Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Fin-De-Siecle Physiology as Sexual Farce: Alfred Jarry's the Supermale (1902)

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Fin-De-Siecle Physiology as Sexual Farce: Alfred Jarry's the Supermale (1902)

Article excerpt

In Alfred Jarry's novella The Supermale (1902) the famously eccentric author combines his interests in sex, sport, and machines to investigate the nature of human limits and the consequences of transgressing them. The Supermale presents a pair of physical ordeals--a prolonged bout of sexual intercourse and a long-distance bicycle race--for the purpose of both celebrating and satirizing the new craze for breaking records, as well as exploring the comic-horrific limits of the clinical gaze and its objectification of the human organism. These preoccupations put Jarry's book not at the margins, but at the center of a fin-de-siecle scientific culture whose unashamed romanticizing of human potential eventually fell victim to the growing sophistication and specialization within the field of human biology after the First World War.

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Le Surmale (1902) is the book in which Alfred Jarry (1873-1907) combined his simultaneous (and related) interests in sex, sport, and machines to address the question of human limits and the consequences of transgressing them. These interests, as we shall see, place the famously eccentric Jarry, not at the margins, bur ar the center of his epoch, and make this physiological extravaganza a prophetic commentary on technological developments in the field of human biology, such as sexology and sports physiology, that have developed during the course of the twentieth century. (1)

The Supermale is a novella that may be variously described as comic-grotesque science fiction, physiological burlesque, or techno-pornography, although this interpretation necessarily depends upon the observer's response to Jarry's account of a sexual marathon staged by his central protagonist. "The miracle," one critic wrote, "is that the novel is in no way pornographic." Jarry's fable is, be says, "a poem. A disconcerting poetic success dealing with themes that would appear to be as remote as possible from poetry. A hymn to the glories of sport, of science, of the mechanics of the organs and--believe it or not--of tenderness itself." (2) If The Supermale is, indeed, a poem, its spirit may well be sufficiently clinical to banish the specter of pornography. Inspecting the body of his partner at the end of their epic fornication, Andre Marcueil observes to himself: "The sexual organ had the expression of a small and supremely stupid animal, stupid in the manner of a shellfish; that is, in fact, how it looked, bur it was no less pink for that." (3) Jarry's rather anticlimactic objectification of this object (and instrument) of passion does, in fact, mimic the clinical gaze that makes gynecology a branch of medicine rather than a type of pornography. The point here is that this is mimicry rather than emulation, since it is the primary purpose of this essay to explore Jarry's relationship to the scientific and technological ethos he loved to appropriate for his own madcap purposes. In a word, I will be taking Jarry's work seriously in a way that he did not take the scientific project seriously--as evidence of how an era thought. Even as a boy, Roger Shattuck reports, Jarry "was already showing a characteristic blend of wickedness, charm, and savagery" that included a capacity for "merciless observation." (4) Yet Jarry's observations were also leavened by the incomparable sense of humor that makes The Supermale enjoyable in a way that the values and behavior it prefigures could not possibly be.

Jarry's novella is a meditation on energy, fatigue, and the physiological limits of the human organism, a combination of themes that places this text at the heart of one of the major conceptual transformations of the nineteenth century. Prior to describing them in greater detail, we may note that Jarry's book presents a pair of matching physiological ordeals that are, respectively, sexual and athletic in nature--a prolonged bout of sexual intercourse and a long-distance bicycle race, whose analogical relationship points directly to how human performance was conceived at the turn of the century. …

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