Tuesday, May 03, 2011

French 18th century erotica Revised

THE FRENCH CONNECTION:
FROM THE ANCIEN REGIME TO THE FRENCH REVOLUTION


Before the censorship of books collapsed in the United States during the mid-1960s, American travelers were accustomed to visit one of the English-language bookshops in Paris to acquire erotic books we could not obtain in our own country. I remember going in 1958 to Brentano’s in the City of Light to buy Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, which I then proudly displayed as I sat with my coffee in European cafes. Sometimes people asked if I was a medical student,

Paris was then the capital of underground literature in the English language, and its prince was Maurice Girodias (1919-1990), who headed the Olympia Press.1 Remembered in literary histories for his publication of works not only by Miller but by Beckett (Malone trilogy), Nabokov (Lolita), and Donleavy (The Ginger Man), he also published gay classics such as William Talsman’s The Gaudy Image (1958) and Burroughs’s The Naked Lunch (sic, 1959), translations of Apollinaire’s Les Onze mille verges (of which more in a moment) and Raymond Queneau’s Zazie dans le Métro (1959), and a reprint of Teleny (1958).

After encountering legal difficulties, Girodias left Paris in 1963, eventually settling in New York City. There he published erotica under various imprints. One of these, The Other Traveller, featured gay-themed books. Between 1967 and 1972 “Traveller’s Companions” included fiction by Richard Amory (his mystery, Frost), Victor J. Banis (The Gay Haunt by “Victor Jay”), John Coriolan (Seven Ways from Sunday), Angelo d’Arcangelo (Sookey), Joseph Hansen as James Colton (The Outward Side and Todd, the last “Colton” novel), Larry Townsend (Run, Little Leather Boy, The Sexual Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by “J. Watson,” and The Scorpius Equation), and Dirk Vanden (All Is Well and a reprint of All or Nothing).

Girodias published a hardback edition of Ronald Tavel’s Street of Stairs (1968). Under his Ophelia Press imprint he published d’Arcangelo’s The Homosexual Handbook (1968). It was notorious for outing J. Edgar Hoover and Cardinal Spellman. The original green cover edition quickly disappeared. When it was reprinted with a bold pink cover, Hoover’s name had disappeared. Olympia covers were uniformly plain. In general their gay line received more respect than that accorded most gay pulps. While Girodias set new standards for such works in terms of editing and printing, he was very casual about paying his authors. Fees were tiny – and they arrived late, it at all.2

In fact, Girodias had taken over the business of his father, the expatriate Englishman Jack Kahane (1919-1939), whose imprint, founded in 1929, was called the Obelisk Press.3 It was Kahane who first published Miller, together with a number of other significant American and British authors. In 1933 he published Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler’s The Young and Evil.

Kahane was in turn preceded by another Englishman, Charles Carrington (1857-1922).4 Born in England as Paul Harry Ferdinando, in 1895 he settled in Paris, where he published and sold erotica. Carrington also issued works of classical literature, including the first complete English translation of Aristophanes, together with books by noted authors such as Oscar Wilde and Anatole France; these served to cloak his erotica in a veil of legitimacy. Carrington, who displayed a particular interest in flagellation (ostensibly the English vice), also published books in French.

All these entrepreneurs of erotic books took advantage of a quirk in French law that exempted books printed in foreign languages from censorship.

Still, some “dirty books.” quite a few in fact, were published in the French language.4 In Carrington’s time the spiritus animator of the erotic field in Paris was the poet and art critic Guillaume Apolliinaire (1880-1918). While not a publisher, Apollinaire was active in several ways, writing two pieces of erotica himself: Les Onze mille verges (1907) and Les exploits d’un jeune Don Juan (apparently 1911).

The title of the first novel contains a French pun substituting the word verges (switches or pricks) for the usual vierges (virgins – as in the Eleven Thousand Virgins of St. Ursula). The book relates the adventures of Mony Vibescu, a young Romanian aristocrat who is highly sexed. It is mostly heterosexual, with a good deal of S/M, scat, and necrophilia. However, there are several gay-male episodes. In Bucharest, the adolescent Mony is regularly sodomized by a Serbian diplomat. In due course he sets out for Paris, where he becomes an accomplished rake. At one point, while he is practicing sixty-nine with his valet, a servant enters with the news of his appointment as an officer in the Russian army. The two men celebrate the occasion by sodomizing each other.

In 1953 Olympia Press published The Debauched Hospodar, a translation of Les Onze mille verges by “Oscar Mole” (a pseudonym of the Scottish writer Alexander Trocchi). In the 1960s this translation, together with the Olympia version of the second Apollinaire effort, entitled variously as The Amorous Exploits / Memoirs of a Young Rakehell, was pirated several times by U.S. pulp publishers. Somewhat hastily contrived, the second work is a coming-of-age novel recounting the sexual education of an adolescent named Roger who seduces and impregnates several women.6

Conditions were less favorable in England, but nonetheless one erotic publisher managed to survive there for a time. Leonard Smithers (1861-1907) undertook the challenging task of issuing Sir Richard Burton’s translation of the Book of the Thousand and One Nights in 1885.7 Later he published books by Aubrey Beardsley, Ernest Dowson, Aleister Crowley, and the 1893 book known as Teleny (often ascribed, though probably wrongly, to Oscar Wilde). Reputedly, his bookshop in Bond Street displayed the slogan: “Smut is cheap today.” This claim was misleading, as Smithers’ books tended to be expensive.

Generally the United States was inhospitable to such activity, at least until the censorship was lifted in the mid-sixties when a number of opportunist pulp publishers sprang up. A notable, though hardly respectable example was Marvin Miller’s Collectors Publications, located in the City of Industry and Covina in California, which began shamelessly pirating the Olympia Press books. Collectors Publications even purloined the characteristic Olympia Press cover design with its layout of nested rectangles enclosing the name of the author and the title.

It seems clear then that this quintet – Girodias, Kahane, Carrington, Apolliinaire, and Smithers--were the godfathers of our pulps. Who then were their godfathers?

LIBERTINE LITERATURE IN FRANCE AND ITS BACKGROUND

Answering that question takes us back to the Old Regime in France, where a lively trade in underground literature had grown up to evade the strict censorship of the Bourbon monarchy.8 For safety, these books were usually printed abroad, generally in the Netherlands and Switzerland. Sometimes the books seem to have been actually printed in France, but bore a false imprint, such as “Freetown” or “Philadelphia.” If they were printed abroad, as most were, they had to be smuggled into France. There they were hawked by itinerant peddlers who supposedly kept them hidden under their coats. Hence this production is sometimes called books distributed “sous le manteau.”

This literature generally goes under the name of libertine. The term stems from the Latin libertinus, a freed slave. In the course of time the meaning morphed into two acceptations. The first means someone who questions established views in religion and philosophy. The second means someone who is licentious, especially as concerns sensual pleasures. The common link is defiance of conventional middle-class norms of thought and behavior.

During the Old Regime in France, some libertine works were nonfiction efforts critiquing political or religious orthodoxy. The more serious works of this kind were aptly termed philosophical. Yet there were also erotic books, subversive in a different way. Many were only mildly sexual. Others, though, were downright pornographic. Perhaps the best-known examples, slightly later, are the novels of the Marquis de Sade. Since the trade was usually clandestine, book sellers found it expedient to classify all the books under the honorific rubric of “philosophy.”

This body of writing may be termed the sub-basement of the Enlightenment. Yes, the conventional wisdom of politics and religion must be questioned. But it is also true that sex sells.

The story actually takes us back to the sixteenth century. While the works of François Rabelais offer a precedent in terms of sexual explicitness, the new crop of works lacked the fantastic, carnivalesque emphasis of the earlier French writer. In fact, the beginnings of the “dirty book” genre derive from Rabelais’ Italian contemporary, Pietro Aretino (1492-1556). In 1524 Aretino brought out his sixteen Sonetti lussuriosi, sex sonnets describing different positions for copulation. These texts elicited illustrations by Giulio Romano, which were turned into prints by Marcantonio Raimondi. The resulting marriage of text and image ranks as the first illustrated porno book.

Also influential was a prose work by Aretino, the Ragionamenti (1534-36). Over the course of six days, a seasoned prostitute explains the secrets of the trade to a novice.

Directly inspired by the Ragionamenti was L’Escole des Filles ou la Philosophie des dames, first issued in 1655. While the work is anonymous, Michel Millot and Jean L’Ange have been suggested as authors. In this story the experienced Suzanne explains the facts of life to her naive 16-year old cousin Fanchon. The English diarist Samuel Pepys notes that he bought a copy for solitary perusal. Afterwards, he burned the book so that his wife would not discover it. During the heyday of the American pulps. purchasers would also commonly destroy their gay erotic books to keep them from falling into the hands of relatives and associates. For that reason some titles have become scarce.

In 1660 this first French effort was succeeded by a more elaborate production with a complicated history. Nicolas Chorier (1612-1682), who worked as a lawyer and government official in Grenoble. Because of his position, Chorier took great pains to protect his identity – as did many American pulp authors. For one thing he composed his erotic work in Latin. The first edition of 1660 bears the sonorous title of Aloisiæ Sigeæ, Toletanæ, Satyra sotadica de arcanis amoris et Veneris, Aloisia hispanice scripsit, latinitate donavit Joannes Meursius V. C. The reader is supposed to believe that the text was originally written by one Aloysia or Luisa Sigea, a court lady and poet of Spanish origin residing in Lisbon. The text was then translated into Latin by a certain Joannes Meursius, a Dutch humanist. Both these writers are fictional.

Chorier’s work consists of seven dialogues between an Italian lady Tullia and her younger cousin Ottavia. While the main concern is with the various positions of heterosexual copulation, two of the dialogues deal with lesbian relations. Ottavia also includes a list of famous male homosexuals, one of the earliest such compilations that is known.

Subsequently, Chorier’s book was translated into French under the title of L’Académie des dames (1680). There were also English and Italian renderings of this very popular work.

While there were some publications in the interval, the production of such works achieved an apogee in France in the period between 1740 and 1755. We turn now to the two most important such works.

HISTOIRE DE DOM BOUGRE

The book entitled Histoire de Dom B*** portier des Chartreux, écrite par lui-même (1741) is ascribed to the lawyer Jean-Charles Gervaise de Latouche (1715-1782). The novel is cast in the form of the memoirs of “Brother Bugger,” looking back over his life from his position as a gatekeeper in a Carthusian monastery. In addition to its sexual connotations, the French word “bougre” (easily detectable under the disguise of the asterisks) retained the meaning of heretic. Much of the story takes place in or near monasteries. The book is thus a direct challenge to the Church.

Brother Bugger’s real name is Saturnin, and the account mainly concerns his sexual education. At the age of thirteen or fourteen, Saturnin chances to espy his foster mother indulging in sexual congress with a man who is not her husband. Inspired to emulation, the adolescent almost succeeds with a young woman named Suzon, whom he believes to be his sister. After the failure of that attempt, Saturnin is actually initiated, the full nine yards, by her horny godmother. While the older woman is not attractive, she proves an apt instructress. After a number of other adventures, Saturnin goes to live in a Celestine monastery where sexual license, both heterosexual and homosexual, is rife. The sodomitically inclined Father Casimir arranges a threesome; the young man fucks his niece, while Casimir is penetrating him from behind. At the monastery Saturnin meets his real mother, a nun named Gabrielle, who has offered her favors to so many monks that no one can discover who the real father is.

Eventually, Saturnin reunites with Suzon – now revealed as not his sister after all – and he successfully copulates with her. But she gives him syphilis. As a remedy he is castrated. His tombstone reads: “Hic situs est Dom Bougre, fututus, futuit” (Here lies Dom Bougre; he fucked and was fucked).

In addition to the explicit sex scenes, “Brother Bugger’s Story” is notably for providing a matter-of-fact description of masturbation and a realistic approach to the danger of venereal disease. Since the novel is intended for a heterosexual audience, same-sex action is sparse, but in addition to the threesome described above, there is a lesbian scene. In the convents nuns make common use of dildoes.

The novel’s message is clear. The quest for human happiness is the only thing worth seeking. Despite the undeniable risks, one must proceed on this basis, otherwise one will feel regret afterwards. Even the brothers of the monastic orders, those supposed guardians of the strictest morality, acknowledge this imperative in their personal lives. Absent the hypocrisy so must we.

Brother Bugger’s book enjoyed great popularity in the eighteenth century, when it was reprinted at least five times (the last apparently in 1770).

THÉRÈSE PHILOSOPHE

Thérèse Philosophe is a 1748 novel ascribed to Jean-Baptiste de Boyer, Marquis d’Argens, that contains explicit sexual descriptions.9 The narrative starts with Thérèse, from solid bourgeois stock, who loses her sexual innocence through voyeurism, when she is invited to witness a demonstration arranged by her friend Mlle Eradice, who submits herself to the erotic ministrations of Father Dirrag. After first flagellating his companion, Dirrag brings out a kind of holy relic, the stiffened end of the “cord of St. Francis,” which is of course his erect male member with which he penetrates her. The two experience a sublime mixture of sensual and spiritual joys, The episode is based on reality, for “Father Dirrag” and “Mlle. Eradice” are anagrams stemming from the names of Father Jean-Baptiste Girard and Catherine Cadière, implicated in a highly publicized trial in 1730.

Relegated to a convent, Thérèse languishes because of the lack of opportunities for erotic expression, throwing her body into disorder. Rescue comes in the guise of Mme. C and Abbe T. , who provide both instruction and sexual relief. Thérèse’s sexual education continues with her connection with Mme. Bois-Laurier, an experienced prostitute. This section of the novel is a variation on the whore dialogues, a convention that derived, as we have seen, from Aretino.

Finally, Thérèse meets a certain Count who wants her for his mistress. Because of her fear of dying in childbirth, she refuses his advances. So the Count makes the following promise: if she can spend two weeks in a room full of erotic books and paintings without yielding to the temptation of masturbation, he will refrain from demanding intercourse. Of course, Thérèse loses the wager and becomes the Count’s permanent mistress.

For all of its explicit debauchery, the novel can claim some intellectual merit. Between the more graphic sections of the novel, the characters discuss philosophical issues, including materialism, hedonism and atheism. In keeping with the materialism of leading thinkers of the time, the phenomena of our world are simply matter in motion; religion is a fraud, though a useful fiction for keeping the lower orders in line. Nonetheless, Thérèse believes in God, to whom she attributes the human capacity for pleasure. Thérèse philosophe stands out among its competitors because if offers a balanced mix of the two main forms of libertinism; religious and philosophical skepticism and sexual license.

The book not only draws attention to the sexual repression of women at the time of the enlightenment, but also to the abuse of ecclesiastical authority for sexual exploitation. This anticlerical element is generally lacking in the Anglophone counterpart to these works, though it currently finds a nonfictional counterpart in the current concern about sexual abuse on the part of members of the Catholic clergy.

The author of Thérèse philosophe does not look favorably on male homosexuality. In fairness, however, he includes a brief summary of the arguments that were circulating among adepts of Greek love in his day (recounted by Mme. Bois-Laurier). Our goal is pleasure, says the anonymous spokesperson. It is this quest that guides us, just as with our [heterosexual] adversaries. In so many words, the anonymous defender of gay rights says that this orientation is not a matter of choice. He rejects the argument that same-sex behavior is unnatural; this cannot be, for it is nature itself that has given us this propensity. Finally, there is the argument that such acts do not lead to procreation. That is not why anyone seeks the pleasure of sex, he tartly avows. These arguments were to recur at the end of the century in the pamphlet known as Les petits bougres au manège (1790).

Dom Bougre and Thérèse philosophe have several characteristics in common. Both are told in the first person in a narrative in which the protagonist goes from naïveté to a new awareness of self, so that the person can live an independent life that disregards the constraints of conventional social norms. In her account, Thérèse reflects from the standpoint of her status as a mature, but not yet elderly woman, while Brother Bugger is written looking back from near the end of his life. Nonetheless, both are examples of a type of fiction known as the Bildungsoman or “formation novel.” This genre traces the psychological and moral (sometimes immoral) growth of the protagonist from callow youth to mature adulthood. In Brother Bugger’s case we go even beyond – to old age.

In all likelihood the Bildungsroman emerged from folk tales featuring a dunce or youngest son who goes out in the world to seek his fortune. The familiar story of Dick Whittington and his Cat, rising from humble beginning to become a wealthy merchant and finally Lord Mayor of London, is a good example. In the Bildungsroman the beginning of the journey is usually triggered by a setback or an emotional conflict. The ensuing process of maturation is long, strenuous, and sometimes perilous, with repeated clashes between the protagonist’s personal needs and the norms enforced by a powerful social order that is hostile to self-actualization. In some works, the protagonist is impelled to tell his or her story in order to assist others embarking on a similar journey. This is the case with Thérèse.

This pattern recurs in twentieth-century gay novels. Probably the best-known example is Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar (1948), where the protagonist Jim Willard travels from his provincial milieu to various cosmopolitan locales to the culminating episode in New York City. Vidal’s novel is actually a variation on the genre, as indeed many examples are. The author seems to be saying that Willard’s education is incomplete, for in the end he seeks, disastrously, to return to the teenage fixation he had begun with. The pulps provide many straightforward examples. In Larry Townsend’s Run Little Leather Boy (1971), a teenager obtains his first sexual experience from an older man who picks him up as a teenager. After this the protagonist embarks on a complicated journey to become a full-fledged adept of the leather subculture.

SAME-SEX WORKS: AN EARLY EXAMPLE

As we have seen, same-sex behavior is generally secondary in these erotic works, if it appears at all. Works focusing exclusively on same-sex relations become common only after the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789.

There are a few exceptions to this generalization.

The earliest landmark is the Anecdotes pour servir à l’histoire secrète des Ebugors (Medoso [Sodom], 1733), now a very rare book. Despite its playful tone, this work ranks as an early plea for gay rights. The term Ebugor is an anagram for “bougre.” The anonymous author begins with an account of the war between the Ebugors (gays) and the Cythereans, who are encroaching on the territory of the former. As the domain of Aphrodite, Cythera was a code word in France of the Old Regime for heterosexuality. (Note the early version of the gay-straight contrast, so often claimed to be unknown before the latter years of the nineteenth century.)

War breaks out, with the Ebugors being led by their general Kulisher (break-arse), who had earlier distinguished himself in alliance with the Coginiens (Ignatiens, that is Jesuits). His soldiers are generally brave (“tops” in contemporary terms), except for the Chadabers (Bardaches), who are bottoms.

At length it is decided that the two groups will live together in peace. While the Ebugors should recognize the paramount status of the Cythereans, they nonetheless must assert their right to live according to their own laws and customs.

DENIS DIDEROT

Another work, a celebrated one, concerns lesbianism, It is La religieuse (The Nun) by Denis Diderot (1713-1784).10 The Enlightenment writer began the novel in 1760 and then set it aside, until resuming it in 1780. The full text only appeared posthumously in 1796, during the freer publishing conditions of the French Revolution.

In the form of letters, the nun Suzanne Simonin relates the story of her life. Her parents forced her to enter a convent, ostensibly for financial reasons, but actually because she is illegitimate. Through this fate, Diderot explicitly attacks the biblical doctrine that the children must pay for the sins of the parents. Diderot’s novel is based on a real story of a Longchamp nun named Marguerite Delamarre.

At the community of the Poor Claires at Longchamp Suzanne is at first fortunate to encounter an ethical mother superior who was a mystic with strong ethical principles. Upon the death of this protector, she is replaced by a new, less kindly mother superior. When Suzanne indicates her wish to leave the convent, the abbess unleashes a torrent of cruel mental and physical punishments. Losing the law suit that she starts in order to free herself, Suzanne is required to remain a nun. In this state she passes successively through three convents. At the convent of Saint-Eutrope she undergoes prolonged attempts at seduction on the part of a Sapphic mother superior. Suzanne escapes with her virtue intact, but only just.

These salacious descriptions seem clearly intended to appeal to the voyeuristic interests of heterosexual male readers. Despite its literary merits, Diderot’s novel qualifies as an early example of a genre that flourished in America in the 1940s and 1950s, when it came to be called “lesbian trash.” Such works were not in fact sympathetic accounts of lesbianism, as they might at first appear, but cruel caricatures calculated to stimulate male readers.

Earlier, in 1748, Diderot had published anonymously a somewhat strained satire on erotic themes entitled Les bijoux indiscrets, in which the word bijou (jewel) is a euphemism for vagina. As he indicates in his Supplement au voyage de Bougainville (1772), Diderot was not a friend of sexual expression for its own sake. Using a Tahitian sage as his mouthpiece, he suggests that copulation should only be permitted when conception is possible. For this reason, even older heterosexual women should abstain after menopause. Sterile women must never have sexual relations. To be sure, the customs of the South Seas may not be transferable to France, but Diderot invests the idea with an aura of approval.

The whole matter is reviewed in general terms by Diderot in his philosophical contribution entitled Le Rêve de d’Alembert of 1769. In the closing sections of this work, an enlightened physician, Dr. Bordeu, undertakes to instruct a somewhat conventional young woman, Mlle. de l’Espinasse. Dr. Bordeu is evidently the author’s mouthpiece, but using this device allows Diderot to establish some distance from views that would surely have displeased the authorities of his time. (The text was not actually published until 1830.)

Here is the key passage: “Nothing that exists can be against nature or outside nature, and I don’t even exclude chastity and voluntary continence which, if it were possible to sin against nature, would be the greatest of crimes against her as well as being the most serious offenses against the social laws of any country in which acts were weighted in scales other than those of fanaticism and prejudice.”11

Enjoined by the Church, chastity and continence are to be deplored, even though they are not against nature, for that is a logical impossibility. Dr. Bordeu feels similarly about male homosexual conduct (not of course approved of by the Church). When Mlle. de l’Espinasse asks about “abominable tastes,” he offers an environmental explanation. These stem “everywhere from a weakness of he organism among young people and the mental corruption of the old: in Athens, from the attraction of beauty; in Rome, from the scarcity of women; and in Paris, from fear of the pox.”

THE MARQUIS DE SADE

Except for Diderot, who is not mainly known as an erotic writer, the authors of the above works have remained obscure. In some cases, the authorship is not even certain. It is the works that are famous, to the extent that they are, and not the writers.

That situation is emphatically not the case with the Marquis de Sade, whose works have even given rise to the word “sadism.” As we shall see, however, there is much more to Sade than an exaltation of cruelty as a sexual stimulant.15

Donatien Alphonse François de Sade (1740-1814) excelled in carrying the principles of libertinism to their final term. He held that with the triumph of atheism and republicanism the restraints imposed by the church and the monarchy are completely abolished. We are free to engage in any conduct we choose; such choices can include sexual license. blasphemy, violence, and criminality. In a pithy statement of his religious and philosophical views, the “Dialogue entre un prêtre et un moribond” (1782), the priest who arrives to take a deathbed confession is shocked to find that the dying man regrets only his restraint in satisfying his urges. Desire, the dying man argues, stems from nature and must be satisfied; all codes of restraint, social and religious, are man-made and can be dispensed with.

The personal activity of the Marquis de Sade was mainly heterosexual. However, his literary program was pansexual, and homosexual activity ranks an important feature in his program of revolutionary sexual freedom.

His views about same-sex behavior emerge most clearly in the scintillating dialogue La Philosophie dans le boudoir (Philosophy in the Bedroom, 1795). The two leading characters maintain that the only moral system that is compatible with the recent political Revolution is libertinism. Should the people of France fail to adopt this philosophy, France will be doomed to return to monarchy.

There are six characters. Eugénie is a fifteen year old girl. At the beginning of the dialogue she is a virgin, brought up by her mother to be well-mannered, modest and obedient. Madame de Saint-Ange, a 26-year-old libertine woman, is the owner of the house and bedroom in which the dialogue is set. She has invited Eugénie to participate in a kind of two-day immersion course on how to be libertine. The name Saint-Ange is clearly ironic. The Chevalier de Mirval is Madame de Saint-Ange’s 20-year-old brother. He aids his sister and Dolmancé in the task of educating Eugénie. Dolmancé is a 36-year-old atheist and homosexual, a friend of the Chevalier’s. He is Eugénie’s foremost instructor. Appearing towards the end of the dialogue, Madame de Mistival is Eugénie’s provincial, self-righteous mother. Finally, the young gardener Augustin provides a token representation of the working class.

In the introduction, the Marquis de Sade exhorts his readers to indulge in the various activities described in the dialogue. The work is dedicated to “voluptuaries of all ages, of every sex.” “Lewd women,” he writes, “let the voluptuous Saint-Ange be your model; after her example, be heedless of all that contradicts pleasure’s divine laws, by which all her life she was enchained.” He then urges “young maidens” to copy Eugénie; “be as quick as she to destroy, to spurn all those ridiculous precepts inculcated in you by imbecile parents.” Finally, he urges male readers to “study the cynical Dolmancé,” following his example of selfishness and consideration for nothing but his own enjoyment.

In fact Dolmancé, the gay man, is the dominant character. He dismisses morality, compassion, religion, and modesty as absurd encumbrances that stand in the way of the proper goal of human existence: pleasure.

Eugénie is instructed on the pleasures of various sexual practices and she proves to be a fast learner. Anal intercourse is favored, with the approval of all concerned, especially Dolmancé, who prefers male sexual partners and refuses to have anything other than anal intercourse with females. Madame de Saint-Ange and her younger brother Le Chevalier also have sex with one another, and boast of doing so on a regular basis. Dolmancé justifies their incest – together with all manner of other sexual activity and taboo breaking, such as buggery, cunnilingus, anilingus, adultery, and homosexuality. His voluble arguments ultimately reduce to one precept: if it feels good, do it. There is only one caveat: sex should be nonprocreative. “A beautiful girl must only be concerned with fucking, never with conceiving.”

It turns out that the corruption of Eugénie is actually at the request of her father, who has sent her to Madame de Saint-Ange so that his daughter may be stripped of the conventional morality inculcated by her virtuous mother. In the midst of their erotic explorations, the characters pause to listen to the reading of a pamphlet calling for the abolition of Christianity as the ultimate enemy of republican institutions.

In the concluding episode, Eugénie’s censorious mother, Madame de Mistival, arrives to rescue her daughter from the “monsters” who are seeking to corrupt her. Eugénie’s father has warned his daughter and friends in advance, urging them to thwart and punish his shrewish wife. Madame de Mistival is horrified to find that not only did her husband arrange for their daughter’s corruption, but the plan has succeeded: Eugénie has discarded any moral standards she previously possessed, together with any respect for her mother’s wishes. She refuses to leave, and Madame de Mistival is soon stripped, beaten, whipped, and raped, with her daughter taking an active part in this brutalization, even declaring her wish to kill her mother. Dolmancé eventually summons a syphilitic servant to rape the unfortunate woman, infecting her.

Lacking the relentless catalogues of transgressions that suffuse Sade’s longer works, The Philosophy in the Bedroom is suffused with a light-hearted spirit of play. This may seem paradoxical, but such is the general effect on readers. Despite all that we have learned in recent decades about the dangers of careless sexual indulgence, one is tempted to yield to Sade’s special version of the truism that it is better to live than merely to exist.

At all events one must be careful not to confuse the writings with the man. As far as we know, the Marquis de Sade never killed anyone. The elaborate fantasies contained in his books were a product of the deprivation of experience during three decades of confinement.

The fantasies are particularly prominent in Les 120 Jours de Sodome. While this vast work is pansexual, it contains a number of homosexual episodes.

In his writings Sade shows himself a master of language. One of his contributions is to deploy pejorative expressions in a way that detoxifies them. For example, he turns the disparagement of masturbation as “pollution,” a common usage at the time, into a word of praise. Like some other writers of the time, he refers to homosexual behavior as “antiphysique,” against nature. Yet he does not mean this as a term of disparagement. Nature is not uniformly benign. Sometimes she is our implacable enemy; it is only fair to return the favor. In a more general way, corruption and perversion are regarded as good. This upending of words foreshadows the current effort to redeem such terms as “queer.” There are also inventions, such as “socratiser,” Sade’s term for finger-fucking of the anus.

Sade innovated in another way. He declined to be bound by the gentility principle that had usually been observed by earlier writers in their descriptions of sexual organs and acts. He freely used street terms, such as con, cunt; vit, prick; foutre, fuck; and chier, to shit.

For a long time the original texts of the Marquis de Sade, unexpurgated, remained largely inaccessible to the general public. Their recovery after World War II is chiefly due to the dogged efforts of the French publisher Jean-Jacques Pauvert. Efforts at comprehensive English translations began in 1954 with a 575-page Olympia Press edition in Paris with a rendering by “Pierallessandro Casavini” (Austin Wainhouse) of The 120 Days of Sodom. During the 1960s the major works of Sade crossed the Atlantic when this translation and a number of others were issued in three stout volumes by the Grove Press in New York. In their pulp paperback editions these books reached many American readers.

SAME-SEX PAMPHLETS OF THE TIME OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION

The first topic to be considered is a cluster of five pamphlets concerning lesbianism. All rely on a celebrated section of the gossip compilations (chroniques scandaleuses) published by the prolific Mathieu-François Pidansat de Mairobert (1707-1779). The item of specific interest is the “Confession de Mademoiselle Sapho” in his L’Espion anglais, ou Correspondance secrète entre milord All’Eye et milord All’Ear, vol. X, (London: John Adamson, 1784), pages 179-208.

The “Confession de Mademoiselle Sapho” recounts the education of a young woman in lesbianism (then known as tribadism) at the hands of an older instructress. The young woman is particularly suited for this role because of her large clitoris – evidently a subject of fascination on the part of curious men at the time. At the center of this text is what purports to be an address by the actress Françoise Raucourt of 1778 to a secret society of French tribades known as the Anandrynes. (The term means “women without men.”)

Pidansat’s account drew the attention of many at the time, including the young Napoleon Bonaparte. The text became of broader interest with the outbreak of the French Revolution, with its somewhat ambiguous promise of sexual liberty. At that time, the five pamphlets appeared, reprinting and sometimes recasting the material.

The pamphlets are as follows: Anandria ou Confessions de Mlle Sapho (“En Grèce,” 1789); Histoire de la secte anandryne (Paris, 1791); La Liberté ou Mlle Raucourt à toute la secte anandrine assemblée au foyer de la Comédie-Française (“A Lèche-Con,” 1791); La Nouvelle Sapho ou Histoire de la secte anandryne par la C. [citoyenne] R. [Raucourt] (Paris, 1793 or 1794); and La Jolie Tribade, ou Confessions d’une jeune fille (Paris, 1797].

Four of these pieces are cannibalized versions of the material found in Pidansat de Mairobert. However, the work entitled La Liberté ou Mlle Raucourt à toute la secte anandrine assemblée au foyer de la Comédie-Française is different. It seems to be an original composition. Not without ironic overtones, it is nonetheless a plea for lesbian independence. This will be assured. “Raucourt” thinks, in alliance with a the gay-male faction headed by the Marquis de la Villette. In this way (though this claim is perhaps a bit of a stretch) the text anticipates the modern alliance of lesbians and gay men.

The Anandryne sect seems to have been a real sapphic group, one headed by Françoise Raucourt [stage name of Francoise-Marie-Antoinette-Joseph Saucerotte (1756-1815)].12 According to contemporary reports, Raucourt was president of the group, which had been founded in 1770 by Thérèse de Fleury. The votaries met in the Rue des Boucheries-Saint-Honoré, where novices were stripped and examined for the seven marks of beauty required for membership. Eventually, a quarrel arose over the admissions policy: some insisted on women exclusively, while others wanted to admit as voyeurs men who practiced women’s ways.

The last two pamphlets to be considered here concern male homosexuality.13 The first is Les enfans de Sodome à l’Assemblée Nationale (Paris, 1790). This work, sometimes tongue in cheek, alludes to the homosexual circle of Charles, Marquis de Villette (1736-1793), who played a role for men comparable to that of Raucourt for women. It was even alleged that for a time Villette and Raucourt were “an item.” His reputation as a rake involved with both sexes caused the marquis to suffer six months imprisonment in 1764. Attaching himself to Voltaire, Villette sought to make a literary career for himself, though with scant success. Villette was thought to have headed a homosexual association known as Les Gens de la Manchette or L’Ordre de la Manchette,

The keynote of Les enfans de Sodome is sounded by the motto on the title page: “[l]es goûts sont dans la nature; [l]e meilleur est celui qu’on a” (preferences are part of nature; the best one is one’s own). In eighteenth-century French, the word goûts. tastes, was sometimes used to describe sexual inclinations – what we would term orientations. Thus the preferences of the Marquis de Villette and his friends lay within the order of nature, not outside it. The precept is ascribed to the writer Jean-Pierre Claris, Chevalier de Florian (1755-1794).

Here is the gist of the pamphlet itself. Following the example of the Greeks and Romans, all sorts of groups – from tailors and house servants to cuckolds and prostitutes – have come forward to make their case before the newly formed National Assembly. At first, the members of the Ordre de la Manchette [that is, the gays and lesbians] have hung back, choosing simply to gather in nocturnal conventicles at the Tuileries Gardens and other cruising spots.

On the present occasion, the adepts of the Order follow tradition by meeting under the chestnut trees of the Tuileries. Several speakers hold forth, including a prominent Tribade (lesbian), showing that an alliance between the men and women was being implemented.

The main speech is by the leader, the Duc de Noailles, who salutes the work of the philosophers of the Enlightenment.. Thanks to their intervention, times have definitely changed, so that the Sodomites and Tribades can now come forward to make their case. With these remarks meeting general approval, the assembly elects officers, with the Duc de Noailles at the head. By-laws, consisting of seven articles, are adopted.

The pamphlet concludes with a roster of leading adherents of the group, some 120 men and 41 women. It is hard to know what to make of this list. Were these people genuinely prepared to come forward to press for gay rights, or was the list simply a way of outing them? In favor of the first hypothesis is the fact that in the following year, 1791, the National Assembly did in fact decriminalize sodomy – for the first time in the Western world – by simply declining to include it in the new Penal Code. While there is probably no causal relationship between the pamphlets --this one and the next one – and the decriminalization, the two phenomena clearly reflect the atmosphere of the times.

While it too has its satirical aspects, the last pamphlet, Les petits bougres en manège (The Little Buggers on Parade; Paris, 1790?), is a striking profession of progay ideas. To this end, the speaker, evidently the celebrated Marquis de Villette, sets forth a proto-libertarian philosophy. The principle of individual liberty makes my body and all its parts my property, he indicates. Since my cock and balls belong to me, I can put them in a stew or broth if I chose, or insert them in an asshole or a cunt. The writer saves his greatest enthusiasm for the joys of anal sex. “Fame is but a passing fancy, while pleasure is the only reality; to acquire as much as I can is my sole aim. In short, to sodomize in the morning, sodomize at noon, and to sodomize in the evening – that is all that I am seeking.” A modest aspiration!

Villette also provides a novel explanation for the burning of Sodom. It seems that a cook was roasting meats for a great feast, when his eye chanced upon a gorgeous teenage boy, whom he immediately sodomized. Entranced by this pleasure, the cook failed to notice that flames were spreading, soon to engulf the entire city. There is even an illustration of this event. Thus Sodom was destroyed not because of the mere prevalence of same-sex love, but through an injudicious indulgence in this pleasure.

The pamphlet concludes with a poem warning of the dangers of the Pox. Women’s cunts are the reservoirs of this venereal infection, and are to be avoided.


NATURE AS CRITERION

Since the time of the ancient Greeks, conformity with nature had been upheld as the ultimate touchstone of human conduct, including sexual matters.14 In a late work, The Laws, Plato had suggested that same-sex acts are against nature. This stricture was reinforced by the condemnation that the Apostle Paul included in his Epistle to the Romans (1:26-27). The last passage was responsible for the legislation, found in many jurisdictions of Christian Europe, stigmatizing the “crime against nature,” that is, homosexual conduct.

During the French enlightenment, however, some writers questioned whether any sort of behavior could actually stand outside nature. This argument could be turned in favor of same-sex love, which was commonly stigmatized as “antiphysical.” In Thérèse philosophe, the pro-Sodomite arguments reported by Mlle. Bois-Laurier include the following point: “It is false that the antiphysical is against nature.” Bois-:Laurier makes it clear that she hates Sodomites because they are misogynist. Nonetheless, after this disquisition the woman proceeds to have sex with In Thérèse, showing that she agrees in practice with the precept, despite its origin.

As was noted above, Diderot revisited the issue in his Rêve de d’Alembert of 1769, where he indicated that “[n]othing that exists can be against nature or outside nature.” Yet even though sodomy lies within the all-encompassing bounds of nature, we may nonetheless seek to discourage it through social policy. Diderot was not as much an advocate of sexual freedom as is commonly assumed.

This implication of this principle is that any given society make take its own view of same-sex love. The criterion for the policy chosen lies in the realm of culture, not nature. Accordingly, one may disagree with Diderot’s judgmentalism (not to speak of that of the Catholic church), and cease to forbid it. So the National Assembly decided in 1791.

SOME CONCLUSIONS

Given the differences of time and culture that separate eighteenth-century France from twentieth-century America, it would be idle to expect a perfect congruence between the two bodies of writing, the French underground literature and the American pulps. Still, some major similarities emerge. Both represent a spirit of revolt against the forces of repression in their respective host societies. Moreover, both observe, implicitly or explicitly, two guiding principles regarding human action and destiny:

1) We must strive will all our might to be true to our own selves, rejecting the social programming that society applies to keep us in fetters. To this principle, there is a corollary.

2) The purpose of life is pleasure (hedonism), above all sexual pleasure. We have but one life to live, and whether sex is given to us by nature or God, it a faculty that we should – that we must – give free exercise.

Like the so-called Tijuana Bibles in the US, the French books were for the most part produced and marketed clandestinely. They were often shipped in the original sheets, and doubtless many purchasers did not take the trouble to have them bound – it may not have been wise to do so. A good many were as small as thirty-six pages. Because of these circumstances, the books survive in relatively small numbers. After the relaxation of the censorship in 1789, the French books began to appear more openly in the marketplace – just as ours did during the 1960s.

There are some other, less fundamental similarities.

In terms of plot, both traditions provide a good many examples of the type known as the Bildungsoman or “formation novel.” Following this expository scheme, the hero or heroine passes from a state of relative innocence to a full understanding of his or her nature and place in the world. These are sometimes known as coming-of-age novels, an appropriate term – except where the experiential record extends into later life, as with Brother Bugger.

The French books are much concerned with religion, and the way in which it restricts adhesion to principles 1 and 2. While this feature is less notable in the American novels, it does sometimes occur. For example, in Dirk Vanden’s All trilogy (1969-71), the hero must seek to overcome the repressive elements of his Mormon heritage. The earlier sexual bonding of the hero of Song of the Loon (Richard Amory; 1966) was blighted by the religiously based bigotry of his former partner. Also relevant is a novel by Dick Dale called (probably by the publisher, Greenleaf Classics) The Fag End (1968), where one of the main characters is a hypocritical and closeted minister, the Reverend Mr. Smith. He abuses teenage boys mentally and wants to sexually. To its credit, the book makes a real attempt to understand and explain how our hypocritical and puritan culture has created such a monster

While the French books provided a considerable amount of sex, it was generally less explicit than in the general run of the American books. A major exception is the work of the Marquis de Sade. His One-Hundred Twenty Days of Sodom equals or outdoes any of the later American works in the sheer profusion and variety of sex acts.

The American pulps generally lacked the intellectual content that some of the French works offered. The latter-day novels could scarcely be marketed as “philosophical.” Oftentimes, though, the publishers sought to provide an air of authority by placing an introduction by some purported psychiatrist or other authority at the start. This matter, appearing at the very start of the book, served – or so the publishers hoped – as a kind of protective talisman to prevent the book from being suppressed.

F O O T N O T E S


1 For Girodias’ own account (perhaps not always reliable), see his The Frog Prince: An Autobiogaphy (New York: Crown, 1980). A full bibliography of the publications of the press appears in Patrick John Kearney and Angus Carroll, The Paris Olympia Press (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2007).
2 An Olympia editor, Frances Green, wrote a letter Aug. 13, 2011, to Lambda Literary in which she recalled: “Such bright dreams when we started that gay series at Olympia Press, dragged down by the money problems. The embarrassment of trying to wheedle the money contractually owed – “You can have $200 for your authors this month.” Send it to one or split it among four – cringe at the memory! And still we had to ask for graphic sex, because that’s what Olympia did.” See http://www.lambdaliterary.org/features/08/10/dirk-vanden-pioneer-of-gay-literature/#more-5374
3 See Neal Pearson, Obelisk: A History of Jack Kahane and the Obelisk Press (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2007).
4 See the short biography in The Erotica Bibliophile: http://www.eroticabibliophile.com/publishers_carrington_about.php.
5 Most of these appear in the alphabetical listing to be found in Pascal Pia, Les livres de l’Enfer du XVIème siècle à nos jours (Paris: C. Coulet and A. Faure, 1978).
6 There is a new translation of the first work by Alexis Lykiard, The Eleven Thousand Rods (Washington, DC: Solar Books, 2007).
7 James G. Nelson, Publisher to the Decadents: Leonard Smithers in the Careers of Beardsley, Wilde, Dowson (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000).
8 The major study is Robert Darnton, The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France (New York: Norton, 1995). See also Lynn Hunt, ed., The Invention of Pornography: Obscenity and the Origins of Modernity (New York: Zone Books, 1993); and Michel Feher, The Libertine Reader: Eroticism and Enlightenment in Eighteenth-Century France (New York: Zone Books, 1997), which contains translations of nine specimens by Diderot, Choderlos de Laclos, the Marquis de Sade, and others.
9 As far as I know, this important novel (like the previous one) has not been fully translated into English. However, there is a useful abridged version in Robert Darnton, op. cit,, pp. 249-99.
10 The Diderot bibliography is vast. For orientation regarding works and themes, see Roland Mortier and Raymond Trousson, eds. Dictionnaire de Diderot (Paris: Champion, 1999).
11 Translation by Leonard Tancock (New York: Penguin, 1974).
12 The fullest account of the life and works of Sade is Maurice Lever, Donatien Alphonse François, marquis de Sade (Paris: Fayard, 1991). For a stimulating essay, see Angela Carter, The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography (New York: Pantheon, 1979).
13 A recent account of this much-discussed individual and her circle appears in Jeffrey Merrick, “The Marquis de Villette and Mademoiselle Raucourt: Representations of Male and Female Sexual Deviance in Late-Eighteenth Century France,” in Jeffrey Merrick and Bryan T. Ragan, Jr., eds., Homosexuality in Modern France (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 30-53.
14 Together with one of the Raucourt items, English renderings of these two pamphlets (heavily abridged) appear in Mark Blasius and Shane Phelan, eds., We Are Everywhere: A Historical Sourcebook of Gay and Lesbian Politics (New York: Routledge, 1997), pp. 39-47.
15 Still helpful as an introduction to this protean theme is Arthur O. Lovejoy, “‘Nature’ as Aesthetic Norm,” in his Essays in the History of Ideas (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1948), pp. 69-77.

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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Early Medieval Triad (bonus piece)

THE EARLY MEDIEVAL TRIAD W. R. Dynes 23/02/03

As a rule triadic schemes are subtler and more revealing than dichotomies (“binaries”), a methodological principle brilliantly theorized by the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. Yet C. R. Morey’s scheme trichotomizing the sources of medieval art requires much adaptation and updating; as it is, it will not serve.

Clearly the racial explanation fails. If, in pharaonic Egypt, the collective DNA (so to speak) dictated the convention of fractional representation (in which heads appear in profile), how could a very similar DNA pool generate the opposite practice: heads presented frontally? In a different part of the world, scholarly attempts (e.g. by N. Pevsner) to stipulate regularities governing the volatile record of English art (“Englishness”) have failed, even though the population pool has changed very little.

Setting aside improbable theories of racial constants, we are on firmer ground with language and religion. In the ancient Middle East most of the dominant languages were Afro-Asiatic, as distinct from the Indo-European tongues of Greece and Rome. This difference tended to set those speakers apart from the Greco-Roman ruling circles. In the Early Christian period another contrast emerged, as the Syrians became Nestorians and the Egyptian Copts Monophysite, while Greek and Roman speakers remained orthodox Catholics. Yet what is the connection between these three elements—language, religion, and art? Taking a leaf from the study of modern ethnic groups, some contemporary historians have posited that these elements fused synergetically to make up a pattern of resistance. “Deviant” cultural expression served as a marker for group solidarity. Compare the role of hip-hop in today’s African American culture. Of course such phenomena are always subject to coopting, but that propensity helps to explain the spread of Middle Eastern artistic conventions through the whole panoply of medieval lands.

In examining our data, the form of the objects demands the closest scrutiny. We must dust off that often disparaged tool of study—style analysis. A side glance at modern youth, with its preferences for distinctive clothing and music, shows that for the participants style does indeed matter. It is style that sets “our crowd” off from the others, whether they be “lames” or “the man.”

In our situation, style analysis requires a constantly available fund of mental images—what is termed visual literacy. Thus a reference to the Junius Bassus sarcophagus or the mosaics of San Vitale in Ravenna should conjure up a reliable image. Without this store of visual knowledge, one cannot travel very far.

FIRST COMPONENT: CLASSICISM

At first glance it would seem that the adoption of Christianity obliterated Classicism for a thousand years. The Middle Ages was the anticlassical age par excellence, and Classicism, so long suppressed, revived only with the coming of the Italian Renaissance. This stereotype is much too simple

A closer look at representative monuments of the Late Antique period shows that Classicism was indeed menaced in the later 3d century and the early 4th (reliefs of the Arch of Constantine; 315). In ensuing decades, though, it revived, showing a vigorous, but somewhat coarse exuberance in the Junius Bassus sarcophagus, followed by a kind of dreamy elegance during the Theodosian period. There were of course many periods where a countertrend surged, latterly in the major works of Justinian’s maturity, such as the mosaics of San Vitale of ca. 547.

What are the grounds for this ebb and flow? Some have thought that the alternation might correlate with war and peace: the anticlassical trend comes to the fore in eras of turbulence, and the calmer classical mode resurge in peacetime. Be that as it may, what was the source of the countercurrent that challenged Classical hegemony? Undoubtedly it was mainly Middle Eastern, though that factor had become generalized, even cropping up in Roman Britain in what Ernst Kitzinger has termed the “subantique.” In the case of the Arch of Constantine reliefs some argue (especially R. Bianchi Bandinelli) that it drew upon a background of Plebeian Art in Roman Italy, a kind of “primitive” counterpoint to the idealistic official art. In this explanation class trumps ethnicity.

Resurgent classicism found a literary counterpart in the Latin writings of the pagan Claudian and the Christian Ausonius, among others.

With the age of Justinian (527-65) the first cycle, the continuing evolution of Late-Antique Classicism, characterized by a systole and diastole of prominence and recession, concluded. But that was not the end of the story. Scholars typically handle recurrences by positing a series of “renascences”: those of the Heraclian, Carolingian, 12th-century, Gothic, and trecento periods. (See Panofsky’s monograph on this topic.

The Middle Byzantine period (after the resolution of the iconoclastic controversy in 843) became a major reservoir of revived Classicism, bequeathing much to the West (see Demus monograph).

What are the major episodes of Classicism in Western Europe after 1000?
1) Reiner of Huy and the ensuing Mosan art, seen especially in manuscript illuminations;
2) Early Gothic sculpture as seen at Chartres and Paris, probably stimulated by Byzantine ivories.
3) The somewhat isolated case of the Reims Visitation.
4) Nicola Pisano and his nude Hercules; possible Giotto’s frescoes.

SECOND COMPONENT: MIDDLE EASTERN

The geographical definition of the expression Middle Eastern is somewhat fluid. The core consists of Western Asia plus Egypt. Many though would annex the Maghreb (western North Africa). Older books use “Near Eastern,” and older ones still simply call it the Orient—hence the Orientalism castigated by Edward Said.

Major foci of development during the later Roman Empire and the late antique period were the “caravan cities,” border towns in the Syrian desert such as Hatra, Palmyra, and especially Dura, with its harvest of religious monuments. Some would extend the purview into Sassanian Persia. Coptic Egypt (the source of monasticism) was certainly a prime contributor. The Roman army, attracting many followers of Mithra, seems to have extended this manner to far-flung areas, such as Roman Britain (which witnessed bonding with native Celtic and Pictish trends).

In a nutshell, frontality, free manipulation of proportions, “stacking” instead of perspectival recession, erosion of the figure-ground contrast, and a tendency towards overall pattern characterize the Middle Eastern trend. Idealization and illusionism (a la Grec) went out. “In” were pattern, stylization, expressivity, and symbolism. These features have struck many observers as proto-medieval. Was there, though, a direct causal link, or simply a similarity of ethos based on a worldview centering on religion? Various salvational religious competed with Christianity in the Middle East, including Judaism, Mithraism, Zoroastrianism, and Manicheanism, and their followers sought a distinctive art as the vehicle of their faith.

Eventually this Middle Eastern current struck up a certain coexistence with Classicism, as seen in the Mary Icon of Mt. Sinai, with its two illusionistic angels hovering in the background. The inherent capacity for blending and hybridization—metissage as some term it—was crucial for the creatively impure art of the later Middle Ages.

THIRD COMPONENT: “BARBARIAN” (MIGRATIONS) ART’

Concordant analysis by a number of specialists suggests a vast fund of art originating in the Eurasian steppes; this enormous zone stretches from the Ordos at China’s Mongolian frontier across the Urals to Ukraine with the Scythians and Sarmatians. Sometimes this art of nomads is termed the “Animal Style.” It is not so much a style as a preference—human figures are rare and animals (generally stylized in intricate patterns) are supreme. This art first came onto the radar screen with the Siberian treasury assembled by Peter the Great almost 300 years ago. This art and others like it stem from a nomadic (or “Migrations”) lifestyle, preferring small, precious objects because of their portability.

In this light, the Germanic, Viking, and Hiberno-Saxon arts (more familiar to us than the ones mentioned) represent offshoots of the great cauldron of creativity whose locus is in Inner Asia and Eastern Europe. Be that as it may, much scholarship has been devoted to deciphering characteristic motifs, such as the interlace, the lacertine, and the spiral-and- trumpet. Originally at home in pagan milieus, these Northern style components make their way into Christian art through Hiberno-Saxon manuscript illustration (the famous Books of Durrow and Kells), and then, especially on the continent, through metalwork (as in the lower cover of the Lindau gospels in the Morgan Library). Hiberno-Saxon art has engaged the attention of such scholars as Francoise Henry, and R. L. S. Bruce-Mitford. Continental Migrations art has been the province of Scandinavian (E. Salin) and German researchers.

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Monday, June 25, 2007

Medievalism and Modernism: course prospectus

Some years ago I noticed that the work of advanced artists of the nineteenth century, including Paul Gauguin, Maurice Denis, and some members of the William Morris circle made selective use of medieval themes and stylistic forms. In addition, there were important paintings of medieval churches by Monet, Van Gogh, Matisse, and Delaunay. Architectural historians have long recognized parallel themes. In fact, I recently published an article on “Le Corbusier and Medievalism.”  What is interesting about these examples is the medieval allusions are not merely citational. Rather the artists used the medieval touchstones as devices to aid creative innovation. This innovation was not merely individual, but central to the establishment of a new aesthetic in the visual arts.

The new aesthetic sought to escape from the bonds of the Renaissance tradition with its reliance on perspective, chiaroscuro and cast shadows, features reflecting an overall commitment to idealistic illusionism. For this tyranny of illusionism and fictive depth the pioneering modernists substituted a new primacy of design, the conscious arrangement of forms and colors on a two-dimensional surface.

To the best of my knowledge there is no overall study of this great theme of the midwifery of medievalism in the birth of modernism. Yet there has been considerable attention to two tangential themes: the Gothic revival and Primitivism.

From the mid-15th to the mid-18th century Gothic architecture and the minor arts attendant on it were generally disparaged. Then, in the second half of the 18th century both England and Germany witnessed a reexamination of the matter. This led to a full-scale revival in the following century. For some, such as A.W.N. Pugin, who gave the Houses of Parliament in Westminster their neo-Gothic stamp, the revival of the Middle Ages was not simply a stylistic matter but a question of recapturing a lost--and valuable--ethos, one that had once united Europe. Thus the Gothic was the Cinderella of the visual arts. Long banished to the scullery, its cogency and beauty were finally realized.

The other subject that has been well canvased is the “taste for the primitives.” Long before this concept found application with regard to the art of tribal peoples, it was used for the pre-Renaissance art of Europe, Italian, French, and Flemish. A series of pioneering collectors found in these works a sincerity and sense of design absent, in their view, from the more polished examples of Renaissance idealism.

Another aspect has to do with nationalism. The barbarian invasions of the early middle ages established the basic outlines of future European states. The names of England (from the Angles) and France (from the Franks) attest to this fact. When, centuries later, the medieval revival appeared, it took different forms in various countries. The English and Germans disputed the honor of inventing the Gothic style. Eventually, though, scholars established that it was French. Gothic forms also took root in Catalonia and North America (among other places) with specific valences of their own. Here in New York City, we may take note of the different connotations of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Woolworth Building (the “Cathedral of Commerce”). 

The course also involves a reconsideration of changing currents in medieval scholarship, and of the conceptualization of modernism.

The discussion can be extended into other arts. For example, medieval exemplars play a role in major works by Marcel Proust, Ezra Pound, and Guillaume Apollinaire. There are also musical derivations, as seen in Richard Wagner, Hugo Ball, Igor Stravinsky, Olivier Messaien, Bernjamin Britten, Arvo Pärt, and John Tavener.

Finally, there is a curious congruence of the medieval and the modern in the treatment of sexual love. This has both “high” and “low” aspects. The concept of courtly love anticipates modern ideas of this bittersweet experience. At the low end, such motifs as the Sheela-na-gig anticipate today’s erotic art.

The course is dedicated to the memory of Meyer Schapiro, whose work exemplified the marriage of the medieval and the modern.


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Three Symbolist cities: Bruges, Ravenna, Toledo

Thanks to the archetypal 1892 novel by Georges Rodenbach, Bruges has long enjoyed the status of the ultimate Symbolist city. Its stillness and desertion created an atmosphere of melancholy and muted expectation. Below I have copied portions of an interesting essay that has just appeared in the Times Literary Supplement (TLS)

Bruges declined because its port lost its link to the sea. A similar fate befell Ravenna, its Italian counterpart almost a millennium before. During the fifth and sixth centuries, as the city of Rome was increasingly revealed as unsafe, Ravenna became the capital of the Roman Empire. Protected by canals it was linked with its port of Classe. Gradually, though, the soil brought down by the Po River accumulated on the Adriatic shore, severing the city’s connection with the East and its security from invasion.

In 1877 Oscar Wilde was attending Magdalen College, Oxford. That year he chose to spend his vacation in Greece, stopping off at Ravenna. The city engendered a long poem, “Ravenna,” which garnered the Newdigate Prize in the following year. Trenchantly, the Irish writer captures the city’s situation, “Discrowned by Man, deserted by the sea./Thou sleepest, rocked in lonely misery. A special place in the poem is accorded to Dante Alighieri, who died in exile in Ravenna in 1321. Wilde does not seem to have responded to the mosaics, as they were in a style to which he was not yet attuned.

Wilde approached the city on horseback. For others, though, the city was conveniently reachable by train. It is not always realized that the spread of Europe’s railway network opened up various places, hitherto little visited. The mosaics of S. Vitale and the two churches of S. Apollinare clearly struck some visitors. Arguably the faceted treatment the technique requires influenced the emergence of the Divisionist variant of Neo-Impressionism.

For some observers, especially those of Decadent leanings, Ravenna was tied up with Byzantium. In San Vitale, of course, it housed the only notable portrait of the Empress Theodora, a historical femme fatale. In 1884 the French dramatist Victorien Sardou brought Théodora before the Parisian public. Conceived as a vehicle for Sarah Bernhardt, this play crossed the personality of the empress with that of Salome.

In 1907 William Butler Yeats visited Ravenna, where the mosaics especially impressed him. Recollections of this visit formed the basis for his two later poems “Sailing to Byzantium” and “Byzantium.”

Appreciation of the third city, Toledo, was bound up with the rediscovery of El Greco. Long ignored the Cretan-Spanish artist was rediscovered in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Arsène Alexandre (1859-1937) was a French art critic who wrote for Le Figaro. Together with Félix Fénéon he introduced the term Neo-Impressionism in 1886. Later, recalling the cultural climate of the 1880s, Alexandre noted that at that time there were only a dozen persons in Paris who were capable of appreciating El Greco. Edgar Degas owned one significant canvas. The influential critic Théodore Duret urged a visit to see his works in Spain. Joris-Karl Huysmans placed one in the imaginary collection of his decadent hero Des Esseintes in his 1884 novel Against Nature. (Some may miss the allusion, as the artist appears under his birth name of Theotocopuli.)

The connection was consolidated by a short book El Greco, et le secret de Tolède (1911), by the then-popular novelist Maurice Barrès (1862-1923). The French writer evoked the loss to the city of its Jewish and Muslim inhabitants. In 1561 it also forfeited its status as capital to Madrid.

Geographically, the situation of Toledo, ensconced high on a hill, differs from that of Bruges and Ravenna. Yet the Spanish city also became silent and mysterious, owing to a combination of factors that deprived it of its original significance.

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“Bruges, Paris and the spectres of Symbolism”
Patrick McGuinness

. . .

The central figure in the dead-city cult was the Belgian poet and novelist Georges Rodenbach, and the totemic city was Bruges, or, to give it its full fin-de-siècle name, Bruges-la-Morte, the title of Rodenbach’s novel of 1892. Rodenbach may not have invented the “dead city” genre, but he became its most influential practitioner. He was the archetypal Symbolist: spectrally complexioned, delicately Nordic and stricken with all the right lung problems, he also produced books with titles such as Le Règne du silence and Les Vies encloses, and poems that display the Symbolist aesthetic at its most mystical and oneiric. His subjects are the deserted beguines and quaysides of “la Flandre insolite”, correlatives of a poetic voice that is reflective, monotonous and introspective. There are poems with titles like “Aquarium mental” and “L’Âme sous-marine” through which the Symbolist keywords – lassitude, exil, sanglot [sobbing] – parade like unclaimed luggage on an airport conveyor.

But it was Rodenbach’s novel that made him famous, and gained him something like a mass audience (the only other Symbolist to achieve this was his fellow Belgian Maurice Maeterlinck). Bruges-la-Morte generated poems and plays, films and operas, and made its author, for a time, as influential as Mallarmé, though far more easily imitated. Mallarmé famously wrote of the “double état de la parole,” the double state of the word, by which he meant language in its brute and in its ideal forms. For the Belgians, caught between French and Flemish, north and south, Symbolist theory was simply an intellectualization of their own cultural, linguistic and psychological duality. The Symbolist moment was also the moment when Belgian literature emerged internationally as a distinct phenomenon, but that distinctness was always invested in paradox and ambiguity, artistic sublimations of Belgium’s linguistic and cultural conflicts: between French, the language of the bourgeoisie, and the then second-class Flemish; between the Latin and the Germanic; and between the north and the south. Belgium was and still is the “double état”: doubleness nationalized, where, as Jacques Brel put it, “les rues pissent dans les deux langues”.

Rodenbach wrote about Belgium for the French paper Le Figaro, where Bruges-la-Morte was serialized, and about France for the Journal de Bruxelles. His first contribution to Le Figaro was a series of essays on “Agonies de villes” (“the death throes of towns”), atmospheric meditations on the urban decrepitude of Bruges, Saint-Malo and Ghent. In his piece on Bruges, Rodenbach describes the city as a sort of coastal Miss Haversham: “Bruges aujourd’hui oubliée, pauvre, seule dans ses palais vides, fut vraiment une reine dans l’Europe d’autrefois, une reine avec le faste d’un train de cour légendaire, au bord des vagues, une reine que Venise saluait comme une soeur plus heureuse et jalousait d’au-delà les horizons.” (Bruges, now forgotten, impoverished, all alone with her empty palaces, was truly a queen in Europe in another age, queen to a sumptuous court of legend, beside the waves, a queen that Venice, envious beyond the far horizon, bowed down to like a less fortunate sister.)

He has also been at the fin-de-siècle medicine cabinet for his metaphors of the city’s economic decline: Bruges is “consumptive,” “spits out her stones as from her lungs” and has the “pallor” and “lethargy” of the terminally sick. For all this dramatic imagery, Rodenbach had a point: Bruges had once been a great port connected to the sea by the Zwijn. One day in 1475, the North Sea retreated, and the Zwijn dried up, cutting the city off from the water that had sustained it. In the words of Ernest Reynaud, one of many who tried their hands at writing a Bruges poem, the place became an “estuaire inutile oublié par la mer,” a useless estuary abandoned by the sea. Baudelaire’s ports are buzzing with colours, smells and sounds, they are gateways to other worlds; Rodenbach’s Bruges is both relic and reliquary, tomb and stricken corpse. In his last novel, Le Carillonneur (1897), the hero wants to preserve the old Bruges, Bruges as museum-cum-mausoleum, against the civic authorities’ hope to bring the water back to the city and create a new port. Today’s Zeebrugge, a complex of duty-free hangars and late-night bars, is the result of their wishes, and in Le Carillonneur Rodenbach allows himself a degree of attention to contemporary social reality that is almost absent from Bruges-la-Morte.

Despite its melodrama and symbolism, Le Carillonneur touches on Flemish nationalism and cultural resistance, industry and commerce, tourism and engineering, and is Rodenbach’s most complex and textured work of fiction. It was not a big success – his readers wanted their Bruges shimmering with torpor, shrouded in crepuscular murk and lost in self-contemplation. Construction of the port of Zeebrugge began in 1897, five years after Bruges-la-Morte, and the year Le Carillonneur appeared. (It was completed 100 years ago this year.)

Rodenbach gave the French an exoticized Bruges, an epilogue-city that could function as an other to bustling Paris, city of Heracleitan flow. The cult of Bruges comes from a fixation with stalling time in an era of frenetic change and movement: Rodenbach’s Bruges is a stagnant pool, its water stilled or slowed to a trickle. The novel’s extraordinary popularity in France is due in part to the fact that his Belgium is made for export, like those luxury products one never sees in their country of origin. For Rodenbach, Belgium becomes more itself the further one gets from it:

“Paris donne du recul, crée la nostalgie . . . . Or on peut dire de tout art qu’il provient d’une nostalgie, du désir de vaincre l’absence, de faire se survivre et se conserver pour soi, ce qui bientôt sera loin ou ne sera plus.” (Paris gives you distance, creates nostalgia . . . . We could say that all art comes from nostalgia, from the need to conquer absence, to help survive and to keep for oneself what will soon be far away or not be at all.)

The suggestion is that exile from Belgium is the best position from which to write about Belgium, and that literal exile may well be a correlative, or a double, of the Belgian writer’s internal exile. Belgium is more Belgian when one – or it – is not there.

Bruges-la-Morte came out in the same year as Maeterlinck’s Pelléas et Mélisande, and both works have come to represent the high points of Symbolism. They are as redolent of their period as Mallarmé’s poems, Debussy’s music and Khnopff’s paintings. Maeterlinck specialized in a theatre of inaction – “static theatre”, he called it – and it is interesting to think of his plays, like Rodenbach’s novels and poems, as islands of stasis and reflection in an age of tumult: the early to mid-1890s was a period of anarchist bombing campaigns, state paranoia and financial crisis. The social and political contexts from which Symbolism averted its gaze were busy ones. In an age saturated with spectacle, Maeterlinck’s theatre was the only place you could go and be able to rely on nothing happening. By the same logic, Rodenbach’s Bruges promised an antidote to the flux of Parisian life, and Paris was where the cult of Bruges really took hold. “Bruges-la-Morte” is really a Symbolist anti-Paris, the static, inverted double of the French capital, and the majority of tourists who visited Bruges for its deadness were Parisians. Dead-city tourism took off. Swarms of weekend city-break necrophiles descended on Bruges, and found more or less what they were looking for.

What they were looking for can be seen in the famous portrait of the Belgian Symbolist painted by Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer in 1895, three years after the publication of Bruges-la-Morte, which is now in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. It depicts Rodenbach in an open-necked white shirt, with a stylized Bruges behind him. There are gabled housefronts and a beguinhof on his left, a cathedral tower on his right, and, below it, a low stone bridge. His shoulders seem to merge with the canal at his back, and he looks thin and ghostly (he died three years later, in the same year as his friend and master, Mallarmé). Rodenbach appears as the city’s emanation, a pale flower from its watery depths; at the same time, Bruges is like a crepuscular think-bubble, existing only as the writer’s projection. The persistence of that image, or its persistent vagueness, is attested to by the fact that in the Pisan Cantos, meditating on the lost world of European Symbolism, Pound remembers, or half-remembers, “somebody’s portrait of Rodenbach.”

. . .

That Pound cannot quite remember the painter or the location seems in keeping with the Symbolist aesthetic of the lacuna, and with the book’s paradoxical status as, on the one hand, the ultimate novel of place and, on the other, French literature’s finest example of place evacuated and dematerialized. Mallarmé’s poem “Remémoration d’amis belges” imagines Flanders as an ideal Symbolist region, a place on the border between presence and absence, reality and imagination, concreteness and immateriality. One of the recurrent images in Rodenbach’s prose and poetry is lace, “dentelle”: the ubiquitous nuns are in lace shawls, the windows are shivering with lace curtains, the surf of the sea resembles Brugian dentelle. It is also one of Mallarmé’s favourite images, and he compared Rodenbach’s novel to a piece of Flemish lace: a delicate knit of matter and void, emptiness coalescing into form, form composing itself around emptiness.

The premiss of Bruges-la-Morte is simple: Hugues Viane, a young widower, settles in the city because it is a propitious place to mourn his wife. The novel is not without its suspense, and Rodenbach is able to draw the thin plot out as far as it will go before the ending brings everything crashing into Gothic melodrama. For all his delicate poeticism, he could tell a tale, and he had always been interested in the unconscious, in medical disorders and in aberrant psychology: among his short stories (collected in Le Rouet des brumes and still untranslated) are small masterpieces of fin-de-siècle fiction about mesmerism, murder, suicide, narcissism and automatism. It is significant that Hugues has left Paris – where, the novel tells us, he had led a happy and eventful life – and is looking for somewhere whose every stone and curtained window endorses his grief. The novel is an experiment in decadent psychogeography, where everything submits to the poetic, and to the poetics of reflection: the canals are “analogies” to Viane’s sorrow, the winding streets map his own convoluted inwardness, the city rhymes with his bereavement. We might think of Bruges-la-Morte as an attempt to transfer into prose the period’s poetic fascination with rhyme: Hugues looks in mirrors, he watches the trees and houses reflected in the still waters, sees versions of himself in the darkened windows which are described as being like eyes clouded over before death. In the original edition, Rodenbach included sepiatone photographs of Bruges, and it was these that Lévy-Dhurmer worked from, having never himself set foot in the city. Subsequent editions left them out, but the original photographs, like the haunted Bruges cityscapes painted by Fernand Khnopff, had fixed on the canals reflecting the quays and streets back at themselves in such stillness and detail that it was hard to tell which was the reflection and which the original. Upside down, the images would look no different: they were more than visual rhymes, they were visual palindromes, and nicely suggested both the novel’s concern with reflection and inversion and its atmosphere of entrapment and claustration. (Mallarmé asked Rodenbach whether Bruges-la-Morte was the tale of a hero who projected his inner world onto the city, or of a city whose human inhabitants were just figments of its own imagination.)

The book’s central rhyme is between the dead wife and Bruges, and just in case the reader was going to miss this, Rodenbach helps out:

. . .

Viane meets an actress and dresses and grooms her to resemble the dead woman, getting drawn further and further into an erotic relationship that, while being more “real” than the ritualistic mourning, is also a vulgar copy of the original love. This is the fausse rime on which the novel depends. The whole of Bruges-la-Morte is a tesselation of doublings and pairings, reflections and inversions. The only element of the story that is unpaired is Viane himself, and Rodenbach has him muse on his widowhood: “Veuf! Etre veuf! . . . Mot irrémédiable et bref, sans écho. Mot impair et qui désigne bien l’être dépareillé”. That word “impair” reverberates in French prosody too: famously, in the imparisyllabic line of the master of regretful decadence, Paul Verlaine, who in “Art poétique” celebrates the beauty of the uneven and the asymmetrical: “De la musique avant toute chose, / Et pour cela préfère l’Impair . . .”. That is Hugues Viane: a lost syllable in a world of rhyming, scanning pairs. His lament is untranslatable, not just because the French measure their poems in syllables and not feet (perhaps in English an odd sock might carry the same weight of personal loss and prosodic awkwardness), but because “widower” and “widowed” have too many syllables.

The lure of what the French called la Flandre insolite has worked on a number of English-language writers. One of the few pieces of writing about Bruges that injects life into the place, and breaks free of Rodenbach’s compelling though simplified version, is Henry Miller’s “Impressions of Bruges”, in which Bruges contrasts happily with the “rectilinear nightmare” of American cities. It is precisely because he is coming at it from the American city and not from Paris that he makes out its secret life. For Miller, Bruges is not dead; it isn’t even sleeping. It is living and breathing, its winding streets and circular walks offer a challenge to the dull straight lines of “Progress”, a different way of thinking about time and movement, and a more organic rhythm of urban life. Most recently, Alan Hollinghurst, in his novel The Folding Star, has drawn on the mix of eroticism, occultism, and psychosexual geography that characterizes Belgian fin-de-siècle art and literature. His novel is a glittering updating of the genre: set in a Flemish city that may or may not be Antwerp (with elements of Bruges), it involves a modern story of love and sexual obsession intertwined with an investigation into the dark world of the late-nineteenth-century artist Edgard Orst, who may or may not be James Ensor or Fernand Khnopff. As in Rodenbach, so in Hollinghurst: what makes a dead city so attractive is that it pulses with a darker shade of life.

There was always something of the stage Belgian to Rodenbach, and his detractors accused him of producing a kind of literary camelote, a kitsch Flanders that bore no relation to the reality of the place. More locally, the upstanding burghers of Bruges were dismayed to have their city given the epithet of morte, and be depicted as a place of economic stagnation, religious superstition and twisted eroticism. Today’s visitor to Bruges will look in vain for a memorial to Rodenbach. A statue in his honour, offered by no less a sculptor than Rodin, was refused by the authorities, and even now there is only a small plaque to his memory. The Rodenbach you see on menus in Bruges’s cafés is a dark fruity beer and has nothing to do with the man who thought that Belgium was always at its best when viewed from elsewhere. It is also available by the crate in Zeebrugge’s “Mr Booze” duty-free supermarket.

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Patrick McGuinness's translations of Québecois poetry will be published next year.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The human head as such


The theme of this presentation [at Hunter College in November 2006] is the special power of the human head even when unconnected to or detached from the body. The subtext of this talk is the current Metropolitan Museum exhibition and the related symposium. However, the ideas presented are ones that I have been meditating on for some time.

A. ALEXANDER RELIQUARY [and STAVELOT TRIPTYCH]

Both these superb examples of Mosan art come from the Imperial Abbey of Stavelot in Belgium during the time of Abbot Wibald (r. 1130-1158). A close confidant of three Ottonian Emperors, he traveled to Italy. Later he twice went to Constantinople. On the first trip he presumably acquired the Alexander relic, and probably others, while the two tiny Byzantine cross relics, enshrined in the triptych must come from the East. Alexander, the fifth pope after St. Peter, died in the early second century CE.

Together with the lost retable of St. Remacle, the two pieces are thought to come from the same workshop.

The Alexander head is in silver repoussé. That is, the artist first carved the likeness of a human head from wood, a material that is both malleable and robust, allowing for precise rendering of the hollows and protuberances of the head. Then a silver plate was hammered onto the matrix. Chasing was employed to remove joints and minor imperfections.

Before the head was attached to the base, a cavity was carved within. When it was acquired by the Musées Royaux d’art et d’histoire in Brussels in 1860, the interior was opened. Therein was found a papyrus indicating that the relics were placed within it at the time of dedication, on Good Friday of 1145. In addition the papyrus gives a remarkable inventory of the relics housed by the head: a fragment of the skull of St. Alexander, a blood-stained piece of the garment he was wearing at the time of his death; a bit of the stone on which Jesus stood at the time of his baptism, some hairs from the beard of St. Peter, portions of the body of SS. Agapitus and Crispin (both martyrs), a fragment of the table that figured in the Last Supper, a bit of the sponge used at the Crucifixion, a fragment of the Holy Sepulcher, a fragment of the rock on which Jesus stood before his Ascension, and bits of the skeletons of the martyrs of the Theban Legion and of some of the eleven thousand Virgins who accompanied St. Ursula.

This list is almost beyond belief. It covers all bases, animal, vegetable, and mineral. One has to ask how could a mere life-style head contain so much material. The account doesn’t say so, but presumably some items were lodged in the coffin-shaped base.

As is usually the case, the worshipper could not see the items lodged within. There is no room for a doubting Thomas here. These items were not souvenirs. Instead, each one had a particular potency—it was radioactive, as it were.

This belief rests upon two stages of the cult of relics. First, it was thought that the martyrs, especially those that had perished in the city of Rome, were so charismatic that special effulgences proceded from their remains. It was not always possible to gain access to the body. For Jesus and Mary, there was no body. In such instances it was thought that something that had come into intimate contact with these holy persons would have the same effect. Hence the interest in acquiring the crown of thorns (kept in the St. Chapelle), the Holy Cross (fragments kept all over), and the Virgin’s tunic (the proud possession of the Cathedral of Chartres).

By the sixth century it was recognized that the city of Rome had almost a monopoly on these remains, at least in the West. In transalpine Europe a clamor arose for the papacy to share the wealth. Naturally, they were reluctant to part with whole bodies, seeking to satisfy the petitioners with a brandeum, a strip of cloth that had touched the martyrs’ remains and therefore acquired its beneficent radioactivity. Such gifts were not enough to supply the demand, and an illicit trade in stolen bodies (the Furta Sacra) developed.

Eventually the authorities hit upon an ingenious solution. Since the charisma of the martyred saint inhered in the entire body, why not offer a fragment—a finger, a hand, or in exceptional cases a cranium, or some portion thereof. This is how Wibald acquired his bit of St. Alexander’s skull, together with the fragments of the bodies of other martyrs. The other items were presumably acquired in the Greek East during the Abbot’s two visits there.

Very odd, or is it? Yet there are many contemporary parallels, as seen in the incident a half-century ago when Bobby Soxers tore off the tee-shirt of singer Fabian, almost injuring him in the process. From time to time we hear of sales of celebrity memorabilia. Sometimes these are acquired as investments. In other instances the purchaser may caress or wear the object in the belief that somehow contact is being made with the departed.

Returning to the Middle Ages, let us draw the inevitable conclusion. After death the physical head of St. Alexander, separated from its body by the executioner’s sword, would have had great potency. How much greater potency then the artificial head, since it joined to the two Alexander elements, various other potent items, four of them bearing the special residues of being touched by Christ himself. This reliquary was not an atomic bomb, but a hydrogen bomb—in a good way, of course.

The Alexander head was made ex novo. As we indicated, body cannibalism had become prevalent as early as Merovingian times. In many cases, though, the head was obligingly severed by the execution. The case of John the Baptist, of whom there were three separate head-findings: Jerusalem, Emesa, and Cumana. After 1204 the Cumana head was transferred to Amiens. The present Cathedral, whose construction (after the fire of 1211) was spurred by the precious head, is a kind of gigantic reliquary. (Slide).

B. The beheading of Saint Denis in Montmartre had a memorable sequel. The saint, dissatisfied with his place of execution, picked up his own severed head and carried it some miles to the West, where in due course the present basilica was erected. In fact there are scores of these cephalophoric (head-bearing) saints.

C. Other beheadings include the case of the column statues in the West front of the Abbey of St. Denis. Six heads have survived, the bodies not. Did this occur (as is often assumed) at the mob attack in 1789? It has recently been suggested that the dismemberment occurred during a “benign” restoration of 1771.

D. The Egyptian substitute heads of the Old Kingdom offer an interesting parallel. Many show signs of mutilation in the form of small holes, perhaps to prevent them from doing harm. It is interesting that the ancient Egyptians invented both the theme of the separate head and the bust (the Ankh-haf in Boston being the earliest suviving example of the latter).

E. My interest in this overall question began a number of years ago when I investigated the iconography of Orpheus. As far as we can tell, Orpheus’ original role seems to be as an inspired singer with magical powers. He could calm the beasts and even, on occasion, cause trees to move. He could enrapture men, causing them to do things they might not otherwise have been. In later antiquity this magical charisma was transformed, making him the founder of a religion known as Orphism. The myth enjoyed a notable revival in the Renaissance, at which time the tragic story of Eurydice becomes central. Note the appropriation by Politian and early opera. In ancient times the Euridice story was part of a diptych. The second phase occurred after he moved to Thrace and began his “Mark Foley” career, seeking to seduce young men, some of whom were married. Hence the murderous anger of the Thracian maenads.

After his lynching and dismemberment, the head floated away, still singing. It was found by the people of Lesbos, who erected a shrine. In antiquity visitors could still hear it faintly singing. Seemingly, these postmortem utterances, transcribed, are the basis for the Orphic hymns..

F. Other speaking heads include the one in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” an English poem of the fourteenth century. After Gawain severs the head, the knight promptly picks it up, and the head speaks, reminding Gawain of his promise. The Green Man images may be connected with this. An allegory of nature’s renewal (the Green Man appears at Arthur’s New Year’s festivities).

G. Pope Sylvester II (d. 1003) was supposed to have created a magical head, la Meridiana, which could answer questions—“yes” and “no” only.

H. There is a magical head towards the end of Part II of Cervantes' Don Quijote. Don Antonio Moreno, a wealthy citizen of Barcelona, befriends the knight. He conducts him to a room in his house displaying a bronze bust, in the style of a Roman Emperor, which will answer questions. It never does so on Friday, so they must return the next day. This hoax is carried out through a speaking tube leading to a chamber immediately below. (The motif has been traced to an earlier French romance, Valentin et Orson.)

The head of Medusa was efficacious in a different way—generally a negative one, for seeing her head would turn the unfortunate viewer to stone. Some classical references describe her as one of three Gorgon sisters. Medusa, Stheno, and Euryale were monsters with brass hands, sharp fangs and hair of living, venomous snakes. The Gorgons and their other sisters the Graiae (and possibly the Hesperides), and their brother Ladon were children of Phorcys and Ceto, or sometimes, Typhon and Echidna.

In a late version of the Medusa tale (related by the Roman poet Ovid) Medusa was originally a beautiful woman. She had sex with — or was raped by — Poseidon in Athena's temple. Upon discovery of the desecration of her temple, Athena changed Medusa's form to match that of her sister Gorgons as punishment. Medusa's hair turned into snakes and her glance would turn all living creatures to stone. More ancient Greek writers imagined Medusa and her sisters as beings born of monstrous form.

While Medusa was pregnant by Poseidon, she was beheaded in her sleep by the hero Perseus who was sent to fetch her head by King Polydectes of Seriphus. With help from Athena and Hermes, who supplied him with winged sandals, Hades' cap of invisibility, a sickle, and a mirrored shield, he accomplished his quest. The hero slew Medusa by looking at her reflection in the mirror instead of directly at her to prevent being turned into stone. When the hero severed Medusa's head, from her neck two offspring sprang forth: the winged horse Pegasus and the giant Chrysaor. Perseus used Medusa's head to rescue Andromeda, kill Polydectes, and, in some versions, petrify the Titan Atlas. When he flew over the Sahara desert, the drops of her blood that fell turned into venomous snakes, and when he placed her head on a riverbank, coral was first made from the seaweed or reeds her head had touched. Then he gave it to Athena, who placed it on her shield Aegis. Some say the goddess gave Medusa's magical blood to the physician Asclepius, some of which was a deadly poison and the other had the power to raise the dead. (there is a monograph by Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1936!). Folklore and fairy tale elements are salient in all this material.

Early Greek art offers interesting evidence, such as a Protoattic amphora from Eleusis with blinding of Polyphemus above, and beheading of Medusa below (two spheres attacked). The skeleton of a 10-year old child was found within. The Corfu pediment shows two offspring, but Perseus rendering has not been found. This sculptural monument may stem from from a pro-Medusa faction that believed that she had the offspring without being beheaded.

Later art shows notable examples by Cellini, Caravaggio, and Rubens.


I. The apogee of the head as such occurred in the work of the Symbolist artists, especially Redon and Moreau. Redon’s fascination with spherical forms is well known. (For further information see the material provided in other contributions at this site.)
Late offshoots of this tradition appear in the work of Brancusi.