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Home arrow Language & Literature arrow Syphilis in Victorian Literature and Culture: Medicine, Knowledge and the Spectacle of Victorian Invisibility

The Pleasures of the Marketplace 1: Modernist Aesthetics

This double-bind of syphilis depiction is further explored in literary narratives, which complicate both the gendering of the disease and its function vis-a-vis the exchange market as they also refine the evocation of the syphilitic body. Cabanes (1996) argues that, in nineteenth- century France, the spectre of syphilis infects the novel: its burgeoning in literary narratives - Maupassant’s “Le Lit 29” (1884), Robert Caze’s Femme a Soldats (1884), Paul Adam’s Chair molle (1885) or Lucien Descaves’s Sous-offs (1888) and, of course, A Rebours (1884) - marks the birth of the decadent, symbolist and psychological novel. Naturalistic novels deploy the syphilitic bodies of prostitutes as sites for the projection of epochal fears such as xenophobia, contagion, social hygiene and the prejudices they generate. In these depictions of syphilis, two topoi are fused: that of the prostitute as a site of pollution and that of the femme fatale and her erotic, menacing power. At times, this mythical, innately dangerous womanhood is exchanged for the particularity of a mundane existence (for instance in Phillipe’s Bubu de Montparnasse, 1901). At times, it merges with the perception of the prostitute as a social victim. Cabanes claims that what follows is a multiplication of syphilis’ semantics that parallels the plurality of agendas that underlie the literary evocation of the disease (1996: 92-105).

What accompanies this thematic profusion is an unprecedented sumptuousness of realistic details in the depiction of syphilis. This minuteness is employed not only to evoke a sense of corporeal reality but also to project on this body a variety of dreams, nightmares and phantasms (Cabanes 1996: 109). Syphilis has an oxymoron-like existence in these texts:

Il leur a permis d’evoquer le corps humain dans toute sa materialite de chair, mais aussi d’ouvrir une scene interieure ou se sont projetes reves, cauchem- ars, fantasmes. Dans la litterature “fin de siecle”, la syphilis tient d’un oxymoron incarne: elle pourrit et elle blanchit, elle s’exhibe a la surface, elle parasite l’interiorite, elle est “mal du siecle”, figure archetypique. (Cabanes 1996: 109)

In French literature of the fin de siecle, syphilis both purifies the surface but also manifests itself there. As the texts remain incongruous, their aim is not necessarily a distancing from the disease through sublimation but rather its allegorization: the syphilitic body becomes a projection of psychological states. Here, as Cabanes rightly claims, the realistically putrefying body metamorphoses into a phantasm of one’s interiority (93). What accompanies this transformation is a new poetics. By nature of its eruptions, the syphilitic skin seems always already pictorial; by extension, its evocation requires a distinctly modern style (106, 107).

A Rebours offers such a new poetics of syphilis as it explores male fears of women’s bodies. Here, the disease permeates the whole text. The green syphilitic body and the body of a metamorphosing woman become the sites of its visualization: the sites where male fears become abundantly apparent, as the diseased body itself undergoes literary sublimation. According to Bernheimer, this repetitive, almost hysterical process is less about the distancing from sexual trauma and more about its ecstatic reliving, materialized on the body of the prostitute (1997: 263). It is about the stimulating, if innately dangerous, intertwining of sexuality and deviance as counter-sites to bourgeois sedateness and stability.

Huysmans’s evocation of syphilis has been compared to Felicien Rops’s Mors Syphilitica (ca. 1875; Fig. 4.3), which, although in keeping with the aforementioned pictorial tendencies in gendering the syphilitic body, takes the transformation of the woman’s body further. Here, its simultaneous desirability and threat are spotlighted and reimagined within the tradition of the femme fatale. The skeletal form of an almost fleshless body replaces the smooth surfaces characteristic of other depictions. The etching powerfully suggests the putrefaction of the decaying face and only implies the dryness of the trunk. Erastene Ramiro describes the horror evoked by the spectacle of this emaciated figure: “Horrible et seulement a demi decharnee, elle appuie son epaule contre une porte derriere laquelle elle doit guetter un debauche agonisant” (1887: 141). Although the form is fairly gender-neutral, it has been interpreted as female in the context of Rops’s oeuvre. Edith Hoffmann points out the evolution of Rops’s fascination with death, prostitution and the skeletal form which, influenced by the tradition of danse macabre, became associated with femininity after his mid-1860s illustration of Baudelaire’s LesEpaves (1981: 214).27 La mort au bal (1865) and La mort qui danse (1865) are the best instances of this metamorphosis. Rops’s women, personifications of modern life (Hoffmann 1984: 260), combine in their carnality the

Felicien Rops. Mors syphilitica. 1865, pointe seche, 22.2 x 16.2 cm. Coll. Musee Felicien Rops, Province de Namur, inv. PERE353.1.P © musee Rops

Fig. 4.3 Felicien Rops. Mors syphilitica. 1865, pointe seche, 22.2 x 16.2 cm. Coll. Musee Felicien Rops, Province de Namur, inv. PERE353.1.P © musee Rops

(male) fears and allures of modernity. Huysmans lauds this complex depiction of femininity:

Loin du siecle, dans en temps ou l’art materialiste ne voit plus que des hysteriques mangees par leurs ovaires ou des nymphomanes dont le cerveau bat dans les regions du ventre, il a celebre [... ] la Femme essentielle et hors des temps, la Bete veneneuse et nue, la mercenaire des Tenebres, la serve absolue du Diable.

Il a, en mot, celebre ce spiritualisme de la Luxure qu’est le Satanisme, peint, en s’imperfectibles pages, le surnaturel de la perversite, l’au-dela du Mal. (1975: 362-3)

Huysmans sees Rops’s women as naked and demonic animals: always seductive, always carnivorous, always uncannily perverse. For him, they incarnate the ‘essence’ of femininity. Hoffmann also underscores these qualities of Rops’s depictions of death, who, as a menacing seductress, is a source of carnal pleasures but also of vice and punishment (1981: 217, 218). Here, the emaciated skeletal form replaces the polished surfaces of earlier depictions of syphilis. At the same time, it masks the signs of the disease through the activation of the mythical figure of death. In this mystification, syphilis is once again reinscribed into the tradition of female deviance, even though the signs of this aberrance are more pronounced than any earlier depictions.

Syphilis masquerades in the guise of a woman. Her image evokes the problems of representation. Psychoanalytical interpretations of Huysmans’s novel point out the centrality of this metamorphosis. In the “unconscious” of his text, which marks a break with naturalism and a turn to decadence, Huysmans expresses and bridles his obsession with female sexuality (Bernheimer 1985: 312). In a series of projections, woman-flower becomes a nightmarish incarnation of syphilis that Des Esseintes encounters in his dream:

That ambiguous, sexless face was green and violet eyelids opened to reveal terrible eyes of a cold and limpid blue: its mouth was ringed with sores; incredibly thin arms, the arms of a skeleton bare to the elbows, issued from ragged sleeves, trembling with fever [... ]. He had before his eyes an image of the Great Pox. [... ] the woman was changing [... ] he observed the frightful inflammation of the breasts and mouth, discovered blotches of bistre and copper on the skin of her body. (Huysmans 2008: 120,121,122)

This image of the great pox metamorphoses into a woman whom Des Esseintes associates with the flower that embodies the virus in his daydreams. The woman, in turn, becomes dramatically fetishized as the fear of her sexuality percolates the novel. It is in this constant metamorphosis that the frenzied dynamics of modernity are instantiated and given precedence over the atrophied world of the elite’s “prolonged, solid stability” (Berman 1988: 95). In this oneiric piece of writing, Huysmans indulges in a notorious fetishization of the (diseased) female body, as he relives “the masochistic pleasure of a dissolving masculine ego” (Bernheimer 1997: 247, 261). The sublimation enlivens the fear of female sexuality and uses it as a catalyst for artistic creation. The female body, as a synecdoche of biological life, threatens the sites of signification: only a specific literary style, like that of Baudelaire, can triumph over and curb this monstrosity. In similar terms, Des Esseintes uses artifice to fixate this morbidity in order to reinstate a scenario of illusory wholeness and to sublimate the forces of biological degeneration (Bernheimer 1997: 261). For Bernheimer, Huysmans’s aesthetic exemplifies most vividly “the psychogenesis of modernism” as a reaction to a phantasmatic fusion of female sexuality and disease (1997: 263).28 It thereby questions the “referential role of language and works to subvert the organic model of plot development” as it attempts to produce a text free “of mimetic dependence on female nature” (263). Sublimated syphilis is the heart of this modernist aesthetics and inspires a new poetics that looks for its origins not in the organic but in the dictionary, the supplement and the (inter)textual (264).

Whereas Krohg, Toulouse-Lautrec and Casas explore syphilis as a symbol of contradictory and gender-specific exigencies of modern economy and the modern state, Huysmans and Rops extend the discussion to embrace what O’Shea terms the “psychic formation of modernity” (1996: 21; original emphasis) and the type of aesthetics it requires and makes possible. Here, consumption, with its strong sexual overtones, becomes a chief force in identity formation. It explores the contradictions of modern, masculinist, narcissistic individualism, which sublimates the, never entirely repressible, “aggressive and sexual desires and existential anxiety - an unstable subjectivity in an unstable society” (O’Shea 1996: 26). Transformed into a canvas for the search of (male) identity, syphilis also becomes essential to self-expression that attempts to grasp, in a new, decadent aesthetics, the dynamics and horrors of modernity and, at the same time, to reform antiquated generic modalities.

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