a sigh of lassitude. le corsage gonflé. In The Juggler. we as postmodern readers recognize the turn-of-the-century hallmarks of hysteria long before such pronouncements. 38]). 18) This peculiar trick of allowing the female protagonist to initiate and achieve orgasm by thought alone is a specialty of Rachilde’s. 33) (“. the memory of his maleness fresh and pink like that of a girl” [LH. bercée par le trot rapide de son attelage. In the case of Monsieur Vénus. la tête en arrière. (MV. Et Raoule. . described as possessing both masculine and feminine attributes. our queer alarm sounds at the instigation of a woman’s sexual pleasure outside the confines of its conventional contexts (such as the marital bed. 18]). And Raoule. . already her prey. Even forgetting this. déjà peut-être elle l’arrachait à son misérable milieu pour l’idéaliser dans les spasmes d’une possession absolue.13 Indeed. On the carriage ride home from their initial meeting.) (LH. Léon.THE DIFFICULT GUEST / GANTZ 119 ality (or what her friend and suitor le Baron de Raittolbe describes as “la loi commune” (MV.14 The Rachildean predilection for this subversive gesture and its queer potential must not be overlooked. mordait ses fourrures. Raoule’s “illness” permits her to enjoy pleasures that transmute the psychological into the physical: Déjà elle jouissait de cet homme. we might begin with the fact that the stimulus for the orgasm is a man attractive to Raoule on the basis of his beauty and womanliness. or combined with the possibility of reproduction). 34) (This man was already her fleshly delight. all in front of her spurned but still spellbound suitor.15 . Raoule is already savoring the torments of “. however. the first chapter concludes with protagonist Eliante achieving orgasm by clasping a life-size Tunisian amphora. swaying to the rapid trotting motions of her equipage. . already maybe plucked by her from his wretched dwelling-place to be idealised in the spasms of total possession.
estompées aux commissures. a beauty incorrectly housed in a man’s form. and unnamed beasts—and occasionally to mythological beings as well. the narrative instead linking her more often to the non-human. Dès l’abord. . 69) (“ . bien faite. The most baroque description of Raoule combines all these elements: the frustrated baron at one point complains that he no longer has the energy to chase her. Her eyebrows were wonderfully drawn but had a marked inclination to meet in the imperious fold of an unaltering will. . atténuaient d’une manière désagréable de dessin pur de la bouche. “ . “que je n’ai pas. 34) (She had neither beauty nor prettiness as convention understood them. Merveilleusement tracés. .” dit-elle ironiquement. . cats. she forbids Jacques to speak to a man without her permission. Les lèvres minces. well-formed. (MV. les sourcils avaient une tendance marquée à se rejoindre dans le pli impérieux d’une volonté constante. . Such postmodern labels are all but explicit in Raoule’s interactions with her “mistress. At first sight the harsh set of her features lacked charm. “Tu dois t’apercevoir. a tiger dressed up as an amazon . ni jolie dans l’acception des mots. . . ayant le col souple . de nous deux. Raoule était grande. and throws him to the floor. She is rarely explicitly associated with femaleness at all. sa physionomie à l’expression dure ne séduisait pas. le plus homme c’est toujours moi?” . in what today might be described as a “butch-femme” dynamic.” In a fit of jealousy. . .) (LH. ” [LH. Raoule’s categorical femaleness is never in question. Raoule is no Emma Bovary. When Rachilde does provide human qualities for Raoule. The more virile attributes of both her body and character remain proudly showcased against the softness of her more feminine lover. des mains de fleuriste et que.120 SOUTH CENTRAL REVIEW MIXING AND MINGLING Despite her repeated connection to the inherently gendered symptoms of hysteria. 40]). comme toi. She is routinely compared to a variety of animals—thoroughbreds. . supple-necked . . 9) Still. ” (MV. but Raoule was tall. while Jacques is consistently portrayed as a kind of biological accident. they are invariably more traditionally masculine ones: Ni belle. un tigre affublé d’une amazone . The pure line of her mouth was vitiated by the thinness of the lips and their lack of definition at the corners. .
she is not “the man” in this moment of their relationship. elle se sentait femme jusqu’au plaisir” (MV. 61) What is compelling about this particular exchange is Raoule’s emphasis on her comparative masculinity instead of an essential one. while on her way to the rendez-vous.” thus demanding (from Jacques and the reader alike) a more nuanced understanding of their shared dynamic than one of mere role reversal. unlike you. forever subject to her own mercurial nature. ayant à chaque coin de ses lèvres un pli amer. “‘Rien ne doit vous étonner. La glace du coupé lui renvoyait son image.) (LH. Having stood up the Baron the afternoon of their first arranged liaison. puisque je suis femme.”16 Similarly. unpredictable. 99) (“It must be apparent to you. the overdetermination. she side-steps his rage with a pat answer attributing her misbehavior to her gender. the sincerity of her reference is decidedly suspect. Dans l’inertie qu’on lui imposait. Quoi de plus naturel?’” (MV. his lips set in rueful folds. 71) (“She sang as she . unreliable. and from his weakness. sa beauté féminine ressortait davantage. sans répondre. and therefore unaccountable for her behavior. but simply “more the man. “Elle chantait en boutonnant ses gants. His feminine beauty was heightened in the inertia forced upon him.’ répondit Raoule riant d’un rire nerveux. ‘Je fais tout le contraire de ce que j’ai promis. and that of us two.THE DIFFICULT GUEST / GANTZ 121 Jacques. Hers is an alibi best read as self-parodic. now perhaps become willing. the only private moment in which Raoule lingers over traditionally feminine details occurs just before this.” she said ironically. that is here responsible for the ironic texture. do not have the hands of a florist. la regardait à la dérobée. there emanated a mysteriously attractive power. son corsage ruisselant de dentelles allait bien. nothing should amaze you.’ Raoule answered with a nervous laugh. et de sa faiblesse. 81) (“‘Since I am a woman. Jacques stole a glance at her. émanait une puissance mystérieusement attirante. Janet Beizer underscores this point thus: “It is the stockpiling of citation. devenue peut-être volontaire. 48]). What could be more natural?’” [LH. In Ventriloquized Bodies: Narratives of Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century France. I am invariably more the man?” Without replying. In Raoule’s only explicit moment of feminine self-identification. “that I. smothered in gender cliché: woman as fickle. ‘I do everything to the contrary of what I promised. (MV.
that from the moment that Raoule decides to keep Jacques as her mistress. son magnetisme celui de l’ellipse” (“The ‘queer’ approach.18 In her disruptive writerly fashion of making a scene without necessarily making a point. and narratively—of inviting queer interpretation. Rachilde has an uncanny way— typographically. She had a pleasure in feeling womanly” [LH. We cannot miss the fact. a visual. trailing off mid-sentence in ways that insist the reader interpret her implications. Sa séduction est celle du voile.”17 Most frequently employed in reference to gender (both as a sociological construct and as French grammatical distinctions between masculine and feminine words). aiding in the denotation of Otherness. Rachilde amplifies the queering going on here by italicizing “womanly. its magnetism that of the ellipse”). The mirror in the Brougham gave her back her image. the splitting off that creates difference. she begins to refer to him with feminine pronouns. The presence of italics. extratextual device that reifies and signals difference. François Cusset’s Queer Critics: La littérature française déshabillée par ses homo-lecteurs (2002. 41]). The “she” or “her” in these cases is made doubly dramatic by Rachilde’s decision to italicize them.” rendering this whole scene of femininity and gender compliance deeply ironic. even when the nature of that difference is often left undeclared. to invent new ones. Its seduction is that of the veil. the reader may not be at all convinced by the end of the book to . for example. the fineness of her bosom rustling with lace. It is understandable. in the typographical equivalent of a knowing wink. then. Queer Critics: French Literature Undressed by its Homo-Readers) explains to his French readership the reliance upon the interpretable and the indeterminate in the American origins of the concept of queerness: “L’approche queer.122 SOUTH CENTRAL REVIEW buttoned her gloves. as Beizer has discussed. Ellipses and suspension points also figure largely in Rachilde’s writing. but also the very idea of differentiation. Rachilde’s italics may also serve to solicit the reader’s willingness to infer irony. is a much-favored Rachildean device that introduces “not only a different discourse. or failing that. signifying. as vague as the objects it works so tirelessly to ‘disidentify. Despite Maurice Barrès’s confident assumptions in the novel’s rather sensationalistic preface to the 1889 edition. revendique haut et fort son indéfinition comme sa vertu majeure.’ loudly proclaims its own indefinition as its most important virtue. the deliberateness of her subversive linguistic play. how italicization works equally elegantly as queer code between the author and her readership. thematically. aussi vague que ses objets—qu’elle cherche inlassablement à ‘désidentifier’—.
Nor is the referent clear when Raoule disrupts her aunt’s prayers to the Virgin Mary to wonder. Il est beau. but in the space of less than a page. the impoverished Jacques’s benefactor. . 56]). . and convinces him to bathe while they speak through a privacy curtain. and not surprisingly. . Jacques is aghast to discover that Raoule has pressed herself against the floor to spy on him from underneath the curtain’s hem.’ he said sulkily. je frissonne. and a man whose body is so beautiful in its rendering that it invites comparisons with the Vénus Callipyge. we have undoubtedly stumbled on an episode in which queerness is at work exploding static categories of gendered behavior and custom. je le ferai mon maître et il tordra mon âme sous son corps. Scrambling to cover himself. Il est indifférent. mais un pauvre dépouillé de ses haillons. 55–56) . Il est méprisable. surrounding him in sumptuous fabrics and luxurious appointments. The semiotic slip-and-slide here makes way for increasingly complex queer potential. You are looking! I ask you. Consider the scene in which the predatory Raoule has become. (MV. 54) (“‘You know. Rachilde presents a woman who insists on being recognized as a boy. She insists that Jacques must think of her as a boy. 31]). she responds in monologic semi-poem on the confounding pleasures of just such subversion. j’ai peur. ‘même entre hommes ce n’est pas convenable . on her own initiative. . he scolds Raoule: “‘Vous savez. The reversals in this passage are almost too fast to document. je lui appartiens. Monsieur de Vénérande. the bather protests that men mustn’t stare at each other’s bodies— thus culminating in an unprecedented moment of homosexual panic between a man and a woman. mais l’épiderme d’un manant. monsieur de Vénérande.’ dit-il d’un ton boudeur. Here. Je l’ai acheté. non le Christ et la majesté du dévouement. 92) (“Has anyone ever asked her to grant them a change of sex?” [LH. Then just at the moment when the woman’s secret gaze falls upon the bathing man’s phallus. the narrative follows suit. his childhood chum. Raoule seems every bit as affected as we are.THE DIFFICULT GUEST / GANTZ 123 which character the title Monsieur Vénus refers. and in the vertiginous thrill of seeing Jacques’s naked body. L’homme! Voilà l’homme! Non Socrate et la grandeur de la sagesse. ‘even between men it is unseemly . would you be happy in my place?’” [LH. . . je l’admire . non Raphaël et le rayonnement du génie. “Lui a-t-on jamais demandé la grâce de changer de sexe?” (MV. Vous regardez! Je vous demande si vous seriez content d’être à ma place’” (MV.
) (LH. the erotic charge from this series of stimulus and response is not the product of role inversion. monsieur de Raittolbe. How can you imagine me capable of such weaknesses?”) (LH. Monsieur de Raittolbe. In our efforts to gauge this novel’s queer-friendly factor. . .” for example). . 50) Admittedly. I fancy you place me above the level of vulgar amours. this throws a wrench into the works. ” (“ . One must progress carefully with a queer reading of a novel that takes explicit pains to label and then renounce homosexual behavior. the flesh of a guttersnipe. not Christ and the majesty of martyrdom. the pairings in this passage resist one-to-one. Nor does Raoule bestow either Jacques or herself with exclusively one kind of gendered attribute. Raoule snaps that nothing could be further from the truth: “Vous vous trompez. not Raphael and the glow of genius. while gendered images are indeed invoked here. but of subversion—the de. while gender is indeed being challenged. ce serait être tout le monde! Mon éducation m’interdit le crime des pensionnaires et les défauts de la prostituée. . . He has beauty. I tremble. I have bought him. . binary reversal. 84) (“a man in love” [LH. Believing he at last understands the nature of Raoule’s perversity.124 SOUTH CENTRAL REVIEW (Man! That is man! Not Socrates and the grandeur of his wisdom. . . He is indifferent. . être Sapho. He is contemptible. to him I belong. 32) Again. the most discomfiting passage surrounds Raoule’s pronouncement to the Baron that she is “amoureux” (MV. Cusset’s reckoning of queer theorists suggests that their primary focus is by definition those great texts outwardly devoid of complicated erotic content: “ . the Baron makes the mistake of invoking the figure of Sappho. 85) (“You are wrong. they are not consistently coupled with an anticipated opposite (“beauty” with “fear. but a poor creature stripped of his rags.and consequent re-contextualization of masculine and feminine interactions. I shall make him my master and he will twist my soul beneath his body. I admire him . J’imagine que vous me mettez au-dessus du niveau des amours vulgaires. Comment me supposez-vous capable de telles faiblesses?” (MV. I fear it. to be Sapphic would be like everyone! My upbringing forbids me the crime of the boarding school girl or the prostitute’s foibles. 50]). d’y outrager des classiques intouchés en y mêlant leur propre libido—de faire réagir des oeuvres littéraires trop pieusement étudiées .
In fact. She will strive to follow in Sappho’s footsteps. 52]). It gives one pause to realize that what annoys Raoule about lesbians is not their depravity. all too versed in sexual difference. . the very existence of butch-femme couples . It is the determined and knowing authority with which Raoule fearlessly identifies gayness and then distances herself from it that makes her a difficult character to argue with. this is not simply another case of naïve denial going on that would otherwise make an easy target for those applying a queer reading. women are tired of perpetually engaging in sexual conventions that serve only to reproduce an enfeebled race. an alchemist of depravity. the pioneer of a brand-new sin. declaring that on behalf of her élite society sisters. underdeveloped male and female gender types. that Raoule and Jacques are no more than the very apotheoses of over-determined. or the pleasures of inadequate male lovers. pitiful in their hopes to conform. if not the spirit. taking as its mission the right to embrace that which disrupts the conventional. the fixed. for it is without precedent and a counter-impulse to the divine . This overarching comparison might very well give rise to the complaint that Monsieur Vénus is by contrast a story mired in the conventional. the banal. proud men are greatly more culpable than the Satan of the Scriptures who invented pride? Does not Satan’s very fault make him respectable. Our path again becomes clear as Raoule continues. with Rachilde masking her traditionalism with her characters’ simple role reversal. not because she represents a more harmonious or even a more erotic variety of passion. 86) (“‘Does it not seem to you that.THE DIFFICULT GUEST / GANTZ 125 to offend the untouched classics by mixing in their own libido—to force a reaction from literary works studied too piously”). Here we must acknowledge the sensibilities. Raoule’s logic is extraordinary: “‘Ne vous paraît-il point que les hommes orgueilleux. ’” (MV. all those who would follow her would merely be imitators. . sont bien plus coupables que le Satan de l’Ecriture qui invente l’orgueil? Satan n’est-il pas respectable par sa faute même. she explains. the safe. In other words. . but simply because Sappho was the first who dared to try it. en copiant Satan.19 Monsieur Vénus comes into direct conflict with such a definition. politically-backwards imitations of heterosexual roles.20 Such criticism evokes similar complaints in which lesbian “butch-femme” dynamics are misunderstood as wrong-headed. . ?’” [LH. of queerness. sans précédent et émanant d’une réflexion divine? . but their ordinariness. as a defiantly libidinous text. and herself become an innovator of vice. Sappho is worthy of our admiration. by copying Satan. What appalls her most is the sheer banality of available means of sexual expression.
What about those cases. the sight of a woman in the mainstream media wearing a tie was enough to fuel discussion in queer theory for months. with its feminine instincts. “Il existe. the organizing principle behind this novel is more aptly described as transsexualism. Second Skins: The Body Narratives of Transsexuality reminds us that transgenderism is not the only means of subverting heteronormativity. a woman finds herself alien to her own female form and to its concomitant cultural associations. dont l’âme aux instincts féminins s’est trompée d’enveloppe” (MV. 89–90) (“He exists. he asks. Rachilde has given us a fin-de-siècle prototype of the postmodern transsexual menace. Rachilde transcends the trope with a character who is not only unashamed of his aberrance. both in their visual presentation and in their (social and sexual) practice. willfully disassociating the conventions of sex roles from gender. my friend. It is not as if Jacques abandons his established rugged masculinity to try his hand at the art of being a woman—he is already there. The language attached to it is surprisingly resonant with contemporary transsexual discourse. because despite the many daring transgressions in this novel. deriving an erotic charge from leaving behind her baseline masculinity. and he isn’t even a hermaphrodite. The only moment that approaches transgenderism is the aforementioned scene of Raoule in the carriage. et ce n’est pas même un hermaphrodite. managing to enact the dynamics of butch-femme as a female/male couple. and not gender. pas même un impuissant. Jay Prosser’s excellent treatise. are doubly subversive. In Jacques. 54]). he is a handsome male of twenty-one years. Some of the most valuable recent contributions to queer theory are those from transsexual scholars and activists. In many respects. and. feeling like a woman. Raoule and Jacques. As the Baron struggles to understand how a man so beautiful in appearance could not be homosexual. While this familiar rendering of a “man trapped in a woman’s body” resonates with turn-of-thecentury sexology. for example.126 SOUTH CENTRAL REVIEW may be perceived as a step toward the subversion of heteropatriarchy. c’est un beau mâle de vingt et un ans.23 .21 He argues that. in recent years. and the aesthetic of men. Raoule explains. that is at issue—when. and not his gender. and is instead completely at home in the trappings. is in the wrong container” [LH. the customs. nor even impotent. mon ami. whose soul. in which it is sex. but passionately sought-after (by both men and women) because of it. as they are stereotypified by the public at large?22 I would argue that this is precisely the case with Raoule and Jacques. it is his sex. there is no gender line being crossed. that is out of place. It is misnomer to label Monsieur Vénus with the now-familiar catch-all term of transgenderism. for just an instant. of course.
Rachilde and Prosser seem to agree that the terrain at stake is not that of gender. and has commissioned a life-size wax replica of Jacques. It should be noted. Un ressort. 227–28) (At night. They come and kneel by the bed. disposé à l’intérieur des flancs. A spring set inside the lower body is connected to the mouth and makes it move. correspond à la bouche et l’anime. une femme vêtue de deuil. In a parody of conniving femininity. Raoule has extracted the teeth. ouvrent cette porte. that the plot reaches this disastrous apex when and because Raoule forces Jacques abruptly into the guise of manhood. they enfold it and kiss it upon the lips. rather than in fact (and that ‘fact’ is subject to constant reconstruction and change). or sometimes a young man in a suit of black clothes.”25 reminds us that “[t]he monster’s destructiveness is really a deconstructiveness: it threatens to reveal that difference originates in process. rightly predicting that the more skillful baron will kill the unfaithful Jacques. et. incidentally. SEXUAL SEISM Queer theory works best when it is careful to identify the contested terrain. lorsqu’ils ont longtemps contemplé les formes merveilleuses de la statue de cire. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s treatise on what he calls “monster culture. a woman dressed in mourning. Jacques brings the narrative crashing down by nearly succeeding in his seduction of the Baron. but instead in weighing the remarkable transmutations of the two monstrous main . La nuit.24 (MV. 144) Monster Theory: Reading Culture. kept in a locked room. The jealous Raoule manipulates the men into a duel.”26 In Rachilde’s shocking dénouement. la baisent aux lèvres.) (LH. and fingernails from the body. but of fixity. Ils viennent s’agenouiller près du lit. a role he is fatally unprepared to play. quelquefois un jeune homme en habit noir. hair. the key to evaluating the queerness of Monsieur Vénus is not in the undeniably violent demise of the relationship. and after they have gazed for a while upon the marvelous forms of the wax statue. The strategy behind the shocking end of Monsieur Vénus seems to be to simultaneously satirize fixity and embrace disruption. in this case.THE DIFFICULT GUEST / GANTZ 127 CRASHING THE PARTY: TEXTUAL TREMBLORS. opens this door. ils l’enlacent. The courtship between Raoule and her mistress Jacques spirals increasingly out of control. Alone with the cadaver in the novel’s final scene.
a figure like Jacques would surely be headed for sex-reassignment surgery. Raoule winds up much like Jacques. generated by the present-day students who now encounter the novel more than a century after its publication.” but never as simply “a man. One of Monsieur Vénus’s strongest claims to queerness is extradiegetic in nature. I have taught Monsieur Vénus.” While this last assumption is my own. in which we may gaze upon the spectacle of two sexual dissidents morbidly simulating the genders of convention. the novel allows the reader a voyeuristic glimpse of the lovers’ final parody of heterosex. It was this discussion that led me to consider Raoule’s continuing resistance and coldness to most of Jacques’s .27 but the general consensus was that. separate and yet parallel. and have found that Rachilde’s younger readership is both eager to make use of a queer theory vocabulary in their critique and simultaneously stumped about which terms to apply. Like Jacques. Raoule has become simulacrum. despite the word choice of “dyke”). They had no such predictions for Raoule. but what kind of dyke is she?” When I brought up this question in class later. the students were clear about their distinction between transsexuality and homosexuality in their collective assessment of Jacques and Raoule respectively. not only was such queervalenced discourse readily adopted (without any assessment of homophobia on the part of the question-writer. Ironically. but now closer to non-human. imitating in her nightly grieving ritual each of the two sexes to which she never truly belonged. fusing the fetishized elements of the natural with the synthetic in the wax dummy.128 SOUTH CENTRAL REVIEW characters. I include it here as a supplementary illustration of my larger discussion. In one such exercise. The first time I included Monsieur Vénus in my course on French literature in translation. Her own lethal jealousy subjects Raoule to a transformation as radical as the one Jacques endures— she goes from being the consort of her transsexed mistress to being the surgeon of her trans-special experiment. “I think I ‘get’ Jacques. an especially savvy student mused. To counteract that possibility. today. twisted to the end. in a state of that which is neither female nor male—reminiscent perhaps. I incorporated weekly assignments requiring the students to submit anonymous discussion questions based on the day’s material. but what’s with Raoule? My gut tells me she’s a dyke. I naively predicted some prudery and resistance to the discussion of its complex sexual valences. to undergraduate students in two American universities. While the following is anecdotal in its origins. In a fittingly depraved Rachildean ending. both in the original French and in translation. perhaps due to her aforementioned self-identification as “more the man.
It is the work of separating elements understood as part of a gendered whole that precisely represents the act of queering. but instead on its dispersal. Not only is the lexicon of queerness already available to a much wider population than only those scholars fluent in gender theory. she is unavoidable both at the imaginary cash bar and in the actual. at once eager to adopt the “disidentifying” strategies of its anglophone forerunner and also to tailor them to the rigors of traditional French critical theory. Rachilde has anticipated some of the most radical transformations of queer theory. more importantly.” daring to embrace forbidden desires otherwise considered deviant. unnatural—about human desire. Rachilde offers her readers of today an unflinching view of the subversive and political potential of “queerness. By simultaneously embracing the liberating effects of pluralism and the ideological stance of resistance.29 I would go one step further and label this phenomenon as one of disaggregation. despite the binarity suggested by the novel’s title. What makes this novel queer is the narrative’s determined process of extracting interlinked components from a cohesive gender category. In this regard. Perhaps.” Certainly there will be those who will argue that I am too quick to jump to such conclusions—that practitioners of the queer reading routinely misread and extrapolate to fit their specialized paradigm. By resisting the now-institutional practice of simple one-to-one reversal. and by exploring the resulting erotic potential of collisions between bodily identity and social custom. Monsieur Vénus is a text predicated not on the reversal of convention. by disentangling and reconstituting sex and gender.THE DIFFICULT GUEST / GANTZ 129 sexual efforts. moving beyond simple resistance and oppositionality to new levels of subversive pleasure. regardless of the medium or its period. Beizer has argued that. then. In response. but it is also being actively sought out by those eager to explain and categorize “nonstraight” behavior. . that they falsely see evidence of queerness everywhere. no matter how discordant our critical motivations are with Rachilde’s universe. and to speculate if the best postmodern assessment of Raoule and Jacques’s relationship might be that of “stone butch”28 and “proto-pre-op. I would point to the classroom story above as counter-evidence of such a claim. real-life world of literary criticism. or unproductive. Ultimately. queer theory itself is in many respects the more difficult guest to accommodate. Rachilde’s curious insistence upon serving both chaos and stasis will make her the ideal icon for the newly-emerging field of French queer studies. this novel’s greatest queer credential is its unapologetic assertion that there is nothing inherently natural—or. dangerous.
conforming to all “straight” conventions of dress and custom. 1985). I strongly recommend Alexander Doty’s Making Things Perfectly Queer: Interpreting Mass Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Rachilde. Villiers justifies this unusual act of (science-) fictionalizing a celebrity into a literary character by way of celebrity itself: “L’enthousiasme—des plus naturels—en son pays et ailleurs. we may be certain that Rachilde’s disruptive presence is indisputably vital to our examination of the heroes and antiheroes of queer and queered French literature. La jongleuse (Paris: Des Femmes.130 SOUTH CENTRAL REVIEW Before such status is officially conferred. is best interpreted as the serpent in this analogy. ou tout comme. Villiers is notable for a double perversion of the marvelous. Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s L’Eve future (Paris: Flammarion. 10. 1982). Hawthorne’s excellent translation. All references to the French version of Monsieur Vénus will be from this edition and cited parenthetically in the text as MV. 2. motivations. no. 9. Rachilde. For further insight into the uneasy partnership between queer theory as a critical lens and queer identity as a social and political positioning. 1992). Monsieur Vénus. en maints esprits. 1928) for further elaboration on her position. 1992). In chapter 14. Liz Heron (London: Dedalus. 8. 1990). Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Raoule and Jacques are referred to as “les maudits de l’Eden” (MV. le PERSONNAGE de cette légende. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (Ithaca: Columbia University Press. 7. lui a conféré une sorte d’apanage mystérieux. 11. Rachilde. trans. 3 (1995): 343–49. Epistemology of the Closet (Los Angeles and Berkeley: The University of California Press. Also see Melanie C. facilitating the seduction and eventually the couple’s dramatic fall. All references to the English version of Monsieur Vénus will be made to this edition. 6. famous in Europe at the turn of the century for his numerous scientific discoveries. As I have done in the past. Monsieur Vénus (Paris: Flammarion. See Rachilde’s somewhat spare 1928 manifesto. Doty’s introduction and first chapter continue to be among the most lucid and articulate discussions of the origins. 201) (“the outcasts of Eden” [LH. and applications of the queer reading. on the heels of their scandalous inter-class (and inter-gender) marriage. 4. “What Does Queer Theory Teach Us About X?” PMLA 110. 127]). one might argue that their marriage ceremony. incidentally. published a few years after Rachilde’s Monsieur Vénus. however. see Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner. 3. “Pourquoi je ne suis pas féministe” (“Why I am not a feminist”) (Paris: Editions de France. Marie. 1977). but also of the literal living legend of Thomas Edison. 1990). and will be included parenthetically in the text as LH. The Juggler (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.—même du vivant de l’homme qui a su l’inspirer. 1993) for all readers new to the often obscure rhetoric of queer theory. —n’appartient-il . corrupting not only the biblical myth of Eve. was the transgression against (their own) nature that caused their exile from paradise. Dès lors. describes an imaginary (and less than likeable) Thomas Alva Edison’s attempts to manufacture a female android to ease the sufferings of a friend scorned by an ill-bred seductress. 5. NOTES 1.
It is perhaps the repeated attention brought to this fact by Barrès’s prurient preface that further underscores the queerness of Rachilde. Dijkstra’s critique fails to acknowledge the convergence of eroticism and power struggle generated by Rachildean sex/gender complexities. Beizer’s deft reading of Rachilde’s Monsieur Vénus enumerates a kind of taxonomy of italics. (A perfectly natural enthusiasm in his own country and elsewhere has conferred upon him a kind of mystique. 21. the only explanation for the author’s shocking familiarity with sexual matters must be the product of female “instincts. Unless otherwise noted. Queer Critics: La littérature française déshabillée par ses homo-lecteurs (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. 1986) makes precisely this claim: “Its role-reversal theme was not meant as a serious critique of the state of late nineteenth-century male-female relationships. 29. Rachilde and her professed virginity provide us with another iteration of expressive and elaborated female sexuality in the absence of men. 6. Jean de Palacio. 29. François Cusset. Ventriloquized Bodies. 50–51. enjoying. La jongleuse. 8. regardless of authorial intent. all translations of this text are my own.THE DIFFICULT GUEST / GANTZ 131 pas à la littérature humaine?” (95). Instead. Queer Critics. Henceforth. as well as in her novel’s heroine. Unless otherwise noted. 524). . or something like it. 17.” Such an elision between the depravity and the biology of women makes for a short jump to diagnosing hysteria in Rachilde herself. in editor Asti Hustvedt’s indispensable The Decadent Reader: Fiction. . 233. Bram Dijkstra’s Idols of Perversity (Oxford: Oxford University Press. . Second Skins. 11. Janet Beizer. and indeed the perverse. all translations of Cusset’s Queer Critics are my own. Palacio. 2002). 19. 20. distinguishing them by function and prevalence. 12. 16. 1994). by misdiagnosing the novel’s primary strategy as one of reversal. Les perversions du merveilleux (Paris: Séguier. Her reckoning of their effect on the changing valences of gender has been an invaluable tool in advancing my own exploration of queerness in this text. 22. figure and author. Rachilde. the narrative is an early example of the unthreatening reversal games which . This self-imposed refusal to enter into the (hetero) sexual economy creates an engaging perspective from which to evaluate her interest in imagining. 1998). Jay Prosser. Ventriloquized Bodies: Narratives of Hysteria in NineteenthCentury France (Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 1993). As the creator of the heavily erotic Monsieur Vénus. As in much of Rachilde’s writing. 15. 13. in light of her declared virginity. 122. 1998]. Beizer. and writing the sensual. this time preying on prevailing social approval of a figure lionized in the media. have too often taken the place of serious social criticism” (337). her protagonist’s eccentricities echo her own. in many minds. Cusset. Prosser. to her postmodern readership. 18. doesn’t the PERSONAGE of this legend—even while the man who inspired it is still alive—belong to the world of literature?) (trans. 14. and Perversion from Fin-de-Siècle France [New York: Zone Books. Les perversions de merveilleux. Maurice Barrès insists in his 1889 preface to Monsieur Vénus that. Fantasy. 249. Such an argument paves the way for a variation on the aforementioned strategy of decadent infiltration. he closes his eyes to the “serious social criticism” available to the reader. Robert Martin Adams. Second Skins: The Body Narratives of Transsexuality (New York: Columbia University Press.
“empowered” new valence. . 1996). “ . Melanie C. 25. Labeling Raoule and Jacques under the rubric of “monster”—that which is culturally inassimilable and whose existence or behavior threatens the social order—remains true to the attraction/repulsion dynamic that has historically defined monster mania.132 SOUTH CENTRAL REVIEW 23. Ventriloquized Bodies. ed. . . Students quickly likened the use of “dyke” to other reappropriated slurs used in the discourse of marginalized populations to suggest a recoded. be it the present day affinity for horror films or the turn-of-the-century passion for decadent morbidity and extreme (mis)behavior. Some interpreted the choice of “dyke” to be an indication of Raoule’s more “butch” lesbian persona. Cohen. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. ils s’unissaient de plus en plus dans une pensée commune: la destruction de leur sexe” (MV. I have included the information provided by the website Butch-Femme. Rachildean gender subversion in Monsieur Vénus seems to be an especially apt demonstration of what Cohen deems to be a cultural obsession with monsters. 27. Such speculation was immediately self-censored as inappropriate. which has begun to collect popular definitions of gender terms in current use. Hawthorne’s illuminating Rachilde and French Women’s Authorship: From Decadence to Modernism (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. a hard Butch who prefers not to be touched by a partner sexually at all.com/Faq/terms. 24. . as well as those who understand their role as being exclusively associated with the initiation and regulation of sexual behavior. never with its passive reception. “Stone butch” describes “ . Monster Theory: Reading Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. . they were more and more united by a common thought: the destruction of their sex” [LH.. Beizer. . 26. in the original 1884 Belgian edition of Monsieur Vénus (before censors insisted upon revisions in the French edition published in 1889). I would add that the current use of this term may also include those butch lesbians who may only occasionally allow themselves to be touched sexually. or in any way that is feminizing” (http://www. the question-writer never revealed his/her identity to the class. a fixation that is born of the twin desire to name that which is difficult to apprehend and to domesticate (and therefore disempower) that which threatens” (Cohen viii). 228.butch-femme. 29. 14–15. while others speculated that such a choice was most likely made by someone entitled to make use of that marginalized slang—implying that the question-writer must be a lesbian. 2001) reveals that. Such an ending makes even more concrete the inextricably linked elements of gender and artificiality. Monster Theory.com. but spread its legs apart as well (89–90). Rachilde provides her characters with transparent understanding of their shared goal: “ . For a contemporary definition of this word.htm). 28. of sex and the non-natural. . . 110) (“ . the mechanical spring not only opened the mannequin’s mouth. . 68]).
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