Academic journal article The Romanic Review

"Le Moyen De Faire De Cela Un Grand Homme": The Abbe De Choisy and the Unauthorized Body of Representation

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

"Le Moyen De Faire De Cela Un Grand Homme": The Abbe De Choisy and the Unauthorized Body of Representation

Article excerpt

Where there are human subjects, there are bodies; every body has a history, tells stories; and there is a history of the body, in which questions of gender may be decisive. In what follows I want to attend to some of the specificities and complexities of gendered subjectivity as represented and representable towards the end of the seventeenth century in France.

The function of the body in the more familiar texts of Classicism, by such writers as Racine, Descartes and Pascal, may seem clear enough to readers familiar with the discursive conventions within which they worked; even radical modulations of the body they represent may be read in terms of those conventions. However, alongside these highly regulated versions of the body, and beyond even the corporeality staged by comic drama, within high culture more irregular and unauthorized bodies were making their presence felt. They embody a potential to put in question the representational regulation of the body and the concepts of sexed identity in turn maintained by it. Such potentially destabilizing presences tend, I think, to inhabit genres and discursive spaces such as memoirs and journals which were themselves less clearly regulated and institutionally established than, for example, tragedy, metaphysics and Christian apologetics.

I want to consider two examples of this phenomenon by the Abbe de Choisy, the Memoires de l'Abbe de Choisy habille en femme, and the brief "Histoire de la Marquise-Marquis de Banneville," and to explore their representation of the relationship between subjectivity and the body in the ancien regime.(1) With irrepressible energy these two texts put in question the constructions of sexed identity which prevailed at the time.

Where there is representation, there there is interpretation; and where there is regulation, there there is, in seventeenth-century terms, vraisemblance, a term which bears meanings ranging from verisimilitude, and the natural, to generally accepted probability, and operates in powerful and often covert conjunction with notions of the proper and of decorum. For all its semantic opacity and instability, vraisemblance nonetheless frequently functioned within critical reflection on representation as the index and arbiter beyond whose --habitually unvoiced--limiting criteria representations were judged improbable, incomprehensible, improper, unacceptable. However, as we shall see, the assumptions which sustain the term can also be used to undermine its authority.

I want to suggest that the representations of the body in these writings by Choisy fall both within and across the dominant sexual economy and politics of their time; and this is, in turn, to put into crisis the interpretive system couched on vraisemblance, for this interpretive economy and politics and the sexual economy and politics are mutually sustaining. Choisy writes within a culture of sexual division, in which sex and gender are identified and conventionally represented as being coterminous; his representations of the male/masculine and the female/feminine nonetheless may provoke an adjustment to this economy, disclosing difference rather than division, revealing the gendered subject as a product of formation and representation. This re-presentation simultaneously puts in question the interpretive economy of vraisemblance which on the one hand equates "the natural" and the probable and on the other, the representable and the naturalness of gender/sex.

If under the ancien regime it was scandalous for a woman (to desire) to cross the sex/gender border so as to enter the man's world of political, public agency, for a man (to desire) to enter the world of women might have been judged perverse, futile, or incomprehensible--and a betrayal of the hom(m)osocial bond. Yet the memoirs of the Abbe de Choisy, also known as Mme de Sancy or as the Comtesse des Barres, churchman, diplomat, historian, member of the Academie Francaise, prolific writer, libertin, gambler and cross-dresser do not seem scarred by any such estimation; if anything, these memoirs celebrate the pleasures of ambiguity and the nuances of power-play that cross-dressing enabled him to explore. …

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