Category Archives: Week 3 Reviews: Rachilde

Ecstasy and Anatomy—A Conversation between Monsieur Venus, Ecstasy of St. Teresa, and Anatomical Venus

“With avid eyes and passionate mouth, Raoule approached the altar of her god and in her ecstasy sighed: “You alone exist, Beauty. I believe in you alone.””


Ecstasy of St. Teresa, Giovanni Bernini


Medical Venus, Clemente Susini

This quotation instantly evokes the image of the Ecstasy of St. Teresa—the parted lips and averted gaze of Bernini’s masterpiece are reminiscent of Raoule in rapture: “with half-closed eyes and half-open mouth, her head falling on a shoulder raised intermittently by a long, calming sigh…” (19). Interestingly enough, this characterization from the infamous carriage scene aptly describes the classic representation of the Anatomical Venus. Thus, we can use these works to help navigate the tenuous relationship between religious reverence and sexual transgression in Monsieur Venus.

In the Ecstasy, Bernini conflates the sexual and the religious: he captures Teresa in a moment of spiritual intimacy; her head is thrown back, and her fingers and toes are curled in pleasure—or is it devotion? Federico Coronaro commissioned the Ecstasy for his family crypt in Rome at the height of the Baroque. Much like Monsieur Venus, contemporary audiences were scandalized by Bernini’s sensual portrayal of St. Teresa de Avila, a Catholic mystic renown for her direct communion with God. Bernini, like Rachilde, may be motivated to shock his audience. Certainly this is not the first time that art has incorporated erotic overtones, but a sexualized pagan goddess is different than a sexualized martyred saint. The Teresa was constructed as a figure of worship; she should not be depicted in the throes of orgasm. In this, Bernini argues that passion is passion, whether divinely inspired or corporeally conceived.

The tension between the sexual and religious in the Ecstasy of St. Teresa is also present in Rachilde’s Monsieur Venus. Nevertheless, it is much easier to explain the “gothic arches” and the “stained glass windows” in this “temple of modern paganism” (177, 177, 183).  The inclusion of the religious imagery contains an ironic element. Raoule repurposes traditional Christian iconography for aesthetic appeal, and in doing so, desecrates one religion to give rise to another. For Raoule, there is no difference between love—no matter how perverted and twisted it may be—and religion. During the wedding night, she describes her desire for Jacques as a “delicious martyrdom” (181). In this exchange, Raoule appropriates religious language to give a Decadent gravitas to her declaration. This statement is hyperbolic in nature: she is not a true martyr; she does not suffer in the flesh. Raoule suggests, however, that it is a spiritual torture to be without Jacques (or at least, her idea of him as Beauty incarnate). In addition, she argues that the conflation of pain and pleasure is “delicious”; there is an aspect of perverse gratification in this. We must not forget that for the Decadents, terrifying, tyrannical depictions of love are just as valid as traditional ones. It is evident that Raoule is totally consumed by the cult of Beauty, and a kiss is just one way to pray.

Yet both works are characterized by an element of purity. Bernini fashioned his masterpiece in white marble, and despite the sexual insinuations, Teresa remains a virginal saint. Similarly, in light of her liaisons with Jacques, Raoule continues to be infertile. We know that “the means of bringing someone into the world have been absolutely denied her” (179). This becomes increasingly apparent in the bedroom scene, from the presence of the seashell-shaped bed to the appearance of Raoule’s milkless breast. Raoule’s sterility is significant and subversive; it robs her traditional function as a woman. This allows for increased sexual freedom while reinforcing her masculine persona.

It is also interesting to note the parallel between the Ecstasy of St. Teresa and the Anatomical Venus. They are highly eroticized; both Teresa and Venus lay supine, couched in silks and satins. Their tilted heads and tangled legs betray their intent as objects of devotion and study. This is yet another illustration of the conflict between sexuality and religion. Furthermore, the Ecstasy and the Anatomical Venus represent classic examples of the Decadent obsession with Eros and Thanatos—sex and death. As previously mentioned, the Ecstasy is located in the chapel of the Cornaro crypt; Teresa, in spite of her euphoric exuberance, resides in the house of Death. And though the Anatomical Venus appears to be a lifelike portrayal of a sensuous young woman, when disassembled, she is reduced to a lifeless wax figure surrounded by her own entrails. This is not to say that their beauty is not preserved in the state of death—it just takes on a new, Decadent meaning.

This brings us to Jacques; we know that he becomes a mechanized sex puppet akin to an Anatomical Venus, but as we discussed in class, this is as much an act of creation as destruction. This also implicitly alludes to fairytale; in a sense, Jacques has become a Sleeping Beauty. And, we must also consider Jacques’s relationship to the Ecstasy. The cherub poised above Teresa is not unlike the Eros figure described in the bridal chamber. However, the association runs much deeper. In the Ecstasy, Bernini’s cherub holds a golden arrow and thrusts it towards Teresa’s heart. The phallic connotations are undeniable.

Thus, the desire for penetration creates the (quite literal!) climax in both the Ecstasy and Monsieur Venus. Jacques ultimately rejects Raoule’s love, and essentially, her religion, because she “just can’t be a man” (183). Though Raoule fits neatly into the social constructs of masculinity—she is domineering, she provides for Jacques, etc.—she lacks the physical, material component of manhood. She cannot complete (read: penetrate) Jacques in the way he wants her to.  Ultimately, this unfulfilled desire causes the decay of their aesthetic love.




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Anatomical Dismembering & The Tragic in Monsieur Venus

For this blog entry, I’d like to hint the themes of the anatomical dismembering, the aggressiveness and cruelty (or what one could call ‘the pure pathos of suffering’), and the tragic in Monsieur Venus. In doing so, I will compare Rachilde’s Monsieur Venus with some literary topoi coming from Ancient Greece, namely the tragic destiny of Antinous and Euripides’s The Bacchae in which Pentheus faces a particularly dreadful fate, somehow reminiscent of that of Jacques, since he gets dismembered and beheaded by his own mother while he was spying on a bacchanalian revel taking place near Thebes. In addition, in the play Dionysus forces Pentheus to cross-dress, exactly in the same fashion as Raoule ‘transgenders’ Jacques in Monsieur Venus. 

In Monsieur Venus, Raoule might be seen as the guarantor of a certain type of knowledge. She gives Jacques hashish and books (see the end of the chapter IV and the beginning of chapter VII) rendering thus his mind more open and more malleable for the metamorphosis/transformation she wants him to undergo. Raoule wants to shape Jacques’ mind to match it, as it were, with the tremendous beauty she sees in him (thus the link with the myth of Pygmalion. See Ovid’s Metamorphoses, X).

From a hermeneutic point of view, Raoule could be seen as a symbolic representation dangling an initiatic knowledge before the subject (Jacques), who had been hitherto ‘innocent and pure.’ She is also the one who will introduce and initiate Jacques ‘into the wicked mysteries of Venus.’ More generally, however, Raoule and Jacques could be construed as some archaic imagines (see imago) that could be traced far in the past, namely, in Ancient Greece.

Jacques could be construed as the archetype of the scapegoat (see Antinous who sacrificed himself to please Hadrian, his emperor and lover, or Pentheus in The Bacchae who got dismembered by his own mother during a Pagan revel) whereas Raoule is a sort of daemonic force at work (see Agave in The Bacchae, who was “mad and possessed by Bacchus” and killed her son “not by her own strength, for the god had put inhuman power in her hands.” Verses 1120-1130 in Euripides V). Yet it is true that Raoule did not strictly kill Jacques. She did even worst: she emasculated him. This is very clearly stated when Jacques comes back drunk from a brothel at the end of chapter XIV:

Je viens de chez ma soeur, dit-il d’une voix saccadée… de chez ma soeur la prostituée… et pas une de ces filles, tu m’entends? Pas une n’a pu faire revivre ce que tu as tué, sacrilège!…

In other words, and as it is the case for Agave in The Bacchae who “proudly exhibits her thyrsus with the head of Pentheus [her son] impaled upon the point,” Raoule clearly possesses masculine features. She could be seen (just as Agave), as a close literary representation of the psychoanalytical notion of “phallic mother” denoting then the associated concepts of castration (figuratively construed as an anatomical dismemberment) and transgendering/cross-dressing. M. de Raittolbe is rather the genuine embodiment of the symbolic father (the big other, or, object grand A in Lacanian terminology): he is the one who beats Jacques up for moral reason (Raittolbe has a normative function). He is also the one who penetrates literally Jacques with a sword and kills him at the end of the book (Raittolbe has a prohibitive function; he holds the ‘life or death right’). To that peculiar extent one could see Raittolbe as being the rightful foil (the ‘complement’) of Raoule who does not possess ‘the main manly feature’ (cf. Jacques at the end of chapter XIII: “Raoule, tu n’es donc pas un homme? Tu ne peux donc pas être un homme?”)

But why in hell does Jacques have to go through all these sufferings? Why are Raoule and Raittolbe so cruel towards him? What is the meaning of this dreadful Pagan setting in the last chapter of Monsieur Venus? Perhaps these things might denote the materialistic and quite wicked idea according to which one could reach a certain type of ecstasy through a secular process consisting in trying to merge (a) Eros (the self-preservative/sexual/life instincts) and (b) Thanatos (ego/death instincts) within the same activity/ritual. This could be a possible explanation for the S&M relationship existing between Jacques and Raoule. From this, the concept of cruelty associated with that of suffering should be envisioned as a sort of metaphysical challenge underlying a possible psychological transformation, which would be triggered by the coexistence and the intensity of antithetic feelings experienced at once by a sole subject, that is (a) joy and pleasure and (b) terror and pain. The overcoming of the opposites into a third term (or Sublimation, German: Aufhebung) should indeed be somehow construed as a mystical experience (Greek: ἐπιφάνεια). -R.C.

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Hair in Monsieur Venus

One motif that really jumped out at me while reading Monsieur Venus was the repeated mention of hair. For example, at the end of the novel it is mainly the hair that is saved from Jacques and used in Raoule’s wax figure. While there are other parts saved, such as the nails and teeth, it was Jacques’ distinctive red and blonde hair that made the doll a representation of the deceased. It was also Jacque’s blonde chest hair that originally drew Raoule to him in the first place and began her voracious desire.

The way a character’s hair is described could be also interpreted as a representation of that person’s femininity at that time, especially in regards to Raoule and Jacques. These two characters undergo dramatic gender transformations throughout the novel. These transformations can be traced through the descriptions of the character’s hair. For example, during Jacque and Raoule’s first encounter, his hair becomes the focus of her attention and even comes up in the conversation. Rachilde writes, “‘Bah!’ he said, ‘it does not keep me from being a man!’ And his smock, still open, displayed the golden curls on his chest… Her arm relaxed, and she stroked the workman’s chest, as she would have stroked a blond beast… ‘I can see that,’ she said, with ironic daring… Jack started, taken aback… ‘Well, you know, people do have hair all over!’” (17). Not only is the hair prompting Raoule’s desire and beginning the passionate spark  in this relationship, but it is also indicative of the state of Jacque’s masculinity. At this stage he is defending his manhood and the hair on his chest signifies that he is male. In contrast, later in the novel when Jacques is becoming more and more effeminate, his hair is referenced again. At this point in the novel, Raoule is watching Jacques while he sleeps and thinking about how she has “created a being in her own image,” or made Jacques into a woman, (17). Raoule observes, “[Jacque’s] completely hairless arm stood out like beautiful marble on the satin counterpane,” (97). Now Jacques has succumbed to Raoule and the process of “gender reversal” is beginning. The focus is on his lack of hair and how feminine he looks.

Raoule’s hair is also very telling in regards to her sexual transformation. While not as much detail is given, it is clear that Raoule’s hair becomes more masculine as she herself becomes more masculine in the relationship. In the beginning her hair is described as, “brown, twisted up at the neck,” (19). While not extremely feminine, this description does imply that she at least has somewhat long hair if she is able to twist it up at the neck. Later in the novel at her wedding Raoule has different hair. When Rachilde describes Raoule at her wedding she states, “The wreath of orange blossoms was resting on her tight curls like a tiara on a boy’s head. Her bold face harmonized admirably with these short curls but in no way resembled that of a modest bride.” The duchess d’Armonville then goes on to say that, “Raoule’s had her hair cut off,” (170). The wedding night seems to represent the apex of Raoule’s sexual transformation. She finally owns Jacques and can have him however she wants. Her hair represents this moment because she wears it in a masculine style that mirrors her now almost complete masculinity in the relationship.

While not a major focus of the novel, the characters’ hair is very representative of the transformations occurring. Perhaps Rachilde takes care to include these details to help the reader keep track of the characters’ progress. These subtle hints are most likely working subconsciously and also working on the reader’s basic assumptions of gender identity. Hair is also commonly associated with desire and arousal which could be another reason Rachilde included these minute details.  IPN

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Fidelity in Monsieur Vénus

As expected in a novel depicting transgressive liaisons, the concept of fidelity plays a major role in Rachilde’s Monsieur Vénus. Raoule serves as the transgressive catalyst in the novel in seducing Jacques and involving Raittolbe in her affair; at the same time, she remains one of few faithful characters in the novel. Amongst the five major characters—Raoule, Jacques, Raittolbe, Marie, and Aunt Ermengarde—the two de Vénérade characters are the only faithful ones. Aunt Ermengarde maintains her purity and piety, devoted to God rather than men. Raoule forms a mesalliance, but takes no lover other than Jacques, despite Raittolbe’s urging at the beginning of the novel.

Marie Silvert is established as a prostitute in the early chapters of a novel. Her dalliance with Raittolbe has no expectation of fidelity. He appears to have paid her for her services. Marie, furthermore, has little loyalty to her brother, as evidenced by her use of him as a vehicle to take money from Raoule, then exhort her and her aunt following the wedding. In such a way, Marie betrays two fidelities: that to her lover and that to her brother.

Raoule’s two possible romantic partners—Raittolbe and Jacques—betray their friendship and relationship, respectively, through a relationship with one another. Jacques lack of fidelity proves most shocking in the novel. His growing feminine characteristics render him submissive to Raoule’s more domineering personality. Throughout the novel, he waits for Raoule, seemingly enjoying his position as a kept man. He shows few signs of unfaithfulness. Perhaps the turning point occurs on their wedding night when Jacques cries “’Raoule, you just aren’t a man! You just can’t be a man!’” (183). At this moment, Jacques comes to terms with the fact that Raoule is still, despite their pretending, a woman and, possible, cannot fulfill his desires. This leads him to Raittolbe, whose passion for Marie and Raoule seems tepid at its height. Jacques goes to Raittolbe as a woman, causing the servants to mistake him for madame. By going to Raittolbe as a woman, Jacques complicates the question of fidelity: does he betray his wife by taking a lover as a woman? -KJO

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Gender in Monsieur Vénus and Today

It is sometimes hard to tell in Monsieur Vénus how exactly gender and sexuality are being portrayed. This is in part, I would guess, due to the process of translating Monsieur Vénus from the original French, a language that includes gender agreement in adjectives and even some verbs, to English, though having not read the original French yet, I cannot say this for sure. Even in the original French, however, I imagine that there is a great deal of gender ambiguity, and this is very much a deliberate approach. There are times when Raoule identifies as a man and times when Raoule identifies as a woman. This can be seen abundantly during one of Raoule’s conversation with Raittolbe, when Raoule first tells him about Jacques. Similarly, there are times when Jacques identifies as a woman and times when Jacques identifies as a man, though as the novel progresses Jacques identifies increasingly often as a woman.

Gender, at least for these two characters, is fluid. By the end of the novel, the gender labels that might seem closest to being appropriate for these characters are transgender, in the case of Jacques, and two-spirited, in the case of Raoule. However, it remains difficult to say. The language some use today to describe gender certainly wasn’t around in 1884, when the novel was written, and so it is difficult to apply any kind of contemporary categorization to the situation. Gender and sexuality in Monsieur Vénus was deliberately ambiguous and changing, in part perhaps because Rachilde seems to have intended that it be shocking, in order for the book to sell better. Rachilde thus took advantage of the limitations of gender binary mentality to create a shocking and as a result popular novel.

Gender binary is still the go-to formula for contemporary views of gender, at least in most of the Western world. Most people make little if any distinction between the concepts of “sex” and “gender,” though they are in fact entirely separate notions, a concept that this novel begins to explore. Sex refers to the physical body (female, male, intersexed, etc), gender to social constructs, some of which were traditionally associated with a given sex (woman, man, transgender, genderqueer, etc). Many forms today ask you to identify your gender, with the listed options being male and female. Not only does this conflate two distinct concepts, but also leaves no room for people who are neither one nor the other, such as intersexed people and transsexual people who are still in the process of sex reassignment surgery. Gender roles are played out on a regular basis, from commercials advertising housecleaning products almost always featuring women to men being the expected instigators of sexual and romantic relationships. Transgender and other gender-nonconforming people are still sometimes the victims of the kind of abuse that Jacques receives from Raittolbe, from people as confused and dogmatic about gender and sexuality as Raittolbe is for most of the novel. While there are certainly groups of people who are aware of gender and sexuality issues, it is taking a long time for this movement to advance into the mainstream. One can imagine that Monsieur Vénus would still be shocking to many if not most people today.


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The Statuesque Venus

An element that stuck out to me throughout my reading of Monsieur Vénus was the image of Venus (whether manifested through Raoule or Jacques, or even sometimes both at the same time) as a statue.  Perhaps I was particularly sensitive to the image because we’d discussed the statue concept before in class, in our close readings of the poetry of Baudelaire.  At that time, we’d referenced the myth of Pygmalion, in which the sculptor falls in love with the sculpture, dreaming after the woman he has created in his own image.  It is obvious that this myth directly relates to Rachilde’s novel- in fact, the back of the edition we have calls it an “inversion of the Pygmalion story.”  And in keeping with the subtitle of materialism, Rachilde alludes to the myth not only in creating a protagonist who falls in love with her creation, but in literally describing the statue-esque nature of both main characters.

It seems that, between Raoule and Jacques, the portrayal of a statue correlates directly to characterization of either character as a Venus.  Initially it is Venus who is the admired beauty: “when [Raoule] embraced her it seemed to him that a body made of marble slid between the sheets”- a marked difference from the conventions of a warm body in bed that we might expect Jacques to encounter.  But then, as Jacques becomes more and more feminine and more and more idealized as a Beauty, it is he who becomes the statue.  In one instance, “his rounded arm.. lay exposed, like a piece of marble.”  Later, he’s described as “unselfconscious as an antique marble”, and Raoule laughs at the idea of him having “a drop of blood in [his] veins.”  It is in these moments, these endless references to hardness and bloodlessness, when I am struck by the obvious contrast between that which is beautiful (i.e. Venus) and that which is lifeless (marble statues and idols).  In our more recent discussion, when we passed around a picture of Venus de Milo, I found myself further contemplating the combination of these two seemingly opposing concepts.  The Venus statue is dead, but she is not inanimate or sterile.  She emanates the suggestion of life- just how Jacques emanates a suggestion of femininity- but ultimately she is just a carved piece of marble.  Furthermore, it is the Venus’s modesty that forces us to consider her sexuality, for the cloth around her waist seems to be fashioned precisely to hint at what lies directly beneath.  This is alluded to throughout the wedding scene- Jacques is rendered as a sort of Venus de Milo as his “supple and marvelously well-shaped torso [shines]”, for we as readers appreciate the endless references to his upper half in order to be led by association to his lower half, which of course brings up the issue of his inescapable masculinity.  The ultimate realization of Jacques’s true gender- and of Raoule’s- is similar to how we ultimately must come to terms with the Venus de Milo’s artificiality- admiring onlookers will never see what is beneath her cloth, just as Raoule “just can’t be a man.”

All of these connections- the tangles between Raoule and Venus, or Jacques and Venus, or all three of them together, continue to puzzle me as I reflect on the novel.  Rachilde is so incessant in her references to the elements of marble- could this also reflect an element of infertility or sterility, which serves as a parallel for the terminal, unnatural quality of Raoule and Jacque’s relationship?  Venus too, as we mentioned in class, is the product of an infertile love, born of sea foam rather than of a sexual encounter between her godly parents.  And who is more the “Venus” among the two main characters?  While Jacques is fashioned to be the feminine beauty, it is Raoule who receives the title’s name of “Monsieur Venus,” and similarly it is Raoule who behaves as Venus mythologically did- for while Venus the goddess preyed on lowly mortals, Raoule the rich and privileged noblewoman preys on the poor and talentless Jacques.  While of course both of them can represent Venus in different ways, I wonder if we can say that, at the end, one of them triumphs as the ultimate Venus of the novel?

I’ve obviously put forth many complex issues and questions all in a very short post, but I would love to continue a dialogue on this elements within the novel, as I find them very interesting.


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Reading questions: Rachilde

I didn’t post any timely reading questions for Rachilde’s Monsieur Venus last week (my apologies–I was traveling), but here are some areas of inquiry to ponder when writing about the novel this week , for those of you who are writing blog posts, and those members of the public who are interested in interacting with the Stanford students in the comments section.  Students’ blog posts for Rachilde’s Monsieur Venus can be found easily via this link.    -petradt

  • How does the novel present gender and gender roles?
  • How does the novel present sexuality?
  • What is the role of cross-dressing, S/M role play, and violence (e.g. Raoule’s, Raittolbe’s towards Jacques and Marie–think also of verbal violence)?
  • What role does homoeroticism play for the relationships, rivalries, and desires between the “queer love triangle” of Raoule, Jacques, and Raittolbe?
  • What role does sado-masochistic imagery play throughout?  How does the relationship between dominant/submissive change at times, and to what effect?
  • What other relationship triangles are there in the novel besides that one?
  • What other “pairs” of protagonists function as foils here, and for whom?  As a reminder, the other important figures in this novel are Marie Silvert, Aunt Ermengarde, and Martin Durand.   What are their functions and purposes in the novel?
  • Some typically Decadent themes appear prominently in this novel.  They include (and this is not an exhaustive list): death and sex, a love of art and collecting (pay attention to what kind of art and objects are featured repeatedly throughout the novel, and what their significance might be), unorthodox sexual practices and tastes, challenges to organized religion and morality, extreme individualism, pathological imagery, organicity versus artificiality, etc.
  • What are some of the major allusions to mythology, history, and literature here, and what is their role and function, in each case?  Do some of these allusions work together to create and support certain themes?  Which ones?
  • role of religious imagery in the novel (especially the ending)
  • Look again at the censored passages–mainly the first few paragraphs of chapter 2, the whole of chapter 7, and parts of the penultimate sentence of the ending (see my Rachilde lecture notes for more information on this).  What could have made them so shocking, and why?
  • You may already know (or remember from class) that Rachilde was actually a staunch antagonist of the women’s rights movement of her time (she disdained it).  How can this novel nevertheless be read as a quasi-feminist text?  And what arguments from within the text might possibly speak against such a feminist interpretation?  (pro/contra)
  • Is the shocking ending ironic or not, in your view?  Why? (pro/contra)
  • How does this 1884 novel compare to contemporary theories and cultural views of gender and sexuality, in your view?

As we are looking forward to next week’s discussions of Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Huysmans’ Against the Grain, please keep Rachilde’s novel in mind as one of the reading foils for Wilde’s novel.  (Wilde read both Rachilde’s and Huysmans’ Decadent novels before writing his own, and there is scholarly evidence that he was influenced by both, as well as many other sources, French and other.)  What reminds you of Rachilde’s decadent universe in Wilde’s novel, if anything?

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