Academic journal article French Forum

Gender and Universal Fluid in Theophile Gautier

Academic journal article French Forum

Gender and Universal Fluid in Theophile Gautier

Article excerpt

Theophile Gautier is sometimes accused of misogyny. Critics have assumed that his view of women is identical to that of d'Albert in Mademoiselle de Maupin (1834), who conceives of woman as "une belle esclave destinee a nos plaisirs ... C'est toujours pour moi quelque chose d'inferieur et de dissemblable que l'on adore et dont on joue, un hochet plus intelligent que s'il etait d'ivoire ou d'or" (372). (1) D'Albert's remark evokes the belief common in the nineteenth century that women are physical beings who lack men's intellectual and spiritual development. However, Gautier's own conception of women is far different from d'Albert's, as seen in the fact that Madelaine de Maupin represents an ideal marked by a strong mind and a developed soul. In Mademoiselle de Maupin as well as in later writings, Gautier explores the basis on which men and women possess intelligence and spiritual love, alluding to the mesmerist and pantheistic notion of universal fluid as a foundation of these traits, core attributes of his androgynous ideal.

Gautier believed in mesmerism, as seen in his review of Tronquette la Somnambule: "Le magnetisme animal est un fait desormais acquis a la science et dont il n'est pas plus permis de douter que du galvanisme et de l'electricite." (2) Franz-Anton Mesmer holds that the universe is filled with a fluid that is the medium of influence between living beings, the earth, and celestial bodies. He also attributes to human and animal bodies poles similar to those of a magnet, which determine susceptibility to influence. (3) What Mesmer often terms "universal fluid" is thus also commonly called "magnetic fluid." Mesmerists claim to use magnetic influence to heal the sick and bring others under their control. In addition, A.M.J. Chastenet de Puysegur suggests that those magnetized, termed somnambulists, can achieve clairvoyance. (4)

Robert Darnton notes that "postrevolutionary mesmerists developed their own version of the ideas that characterized spiritualism in general," including pantheism. (5) Gautier's pantheism exemplifies such a connection between mesmerism and spiritualism. In Le Pantheon, his 1848 collection of articles on Paul Chenavard's mural paintings for the Pantheon, Gautier characterizes God as an omnipresent "fluid," an image dovetailing with the mesmerist notion of universal fluid:

  Jehova, Brahma, Jupiter, Allah, qu'importe le nom, c'est toujours
  l'infini, l'eternel, l'incomprehensible, le jour sans ombre, la
  sagesse sans erreur, le torrent de vie, le fluide imparticulaire qui
  traverse les univers compacts, qui se meut dans nous et dans lequel
  nous nous mouvons, le supreme amour, la supreme intelligence et la
  supreme justice! (6)

Gautier's writing testifies to an on-going interest in universal fluid, which he evokes in recurring images of light emanating from his characters. (7) Although he often alludes specifically to mesmerism, he also draws on pantheism, as seen when he associates universal fluid with spirituality. He identifies the fluid with love and intelligence not only in Le Pantheon but also in Mademoiselle de Maupin and other writings, providing a foundation for men's and women's shared intellectual and spiritual traits, as I will show.

While the notion of universal fluid common to pantheism and mesmerism supported a belief in characteristics available to both men and women, the roles of the mesmerist and somnambulist had certain gender associations in the nineteenth century. Mesmerists were often conceived as masculine, as seen in the widespread belief that they used their power to seduce women. (8) Robert Darnton notes that "mesmerist followers of Lavater spread the belief that the mind's faculties, especially the will ... could bring others under one's influence by projecting fluid from the eyes." (9) The notion of the mesmerist's dominating mind and will corresponds to conventional images of masculinity. By contrast, the person being magnetized assumed a role often considered submissive and feminine. …

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