Lecture notes: Rachilde

Dr. Petra Dierkes-Thrun

Stanford University

Rachilde (Marguerite Eymery, 1860-1953), Monsieur Venus (1884)

Click here for brief online bio of Rachilde

From the introduction to our edition, “Rachilde: A Decadent Woman Rewriting Women in Decadence” by Melanie Hawthorne and Liz Constable:

  • Rachilde’s “pivotal role among the Parisian intelligentsia was undisputed” at the time as an “author and a critical conduit and mediator of the aesthetic and intellectual ideas of the time” (ix); only female writer for Anatole Baju’s journal Le decadent (1886-89); husband Alfred Vallette edited the important literary-cultural journal Le Mercure de France. Rachilde moved in these influential cultural circles, but when she died (in 1953), her work was not well known any more.
  • Before her marriage to Vallette, Rachilde was known to have been a cross-dresser (very unusual and daring for a woman of her time).
  • Military family, only child, parents had wanted a son, father verbally and physically abused mother and daughter, young Marguerite was rebellious.  Parents interested in spiritualism, she channeled voices for them and found room to maneuver to become a writer (xf.).  Adopted the name Rachilde from a Swedish nobleman for whom she claimed to act as medium.  Many of her literary heroines show similarly subtle skills in playing with/eluding/themselves adopting perverse masculine power.  “This strategy allowed her to appropriate the darkly misogynist topoi of decadence, such as powerful and cruel female figures, and to maintain personal affiliations with male decadent writers, while simultaneously turning around the gendered gaze of decadence to disclose, form the perspective of a woman writer, the ideologies mediating the female figures and forms of decadence” (xi).
  • Published her first stories in 1977; in 1880s in Paris, she was part of the literary avant-garde literary circles.  Rachilde was dubbed “Mademoiselle Baudelaire” by the writer Maurice Barrès, “suggesting she was a legitimate decadent heir of the Baudelairean aesthetic legacy” (xiii).  He wrote the first preface to the novel and placed R. in the decadent tradition as a degenerate in mind and body, which was not unwelcome a portrait to Rachilde (seems to have considered it an important publicity coup, xiii).  “Both Rachilde and Joris-Karl Husymans borrowed the decadent topos of the Belle Dame sans Merci from the Baudelairean tradition but with different results.  Monsieur Vénus turns the coldly indifferent, sterile, and cruel figure of Baudelaire’s ideal beauty to different ideological ends.  Rachilde appropriated Baudelaire’s legacy of representing women as split into two sharply contrastinf types: on the one hand, idealized woman-beauty as artifice and artifact; on the other hand, organic, embodied woman, monstrously insatiable in her sensual appetites, a degenerate and disease-bearing body.  But she rewrote and regendered the male decadent gaze […]” (xiv).
  • Huysmans’ A rebours became famous, but Monsieur Vénus didn’t last … same year, both famous in their time, why? Example of male/female canonization!
  • Monsieur Venus first published in Brussels in 1884, judged pornographic and banned in Belgium.  But France had tradition of pornographic or “gallant” literature; published the novel in 1889 (but censored!  Key passages were omitted, see below).  Flaubert and Baudelaire had both been prosecuted, but the 1880s was a much more tolerant tine in France, could claim redeeming artistic merit.
  • Censored passages/Chapters:
    • preface and dedication have been replaced by an anonymous short text
    • Raoule’s masturbatory fantasy at start of chapter 2 is reduced from 4 to 3 paragraphs (echo of the scandalous carriage ride in Madame Bovary, in which Emma has adulterous sex with her paramour in the carriage with drawn shades)
    • Chapter 7 is gone – “an important fin de siècle manifesto on the relations between the sexes” (xxvii)
    • Penultimate sentence of the ending has been shortened, so as to be less shocking (this was most shocking to the public in 1884): only mouth is animated in censored version, not the thighs (necrophilia, mechanical sexual aids).  “Rachilde’s literal erotic treatment of an idealized dead (male) body challenges the latent necrophilia in the conventions of aesthetic (good) taste, conventions that idealized the woman’s dead or dying body” (xxix).  “The suppressed phrase makes it clear that Raoule’s relationship with the effigy involves her penetration of him”  (xxix).  It “explicitly challenges the gender hierarchy that the male role is dominant because penetrative”  (xxix).  “Jacques is Raoule’s mistress, and not just because of the social reversal of male aristocrat and kept woman. […]  The nature of this relationship also explains Jacques’s disappointment that Raoule ‘can’t be a man’”  (xxix).  “[S]he performs a type of sexual act that has no name in he phallogocentric imaginary” (xxx). “Raoule’s and Jacques’s sexual practices exceed any attempt at explanation through appeals to nature, procreation, or the subordination of women—that is, the categories rejected in chapter 7” (xxx).  Rita Felski has also argued for Raoule’s fashioning of Jacques as an early prototype of the cyborg (in The Gender of Modernism).
  •  R successfully and intriguingly played with her “reputation as an innocent, reserved, virginal young woman who had produced a shocking book” but also with Barrès’s portrayal as a degenerate writer who had written her own life experiences (xv); she also cross-dressed herself.
  • Various myths/origin theories for the novel, supposedly co-written with a mysterious Francis Talman: A) R attributes idea for novel to being in love with fellow writer Catulle Mendès, which provoked a fit of hysteria and following convalescence in her during which she wrote the novel in 2 weeks.  B) R said she only had commercial motives in writing this novel after a friend suggested w=she write something “dirty” that would sell well.   Telling quote from police officer record (who kept record of conversation with Rachilde on this issue), see introduction, xix: “We had some trouble finding something new. […]  We thought of a woman who would love men and with the means that you can guess, sir—the mechanical arts can copy everything—would b[ugger] them.  And there you have Monsieur Vénus.” C)  R claimed the novel had other autobiographical origins.
  • After Monsieur Venus: “series of novels that drew on similar themes of nonconformist, nonreproductive sexual practices, novels that raised questions about the multiple possible relations among the sex category assigned at birth, gender expression, and erotic desire”  (xvi)—La marquise de Sade (1887), La jongleuse (1900), etc.
  • In the 1920s and 30s, Rachilde had “increasingly conservative views”—eg antifeminism, collaboration with the Italian Futurist Filippo Marinetti (xvii)
  • Nazis thought she was Jewish; she struggled to survive in Paris after being put on book black lists
  • Tenuous relationship with feminism:  “Rachilde appears to embrace and reclaim characteristics that would more frequently be identified with abusive enactments of power prerogatives and associated with certain constructions of masculinity or with social class or economic power.” […] her representation of women clearly went against the grain of [1970s feminism’s focus on] giving voice and form to a feminine difference”  (xxi).
  • But the novel has very innovative, modern ideas abour gender and sex as distinct but inseparable.
  • Powerful rewriting of Ovid’s myth of Pygmalion, “the misogynist sculptor who, disappointed and disillusioned with mortal women, falls in love with his own creation—the ideal female beauty embodied in his work of art—and who brings his statue to life with the intervention of the goddess Venus” (xxii).  In  French lit, the myth had already been used to “raise questions about the blurring of aesthetic and erotic experience, about the connections between fantasies and sexual arousal, about the links between looking and desiring, and about what it means to bring an artistic representation to life” (xxii).  “Raoule is a female Pygmalion who fashions from Jacques a corporeal ideal of male beauty after her own desire, ‘a being in her own image.’  Her ‘possession’ of Jacques entails a switch of the conventional gendering of mind/body and creator/creation divisions” (xxiii).  But end of the novel throws into stark relief the human price of such extreme idealization and worship of sensual and aesthetic fashioning.  DISCUSS IN 2ND SESSION: is the ending a triumph or a terrible irony?  Is the shock factor of the ending and the gender-bending of the novel an indirect feminist statement?
  • Another important “intertext” for Monsieur Vénus is Baudelairean idealization of the woman of artifice (and a work of art), xxiii.
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Filed under Biographical links (Wilde, French authors), Lecture notes

One response to “Lecture notes: Rachilde

  1. Pingback: Reading questions: Rachilde | Oscar Wilde and the French Decadents

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