Nineteenth-Century Pornography Essay - Critical Essays

Nineteenth-Century Pornography

Introduction

Nineteenth-Century Pornography

The nineteenth-century marked a high point in pornography and prudery in Western culture. Both phenomena were influenced in large measure by dramatic advances in literacy and by a changing view of the nature of sexuality, particularly regarding women. Previously written for an aristocratic audience whose behavior was often deemed decadent, pornography in the nineteenth-century was increasingly aimed at the burgeoning market of middle- and lower-class male readers. At the same time, it was believed that females' delicate sensibilities would be offended by even the mildest sexual content in literature or art. As a result, many religious and civic authorities considered it imperative that society severely restrict and even prosecute the production of pornographic material.

The word pornography, taken from the Greek language, originally referred strictly to writing about prostitutes; the term acquired its broader, more modern meaning in the early nineteenth century, first in France and somewhat later in England. In the previous three centuries, lewd material had primarily been written for the private entertainment of a male aristocratic audience. By the late eighteenth century, obscenity and pornography, particularly in the form of cartoons, song sheets, and pamphlets, tended to be political in nature, publicly ridiculing the aristocracy, the clergy, and even the royal family by representing members of these groups in a variety of compromising positions. Prosecution of the purveyors of such texts was based on charges of blasphemy or sedition. In England, the 1820s marked a turning point, however, in that such material was increasingly being attacked and suppressed as obscene rather than seditious. During this time former political radicals in the publishing business, such as George Cannon and the Dugdale brothers, were abandoning the use of pornography in the service of political satire and producing it instead for its own sake. In addition to original material, new editions of eighteenth-century works—such as John Cleland's Fanny Hill: or, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1749) and John Wilkes's obscene parody An Essay on Woman (c. 1763)—were published as well.

The increased demand for pornography during the early years of the nineteenth century has been attributed to a variety of causes. Iain McCalman reports that increasing levels of literacy, changes in family life, and the growing emphasis on the individual were all significant factors in producing an enthusiastic market for pornography. Greater demand was accompanied by greater efforts to suppress material deemed obscene, which drove the trade in pornography underground and made it even more profitable. David Loth claims that “it is no accident that among the English-speaking peoples the Golden Age of Prudery and the Golden Age of Pornography coincided.” According to Loth, the nineteenth century saw a revival of the Puritan belief that “the virtuous never should indulge in the pleasures of the flesh.” Many believed that this principle was especially true for women, who were considered highly sensitive to the slightest hint of sexual content in written material. H. E. Haworth recounts the efforts of nineteenth-century critic Francis Jeffrey to protect “the entire female half of the population” from literature he believed to be indecent. In America, obscenity statutes were passed in the early part of the nineteenth century; indeed, in 1821 Fanny Hill, published more than seventy years earlier, was the subject of the first prosecution for lewdness in Boston. In England, Dr. Thomas Bowdler gave his name to the process whereby literature was expunged of all objectionable material. Even the works of Shakespeare were “bowdlerized” because they were considered far too racy for family reading. In 1818 Bowdler published an enormously successful ten-volume work entitled The Family Shakespeare which, according to Loth, “could be read aloud to a man's daughters with complete confidence.” By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, censorship had reached a point where the word leg was deemed too obscene to be mentioned in front of ladies, even in reference to tables, pianos, or chickens.

Not surprisingly, many of the most notorious works of pornography were published anonymously, including perhaps the most well-known nineteenth-century erotic memoir, My Secret Life (c. 1890). As the definition of pornography became broader—eventually including any material that offended prevailing moral sensibilities—the work of mainstream literary figures came under scrutiny as well. Barbara Milech suggests that the nineteenth century witnessed a “struggle to define the boundary between licit and illicit representation, between literature and pornography.” Shelley's Queen Mab (1813) and Byron's Don Juan (1819-24) were among the many literary classics considered pornographic. Algernon Charles Swinburne's Poems and Ballads (1866), deemed both lewd and anti-Christian, was assailed so viciously in the press that Swinburne was very nearly subjected to criminal prosecution. Allison Pease contends that the poet's promising literary career was completely derailed by the controversy: “Swinburne went from being hailed as the next great poet of England to being vilified as ‘the libidinous laureate of a pack of satyrs.’” Swinburne had refused to tone down the work in advance of publication despite the urging of his friends; earlier in the century, John Keats had been forced by his publisher to remove several offensive lines from “The Eve of St. Agnes,” prompting Haworth to contend that “the Romantics were as concerned as the Victorians about ‘indecency’ and ‘indelicacy,’ not to mention pornography and obscenity.” Ruth Mayer argues that Emily Dickinson also practiced a form of self-censorship in her poetry, writing about passion in the conditional mood, since “passion and ecstasy are problematic issues for a woman writer to approach in nineteenth-century America.”

Both bourgeois literature and pornography are, according to Milech, “obsessed with the heterosexual couple” and both “represent male erotic desire primarily to men.” But aside from heterosexual erotica, there was also a great deal of material devoted to various practices condemned by nineteenth-century moralists as perversions: fetishism, homosexuality, incest, transvestism, and sado-masochism. The latter practice takes its name from the writings—and possibly personal practices—of two European noblemen: the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814) of France and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (1835-1895), born in Austria of mixed Spanish, German, and Russian descent. Numerous pornographic texts in England were devoted to the most popular form of sado-masochism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, flagellation—often called “the English vice.” H. Montgomery Hyde reports that Fanny Hill contains a flagellation scene that was apparently “the first detailed description of the practice to appear in print in England,” as well as a homosexual scene that was excised from most nineteenth-century editions. Hyde also discusses a well-known homosexual poem, Don Leon (1886), attributed to Byron and containing “an unblushing defence of sodomy.” Incest was the subject of an 1874 novel, published anonymously, titled Letters from a Friend in Paris; the work is considered by critics to be monotonously pornographic without the slightest hint of literary merit.

Pornographic representations returned to the realm of the political in connection with such nineteenth-century reform movements as the antivivisection effort and, most especially, abolitionism. Illustrations of naked female slaves being beaten were an important part of the anti-slavery rhetoric in both England and America. Mary A. Favret explains that the speeches before the House of Commons on the slave trade bill produced “a dynamic of erotic pain and pleasure among the members of the House.” Further, she contends that such images constituted the only sexually explicit material considered appropriate for viewing by women, who were thus given “an opportunity to participate vicariously in sexual excesses otherwise denied to proper gentlewomen.”

Representative Works

Anonymous
The Lustful Turk (novel) 1828
Letters from a Friend in Paris (novel) 1874
Rosa Fielding, or, A Victim of Lust (novel) 1876
The Amatory Experiences of a Surgeon (novel) 1881
Randiana (novel) 1884
My Secret Life (memoirs) c. 1890

Henry Spencer Ashbee
Centuria librorum absconditorum [as Pisanus Fraxi] (bibliography) 1879

Honoré de Balzac
Droll Stories (short stories) 1874

John Benjamin Brookes
The Seducing Cardinal (satire) 1830

George Gordon, Lord Byron
Don Juan (poem) 1819-24
Don Leon (poem) 1886

George Cannon, publisher
Birchen Bouquet; or, Curious and Original Anecdotes of Ladies fond of administering the Birch Discipline (erotica) c. 1830
The Elements of Tuition and Modes of Punishment (erotica) c. 1830
The Exhibition of Female Flagellants (erotica) c. 1830

Giacomo Casanova
Mémoirs de J. Casanova de Seingalt, écrits par lui-même (autobiography) 1826

John Cleland
Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure Fanny Hill (novel) 1749

William Dugdale, publisher
Nunnery Tales, or Cruising under False Colours: A Tale of Love and Lust. 3 vols. (novel) n.d.
The New Ladies' Tickler; or The Adventures of Lady Lovesport and The Audacious Harry (novel) 1866

George Lippard
The Quaker City; or the Monks of Monk Hall. A Romance of Philadelphia Life, Mystery, and Crime (novel) 1845

Guy de Maupassant
À la feuille de rose: maison turque (play) 1875

Leopold von Sacher-Masoch
Venus in Furs (novel) n.d.

Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade
Justine (novel) 1781
The 120 Days of Sodom (novel) 1785
Aline and Valcour (novel) 1788
The Philosopher in the Boudoir (nonfiction) 1795
Juliette (novel) 1796

George Augustus Sala
The Mysteries of Verbena House (novel) n.d.

Percy Byshhe Shelley
Queen Mab (poetry) 1813

St. George Stock
The Romance of Chastisement (novel) 1866

Algernon Charles Swinburne
The Flogging Block (poetry) n.d.
Poems and Ballads (poetry) 1866

Paul Verlaine
Les Amies (poetry) 1867

John Wilkes
An Essay on Woman (satire) c. 1763

Criticism: Nineteenth-Century Pornographers

H. Montgomery Hyde (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: Hyde, H. Montgomery. “The Pornography of Perversion.” In A History of Pornography, pp. 122-52. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1964.

[In the following excerpt, Hyde discusses nineteenth-century pornography devoted to sado-masochistic practices, homosexuality, and incest.]

[1]

Apart from purely erotic pornography, there are various manifestations of sexual abnormality in pornographic literature, such as sado-masochistic practices, homosexuality, incest, transvestism and sundry forms of fetichism. The principal sado-masochistic perversion is, of course, flagellation. We have already seen how it was practised in the period of...

(The entire section is 12165 words.)

Iain McCalman (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: McCalman, Iain. “Grub Street Jacks: Obscene Populism and Pornography.” In Radical Underworld: Prophets, Revolutionaries and Pornographers in London, 1795-1840, pp. 204-31. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

[In the following excerpt, McCalman explores the production of pornography, some of it associated with radical politics, centered on Holywell Street in London.]

The authorities caught up with George Cannon for the first time in October 1830. Early the following year, after two separate prosecutions, he was sentenced to a total of twelve months' imprisonment in Tothill Fields, not as we might expect for blasphemy or sedition, but on charges of...

(The entire section is 13733 words.)

Allison Pease (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Pease, Allison. “Victorian Obscenities: The New Reading Public, Pornography, and Swinburne's Sexual Aesthetic.” In Modernism, Mass Culture, and the Aesthetics of Obscenity, pp. 37-71. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

[In the following excerpt, Pease traces the relationship between increasing levels of literacy in Victorian England and the production and regulation of pornography.]

Edmund Gosse characterized the British poetry scene in the 1860s as a time of almost deadening quiescence. Tennyson had settled into the tasteful repose of his laureateship, Browning was squirreled away producing The Ring and the Book, and minor writers were...

(The entire section is 18787 words.)

Criticism: Pornography And Literature

Barbara Milech (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Milech, Barbara. “‘This Kind’: Pornographic Discourses, Lesbian Bodies and Paul Verlaine's Les Amies.” In Men Writing the Feminine: Literature, Theory, and the Question of Genders, edited by Thaïs E. Morgan, pp. 107-22. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1994.

[In the following excerpt, Milech addresses the changing definition of pornography in relation to literature in the nineteenth century.]

I

In 1867 Paul Verlaine gathered together into a small book entitled Les Amies (The Women-Friends) six sonnets on the subject of lesbian love. The collection is often discounted as juvenile,...

(The entire section is 7096 words.)

Ruth Mayer (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Mayer, Ruth. “‘Arousing the Slumbering Woman's Nature’: Poetry, Pornography, and Other Nineteenth-Century Writing on Female Passion.” Nineteenth Century Studies 13 (1999): 83-101.

[In the following essay, Mayer discusses the problematic nature of writing on female passion in the nineteenth century and the assessment of erotic literature by or for women as pornographic.]

Wild Nights—Wild Nights!
Were I with thee
Wild Nights should be
Our luxury!
Futile—the Winds -
To a Heart in port -
Done with the Compass—
Done with the Chart -
Rowing in Eden—
Ah, the Sea!
Might I but moor—Tonight! -
In Thee!

...

(The entire section is 7768 words.)

T. Walter Herbert (essay date spring 2001)

SOURCE: Herbert, T. Walter. “Pornographic Manhood and The Scarlet Letter.Studies in American Fiction 29, no. 1 (spring 2001): 113-20.

[In the following essay, Herbert connects the emergence of pornography as a nineteenth-century genre with the emergence of a new definition of manhood.]

In “The Invention of Pornography” Lynn Hunt describes the genre as a social creation that is defined collaboratively by those who produce it and those who try to stamp it out. Lists of forbidden titles in pre-revolutionary France form a canon, in which erotic books—like Therese Philosophe—are mingled together with a general run of works deemed treasonable and...

(The entire section is 3436 words.)

Charles J. Stivale (essay date fall 2003)

SOURCE: Stivale, Charles J. “Horny Dudes: Guy de Maupassant and the Masculine Feuille de rose.L'Esprit Créateur 43, no. 3 (fall 2003): 57-67.

[In the following essay, Stivale discusses Maupassant's role in the construction of nineteenth-century masculine identity through an examination of his pornographic play, À la feuille de rose.]

In 1875 and 1877, Guy de Maupassant participated in two private performances of the play that he composed, À la feuille de rose: maison turque, and in which he performed the role of a bisexual female prostitute.1 Following the performance that Flaubert attended (the second one), he is reported by Edmond de Goncourt to have said, appreciatively it would seem, “Oui, c'est très frais!”2 This nexus of performance, texts, and commentaries, all between men, recalls the homosocial bonds that typify the complexity of Maupassant's sexuality.3 On the one hand, this sexuality is problematized by a concept of the superperformative and mythified phallus, to paraphrase Emily Apter's description of the harem conceit in nineteenth-century fiction,4 and on the other hand, by his own temptations of cross-dressing and the fascination with female partners cross-dressed as males. This complementary impulse—between overt hyper-phallicity and only slightly less overt homosociality, as it were—constitutes the peculiar construction of Maupassantian masculinity that I will call “genital consciousness.” With this term, I refer to a social and artistic awareness and practice focusing heavily, if not solely, on activities, narrative devices, and subjects that relate, explicitly or implicitly, to the effects and stimuli of female and male genitalia. Evidence of this “consciousness” abounds in Maupassant's fiction, “La Petite Roque” offering perhaps the most brutal example, yet one that is tempered and nuanced by the tale's recourse to the fantastic. In the case of À la feuille de rose, the particular homosocial practices also implicate a theatrical demonstration of barely disguised homosexual desire.

I propose to employ this play in order to outline briefly three facets of this “consciousness”—Maupassant the pornographer, Maupassant the exhibitionist, and Maupassant the hedonist. By qualifying Maupassant with this trio of terms, I seek descriptors that correspond to specific examples of textual evidence of masculine construction derived either from Maupassant or from members of his entourage. Of Maupassant as pornographer, we have evidence not merely in the aforementioned play, but also in some rather graphic poetry included both in the Éditions Encre publication of À la feuille de rose and in Gisèle d'Estoc's Cahier d'amour, her memoirs and reflections that date from the early 1880s (at the start of her relationship with Maupassant) to the time of his death in 1893.5 Of Maupassant as exhibitionist, evidence from his own correspondence as well as from the Journal kept by the brothers Goncourt suggests that Maupassant was quite eager to be observed in his sexual activity and even enjoyed on occasion displaying his formidable masturbatory prowess and staying power.6 These tastes and practices also provide insight concerning Maupassant the hedonist, as does some of the Goncourt material, and we can draw upon Maupassant's correspondence which reveals his taste for group sex and for combinations of men and women partners. One partner in particular, Gisèle d'Estoc, cross-dressed as a young man on occasion, and her correspondence and that of Maupassant suggest the challenge that she posed to his sexual tastes as she amply met him on his own terms, and possibly exceeded these.

In order to illustrate the proposed typology succinctly, I wish to consider the text of À la feuille de rose and then compare it with de Goncourt's own evaluation of the play's representation that he attended on May 31, 1877. Suffice it to say, this play is by no means a chef d'œuvre. It consists of thirty-one scenes that depict a day in the activities of a brothel run by a maquereau named Miché, assisted by a garçon de bordel (a defrocked seminarian named Crête de Coq), and served by three prostitutes, Raphaële, Blondinette, and Fatma, all adorned in harem style, à la turque. As behooves a quasi-pornographic spectacle, the plot is minimal: interspersed between scenes of different, successive male visitors (a retired capitain, a young man, a sapper, a man from Marseille, an Englishman) are scenes of the visiting couple—Monsieur Beauflanquet, mayor of Conville, and his spouse—as they gradually discover all that the maison has to offer. A certain Léon had advised Monsieur to take lodgings here during the spouses' visit so that Léon could enjoy a private rendezvous with Madame Beauflanquet. While she is secretly occupied with Léon, Monsieur is enticed by Miché to discover the delights of a Turkish harem, and even Madame succumbs to the attentive ministrations of the prolific Raphaële. As one might expect from this genre, the play ends with an orgy that reveals Madame, Raphaële, Monsieur, and Léon in various combinations.

This skeletal summary hints at the real purpose of the play, that is, to revel in what Flaubert might call “l'hénaurmité” of the event. Indeed, the play's subtitle may be an homage to Flaubert himself, i.e. to the maison turque recalled by Frédéric and Deslauriers at the close of L'Éducation sentimentale.7 According to Alexandre Grenier, the second representation was preceded by a rehearsal at the atelier of the artist Maurice Leloir (who designed the scenery for the play), and Leloir reported to Pierre Borel that both Turgenev and Flaubert observed these preliminaries.8 Grenier then outlines the distribution of roles, using the nicknames of Maupassant and his fellow canotiers:

Joseph Prunier [Maupassant] fut Raphaële, la fille de joie; Georges Merle, Miché; N'a qu'un Oeil [Albert de Joinville], Fatma une autre fille de joie; Octave Mirbeau, Monsieur Bauflanquet [sic], et Petit Bleu [Léon Fontaine], son épouse. Quant au peintre Maurice Leloir, il jouera Crête de Coq, le garçon de l'établissement. Les rôles du vidangeur, du bossu, du capitaine en retraite et de l'Anglais, échouèrent au fidèle La Toque, Robert Pinchon l'ami de toujours.

(Grenier 26)

As for costumes and props, Leloir also recounted to Borel that “les seins étaient formés de blagues à tabac, et chaque personnage masculin était muni d'un énorme phallus fait de bourrelets de porte. Après la représentation nous allâmes en faire cadeau aux pensionnaires d'une maison close” (Grenier 26-27). The audience for the second representation included a Who's Who of literary Paris in 1877: besides Flaubert, Turgenev, and Edmond de Goncourt, the entire future Groupe de Médan attended—Zola, Paul Alexis, Léon Hennique, Henry Céard, and Joris Karl Huysmans. Also present were eight women, including Valtesse de la Bigne, by whom Zola was inspired to create Nana, according to Grenier (27), and Suzanne Lagier who left midway through the play, apparently overwhelmed.

To explain what might have shocked a spectator attending this production, one can simply begin with the onomastic references that the audience would have appreciated: Miché as slang for souteneur, “crête de coq” as medical jargon designating “une excroissance dans la region génito-anale,” the obvious “Conville,” home of the Beauflanquet, a term understood as “bien foutu.”9 Besides the onomastic register, however, the mise en scène employs different forms of exhibitionist stage devices deliberately for their potential shock value: the opening with Crête de Coq washing out used condoms and subsequent manipulation of same, used and unused alike; repeated jokes at the expense of a stuttering vidangeur des ca-ca-cabinets; the proudly framed and wall-mounted legacy from Miché's grandfather, an impressive male member; the stimulation of this displayed trophy by Crête de Coq using a mechanical contraption to transform it on demand into an even more imposing erection that serves in one scene as an object of group adoration; and public urination by Raphaële in a chamber pot at the request of one visitor. Moreover, both productions presented Maupassant and his band of canoeing pals in all the roles, with Maupassant himself in the role of the all-consuming Raphaële.

Regarding the actual mise en scène which Maupassant's friend Robert Pinchon (dit La Toque) directed for both representations, since Maupassant includes few scenic directions in the text we have little but second-hand access to details on the actual production. Still, let us examine the text's evident shock value starting with the entry in scene 10 of Raphaële/Maupassant and the two companion filles de joie dressed en turque (or someone's image of this presumably exotic look). Their entry had already been prepared in previous scenes by dialogues between the maquereau Miché and his employee, Crête de Coq (hopelessly in love with Raphaële since leaving the seminary) and by the separate arrivals of the Beauflanquet and Léon. The negotiation in scene 10 between le bossu and the three filles de joie ends with him choosing Raphaële (as do all the male visitors, a running joke throughout the play). Upon returning after their brief encounter offstage, Raphaële interrogates Madame Beauflanquet whom Raphaële takes for a new companion employee.10 Her quiz on Madame's familiarity with sexual postures begins with feuille de rose, and when Madame professes ignorance (assuming it to be “des confitures de Turquie” and exclaiming, “Je n'en ai jamais mangé”), Fatma asks, “Elle ne connaît pas feuille de rose, qu'est-ce qu'elle fait alors?” (Feuille 59). Raphaële continues with a list of postures, including petit salé, la levrette, le postillon, le gamin, soixante-neuf, la paresseuse, la brouette (Feuille 59-60), and Madame feigns familiarity with them, exclaiming “Quelles drôles de question font les femmes de Turquie. On m'avait dit que les odalisques étaient d'une ignorance” (Feuille 60). To Raphaële's observation and question, “Elle me va cette petite femme là. Aimez-vous bouffer le chat?”, Madame understands this in her naïve fashion, exclaiming innocently, “Oh! j'adore les chats!” Then, to Raphaële's generous offer of hers, Madame replies, “Je ne demande pas mieux. Je suis très privée quand je n'en ai pas” (Feuille 60).

As for the different group combinations, scene 17 presents Raphaële/Maupassant and Fatma/Albert de Joinville sitting on either side of Monsieur Beauflanquet/Octave Mirbeau in order to “le pelot[er],” followed by Raphaële offering herself to him en levrette, that is, taken from behind. Mme Beauflanquet/Léon Fontaine returns ten scenes later after her off-stage tryst with Léon (the character), and the sexual interplay between her (or him) and Raphaële/Maupassant proceeds from mere touching to Raphaële “[qui] la gamahuche. Mme Beauflanquet se pâme. Raphaële se retire [et dit]: ‘Veux-tu m'en faire autant, dis?’ Mme Beauflanquet [répond]: ‘Oh! je n'ose pas. Il me semble que si les lumières étaient éteintes …’” (Feuille 102). With the lights out on stage, only sounds pervade the darkened scene, but when Miché summons Crête de Coq to bring a torch, the participants as well as the audience discover who is with whom: Monsieur Beauflanquet with Raphaële, Madame with Léon who departs hastily. When Monsieur Beauflanquet hypocritically threatens to punish his wife, Miché intervenes by threatening to punish Monsieur for having transgressed “les lois turques” with the supposed harem inhabitants. Seeking to avoid scandal, the shocked and embarrassed couple follows Miché's advice and leaves immediately for Conville. The final scene portrays Raphaële spurning the attentions of Crête de Coq who sighs, “‘C'est ça, faudra que je me branle encore, comme au séminaire. Ah! Raphaële!’ La toile tombe. Fin” (Feuille 110).

So, the strategy is obvious: épater les bourgeois, and especially to unveil the hypocrisy of any censorious reactions from the literati otherwise committed to depicting social and artistic reality. Alexandre Grenier notes some reactions from the audience, citing Armand Lanoux's biography of Maupassant:

‘On voit Suzanne Lagier sortir tant elle était offusquée dans la délicatesse de ses sentiments, Tourgueneff applaudir, Zola demeurer grave tiraillé entre son austerité et son souci de ne pas paraître puritain, et Flaubert s'enthousiasmer du rafraîchissement que lui causait cette violente histoire d'amour.’11

A glance at Edmond de Goncourt's reaction provides further insight into the public response. As is clear from the opening sentence,12 Goncourt wastes no time in declaring the play “obscène,” in qualifying the actors' particular kind of transvestism as “lugubre,” and in expressing his (and the implied reader's) involuntary “répulsion” at watching “le simulacre de la gymnastique de l'amour” (2:741). The shock value of three of the details I have mentioned—the manipulation of condoms, the “danse d'almées sous l'érection,” and Crête de Coq's final “branlade”—certainly created the desired effect with this spectator who refers to them specifically.

However, Goncourt is honest enough to recognize the inconsistency of his own reaction, “m'éfforçant de dissimuler mon dégoût, qui aurait pu paraître singulier de la part de l'auteur de La Fille Élisa” (2:741). Moreover, he appears here, at least implicitly, to succumb to the play's titillation, a reaction that would correspond to the homosocial bonds and play so prevalent in Maupassant's work. Goncourt observes a few other fellow spectators, notably the women, “riant au bout des lèvres par contenance, mais gênées par la trop grande ordure de la chose,” at least by his own standards (2:742). Goncourt himself is pulled between opposing sentiments, a sense of wonder at the “belle absence de pudeur naturelle” with which the actors must be endowed “pour mimer cela devant un public,” and a curious sense of horror, “le monstrueux,” at the presence in the audience of Maupassant's own father. He ends by expressing his astonishment at Flaubert's judgment of the spectacle that I already cited, “Oui, c'est très frais!”, Goncourt seeming just as stunned by this expression as by the spectacle itself: “Frais, pour cette salauderie, c'est vraiment une trouvaille” (2:742). As Alexandre Grenier notes,

Il est quand même intéressant de signaler que le prude Edmond de Goncourt s'est abstenu de quitter la salle comme l'a fait Suzanne Lagier, et que la même Suzanne Lagier, une actrice, s'enorgueillissait d'être une admiratrice passionnée du jeune Guy après avoir lu ‘La Femme à Barbe,’ un poème autrement plus ‘raide’ de Maupassant.

(29)13

What conclusions might we draw both about this play, especially as regards the construction of masculinity through this mise en scène, and the various reactions to it? Indeed, is it enough to judge this performance merely as a prank played by the bande de canotiers on the elitist literary and social sensibilities of the select Parisian audiences? Whatever one may think of the play on its own relative merits, it certainly constitutes a fascinating document as a kind of bouillon de récits for Maupassant since it contains many key elements that he developed subsequently in his contes et nouvelles. To indicate but three of these, the brothel setting foretells Maupassant's fascination with tales of prostitution as both indirect and sometimes direct manifestations of the harem. One thinks immediately of “La Maison Tellier” (1881), and the three prostitutes in À la feuille de rose announce the three upstairs filles employed by Madame Tellier who included among them a “Raphaële” to fill what Maupassant called (in “La Maison Tellier”) “le rôle indispensable de la belle Juive.”14 One thinks also of the occasional harem tale, particularly “Châli” (1884, C & N 2:83-93) and “Allouma” (1889, C & N 2:1095-1117), expressing an “orientalist desire” that so tantalized not just Maupassant, but many writers of his era.15 And of course, one thinks of les Beauflanquet and Léon as avatars of the many conjugal farces that Maupassant depicts in his contes et nouvelles, and even of Raphaële's predilections as forerunner of the helpful Jeanne in the epistolary tale “La Moustache” (1883, C & N 1:918-22). Jeanne advises her friend Lucie that a man's moustache is “indispensable à une physionomie virile,” but cannot explain herself except “tout bas” since “les mots sont si difficiles à trouver pour exprimer certaines choses … Un mari qui vous aime, mais là, tout à fait, sait trouver un tas de petits coins où cacher des baisers … Sans moustaches, ces baisers-là perdent aussi beaucoup de leur goût” (C & N 1:918-20).

Another aspect of this play understood as a bouillon de récits is the practice of serial copulation that emerges as unfulfilled desire between men as in “Les Soeurs Rondoli” and “Mouche.” “Les Soeurs Rondoli” (1884, 2:133-61) simultaneously mixes male satisfaction and frustration of sexual desire with an implied harem fantasy in the denouement. Pierre Jouvenet and Paul Pavilly intend to visit a number of Italian cities by train, but stop in Genoa for three weeks as Jouvenet seduces (or is seduced by) a young woman they met on the train, Francesca Rondoli. It was Pavilly, however, who initiated the seduction in the train, but without language skills in Italian he must yield to Jouvenet as interpreter who ends up as Francesca's choice as companion at the hotel. Pavilly may well have been less chagrined at losing Francesca's attention than Jouvenet's companionship, for as Pavilly remains in Genoa observing the two lovers, the reader witnesses a veritable struggle between men as Pavilly attempts to separate them, eventually succeeding and returning with Jouvenet to Paris. A year later, when Jouvenet feels compelled to return to Genoa in search of Francesca, her mother explains that she has relocated to Paris and is living with a painter, but offers him the company of Carlotta, the eldest of three remaining daughters. Having accepted the offer, Jouvenet muses at the end: “Je compte, un de ces jours, retourner voir l'Italie, tout en songeant, avec une certaine inquiétude mêlée d'espoirs, que Mme Rondoli possède encore deux filles” (C & N 2:161).

As for the other tale, “Mouche” (1890, C & N 2:1169-78), it belongs thematically to tales of the filles aux canotiers (“Ça Ira” being another).16 Alexandre Grenier cites this tale as if it were an unmediated autobiography of Maupassant (22-23), perhaps because of the tale's subtitle, “Souvenir d'un canotier,” perhaps also because he accepted the common practice among Maupassant's commentators and biographers.17 Indeed, Maupassant uses the same nicknames for himself and his comrades in this tale as they used among themselves in real life. The characters in the tale adopt as companion for their outings a young woman they nickname “Mouche,” and their enjoyment with her results in a pregnancy that becomes a collective event of group paternity. The tale's finale is prepared by Mouche's miscarriage after a boating mishap, as the canotiers visit her in her hospital room:

N'a qu'un-Oeil, qui l'aimait peut-être le plus, eut pour la calmer une invention géniale, et baisant ses yeux ternis par les pleurs: ‘Console-toi, petite Mouche, console-toi, nous t'en ferons un autre’ … Toute larmoyante encore et le coeur crispé de peine, elle demanda, en nous regardant tous: ‘Bien vrai?’ Et nous répondîmes ensemble: ‘Bien vrai’.

(C & N 2:1177-78)

The traits these tales share that are of greatest interest for understanding the construction of masculinity are those that encompass the homosocial bonding between men, with women serving as convenient bodies for their use value and as “simple véhicule de relations entre hommes.”18 Understanding such bonds and the use of female bodies in terms of “genital consciousness” might appear to be just another turn on what the journal differences (1992, 4.1) called succinctly “the Phallus Issue.” I believe, however, that within the overlapping textual and social practices that I have outlined lies a complex latticework of issues such that un phallus peut en cacher un autre. For example, Emily Apter rightly points out how Maupassant capitalizes on “the subversive affinities between bourgeois home, maison close, and harem” in this play, but sees “the cultural supplement of the harem, with its strange dialect, Turkish costume, and décor, act[ing] as an incentive to phallic conquest,” signaling in particular “the secrets of feminine eroticism” (Apter 211). Yet, a final detail linking narrative and theatrical texts to reality implicates the genital consciousness motivating these works and practices in decidedly ambiguous directions, and not solely toward the mysteries of female erotics (though not excluding these mysteries either).

In Goncourt's commentary on the performance of Maupassant's play, he abbreviates the title, perhaps mistakenly, naming it simply Feuille de rose. As I noted earlier, this term refers to a sexual position indicated by Raphaële, one that translates as slang for “analingus,” and not necessarily limited to female eroticism, as Apter implies. In the tale “Mouche,” the canoe used by the canotiers and their female companion has a “feuille” in its name, “Feuille-à-l'Envers.” This slang term, according to Louis Forestier, designates “l'état … [d']'être couché sous les feuilles en aimant quelqu'un,” and is so common that a book appeared in 1885, by Edouard Montagne, titled simply Feuille-à-l'Envers (C & N 2:1701). The choice of this name for the canoe in “Mouche,” one owned by Maupassant in the 1870s, follows logically from the other onomastic borrowing, that of his comrades' nicknames for the tale. However, the choice also suggests that between 1875 (when Maupassant composed his play and was actually active with his comrades on the Seine) and 1890 (when “Mouche” appeared), he decided to suppress a more telling autobiographical detail. That is, while employing nicknames of the fellow canotiers, he chose to name their boat “Feuille à l'envers” rather than choosing the name of another yole he owned in the 1870s called “Feuille de rose.” Forestier attributes the boat's name to the play itself, to Maupassant's “pochade leste … interpretée, en 1875, par nos joyeux compères” (C & N 2:1700). Yet the name “Feuille de rose” for the actual canoe would suggest a special metonymic relationship of sorts between its different occupants, usually male. This ambiguous rapport denotes at once expressed and suppressed desire, given the intimacy of their particular camaraderie, that is, the metonymy implicitly depicted in “Mouche,” mais sans Mouche. This choice of one name over another fifteen years later is an uncommon example of self-censorship, as if Maupassant no longer wanted to draw attention to the homosocial bonds shared by these “joyeux compères,” or simply wanted to suppress a reference to the “pochade leste.” As one of Maupassant's final tales written as his health and creative abilities declined, “Mouche” constitutes not simply a nostalgic evocation of youthful practices and pleasures long gone for the author, but also a final occasion for Maupassant to situate sexuality within a more ambiguous (and slightly camouflaged) set of relations.

But his reliance on homosocial bonds and the concomitant silence about homosexuality may be understood in several ways. On one hand, this silence could betoken an inherent homophobia were we to judge from one tale, “La Femme de Paul” (1881, C & N 1:291-308), in which homoerotic relations do appear, the protagonist dying a horrible death by drowning once he discovers his female companion's attraction for a woman whom the characters associate explicitly with “Lesbos.” There, the ghastly final spectacle of the drowned male body is set in contrast with the otherwise tender display of affection between two women, as if the latter were the cause of some contagion from which the drowning was the result. Maupassant's role as both storyteller and spectator for this performance of sexuality contrasts sharply with the unabashed depiction of brutal virility in “La Petite Roque” (1885, C & N 2:618-50), where the frustration of sexual satisfaction serves as implicit justification for the rape and murder of a young girl.

On the other hand, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick follows Foucault in emphasizing the very complexity of silences. Foucault affirms that

le mutisme, les choses qu'on se refuse à dire ou qu'on interdit de nommer … sont moins la limite absolue du discours … que des éléments qui fonctionnent à côté des choses dites, avec elles et par rapport à elles dans des stratégies d'ensemble.19

In fact, continues Foucault, “il n'y a pas un, mais des silences et ils font partie intégrante des stratégies qui sous-tendent et traversent les discours” (39). Sedgwick emphasizes in this regard that “‘closetedness’ itself is a performance initiated as such by the speech acts of silence—not a particular silence, but a silence that accrues particularity by fits and starts, in relation to the discourse that surrounds and differentially constitutes it.”20 One can speculate that Maupassant's later reticence about the name “Feuille de rose” might reveal a transformation of his earlier eagerness—the muted or perhaps less erect version of his genital consciousness—that corresponds to the broader shift of discursive sensibility, the “fits and starts” of a troubled silence. One text that might provide help in understanding this shift is “L'Inutile beauté” (1890, C & N 2:1204-24). There we see the mise en scène of the woman not only as object—baby machine, jealousy object, trophy spouse—but also as the obscure object of the bachelors' desire and speculation about human nature. Indeed, in the same year as “Mouche,” Maupassant shows his preoccupation with how men view women and, through them, also view the construction of their own masculine status.

Admittedly, the aforementioned tripartite typology of Maupassant's “genital consciousness” risks over-simplifying the necessarily more complex attributes of such a description, both narrative and socio-cultural. Yet the fact that Maupassant's play was revived and produced in Paris in 2002—at a theatre near the place de Clichy, starring Jean-Michel Portal—suggests that Maupassant was quite the forerunner of many contemporary tastes and practices.21 This analysis may be conceptualized, then, as part of a broader exploration of masculine self-construction within the nineteenth-century social and literary framework. This outline of one example and facet of constructing masculinity necessarily implicates other figures in Maupassant's entourage, most evidently Flaubert as an active supporter, and Edmond de Goncourt as a jealous critic. However, Maupassant and company hardly exist in a vacuum, and we should recall some other examples of masculine construction and genital consciousness of his era. Besides considering some of the topics that Maupassant himself addressed in his many chroniques, one must also compare him, on one hand, with Alexandre Dumas fils and his succinct dictum of the necessity of female subservience, “Tue-la!”,22 and on the other hand, with Zola's male/female constructions, where the female's subservience is enforced by the inexorable operation of the Zolian imperative of lineage. These different assemblages are but a few that contribute to the self-construction of the “horny dudes” that dominate nineteenth-century French fiction.

Notes

  1. Guy de Maupassant, À la feuille de rose: maison turque, ed. Alexandre Grenier (Paris: Éditions Encre, 1984). My thanks to Garett R. Heysel for comments on an early draft of this essay.

  2. Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, Journal (Paris: Robert Laffont, Bouquins, 1989), 2: 1189.

  3. On the strategies of sexuality in Maupassant's fiction, see Charles J. Stivale, The Art of Rupture: Narrative Desire and Duplicity in the Tales of Guy de Maupassant (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1994). On homosocial relations between men, see Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men (New York: Columbia UP, 1985).

  4. Emily Apter, “Female Trouble in the Colonial Harem,” differences 4.1 (1992): 210.

  5. Gisèle d'Estoc, Cahier d'amour (Paris: Arléa, 1993).

  6. For selections from Maupassant's correspondence, see the letters collected in the Éditions Encre volume of À la feuille de rose: maison turque, 113-204; on Maupassant's reputation and prowess, see de Goncourt, Journal, 3:811.

  7. On this possible homage, see Germain Galérant, Les Roses sadiques de Maupassant (Luneray: Editions Bertout, 1992), 53-54.

  8. Alexandre Grenier, “Présentation,” in Maupassant, À la feuille de rose: maison turque, 25.

  9. On these and other pornographic elements of this play, see Floriane Place-Verghnes, “Maupassant pornographe,” Neophilologus 85.4 (2001): 505.

  10. All references to the play are to the Éditions Encre volume, abbreviated Feuille.

  11. Armand Lanoux, Maupassant le Bel Ami (Paris: Grasset, 1979), cited by Grenier, 27.

  12. The opening sentences of Goncourt's commentary read as follows: “Ce soir, dans un atelier de la rue de Fleurus, le jeune Maupassant fait repésenter une pièce obscene de sa composition, intitulée FEUILLE DE ROSE et jouée par lui et ses amis. / C'est lugubre, ces jeunes hommes travestis en femmes, avec la peinture sur leurs maillots d'un large sexe entrebâillé; et je ne sais quelle répulsion vous vient involontairement pour ces comédiens s'attouchant et faisant entre eux le simulacre de la gymnastique de l'amour” (2:741).

  13. So that readers can appreciate this poetic “raideur,” Grenier includes this poem as well as Maupassant's other “poèmes libres,” “Ma Source” and “69,” as an appendix to the Éditions Encre volume (205-14).

  14. Guy de Maupassant, Contes et nouvelles, ed. Louis Forestier (Paris: Gallimard, 1979), 2 vols., 1:259. Subsequent references to these volumes are abbreviated in the text as C & N.

  15. On this “orientalist desire,” see Ali Behdad, “Orientalist Desire, Desire of the Orient,” French Forum 15.1 (1990): 37-51.

  16. “Ça Ira,” C & N 2:572-79. On the tales of prostitution more generally, see Stivale, The Art of Rupture, 111-41.

  17. Among these, see Forestier in C & N 2:1699, and Lanoux.

  18. Luce Irigaray, Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un (Paris: Minuit, 1977), 181.

  19. Michel Foucault, Histoire de la sexualité, vol. 1, La Volonté de savoir (Paris: Gallimard, 1976), 38-39.

  20. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, The Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: U of California P, 1992), 3.

  21. See “Le Site officiel de Jean-Michel Portal.”

  22. Alexandre Dumas, fils, L'Homme-femme: réponse à M. Henri d'Ideville (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1872; 1884).

Criticism: Pornography And Censorship

SOURCE: Haworth, H. E. “‘The Virtuous Romantics’—Indecency, Indelicacy, Pornography and Obscenity in Romantic Poetry.” Papers on Language & Literature 10, no. 3 (summer 1974): 287-306.

[In the following essay, Haworth discusses censorship and self-censorship surrounding the poetry of the Romantics, claiming that the Romantic poets and their critics anticipated the puritanical sensibilities of the Victorians.]

While revising “The Eve of St. Agnes” for publication, Keats decided to make his narrative line clearer to his readers by adding a stanza early in the poem explaining the rites Madeline is about to undertake, and also by making the sexual...

(The entire section is 8295 words.)

Further Reading

CRITICISM

Beaujour, Michel. “Exemplary Pornography: Barrès, Loyola, and the Novel.” In The Reader in the Text: Essays on Audience and Interpretation, edited by Susan R. Suleiman and Inge Crosman, pp. 325-49. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980.

Explores the notion of literature, particularly novels, as a corrupting influence on women and children.

Bernardo, Susan M. “Seductive Confession in Mary Shelley's Mathilda.” In Gender Reconstructions: Pornography and Perversions in Literature and Culture, edited by Cindy L. Carlson, Robert L. Mazzola, Susan M. Bernardo, pp. 42-52. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2002.

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(The entire section is 751 words.)