Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

Doctors, Malady, and Creativity in Rachilde

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

Doctors, Malady, and Creativity in Rachilde

Article excerpt

Readers of Rachilde inevitably find in her an uncanny amalgam of acquiescent social views and incendiary attacks on the social and sexual order (Beizer 235-36, 259; Lukacher 144). This contradiction has led some critics to construe the conflictual in her writings not as personal and autobiographical, but as a form of thematic play. She is positioned as a writer especially permeable to the dominant discourses of her day (Angenot 21) and working within--or perhaps simply "working"--a set of decadent themes. One such critic writes, for instance, "Huysmans, Lorrain, expriment une crise personnelle, un drame personnel. Les autres, comme Rachilde, exploitent un mode" (Peylet 119). (1)

I would like to propose that Rachilde's contradictions are indeed a product of her exposure to important societal discourses of the 1870-1900 period, discourses that had resonance within her family and an impact on her view of herself as a woman and as a creative being. Between the ages of about 15 and 30 in particular, she lived in close contact with two debilitating discourses that were factors in her emotional and psychological development and in the grounding of her sense of creativity and a personal writing stance. I will not deal here with the role spiritualists played in her life, those table-rappers and practitioners of the tables tournantes who included not only her mother and her maternal grandparents, but Victor Hugo, the hero of her adolescence. It is the impact of the medical discourse regarding female hysteria, pathological sexuality and mental imbalance that I would like to investigate here.

MALADY, LEGS, AND STATUES

Illness, as has been said of Huysmans and Proust, forms a pre-history to Rachilde's fictional production. She was, in an important sense, the "family invalid." Her gender was the opening deficit, since her military father had wanted a boy and repeatedly told her so. But the fact that one of her legs was shorter than the other also conditioned her view of her future, and the hallucinations, nightmares and suicide attempts that marked her adolescence made her see herself as ill: "Je n'ai jamais rien trouve a louer dans cette fonction d'un cerveau sans cesse obsede d'images, et j'en fus fatiguee, malade, jusqu'a en vouloir mourir" (Dans le puits 101-02). Although, in certain of her writings, Rachilde explicitly denies having mental or hysterical problems, (2) elsewhere she talks of her youthful self as "folie," "touchee par l'incoherence," and speaks of other contemporary writers and friends as "mieux equilibres qu'elle" (A mort XII, XIII, XIX).

There were, necessarily, significant contacts with doctors in her life--for example, her conversations with Antoine Ritti, the director of the psychiatric hospital at Charenton, where her mother was interned in 1900. But it was another, earlier encounter that seems to have served as the formative nexus for a personal imaginaire involving the relationship between hysteria, sexuality and creativity. At some point in the period 1881-1883, she was treated by a doctor whose name she gives as Lassegue (A mort XVII). Her text is deliberately vague, but one gathers that in resisting the advances of the writer (and erotomane) Catulle Mendes, she suffered a kind of seizure, an attack her text labels "hysterical" which was then followed by two months of leg paralysis. The attending doctor, who provided his services free, was no run-of-the-mill physician. He was in fact the celebrated hysteria specialist Charles Lasegue (1816-1883), who had written on a wide variety of nerve-related behaviours. (3) His medical thesis had been devoted to progressive general paralysis, and as his career advanced his interest focused to a greater extent on the paralyses and anesthesias that were hysteria's symptoms. In one article (Etudes medicales 2: 25-44), he mentions treating several cases of hysterical women with an absence of feeling in the limbs, one with no feeling between her lower stomach and thighs, another lacking feeling in her legs but able to walk. …

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