Lesbian Decadence

Representations in Art and Literature of Fin-de-Siècle France

Golden Crown Literary Society Finalist

Translated by Nancy Erber and
William Peniston

380 pages

Forward Indies Finalist

25 b&w illustrations and 14 color illustrations
Cloth, $85.00 / £63.00 ISBN: 9781939594075
Paper, $40.00 / £30.00 ISBN: 9781939594204
E-book, $24.99 / £19.00 ISBN: 9781939594211

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In 1857 the French poet Charles Baudelaire, who was fascinated by lesbianism, created a scandal with Les Fleurs du Mal [The Flowers of Evil]. This collection was originally entitled “The Lesbians” and described women as “femmes damnées,” with “disordered souls” suffering in a hypocritical world. Then twenty years later, lesbians in Paris dared to flaunt themselves in that extraordinarily creative period
at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries which became known as the Belle Époque.

Lesbian Decadence, now available in English for the first time, provides a new analysis and synthesis of the depiction of lesbianism as a social phenomenon and a symptom of social malaise as well as a fantasy in that most vibrant place and period in history. In this newly translated work, praised by leading critics as “authoritative,” “stunning,” and “a marvel of elegance and erudition,” Nicole G. Albert analyzes and synthesizes an engagingly rich sweep of historical representations of the lesbian mystique in art and literature. Albert contrasts these visions to moralists’ abrupt condemnations of “the lesbian vice,” as well as the newly emerging psychiatric establishment’s medical fury and their obsession on cataloging and classifying symptoms of “inversion” or “perversion” in order to cure these “unbalanced creatures of love.”

Lesbian Decadence combines literary, artistic, and historical analysis of sources from the mainstream to the rare, from scholarly studies to popular culture. The English translation provides a core reference/text for those interested in the Decadent movement, in literary history, in French history and social history. It is well suited for courses in gender studies, women’s studies, LGBT history, and lesbianism in literature, history, and art.

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(since 1/26/17)

PART I: “At that time, Sappho was reborn in Paris”

(since 1/26/17)
1. Sappho: The Resurrection of a MythFree Chapter

The Greek poet Sappho, hailed as the queen of sapphism at the end of the nineteenth century, has often been reduced to little more than the representation of a sexuality, and this distortion eventually over-shadowed her historical reality. The paucity of information about her life and the limited survival of only fragments from her work inspired numerous conflicting legends over which scholars, writers, illustrators, and even translators argued. Although Sappho was often accused of sexual deviance, many Hellenists rallied to her defense, presenting her as a desexualized poet more interested in her art than in anything (or anyone) else. Ironically, the more these philologists defended her virtue, the more novelists and artists portrayed her as a slave to any number of passions. This contemporary interest, however, should not eclipse the fact that Sappho was stigmatized by many fin-de-siècle writers and categorized as sexually perverse by many illustrators, who associated her with other notorious promiscuous women from antiquity.

2. The Poets’ Muse

The truly Decadent saga of the Greek poet begins with the publication of Les Fleurs du Mal in 1857, which Charles Baudelaire had initially intended to call “The Lesbians.” He depicted Sappho as an advocate of sapphism and an inaccessible goddess. Algernon Charles Swinburne, an admirer of Baudelaire, published a collection of poems in 1866 in which he included a personal “translation” of some of her poetry. Giving free rein to his imagination, he embraced the unbridled passion of the poetess for her female lovers. In his reinterpretation, he saw her poetry and her homosexuality as indivisible. Toward the end of the century, Pierre Louÿs caused a sensation when he published Les Chansons de Bilitis. His heroine was an imitator, almost a double, of the Tenth Muse.

Baudelaire superimposed himself on Sappho, erasing her from his text; Swinburne adapted her poetry without translating it; Louÿs brought her back to life in fiction; but Renée Vivien reread Sappho’s poetry from a new, overtly homosexual perspective, exploring the very concept of artistic creativity. She was the first to produce a comprehensive and entirely new translation of the classical writer’s poetry. She found in these poetic fragments, devoted entirely to female friends, a complementary echo to her own feelings, and she dedicated herself to poems of sapphic inspiration that launched a discreet cult.

3. Lesbos; or the Topography of Vice

In the second half of the nineteenth century, a number of writers traveled to Lesbos, “the isle of bliss.” This Edenic imagery was, nevertheless, repeatedly undermined by the shocking reputation of Sappho’s poetry. This sensual and ambiguous land would provide the setting for countless novels, short stories, and poems that enhanced its reputation as an island of love and a welcoming home for the Sapphic cult.

On the other hand, however, women travelers in fin-de-siècle fiction rarely strayed far from familiar shores. They seem to have preferred the calmer waters of the rivers and streams around Paris to faraway oceans. Novels and society gossip columns alike began to focus more and more on women who established their own Lesbos without ever leaving Paris.

The reality in Paris was no doubt less spectacular than some of the lurid depictions offered in the wildly fantastic tales penned by men. It also enabled women who preferred to express their sexuality with other women to group together in public or semi-public spaces within the city, such as women’s clubs and cafes or cabarets around Montmartre.

PART II: “Her Traits, Her Vices, and Her Sexual Aberrations”

4. The Birth of the Female Invert

The definition of female homosexuality started to change as the concept gradually began to refer less to a practice than to an identity. Passion became “sexual relations,” and perversity made way for “unnatural acts.” Medical experts were in effect establishing the idea of a sexual norm when they undertook the classification of sexual deviations and other “marginal sexualities.” They developed a vast vocabulary – mingling scientific terms and slang – to name various attributes of women who were now suddenly known as “inverts” and members of a zoological category. This vocabulary of condemnation reveals all the scorn that the lesbian figure, straddling ridicule and depravity, could elicit from her contemporaries. This lexicon contributed to establishing a truly decadent mythology of the lesbian.

5. A Vice or An Illness?

Sapphism was discussed in medical texts primarily as a social problem up until the late nineteenth century when a more scientific outlook emerged and the theory that homosexuality – or sexual inversion – was congenital began to develop in Europe. However, these medical experts could not have foreseen that fin-de-siècle writers would become so fascinated with homosexuality, fetishism, and other sexual deviations that they would exploit such sensational themes in their works.

The lesbian actually made her entrance on the literary stage in a shocking way in 1870 with the help of Adolphe Belot, the author of the popular Mademoiselle Giraud, ma femme. Fearing the temptations that young girls face in modern schools for girls, Belot decided to root out this evil by denouncing its primary cause, the convent school, with its passionate friendships and its homosexual relations, and by showing how it could destroy a married couple. The same year that Belot published his novel, Carl Westphal, a German psychiatrist, described the case of Fraulein N. She would incarnate the lesbian, now consistently defined as someone with a man’s mind inside a woman’s body, in clinicians’ as well as novelists’ writings.

6. A Heroine at the Crossroads of Medicine and Literature

Sexologist had an enormous effect on fin-de-siècle literature, thanks to the popularization of their work. Doctors led the way and novelists followed, transforming themselves into physiognomists and delving into treatises on sexual psychopathology to begin developing their archetype of the lesbian. These writers adopted the abstruse language of sexologists with astonishing speed, and dozens of popular and successful novels depicted the different types of female inversion. A whole range of popular fiction disseminated medical theories that linked sapphism with pathology. It put into circulation a new image of the lesbian, but these books were more a reflection of the fantasies of an era than any sociological reality. If the first sexologists were obviously influenced in their approach to sapphism by the accuracy – or inaccuracy – of certain works of literature, fin-de-siècle literature itself drew sustenance from the abundant discourse about the lesbian in scientific studies.

7. When the Third Sex Comes Out

When Willy published Le Troisième sexe in 1927, he used a startling phrase as its title, alluding implicitly to Magnus Hirshfeld’s well-known treatise on sexuality. By sundering the gender binary in favor of a new trinity, the Decadent period was striving to find a place for the Amazonian sex caught between a non-definition (neither … nor) and a compound definition (both … and) or between a neutered state and a mixed state. The fear and fascination that this hybrid creature provoked were intimately connected to changes in women’s lives as they fought for women’s rights, engaged in new activities, and called for dress reform.

The figure of the transvestite or cross-dresser fueled the anxieties as well as the representations inspired by this confusion. Consequently, she was the ultimate incarnation of the bankruptcy of sexual difference, or more precisely, its most decadent expression. On stage, some performers eagerly played at “unisexuality,” but stage wardrobes that blurred sexual identities provoked disputes among critics. The trend for cycling and boating encouraged other women to change their wardrobes and wear trousers.

For the lesbian, dressing in men’s clothes was grounded in a symbolic, or even idealized, virility that implied the annihilation of the male. It also nurtured a dual femininity that underpinned a new form of sexual difference that substituted a hybrid being, the descendant of the myth of the androgyne, for a unisexual one.

8. Madame Don Juan, Arlequine, and Others

If the hermaphrodite became increasingly visible in so many different forms at the end of the nineteenth century, it was no doubt because its dual and ambivalent nature could not be confined by the paradigm of the sexes and eluded all attempts at categorization. It was a category embracing all kinds of hybrid people, the homosexuals as well as the transvestites. The hermaphrodite lost its other worldly status and was recognized as the offspring of a society adrift, the result of the disintegration of moral values and the loss of clearly defined norms of sexual behavior and threats that seemed omnipresent at the time. Thus, the hermaphrodite was seen as “more than a woman … [but] still not quite a man,” in the words of Jean Lorrain. The lesbian rushed into this in-between position and introduced the reign of the unnatural. Distancing itself from the spirit of the Enlightenment and the imagination of the Romantics, the Decadent movement substituted the traditional opposition of “nature versus culture” with “natural versus unnatural,” which became the symbol of a flawed Creation.

PART III: “Damned Women or Exquisite Creatures?”

9. Deadly Pleasures

In the eyes of popular fiction writers, the lesbian became the epitome of the woman possessed by the devil. She was regularly associated with drug use and addiction to sexual excesses. Ultimately, the lesbian was depicted as a tragic character destined sooner or later for self-destruction, crime, and dissipation, which were, of course, suitable for such a great sinner. Driven by overwhelming desire and the awfulness of that passion, she rarely enjoyed sapphic love in peace, and even less did she find any joy in life.

Thus, turn-of-the-century authors ritually condemned sapphism in order to express and to legitimize their own fascination with this difficult topic. They popularized the image of a disturbing figure who is open to all kinds of blasphemous behavior, a depraved woman who was initiated into these guilty pleasures in boarding schools under the nuns’ teachings. By tracking the manifestations of sapphism to the inner sanctum of the convent school, writers tried to tarnish the image of the virgin that mingled mystical and physical love, as well as Holy Communion and Marriage.

Lesbians, “women lovers without a man, wives without a husband,” brought the exclusivity of one sex, the female, into the core of marriage. Thus, sapphic marriage situates itself as the ultimate contradiction of the laws on sexuality but also those of social conventions and divine commandments. By “marrying” her female partner, the lesbian yields to irrational and satanic forces that would seal her damnation.

10. The Half-Woman

Critiques of sapphism are often related to contemporary fears of population decline, especially after France’s defeat in 1870 by Germany. Nevertheless, demographic worries alone cannot explain the overwhelming presence of lesbians in turn-of-the-century literature, as well as in newspapers with an overtly anti-feminist stance. For “femmes damnées,” giving up their virginity was a sacrilege, bearing children was a heresy, and men were the designated enemy since they wanted to turn women into breeders, a simple “reproductive device.” Male authors mocked this hatred of motherhood.

By refusing to perpetuate the species, the lesbian is attempting to defy the Creator. As a decadent monster without offspring, she “achieves her own end.” In fiction, her transgressions can only end in punishment, such as madness, apathy or idiocy. The lesbian body, in opposing the human race and man himself, tries to escape from the writer-analyst. What role can he play in a sexuality that is based on his negation, since it rejects the male principle and the law of quantifiable ecstasy? Decadence, itself a literary movement without a future or offspring, was gazing at its own destruction when it contemplated sapphism, the cult of sterility and the unnatural.

11. Female Narcissus

The violence that turn-of-the-century authors wreaked on the lesbian is equaled only by the disturbing fascination that they had for this ambiguous figure. Even those who condemned sapphic love occasionally conceded that the sight of a female couple had a seductive sort of double charm for spectators. This ideal beauty was the point of departure for an aesthetic that rejected the caricatured image of masculine lesbians and their stereotypical associations in order to elevate sapphism to an artistic motif.

Decadent literature improvised on this theme with innumerable variations, sometimes playing on similarities, sometimes on differences in the image of two women lovers whose “divergent beauties complemented each other.” Fictitious lesbians pursued an artificial resemblance to each other that did not end at physical similarities or shared hair color. They developed all sorts of incestuous twinnings, a sisterhood that represented the ultimate expression of their sapphic love.

This perfect couple would engender another set of representations focused on self-contemplation, especially since the mirror had become popular in women’s boudoirs and bedrooms at this time. For Decadent writers and artists, the mirror inevitably took on a role in sapphic excesses. They also adopted other metaphors to express narcissistic doubleness, but those expressions rapidly degenerated into clichés.

12. Female Spaces, Male Gaze

Beneath the idea of the artificial, the Decadent artist concealed his fantasies as well as his fears. The lesbian enabled him to express them both – both his fascination and his impotence. This is the reason the lesbian interior was so significant for the artist. It focused his voyeuristic tendencies on the site where sapphic love takes place. As a place dedicated to unnatural and sophisticated pleasure, the lesbian interior is also the site for an aesthetic emotion that Decadent artists sought to capture. When a writer attaches so much importance to the lesbian’s boudoir and bedroom where she indulges in her “vice,” he is, in fact, wondering what goes on there. He often expresses a desire to join the female lovers, to be the man in the middle. The omnipresence of men is a paradoxical situation that the Decadent movement tried to resolve. For many writers, Lesbos did not exist outside the male gaze that legitimized women’s same-sex love. But a man’s presence puts the validity – even the reality – of sapphism in question.

The Decadent movement’s fascination with the lesbian was based on the fact that lesbians pushed the experience of the unsayable to the limit by constructing their pleasure on an absence – the absence of the male. Its experimentation with words enabled authors to explore “new sensations” and to cultivate a sophisticated form of writing. Thus, the lesbian was significant for the aesthetic and literary value of artificiality at the heart of the Decadent project, with which she could be associated by virtue of her “unnaturalness.”




(since 1/26/17)


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