Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Metaphors of Modernity: Prostitutes, Bankers, and Other Jews in Balzac's Splendeurs et Miseres Des Courtisanes

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Metaphors of Modernity: Prostitutes, Bankers, and Other Jews in Balzac's Splendeurs et Miseres Des Courtisanes

Article excerpt

Why are the brothels of modern French literature filled with Jewish prostitutes? From Vanda in Huysmans's A Rebours, "qui remplissait chez Madame Laure l'indispensable role de la belle Juive" (119), to Rachel in Maupassant's "Mademoiselle Fifi," who kills a Prussian officer out of patriotic devotion, Jewish women seduce men powerless to resist their fatal attractions. Not do the walls of the bordello confine their numbers, which include both the glamorous actress Josepha in Balzac's Cousine Bette, whose deadly charm destroys respectable families, as well as the "affreuse Juive" of Baudelaire's Fleurs du mal, whose "corps vendu" inspires the poet with both lust and horror. Tapping into fantasies of the oriental exotic, fictional Jewish prostitutes, like "Rachel quand du seigneur" in Proust's A la Recherche du temps perdu, perform a part that is always already a fiction, a sexual and racial masquerade designed to arouse mysterious passions: "C'est une Juive! ca ne vous dit rien?" tempts Rachel's procuress in Proust's novel, hoping to whet the appetite of the narrator; "Pensez donc, mon petit, une Juive, il me semble que ca doit etre affolant! Rah!" (556).

Prostitution has emerged in recent years as a critical locus for investigations into the imbrication of the social and the symbolic in modern French culture. Following Alain Corbin's pathbreaking history of prostitution and its regulation in nineteenth-century France, T.J. Clark, Peter Brooks, Charles Bernheimer, and Jann Matlock have all pointed to the importance of the prostitute in the cultural imagination of the time, showing how the prostitute's body inscribes class as well as gender hierarchies. (1) Building on their work, I want to explore the ways in which this body becomes still more marked in certain narratives. How do the vexed categories of race and religion further inflect our understanding of an already overdetermined figure? And what does this figure have to tell us about modernity? My discussion will focus on perhaps the first, and certainly the paradigmatic, literary representation of the Jewish prostitute, Balzac's Splendeurs et miseres des courtisanes, published between 1838 and 1847.

The Jewish prostitute surfaces in French literature at just the moment (the July Monarchy) that significant numbers of French Jews rose to positions of prominence. (2) The decades of the 1830s and 40s also saw the transformations associated with modernity--by which I mean the economic, social, and cultural effects of industrial capitalism--begin to take root in French culture, especially in Paris. In what follows, I argue that the Jew comes to serve as a privileged screen for the projection of anxieties about modernity in both literature and other discourses from the time. But whereas the male Jew tends to incarnate the negative aspects of modernity, the Jewish prostitute embodies a far wider range of associations. A counterpoint to the scorned figure of the Jewish banker or usurer, the Jewish prostitute elicits desire as well as disgust, lust as well as loathing. She thus provides Balzac as well as later writers with a means of registering the complex affective ambivalence at the heart of modernity--an ambivalence that many theorists have tended to overlook. Balzac's ambivalent handling of the Jewish prostitute in Splendeurs et miseres, brings into focus the realist novel's conflicted relation to the culture of capitalism, which it simultaneously criticizes and mythologizes.

Before turning to the novel, a historical question arises: was the Jewish prostitute actually a myth? Might this literary obsession have sprung from empirical rather than merely fantasmatic sources? Given that historical documents on nineteenth-century prostitution were themselves not immune to fantasmatic projections, such a question is difficult to answer with certainty. Anecdotes provide some evidence. We know, for example, that there were Jews among the upper crust of the capital's courtesans, who may have provided models for Balzac's Esther or Josepha: the Russian-born Therese Lachmann (known as La Paiva), as well as the Dutch-born mother of the legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt, achieved fame as professional demi-mondaines in Paris during the July Monarchy. …

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