Academic journal article The Romanic Review

The Open Secret: Hiding and Revealing Sexuality in the Roman De Moeurs (1880-1905)

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

The Open Secret: Hiding and Revealing Sexuality in the Roman De Moeurs (1880-1905)

Article excerpt

Michel Foucault distinguished famously in the first volume of his History of Sexuality between ars erotica as an initiatory art of pleasure, and scientia sexualis as an order of knowledge that makes of sexuality an underlying universal truth. (1) His history was in fact strongly marked by geography, since it appeared to locate ars erotica in the Orient and scientia sexualis in the modern West. I took issue with the geographical division in Geometry in the Boudoir, attempting to show that there was in early modern Europe a tradition closely resembling ars erotica. Many Italian and French literary texts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, I argued, represent the ritual teaching and learning of a set of erotic positions, referred to variously as the figures of Venus or the Aretino. (2) Yet whatever may be said about the geographical location of ars erotica, Foucault does make a compelling historical claim that the distinctive form of knowledge which he dubs scientia sexualis emerged in modern Europe, taking on its full-blown form at the end of the nineteenth century. Writing about sex at this time, he suggests, stands in a quite paradoxical relation to the search for truth: "refus de voir et d'entendre; mais--et c'est la sans doute le point essentiel--refus qui portait sur cela meme qu'on faisait apparaitre, ou dont on sollicitait imperieusement la formulation." (3) Foucault's history pays scant attention to literary texts, but I want to show here how the paradoxical combination of inquiry and refusal to which he refers functions in literary representation in the late nineteenth century. My work can best be situated by beginning with the sole literary text that does figure at any length in the first volume of Foucault's history: Diderot's Les Bijoux indiscrets, which dates from 1748.

Diderot's novel plays a central role in Foucault's analysis, not because it actually marks a historical turning point, but because it can be taken broadly as an emblem of discursive modernity (p. 101). The distinctive thematic device in Diderot's story is the magic ring given by the genie Cucufa to the sultan Mangogul. The ring, when pointed at a woman's "jewel," compels it to talk. And since jewels speak only of "ce qui frappe le plus un bijou," (4) the women of the court find themselves betrayed by the unrestrained vaginal utterance of their illicit pleasures. The sultan uses the ring for his amusement, of course, but the series of diversions in which he indulges also takes the form of a quest. Through magic compulsion, the truth about women's desires is spoken, and that truth is always of the same order. The organ that responds and the thing of which it tells hardly vary, as the revelation of feminine desire and pleasure becomes a narrative routine.

Foucault does not begin to inquire in Histoire de la sexualite about the literary succession of Mangogul's ring, but I want to ask here what, if anything, took its place in the working out of a scientia sexualis in late nineteenth-century French literature. My assumption, and my implicit argument, will be that literary texts did not simply duplicate or vulgarize the self-consciously "scientific" work on the sexual instinct broadly referred to by Foucault, from Moreau (de Tours) and Charcot to Lombroso, and from Westphal to Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis. I will try to show, in fact, that literary narrative provided its own constraining opportunities for the elaboration of such a discourse. And I hope to show in passing that the work of scientia sexualis in late nineteenth-century literature was carried out in ways that were both more elaborate and more precise than those found in Les Bijoux indiscrets. Diderot's playful metaphor was admirably suited to libertine fiction, which happily accommodated fairies, genies and sylphs, but it was hardly appropriate to those many middle-brow novels which, from about 1885, devoted themselves with scientistic pomp to the telling of sexual pathology, at the very time when sexology was beginning to flourish. …

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