Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Les Poses De l'Incompris Reprises: Corbière, Caricature, and Critical Illness

Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Les Poses De l'Incompris Reprises: Corbière, Caricature, and Critical Illness

Article excerpt

Though included in Paul Verlaine's Poètes maudits ("accursed poets"), Tristan Corbière is remembered as accursed not for his brassy innovations in style or for his audacity in challenging poetic convention, but for his poor health. He is said to have suffered from chronic swelling in the extremities, rheumatic fever, pneumonia, tuberculosis, deafness, blindness, sexual impotence, and neurosis, as well as being unattractive. Despite a startling paucity of proof to substantiate these conditions, the pathologized composite continues to haunt critical inquiry. The essay examines the historical construction of illness-how it became the bedrock of critical studies of Corbière, and why recent trends in scholarship have failed to shake that construction at its foundation. These findings make way for a reevaluation of Les Amours jaunes that reveals a brilliant parody of the very preconceived notions that, over time, have entwined to stereotype both Corbière and Les Amours jaunes.

Introduction

Tristan Corbière is best known for having authored a single, slim volume of poetry, Les Amours jaunes (Yellow Loves), which he published at his own-or more exactly, his father's-expense in 1873, yet extant documents suggest that he possessed extraordinary talent for self-expression in the visual arts as well as language. Corbière's childhood letters are richly illustrated, here with an unfavorable rendering of a schoolmaster he did not like, there with a tiny family portrait of his cousins, the Chenantais, with whom he lived for a time as a teenager. As an adult, he delighted in presenting himself in caricature, and left nearly a dozen known caricatured self-portraits scattered about-charcoal sketches and two extraordinary oil paintings. In all of these, he appears in profile, as scrawny, knobbykneed, and a bit hunched, with a large nose, craggy features, and a tattered, crumpled hat. One sketch, distinct from the others, is covered with dark, criss-crossed hatch marks; a shadowy figure leaning against the wall is discernible only by the darker scratches that outline it. The first oil painting reproduces this craggy figure who sits alone, leaning back on his palms, smoking a pipe as he retrieves verses from his cobwebbed 'attic.' A spider sits atop his tattered hat, spinning a web behind his head, and paraphrased verses from "Le Poète contumace" ("Poet in Absentia") are inscribed in the upper right-hand corner. The other painting depicts a plump, leathery old sailor on a stool, holding a drink in one hand and smoking a pipe with the other. The puff of smoke emanating from the pipe swirls E. Corbière.

In contrast, extant photos of Corbière are quite banal. In one, he is a boy of perhaps sixteen. He sits with affected ease, his cheek propped stiffly on his left hand, his cap crumpled in his right. Critics strive to rationalize its utter unremarkability, its bourgeois-and physical- normalcy: faced with irrefutable "proof" that Corbière bore no visible stigma as a young man, Henri Thomas wonders if "the ugliness he made such a big deal about in a poem wasn't the result of an illness that struck him rather late in life."2 Likewise, André Le Milinaire insists, "As we compile this terrible list, we must not forget Tristan's ugliness, which some biographers dispute, but which Tristan lived and suffered as such."3

Readers who are by now curious about the appearance of this Corbière fellow might like to know that both of the extant photographs and most of the caricatures are readily available online. Referring to one caricature, René Martineau, Corbière's first biographer, writes, "Nothing in the child suggests the bizarre being that he would be at age 25."4 Albert Sonnenfeld describes "the ravages that rhumatism caused to his face,"5 as he contemplates a Jean Benner sketch of Corbière: "[Corbière] has almost no chin, enormous lips, and his long nose resembles a bird with a long beak."6 Others use the sketches as a kind of pathometer, a measure of how Corbière "must have felt" about his various conditions. …

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