Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Lusting after the Louvre Hermaphrodite: Medical Discourse and Androgyny in Gautier's Mademoiselle De Maupin and Its Popular Predecessors

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Lusting after the Louvre Hermaphrodite: Medical Discourse and Androgyny in Gautier's Mademoiselle De Maupin and Its Popular Predecessors

Article excerpt

Nineteenth-century France was so enamored of androgyny that the hermaphrodite sculpture installed in the Louvre in 1807 had to be protected from "visitors' caresses" with a barrier. (1) A perennial admirer of the sculpture, Theophile Gautier composed that most famous of Parnassian poems, "Contralto," in 1852 as an homage to its ambiguous beauty. (2) Moreover, the plot of his masterpiece, Mademoiselle de Maupin, centers on the mysterious sexual identity of the cross-dressing, eponymous protagonist. A diverse range of nineteenth-century novelists exploit the mystery of doubtful sex as a means to elicit readerly interest and to dissect social views about binary sex. Here, however, I focus on resonances between noncanonical fiction and Mademoiselle de Maupin in order to reveal how Roland Barthes's hermeneutic code, which continuously postpones the revelation of sex as an implement to keep us reading, can be seen as the literary equivalent to the often-frustrated medical efforts to determine "true sex" in living patients. My goal is to ground Mademoiselle de Maupin in a new field of inquiry and its original cultural context. Although Gautier's novel has often been interpreted in light of the preface-cum-manifesto as a reflection of the author's beliefs about art and beauty, I instead investigate Gautier's use of sexual ambiguity in relation to medical discourse and to understudied popular literature. Gautier borrows the terms of a historical debate about hermaphrodism that was raging at the same time he was writing Mademoiselle de Maupin, but his reworking of the doubtful sex plot participates in a time-honored tradition of literature that relies on sexual indeterminism as a means to keep the reader reading. Likely because of the ahistorical nature of the long-standing critical belief in the "myth of the androgyne," coupled with the fact that Mademoiselle de Maupin describes transvestism and gender play rather than physiological hermaphrodism, much of the historical context linking the novel to cultural representations of doubtful sex remains unexplored. (3) I argue that Gautier's famous novel shares narrative elements with contemporaneous medical case histories while drawing key insights about bodily representation from earlier, sometimes forgotten popular literature. Gautier's hybrid novel innovates significantly with respect to its predecessors in ways that invite us to rethink the novel's stakes. These forerunners include Honore de Balzac's well-remembered works Sarrasine (1830) and Seraphita (1834), the more obscure Fragoletta (1829) by Henri de Latouche, and the now completely esoteric Clementine orpheline androgyne (1820) by J.-P.-R. Cuisin, which, contrary to conventional wisdom, claims the title of the first nineteenth-century novel about a physiological hermaphrodite. (4)

Mademoiselle de Maupin recounts a relatively banal love triangle with a few crucial innovations. The Chevalier d'Albert, a young, epicene dandy, searches listlessly for his ideal woman. He eventually takes a lover whom he calls "Rosette"--charmingly after one of his dogs--and although she is extraordinary in every way, she nevertheless falls short of his ideal of perfection. Rosette, the reader learns, is also using d'Albert to palliate an unrequited love for her old flame Theodore de Serannes, who conveniently returns just when d'Albert and Rosette are beginning to become intolerably bored with each other. Much to d'Albert's horror, Theodore, Rosette's former love interest, embodies everything d'Albert had so ardently desired in a lover, and the latter spends the rest of the novel in anguish, hoping Theodore might be a woman and despairing that he would love Theodore even if he were not. At the same time that d'Albert bemoans his impossible love for Theodore, the reader learns that Theodore had earlier refused Rosette's affections for some still unknown and apparently insurmountable obstacle. Through Theodore's letters, we eventually discover the nature of that obstacle: Theodore is really Madeleine de Maupin in disguise. …

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