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Gretchen Schultz, Sapphic Fathers: Discourses of Same-Sex Desire from Nineteenth-Century France – TLS


“For Lesbos chose me above any on earth to sing the secret of its flowering maidens”. Baudelaire’s claim of anointment was just one of many hints and explanations – often self-contradicting – given by male, nineteenth century French writers as to why they placed lesbianism so prominently in their work. Kraftt-Ebbing had noted the tendency: “it is a remarkable fact that in fiction, lesbic love is frequently used as a leading theme, viz Diderot…Balzac…Feydeau…Belot…Rachilde.” In Gretchen Schultz’s ambitious cultural history Sapphic Fathers, she shows just how broadly the preoccupation ran: novelists, poets and scientific writers were all fascinated by the secret world of lesbians, or “tribades”, as they were often called. Schultz examines the relationship of these discourses, showing from her readings of symbolist, decadent and naturalist writers, and of popular and pornographic fiction, how literary texts informed scientific understanding of homosexuality. In a concluding chapter she also traces their influence upon readers of twentieth century lesbian pulp fiction – an audience, Schultz supposes, that earlier male writers “could never have imagined”. As studies of influence can be, this is a rather scattered work, and the confusion about its focus isn’t helped by a title alluding only to nineteenth century France while the jacket features American pop art from the 1950s. But if the book fails to cohere in a single convincing narrative, in its separate strands, Schultz shows herself to be a fine close reader and energetic literary detective.

Schultz begins with a discussion of the poetics of identification, looking at the depiction of lesbians in the poetry of Baudelaire and Verlaine. She argues that despite Baudelaire’s infamous loathing of women – so abominable in their service of nature – he found in the “barren” lesbian a more sympathetic subject, one that intrigued and inspired him. The original title of Fleurs du Mal (1851) was ‘Les Lesbiennes’. Here, Baudelaire envisages the descendants of Sappho as largely ahistorical figures, living in erotic limbo. His “femmes damnées” are, as the poet imagines himself to be, noble in the face of social exile. Baudelaire considers them “grand spirits disdainful of reality”; and it is in “their repudiation of materiality”, Schultz thinks, that their greatness lies. Both poets deploy lesbian speakers as a way of exploring more fluid identities: in Baudelaire’s work this means he can “flirt with femininity” while avoiding having to portray a male love object; in Verlaine, it is often the opposite case: lesbian desire becomes a cover for expressions of love between men. This intersubjectivity in their work, Schutz argues, is an important part of what makes their poetry so revolutionary. Verlaine’s ‘Ballade Sappho’ (1889), for instance, has a slippery narrator, “prince or princess”, who identifies with both the figure of the poet and the female lover of women. It is a poem, Schultz says, “startling…for the sapphicization of its male speaking subject.”

From a set of Matisse illustrations, 1944

From a set of Matisse illustrations, 1944

If the symbolists discovered in gay women a potent image of the poet’s condition – at once alienated and alluring – male novelists in the latter half of the nineteenth century tended to represent lesbians as a bellwether for social and political ills. Among the naturalists, who claimed a scientific or objective basis for their fictions, fears about crime, prostitution, social instability and sexual contagion all coalesced in the figure of the lesbian. Among the decadent writers, she was often a vehicle for anti-clericalism (think of all those nuns corrupting their infatuated pupils). Lesbians also featured in much of the popular fiction of the time, and Schultz raises the question of the extent to which in portraying them, writers of the period were simply speculating on the public’s taste and out to make money. The success of Adolphe Belot’s wildly popular serial Mademoiselle Giraud, Ma Femme (1870) about a man who unwittingly marries a lesbian went through 45 editions in five years, infuriating Flaubert: “Public mentality seems to sink lower and lower. To what depths of stupidity will we descend?” Belot’s readership far outstripped even Zola’s – one of the few ‘serious’ writers of the time to achieve a large public for his work. Zola, however, was less hostile. His novel Thérèse Raquin (1867) had been inspired by an earlier Belot novel and in return he reviewed Mademoiselle Giraud, defending it against accusations of immorality. He claimed (as Baudelaire had of his own lesbian poems) that Belot was representing sapphism only to condemn it. When Zola came under attack for his novel Nana (1880), which depicted a sapphist courtesan laying waste to the men of Paris, he fended off accusations of sensationalism and depravity, arguing similarly that his purpose in writing was to shine a light on depravity.

Two final chapters consider the great extent to which early scientific and medical writing about lesbianism, absent of any actual data, was based on these literary representations. Schultz investigates particularly the work of Julian Chevalier, who wrote the first significant history of homosexuality in France, and who was alarmed about literature’s power to incite: “sapphism by literature”, he thought, was a contributing factor in the spread of “the vice”. It was precisely this idea of contagion and inexorable dissemination which Michel Foucault turned on its head in The History of Sexuality (1976) where he described “the shifts and reutilizations of identical formulas for contrary objects”, and which Schultz follows here in her closing argument about the lasting influence of French sapphic fathers on the readers of American pulp novels (Mademoiselle Lesbian, Appointment in Paris, The French Way). Even if the majority of nineteenth century representations of lesbians had “very little to do with the lives of the women they portrayed”, were voyeuristic, moralizing or abject, Schultz concludes, they still bequeathed to excluded minorities a heritage which placed them inside the culture, providing a store of knowledge, available, as Foucault noted, for their reuse.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Nancy Cadet permalink
    29/12/2015 5:16 pm

    An interesting coincidence : Harrington Park Press has just published “Lesbian Decadence” by Nicole Albert, a close reading of lesbian themed literature & art from the same period. This book was originally published in French with a title like “Saphisme…”

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