In our third and likely final look into the work of Theophile Gautier, we take on what many have posthumously determined to be his masterwork, the novel Mademoiselle de Maupin.
Based on an actual personage of the same name (birth name Julie d’Aubigny – Maupin was an assumed nom du guerre) who despite being a noted opera singer who, reminiscent of George Sand, was noted for her then daring predilection towards comporting herself in men’s clothing, as well as her accomplished swordsmanship, and more, for her rumored liasons with lovers of both sexes.
After an introductory essay relating to the book and its historical underpinnings, we are presented with a lengthy preface which Gautier penned in defence of the book, in which he defends likeminded “scandalous” works and assaults the critics of the day at great length. While well worded and quite amusing, this little missive is most notable for a few choice bon mots and declamatory passages, of which this is my favorite, a strong and quite apropos indictment of the soulless utilitarianism of the corporation and today’s right winger, and answer to those who defund PBS and the arts for the sake of granting another tax break or loophole to another offshore-reliant multinational to the detriment of the general populace:
“Utility. What does it mean and what is its application?…what is useful to one person is of no use to another. You are a cobbler, I am a poet…a rhyming dictionary is very useful to me, but you don’t need one to mend a pair of old boots, and…a shoemaker’s knife would be no good to me for writing odes. Then you will object that a cobbler is far superior to a poet, and that you can more easily do without one than the other. Without wishing to disparage the noble profession of cobbler…I humbly submit that I should prefer…to do without boots than poems…
I know that some people prefer windmills to churches, and the bread of the body to that of the soul. I have nothing to say to them. They deserve to be economists in this world, and in the next. Does anything exist on this earth of ours, this life of ours, which is absolutely useful?…if we admit a priori the usefulness of our existence, what are those things which are really necessary to sustain it? Soup and a bit of meat twice a day…that’s all that’s needed to fill the belly. A coffin two feet wide by six foot long is more than sufficent for a man after his death, and he does not need much more space while alive…a blanket wound around his body will protect him just as well against the cold than the most elegant and well cut coat…with that he could literally subsist.
People say you can live on twenty-five sous a day; but preventing yourself from dying is not the same as living…nothing that is beautiful is indispensible to life. If you did away with flowers, the world would not suffer in any material way. And yet who would wish there not to be flowers?…
What use is the beauty of women? Provided a woman is medically fit and capable of bearing children, she will always be good enough for the economists.
What is the good of music?…of painting? Who would be mad enough to prefer…Michaelangelo to the inventor of white mustard?
The only things that are really beautiful are those which have no use; everything that is useful is ugly, for it is the expression of some need, and the needs of men are ignoble and disgusting…the most useful place in the house is the lavatory.
Whether these gentlemen like it or not, I belong to those for whom the superfluous is necessary. And I prefer things and people in inverse proportion to the services they render me…the most appropriate occupation for a civilized man seems to me to be to do nothing, or to reflect upon life as he smokes his pipe or cigar. I also hold in esteem those who…write good poetry…
Pleasure seems to me to be the aim of life and the only useful thing in the world. God has designed it thus. He who created women, perfumes…beautiful flowers, good wine…and angora cats…who has given us a mouth more sensitive than the rest of our skin for kissing women, a subtle sense of smell to breathe in the soul of flowers…delicate hands to stroke…the velvety backs of cats…who in short has given us alone the glorious privilege of drinking without being thirsty…and of making love all year round, which distinguishes us from the animals much more than…making charts…
You would have to believe that man is a machine able to be improved, and that if the cogs were better engaged, and a counterbalance placed more advantageously, it would make him function with greater ease and efficiency…so much perfectioning, and what has anyone done that was not done just as well and better before the Flood?”
The novel proper begins with a letter from our hero to longtime friend Silvio explicating in great depth and philosophizing his dilemma: that he is a young romantic in the truest sense, whose lofty ideals and lack in the art of coquetry have left him on the whole lonely and desperate for a mistress. For the better part of the first two chapters, he expounds upon his philosophy, aesthetic leanings and the trials and tribulations of looking for an ideal in a flawed and imperfect world.
While the older and more experienced self can look back and laugh at the youthful naivete and overenthusiasm of the quest for the perfect mate, who in every way matches the personal romantic ideal developed through years of exposure to the fine arts, participation in intellectual circles and cultivated appreciation of aesthetics, there is admittedly a strong conundrum herein which d’Albert is faced with: to choose to chase fruitlessly after the perfect lover, perhaps to attain some vague approximation thereof thereby, or to lower oneself to brute nature and the vagaries of who and what comes one’s way, throwing ideals to the wind and pursuing the jock ethos of “sticking it in a knothole in a tree” or “f***ing a snake if you held its head still”, as two separate purveyors of said path had put it to me at the time.
While not inexperienced (and in fact having suffered through enough bad affairs and failures thereof to write a book about it), I chose to more or less continue chasing after an ideal, and while intensely frustrated by the rather sorry (if not unaesthetically pleasing) choices on the menu and the ultimately wasted years spent dallying with ill-fated pairings and hopeless matches, was in fact pleasantly rewarded in the end. Contrarily, both of the aforementioned fellows wound up getting burned, by all accounts…all of which to say, there is some merit in d’Albert’s approach and reluctance to lower his self esteem enough to take any available port in a failed effort to quench a far greater storm than such “safe harbors” could ever still or provide shelter from.
d’Albert becomes involved through the coaxing of a friend with a particular social circle, wherein (as in today’s world) social status and desirablity among the ladies is primarily based on envy and “being involved with the right woman”, thus stoking the interest of the others…he is drawn primarily to one rather forthright and lusty individual in pink, whom he eventually refers to (euphemistically, for the sake of discretion) as “Rosette” (though some confusion arises late in the proceedings, as the titular Mme. begins to refer to the woman in question by this pseudonymous convention as well). They proceed to become involved in a grand affair of Dionysian levels, and the next chapter or two consist of some of the most honest and accurate representations of a purely, but very much physical affair.
Gautier’s delightful way with words brings out without resorting to bluntness all the salient details of a hot and inventive sexual relationship with an open minded and quite willing mistress (and apparently excellent and warm hearted lover), but one to whom he has no real bond, no attraction beyond l’amour physique. Suffice to say that major portions hereof were positively palpable, in a sense very much akin to that of Paul Leppin in Daniel Jesus, but without any real dint of being “sleazy”. You can recognize every scene and event, and recall the physical associations thereto, from your own life’s experience (or at least such is my hope for the reader – I can only speak for myself, in the end).
But what is most curious and surprising here is how he continues to paint a portrait of a man very much divided, by his passion and empathy for this woman (who he admits, would make a perfect fit for nearly any man in the same situation), and yet acknowledging the fact that because he fails to really feel anything beyond that, this will not suffice – sex without love, however inventive and pleasurable, cannot fill the hole we each carry within us.
An amazing depth of profundity encroaches herewith, with Gautier’s ability to present and fully appreciate both ends of the spectrum, and both sides of the argument, as it were. We are shown with full disclosure and due gravity a heart divided, split between a hedonistic pragmatism and a deeper spiritual yearning for something higher, an indefinable other, the “conquest (who) belonged to you…the soul marked with your seal, the woman who since childhood had devoted herself to adoring you, quite simply the woman created expressly for you” who he (Gautier, as writer) would eventually find (at least in a literary sense) in his final novel Spirite.
It is positively astonishing how astute the observations on relationships, sex and the nature of the young Romantic Gautier provides in this novel. In the first five chapters, there are more quotable and totally applicable bits of business than you could find in a dozen modern “self help books” and diegeses of the psychological and emotional underpinnings of male-female relations, body language, et al. To attempt to check all of them would be a small book in itself, but some of the highlights include this bit about how women prefer sleazebags and jock types with clever lines who ultimately use and abuse them over shy Romantics who’d actually appreciate their charms and merits:
“I see so many men who are ignoble in every respect having beautiful women, when they are hardly fit to be their lackeys…women are to be pitied when they become infatuated with such oafs, who despise and deceive them, rather than giving themselves to some sincere and devoted young man who would account himself blessed and go down on his knees and worship them…women care very little for dreamers, they hold in high regard those who put their ideas into action…I could never take it upon myself…to get up, walk across the room and say to a woman…’your eyes are particularly sparkling tonight.'”
or this section, about the obsessive nature of the lonely youth:
“…because of being so much in my own company…the tiniest details of a life as uneventful as mine assume such great importance. I spend too much time listening to myself living and thinking. I hear my arteries throbbing, my heart beating. I pay a great deal of attention to every passing thought…were I to be more active, I should not take any notice of all these trivia and should not have the time to examine my soul under a microscope all day long the way I do…I should ask of women only what they are able to offer – pleasure – and I shouldn’t be trying to achieve the dubious perfection of some unattainable ideal.”
and this one, about the detachment of the intellectual or outsider:
“I have never been able to convince myself that I am truly like other men. When someone calls me Monsieur, or when speaking about me, refers to me as “this man”, it seems very strange. My own name might be just any name and not mine at all. And yet, however softly it’s spoken in the middle of the loudest noise, I turn round suddenly with a convulsive energy…could it be that I am afraid of finding this man who knows my name and for whom I am no longer “just anybody’, antagonistic or hostile to me?”
“…what causes the hearts of normal men to beat does not cause mine to beat at all. My griefs and joys are not those of my fellow men…I have despised the things that people long for. I have been in love with women who didn’t love me, and I have been loved when I would have wished to be hated…I am only too aware how hollow and rotten all things are to attach myself to any one of them for very long, or pursue it eagerly and obsessively, through thick and thin…”
or this, which resonates quite strongly with my past experience as a brazen “wingman” for friends, while simultaneously having a harder time breaking the ice and stumbling over words on first encounters with women I was actually attracted to in any serious way:
“It is the worry of waiting for the right moment and the fact that I am so uncertain about the success of my venture which usually makes me much less amiable with the women I desire than the ones in whom I have no particular interest. It throws me into a gloom and introspection which are extremely debilitating and take away my presence of mind.”
As he becomes involved with “Rosette”, the truisms start flying fast and furious, with their relationship and sex life being quite modern. But one particular bit of business grates with the ring of truth, as who out there can truly say they cannot relate to the sentiments and vague fears being tapped into herein?
“a jealous man could only be jealous of her past…but…one has quite enough to worry about with the present without rooting around the debris of old passions, digging up poisoned chalices and phials of venom. For where is the woman you could love if you had to take all that into consideration?…Perhaps it is only truly possible to love a virgin, in both mind and body, a frail bud…(whose) unopened centre as yet untouched by any drop of rain or dew…who unfurls her white dress just for you…the midday sun is not so divine as the pale beauty of dawn, and all the passion of an experienced soul versed in the ways of the world yields before the …innocence of a young heart waking to love. What a bitter and shameful thought it is that you are wiping away the tears of someone else, and that there is …nowhere on all this body which is now yours that has not been…marked by the lips of a stranger…a memory which persists in comparing former pleasures with the pleasures of today.”
On the other end of the equation, he freely admits to utilizing fantasy and lust excited by the thought of others to bolster his flagging desires:
“my imagination is the rival she most needs to fear, and that’s something which, for all her fine feelings, she will probably never realize. If only women knew that! How unfaithful the least roving of lovers is to his beloved mistress! One must presume that women do the same and more besides. But they do as we do, and say nothing about it…Very often the kisses you give her are not for her. It is the idea of another woman one embraces in her person, and she profits more than once, if you can call it profit, from the desires inspired by somebody else. Oh, how many times, my poor Rosette, has your body served my dreams and given substance to your rivals! To how many acts of infidelity have you been the unwitting accomplice? Had you but realized, at the moment my arms were holding you in a tight embrace and my mouth was so close to yours, that your love, your beauty meant nothing, that in my mind you were a thousand miles away from me…that instead of being my mistress you were just an instrument of pleasure, a way of betraying an ideal which was impossible to realize.”
Now, with all of this, the reader might begin to wonder why I champion Gautier’s final novel Spirite over this one as being his true magnum opus, the pinnacle of achievement towards which all his other work points. Certainly not because of its placement as his final work; all too many are the authors and musicians whose output dragged on long past their peak and diminishing in usefulness and acclaim, much less applicability to the world surrounding. No, the reason is far more simple and inherent – because what we’ve been discussing thus far in such glowing terms encompasses the first five chapters.
From here, things get messy.
I don’t believe I’m letting any real cats out of the metaphorical bag in stating that the titular character, who is introduced to us and spends the bulk of the novel in the guise of the male Theodore, is actually a woman. This sort of gender play has been intrinsic to literature, opera, and stage of the period, from Moliere to Shakespeare, Cervantes to Shaw. What marks Mademoiselle de Maupin as being of particular interest to the educational discipline referred to as “queer studies” lies in the strong emphasis placed thereon, and the philosophical debate that goes on surrounding the issue. Where most other examples fall under the umbrella of “comic misadventure”, where a brief inversion of the status quo occurs for a particular sequence before returning to “normal” in the end, Gautier plays with the expectations of the reader, drawing things into what for the mainstream would be a more uncomfortable, subversive territory.
But first, let us address the jarring stylistic shift that occurs from the first page of chapter 6. Where the first third of the book has taken place in the epistolary form, as a series of letters written by the as yet unnamed narrator to a similarly unnamed friend of old, who as it happens is about to get married. As would seem apparent, this all takes place in first person, and we are privy to the inner workings and philosophical conundrums in the mind of the author – it’s all quite intimate and revealing.
Suddenly, with chapter 6, Gautier quite openly and self consciously jars us into the omniscient narrative form, writing in third person and shifting the scene to an encounter between “Rosette” and the cavalier Theodore, who was only recently introduced in the preceding chapter. To make things even more jarring, we are then shifted into playscript form, with the dialogue between the two characters taking the form associated thereto, sans any descriptive qualifiers. Just to explicate what I’m getting at here, this is the general idea* of where the middle of chapter 6 goes:
Theodore: you shouldn’t have come here.
Rosette: but I love you madly.
Theodore: oh, well, then.
*(no, this isn’t a quoted section, just a reductio ad absurdam example of the form under discussion.)
And just as suddenly as this tertiary form appeared, it vanishes, and we return to the omniscient narrative for the remainder of chapters 6 and 7, wherein the three main characters go out riding together, and it is discovered that Theodore’s youthful page, to whom “he” has been paying an inordinate amount of attention, is actually female. The backstory behind this, and “Theodore” herself, eventually comes out in one of the final chapters, and those whose curiosity is piqued are strongly advised to read the novel for themselves to fill in all the narrative details.
For chapters 8 and 9, we return to our narrator (who it has been revealed in the course of the two preceding chapters carries the surname of d’Albert) and the epistolary form, which is quite welcome, as the shifts in narrative style of chapters 6 and 7 have not only proved quite distancing, but inconsistent with Gautier’s usual fictive approach, and thus come off as something of a failed experiment.
However, all is not well, as d’Albert spends the entire time attempting to forge a justification for his newfound desire for Theodore (who he believes to be a man), thereby throwing the entire first five chapters of philosophical underpinning to the wind, and subverting their entire focus and meaning. From an apropos and quite recognizably applicable analysis of male-female relationships and the psychology of the outsider and Romantic, this new shift casts a rather different light on all that has preceded, calling its very bases into question.
Were all those levels of applicability and identification therefore some sort of (gasp!) warning indicators that anyone who saw themselves or the world reflected therein may actually be gay!?! Hardly, whether in terms of reality (does one need to be homosexual to appreciate aesthetics? To be a Romantic in orientation? To understand the difference between a wild, purely physical fling and a deeper love?) or in terms of the story (as the “Theodore” d’Albert is torturing himself over in fact turns out to be female).
To imply any such attribution would be either self-serving (by painting the entire world in a narcissistic light, and thereby gaining some measure of self-justification – “everyone else with any culture must be just like me, therefore, I’m secure in my actions and existential choices”) or defamatory (the right wing, jock and thug-style disparagement of anything and anyone that doesn’t conform to their extremely limited view of the world and behavior as being somehow “queer”, with the implication thereof being “wrong”, or “freakish”, and thereby justifying themselves as “the norm” and “right”).
It is highly doubtful Gautier had any such intention or inclinations, particularly given his noted history of success with the ladies (often retaining and servicing more than one mistress during a given time period). As with the recasting of Rachilde’s The Juggler as some sort of feminist manifesto applicable to contemporary sexual politics, this is just one more trope shot down in flames, folks.
That being said, we proceed to chapter 10, which retains the epistolary form but shifts focus to the titular Mme. Madeline de Maupin, as she relates to her old friend Graciosa the rationale behind her trying to pass in polite society in male guise.
Fascinated since childhood with the disparity between the way gentleman callers comport themselves when in the presence of women and paying court thereto and their altogether ruder and coarse nature outside of feminine earshot, she makes the decision to venture out in dress and behavior as a man, in order to discover what really goes on among the fellows. What she discovers disturbs her:
“…in all the farcical exaggerations and vulgar jokes, you could detect a real and deep-rooted feeling of the utmost contempt for womankind, and I learned more in…one evening than I had reading twenty carloads of moral treatises…I had always had a strong suspicion that men are not what they appear to be to us, but I didn’t imagine they were so very different from their public image, and I was as surprised as I was disgusted…so that’s what they think of us and hide from us under all the fine exterior! Who, seeing them so humble and fawning and subservient to our wishes, would ever imagine…that after making their conquests they get up again, bold as brass, and grind their heels into the face of the woman they adored on their knees from afar!”
From here on out, the chapters vacillate between those letters written by d’Albert and Mme. de Maupin. In chapter 11, when the assemblage decides to put on a performance of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, d’Albert admits to his realization that “Theodore” is actually female, though his mind and appearances continue to confuse the issue.
“Theodore” has taken the role of Rosalind, who spends the bulk of the play in male drag, but at the start of the play is adorned in all a woman’s finery, and her appearance prompts a lengthy and impassioned declaration which includes this tidbit: “He, or rather she, for I don’t want to be reminded that I was ever idiotic enough to take her for a man…” before going on to describe Theodore’s womanly curves, dainty hands and feet, well rounded shoulders, slim waist, and “plump, full chest” which prompts the declaration that “you would almost think he had a bosom” and “there is not the slightest sign of a beard, not a single hair. And such a soft voice!”
When Rosalind later becomes transformed into the faux-male Ganymede, d’Albert exclaims “I did not care for that very much. I had already got completely used to her woman’s costume, which gave me some hope that my desires might be fulfilled…but the manner in which he was dressed made you sense that underneath these manly garments lay something feminine. There was something wider about the hips and fuller in the bosom, and something about the graceful hang of the cloth that you do not see on a man, and it left you much in doubt as to the person’s sex…I…convinced myself once more that it was most definitely a woman.”
Now granted, in regards to the titular character herself, things become a bit more called into question. Her roleplaying has clearly thrust her into becoming more of a tomboy in orientation:
“I forgot that, when all was said and done, I was only a little scatterbrain who had exchanged her needle for a sword and cut up one of her skirts to make a pair of breeches. Many men are more female than I am…the skirt is around my waist, not my mind…I love horses, fencing, all violent exercise, I enjoy climbing and running around everywhere like a boy; I get bored sitting with my feet together and my elbows tucked in, keeping my gaze lowered, talking in little fluted, honeyed tones and pushing a piece of wool ten million times through holes in a canvas. I am not in the least partial to doing what I am told…all the foolish, expensive things which as a rule prove such a temptation to women have only ever affected me mildly.”
She also develops an unusually masculine appreciation of beauty, and delivers a dead on admonition to the ladies out there not to get advice on what is and is not actually attractive from their sewing circle, but to consult and attend to what actually draws the interest of the opposite sex – a simple bit of advice that might have spared us the advent of Victoria’s Secret (and concomitant transformation of Fredericks into its rather sorry image) and decades of unsexy lingerie, not to mention the unfortunate trend of wearing gym shorts to bed:
“…since abandoning the clothes of my own sex and living in the company of young men, a sense I have not previously experienced has developed in me. The sense of beauty. Women are normally deprived of it, for some reason…they do not understand a thing about it. Usually if a woman finds another very pretty, you can be sure that she is very ugly and not a single man will pay her any attention, whereas all the women whose men boast of their beauty and grace are unanimously considered by the whole petticoated tribe to be affected and disgusting…I should take no other guide but them in my selection, and their disapproval would be guarantee of beauty enough.”
Slightly more damning is her achievement of the initial aim of her taking on the role of a male cavalier, which leaves her with no small measure of disappointment, and even disgust towards the opposite sex, at least initially. But this becomes tempered after the first flush of surprise that things are not in fact as they seemed, and that the surface impressions and false front presented in the wooing of the fairer sex hide a more hollow and brutish reality:
“At first my repulsion for man was totally exaggerated and I regarded them as terrible monsters…their casual cynicism…contemptuous behavior towards women shocked and revolted me to a degree, so little did my idea of them correspond to the reality.”
“they are good sorts, very jolly and sociable…they will do anything for you and are both witty and worthy; they make good painters and musicians and can do thousands of things other than…being the male to the animal called woman, to whom they bear not the slightest relation, either physically or mentally.”
She further admits that
“although the derogatory things that are said about women are always in some sense well-founded…their insults are often mixed up with a fair amount of love. I noticed it was the most affectionate men, those with the strongest feelings for women, who treated them worse than all the others, and would keep reverting…to the subject time and time again. It was as though they were harboring a mortal grudge against them for not being what they wished for, and for belying the good opinion they had initially formed of them.”, which as we have seen is a strong case of the pot calling the kettle black.
And finally, “however, I feel in my heart I still secretly long for one. The voice of nature stifles the voice of reason. I feel most keenly that I shall never be happy if I do not fall in love and am not loved by anyone.”
To this end, she gives herself to d’Albert for one night of wild passion and abandon, wherein they make love numerous times. She is bemused by all his (mistaken) homosexual panic mentioned earlier:
“I had a certain respect for him for having picked me out under those deceptive appearances. In the beginning he thought he had been cursed with tastes that were a good deal more depraved than they actually were, and I laughed inwardly to see him tormenting himself like that.”
And while she does not exactly love him, she certainly holds desires that she is more than willing to have him quench:
“…he does not have everything, but he certainly has something…if I have to admit it, I am possessed by the most violent desires…for the costume I am wearing, inasmuch as it involves me in all sorts of adventures with women, protects me from the advances of the male sex only too well…my body does not have to act the fine lady…I want to defile it, if defiling it be, any more than eating or drinking is, which I doubt…he was the first to guess I am a woman, and I shall prove to him as well as I can that his suspicions are well-founded. It would not be very charitable to let him carry on believing he was a freak of nature.”
While it is clear that Gautier is playing with his audience and its expectations, there is little doubt as to the lay of the land throughout the course of the novel. His deliberate and thoughtful approach, where he delves deeply into the innermost thoughts and psychological underpinnings of the characters involved (or at the very least, d’Albert, who we spend the bulk of the novel in the company of) only adds to the confusion, and it’s easy to see how anyone interested in politicizing or reading extra subtext into the book as a sort of manifesto of transgender or queer politics would have sufficient meat and opening to do so.
Regardless, both internally, in terms of the cohesive whole of the narrative and the nature of d’Albert and his psyche, and in macrocosm, both in terms of both the novel’s place in the oeuvre of Gautier and that of Gautier’s personal life and numerous affairs in the so-called “real world” call any such reading into extreme question.
While I admit to some measure of surprise when, after finding such contemporary and accurate analysis of both the persona of d’Albert as Romantic, idealist, outsider and (at least physically) passionate lover and of sexual politics and the relations between the sexes (in a far more abiding and worthwhile form than the sort of low-rent “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” sociological analysis that passes for such today), we suddenly find him convinced of his “transformation” into homosexuality, and writing two full chapters of rationalization and apologia in relation thereto; his reasonably abrupt about-face, and the narrative as a whole, paint it as the same sort of errant nonsense as one finds in the sort of farces noted earlier – Shakespearean comedies, Moliere’s satires, and so forth.
In spite of all this, as with any good artistic endeavor, the reader or recipient of the work will and should be free to imprint his or her (or “hir”) own personal stance and reading of the narrative – my analysis, as with the earlier discussion of Rachilde’s the Juggler, is aimed at its subsequent use (or misuse) and (re)interpretation towards a particular movement’s politicized ends – in the case of the Juggler, feminism and women’s studies, in the case of Mme. de Maupin, “queer and transgender studies” – and it is this reinterpretation and reallocation as some sort of unintentional manifesto for a later application which I aim to kick the legs out from under herein. The reader is left to his or her own interpretation.
This sheep in wolves clothing comes highly recommended, for its excellent early chapters, its ability to subvert and inspire thought and philosophical discussion, and as a highlight in the ever more interesting oeuvre of the slippery but fascinating Theophile Gautier, Romantic, Decadent, Symbolist, or however and to whatever school of thought you choose to identify and attribute him.