Return to Equinoxes, Issue 1 : Printemps/Eté 2003
Article ©2004, Marta Wilkinson
When Rachilde, née Marguerite Eymery, wrote Monsieur Vénus in 1884, she participated in the Decadence movement dominated particularly by male authors and characterized by a lack of interest in the female as either writer or subject. Due to such involvement, Rachilde has been criticised for expressing a self-loathing for her own femininity1. An embodiment of binary oppositions, Monsieur Vénus uses artistic creativity to link the duality of castration and anticastration, which I present as an assumption of power without the violence or lack implied by the former, thus fulfilling two working definitions of monstrosity according to Michel Foucault's text Les Anormaux. The first definition explains the monster as a fusion of two species, two individuals or two sexes and the second extends such hybridity into one of life and death, or any such transgression of natural law or classification 2. One must keep these definitions in mind in light of criticisms, such as that of Dorothy Kelly, who understands this text as an example of "monstrous writing" due to its representation of "the death of woman's natural production," or assumed social function, in the usurpation and perversion of creativity by the diabolical heroine Raoule de Vénérande3.
Delusion and idealization mark Raoule's "perversion," the force that liberates the young woman from the boundaries of gender as it allows her to transfer her creative and generative power from biological reproduction to an idealization that occurs beyond this function. Raoule is an aristocratic young lady whose effeminate lover - a florist named Jacques Silvert - becomes putty in her hands as he willfully submits to her desires and allows himself to become the oxymoronic Monsieur Vénus. This is accomplished through her violent domination of him and overt transvestism, not only on his part, but on hers as well. Raoule's desire and the power which Jacques affords her in their interactions increases her dominating and violent tendencies until she can no longer resist completely fetishizing her lover, reducing his body to a few detachable parts. The effacement of gender that their masquerade both generates and sustains cannot survive the realization by the naïve Jacques that Raoule is in fact, and can only be, a woman. He is then challenged to a duel by Raoule's neglected fiancé, Raittolbe. Using Raittolbe as a proxy, Raoule thus sends Jacques to his death, only to resurrect him in an artistic and eternal form.
In discussing Raoule as an artist it is important to note that her artistry is asserted far from the canvas. Her work is a satisfaction of desire in the creation and control of life, rather than in its representation. Following Derrida's formulation of Nietzsche's principle of woman, I would like to argue that Raoule "is recognized and affirmed as an affirmative power, a dissimulatress, an artist,… And no longer is it man who affirms her. She affirms herself, in and of herself, in man" or more specifically here, through Jacques4. In Raoule, woman is presented as the contrary of castration, since Raoule has not been castrated, but rather castrates, and in this form of "anticastration" transfers the phallic, intellectual and spiritual powers from man to woman5. She inverts and is inverted, is Creator and Created in her relationship with Jacques. Raoule inverts not only traditional conceptions of gender with these reversals, but those of class as well. Her entrance into the flower shop where he works signifies a passage from one world into another. The spheres of the aristocracy and the working class are later more fully combined when Raoule imports her décor and luxury items into a small studio that she rents for her lover in order to create her own world within its walls. She creates a space, and a lover, and performs the role that she herself constructs and chooses to define for herself6. This room becomes more than a work of art, it is a symbolic womb; her lover, its fruit. This space aestheticizes a natural function and thus adopts it into the Decadent tradition. It is in this space, with Raoule in the commanding position, that she dresses Jacques as a woman and asserts her desires upon him. This transformation of fetishism from image to idea, as we see in numerous cases of costuming, and the belief of Raoule in the object of her own creation, is, according to Hippolyte Taine, "degeneration or decadence, as the body loses force in inverse proportion to the over-stimulated, hypertrophied mind" 7. Thus, in a "degeneration" marked by progressive madness, Raoule drifts further into her idealized world; however, her role as the creator who has assumed phallic power is destroyed by the realization of her own castration.
Jacques has accepted her as the phallic figure, reinforcing the point of collision between the subjective, idealized roles they have created, and objective reality, or their tangible roles and displays of gender. Sexual identity is lost in him and any reminder or realization of it shatters the beautifully composed world of the fetish. The obliteration of the construct that Jacques has been for Raoule begins when his own voice rips through the air, just as Raoule - assuming the position of Master, in which Jacques has accepted her - is revealed physically as a woman:
…puis, tout à coup, un cri déchirant retentit, pareil au hurlement d'un démon qui vient d'être vaincu.
-Raoule, s'écria Jacques, la face convulsée, les dents crispées sur la lèvre, les bras étendus comme s'il venait d'être crucifié dans un spasme de plaisir, Raoule, tu n'es donc pas un homme ? tu ne peux donc pas être un homme ?
Et le sanglot des illusions détruites, pour toujours mortes, monta de ses flancs à sa gorge.
Car Raoule avait défait son gilet de soie blanche, et […] elle avait appuyé l'un de ses seins nus sur sa peau ; un sein rond, taillé en coupe avec son bouton de fleur fermé… 8
The discovery that Raoule cannot be a man provokes Jacques's "paroxysme de la folie" 9. He truly believes in their created world and displays a fear of the unknown power of the female body which, until then, Raoule had kept hidden from view, as well as a realization of the sacrifice she has made of him. Raoule's own fetishism for the masquerade they have been living works against her. She has forced her will and thus her fetishized world upon Jacques, and has overwhelmed him such that nature, or the real physicality of her body, becomes offensive to him.
The violence that marks Raoule's personality throughout the work extends itself into the duel she arranges which she knows Jacques cannot win. Raoule, as master manipulator, has Raittolbe play the role of her champion and even chooses for weapon the sword - a phallic symbol which the effeminate Jacques is incapable of wielding. The constant fluctuation between images of birth and death, male and female, castration and anticastration indicate that gender roles are being effaced, rather than reversed. This upsetting of worlds in Rachilde's novel leads to my labeling of Raoule as monster, according to the first part of Foucault's definition:
C'est le mélange de deux espèces, c'est le mixte de deux espèces […] C'est le mixte de deux individus […] C'est le mixte de deux sexes : celui qui est à la fois homme et femme est un monstre.10
Raoule is a hybrid of genders and, in the masquerade during which she acts out both roles, she is neither. She is also an instrument of horror, a Sadistic monster who derives erotic pleasure from the pain of others11. Raoule's asexual character becomes truly polymorphic as she is capable of taking the form of any number of man-destroying creatures. On two specific occasions, Raittolbe describes her not just as a monster, but as the dual embodiment of two monsters, one that petrifies and the other that eats men: the Gorgon and the Sphinx12. These particular monsters, whose sustenance and raison d'être depend on the destruction of the male, contribute to the idea of a highly sexualized, yet androgynous figure, as Raoule cannot be identified with the feminine nor aligned with the masculine. While the image of destruction and castration is the first to come to mind with such mythical monsters, the process by which these monsters destroy is essential to the understanding of their specific function. The Gorgon petrifies men with her eyes, thus using the gaze as an instrument of castration, or as a representation of the horror of female castration. The Sphinx eats men: it bites into the flesh, tears it apart and ingests it. Through the process of digestion, one body becomes part of the other. The union is complete. The masculine fear of the female monster, or of the symbolic vagina dentata, is not only a fear of annihilation but one of acknowledging the unity of two bodies and their complementary relationship.
Raittolbe les regardait valser d'un oeil rêveur. Il valsait bien, ce manant, et son corps souple, aux ondulations féminines, semblait moulé pour cet exercice gracieux. Il ne cherchait pas à soutenir sa danseuse, mais il ne formait avec elle qu'une taille, qu'un buste, qu'un être. A les voir pressés, tournoyants et fondus dans une étreinte où les chairs, malgré leurs vêtements, se collaient aux chairs, on s'imaginait la seule divinité de l'amour en deux personnes, l'individu complet dont parlent les récits fabuleux des brahmanes, deux sexes distincts en un unique monstre. 13
Raittolbe's observation identifies the various images of pagan creatures with monstrosity, a characteristic which then takes a different form as Raoule metamorphoses from creature into moral monster. This is illustrated by Raoule's violence, as she reopens her lover's wounds to lick the fresh droplets of blood. Any sense of decorum that may have existed in the opening pages of the work is shattered by the graphic barbarism of Raoule's performance of sexuality.
D'un geste violent, elle arracha les bandes de batiste qu'elle avait roulées autour du corps sacré de son éphèbe, elle mordit ses chairs marbrées, les pressa à pleines mains, les égratigna de ses ongles affilés. Ce fut une défloration complète de ces beautés merveilleuses qui l'avaient, jadis, fait s'extasier dans un bonheur mystique.
Jacques se tordait, perdant son sang par de véritables entailles que Raoule ouvrait davantage avec un raffinement de sadique plaisir. Toutes les colères de la nature humaine, qu'elle avait essayé se réveillaient à la fois, et la soif de ce sang qui coulait sur des membres tordus remplaçait maintenant tous les plaisirs de son féroce amour…14.
As the lower and upper classes represented by Raoule and Jacques collide in violence, so do their symbolic parallels of Heaven and Hell, Creator and Destroyer. The heaven associated with the upper class world and the hellish misery of the lower class are confused by Raoule's comportment as well as the deification of her created Venus, yet another pagan idol. Raoule's polymorphism is taken to another level with Jacques's awareness that : "Cette créature était le diable" 15. What was the image of a mythical monster is now elevated to the level of fallen archangel, of the Creator's favorite who desired a realm of his own and who came to symbolize the monster of monsters. Raoule does indeed create her own realm, and the narration depicts the images of Hell that both Jacques and Raittolbe fear:
Il faisait un temps lourd, cette nuit-là, on était au mois d'août, un orage se préparait. Raittolbe ouvrit le vitrage de l'atelier et plongea son front dans l'air plus chaud que le lit de Jacques. Il crut respirer du feu. 16
Respiration, much like digestion, is a real physical process by which what was separate and in the world around us becomes a part of one's own being. The inhalation of the fires of hell becomes integral to the experience of each character and to his or her condition. The incorporation of the different senses that Rachilde uses in her narrative all contribute to the sensuality of the novel which the reader is asked to experience as much as the characters do.
The satanic images of Hell provide another elaborate stage for the need to create and control. The egocentric nature of the biblical Lucifer is applied not only to Raoule, but also to Jacques for having inhaled the flames of damnation. Raoule's demonic nature is highly infectious, like an airborne disease. Jacques is affected, his senses dazed as vertigo and delusion overtake him:
Il avait cru tomber d'abord, et, au contraire, il se trouvait bien au-dessus de ce monde. Il avait, sans explication possible, la sensation orgueilleuse de Satan qui, tombé du Paradis, domine pourtant la terre et a, en même temps, le front sous les pieds de Dieu, les pieds sur le front des hommes. 17
Raoule's experience as Creator, in the dressing and subjugation of Jacques, cannot be fulfilled until it is complemented by the role of Destroyer. In keeping with the references to various mythological and religious figures Raoule here portrays Vishnu, personifying the duality of Brahma the Creator and then fulfilling the cyclical principles of that faith as she achieves the destruction of Shiva the Destroyer, only to return again to the role of creator. She accomplishes destruction first when she abolishes all attributes of male gender in Jacques. Her influence not only physically hides his form, it affects him to the point of erasing masculinity in his own mind: "Car Jacques aimait Raoule avec un vrai cœur de femme. Il l'aimait par reconnaissance, par soumission, par un besoin latent de voluptés inconnues" 18. Jacques even declares, "Je ne suis pas un homme ! je ne suis pas du monde !" 19
As artistic creation leads to artistic destruction, so the cycle continues and creation is renewed in an uncanny aesthetic experience. This time the subjective and the objective can no longer be separate as the ideal of Raoule's imagination replicates life in the form of a wax figure into which she inserts the hair and nails of the deceased Monsieur Vénus. The "monstrous writing" described earlier is brought to the forefront as writer and character are jointly responsible, not for the birth of Venus, but for the resurrection of Vénus, a wax monster, "half-human, half-machine" 20, completing the second part of Foucault's working definition of monster:
Un mixte de vie et de mort : […] est un monstre. […] Transgression, par conséquence des limites naturelles, transgression des classifications, transgression du tableau, transgression de la loi comme tableaux : c'est bien de cela, en effet, qu'il est question dans la monstruosité.21
The wax figure that Raoule commissions creates the illusion of life, a creature almost alive in death. This transgression both excites the curiosity of the viewer and provokes his or her fear of the uncanny, or death. In this case however, Raoule is the only viewer, as she keeps the figure in an apartment that she visits, sometimes dressed as a woman, sometimes as a man, but only at night, in order to fully appreciate its beauty and ingenuity.
Sur la couche en forme de conque, gardée par un Eros de marbre, repose un mannequin de cire revêtu d'un épiderme de caoutchouc transparent. Les cheveux roux, les cils blonds, le duvet d'or de la poitrine sont naturels ; les dents qui ornent la bouche, les ongles des mains et des pieds ont été arrachés à un cadavre. Les yeux en émail ont un adorable regard…Un ressort, disposé à l'intérieur des flancs, correspond à la bouche et l'anime. 22
Raoule has united the objective, real body of Jacques, present in the hair and nails, and the subjective, idealized representation of a lover in a figure made of wax and rubber hereby illustrating a "narcissistic investment in the body image" 23. Elisabeth Grosz specifically presents such detachable parts of the body such as hair and nails as objects that "retain something of the cathexis and value of a body part even when they are separated from the body" 24. This wax figure recalls once again a unification of the two separate bodies of Raoule and Jacques, man and woman, Brahma and Shiva.
As a work of art, the wax figure of Monsieur Vénus is yet another type of hybrid: one beholds the Renaissance ideals of artistic creation, a beautiful and idealized figure set within a well-composed and balanced scene combined with the evidence of a physical love "of the body and all its substances" as this figure's abominable parts have been acquired through the violation of the corpse25. In the first edition of this novel, printed only once in Belgium, there appeared another part to the erotically horrifying phrase: "Un ressort, disposé à l'intérieur des flancs, correspond à la bouche et l'anime" which continued, "en même temps qu'il fait s'écarter les cuisses". Raoule's obsession has extended the possibility of form and function in the creation of an instrument of mythological necrophilia, an erotic unity of life and death, ensuring that Jacques will remain an instrument of pleasure "desired by both [of Raoule's] masculine and feminine selves" 27
Raoule's creation and her relationship with it fulfill both parts of Foucault's formula for monstrosity, and perpetuate the paradox of castration and anticastration, another duplicity of form which only compounds such monstrosity. The last passage of the text clearly illustrates the type of writing representative of a fractured and violent cultural and aesthetic experience specifically criticized as antithetical to the "balance and harmony" of the Renaissance28. For as in Kingcaid's criticism, whereas "[T]he Renaissance had balanced barbarism and culture, physical nature and intellectual life, instinct and idea" all of this had by the nineteenth century, "come completely undone" 29. Janet Beizer presents the " chef d'œuvre " of the wax figure as proof that Jacques has literally been "killed into art" 30. The violence effected by Raoule's sexuality throughout the text meets the force of her creativity in the wax figure, which in its form and function satisfies her needs as artist, creator, lover, man, woman and destroyer. Her new Vénus is all things to Raoule, not only as child is to mother, work is to artist, and lover is to lover, for it is an impossible combination of all those elements, and thus a manifestation of all possible definitions of monstrosity. Raoule has created a chef d'oeuvre of the grotesque. Indeed, this masterpiece is presented to us as Botticelli presents Venus, in a shell, with Eros standing guard. Raoule, artiste féminin and monster, succeeds in creating a tableau and is left to live her art.
1 Holmes, Diana. Rachilde: Decadence, Gender and the Woman Writer. (Oxford: Berg, 2001) 112.
2 Foucault, Michel. Les Anormaux. (Paris : Seuil/Gallimard, 1999) 58-59.
3 Kelly, Dorothy. Fictional Genders: Role & Representation in Nineteenth-Century French Narrative. (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1989) 145.
4 Quoted in Koelb, Clayton. "Castration Envy: Nietzsche and the Figure of Woman." Nietzsche and the Feminine. (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1994) 72.
5 Ibid. 72
6 Bronfen, Elisabeth. The Knotted Subject. Hysteria and Its Discontents. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998) 295 - 296.
7 Kingcaid, Renée A. Neurosis and Narrative: The Decadent Short Fiction of Proust, Lorrain, and Rachilde. (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992) 30.
8 Rachilde. Monsieur Vénus : Roman matérialiste. 1884. (Paris: Flammarion, 1977) 198.
9 Monsieur Vénus 198.
10 Les Anormaux 58
11 Krafft-Ebing, Richard von. Psychopathia Sexualis: With Especial Reference to the Antipathetic Sexual Instinct. 1903. (New York, 1965) 56.
12 Monsieur Vénus 85; 165.
13 Monsieur Vénus 171.
14 Monsieur Vénus 145.
15 Monsieur Vénus 52.
16 Monsieur Vénus 130.
17 Monsieur Vénus 76-77.
18 Monsieur Vénus 107.
19 Monsieur Vénus 170.
20 Kelly, Dorothy. Fictional Genders: Role & Representation in Nineteenth-Century French Narrative. (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1989) 154-155.
21 Les Anormaux 58 - 59
22 Monsieur Vénus 228.
23 Grosz, Elizabeth. Volatile Bodies: Toward A Corporeal Feminism. (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994) 81.
24 Ibid. 81
25 Ibid. 81
26 Hawthorne, Melanie C. Rachilde and French Women's Authorship. (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2001) 88; 90.
27 Holmes, Diana. Rachilde: Decadence, Gender and the Woman Writer. (Oxford: Berg, 2001) 119.
28 Neurosis and Narrative 30.
29 Ibid. 30.
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