Using the popularity of History novels in 1830s Paris, Theophile Gautier wrote a book that was ostensibly about the historical figure Mlle de Maupin, a seventeenth century Opera star known for dressing as a man, fighting duels, and generally making a sensation. Not at all a banal starting point, and even if the novel had attempted to faithfully recreate the epic narrative of that woman’s life, playing off of its swashbuckling shock-value, it would have been far from normal.
Illustration of Mlle de Maupin by Aubrey Beardsley
Instead Gautier took the potentials embedded within the thrill that is elicited by a woman successfully occupying the role of a man, potentials which up until then had lain dormant, hidden behind the scandalous excitement and/or moral opprobrium surrounding the tale, and drew them out, unrolling each of them, giving them body through the unique structure, the independent voices, the confused desires, and almost unbearable atmospheres of the book.
He did precisely the opposite of what would have been expected from an author in those times to make money in publishing, and with a hero who could have offered just the right pitch of marching plot, duels and spectacular encounters and fights and related moral conclusions that would have got Parisians’ eye’s flying, thoughtlessly, through the pages. Nothing really happens in it. A young man gets a mistress, then meets the mistress’ friend, with whom he falls in love, and eventually beds, once. Everything happens in the grounds and interiors of the same country house. But the intensity of each page consumes far more than could any amount of flashing knives, with the author forever keeping us unsure of who exactly is who, what they are feeling, what is real and what is not, as everything we are told is in letter form, deeply transfigured by the intense, confused passions of the person writing. Underneath the sensational nature of a woman taking on the role of a man, Gautier falls down a magical hole of his own making and discovers a shifting and anxious world of protean identities, indefinite boundaries, emotional, intellectual, and sensual desires that have no respect for binary oppositions. He discovers (I refer to this as a discovery since, like all the best writing, he manages to illuminate parts of our natures that simply lay undescribed, but which were always there) a place in which there is no defined way for each of the characters, and by extension the reader, to know how to judge themselves, their actions, and even how to know what is right and what is wrong. Judgements arise from the solid ground of morally imbued categories (like promiscuous, chaste; active, contemplative), with their various interactions being frowned upon or celebrated; but when these positions become unstable, when male becomes entirely indistinguishable from female, innocence from supposed corruption of the flesh, earnest passion and ingenuousness from a libidinous worldliness, then the reader, and the characters, are left completely on their own as arbiters of an entirely personal judgement. Like the characters with their necessarily continuous and acute insights, and their long, agonising self analyses, we find ourselves as readers having to analyse and carefully consider our own responses to the impassioned and daring situations set up by Gautier, in order to feel –even slightly- as if we know how to see what we are being shown. Like descending into a world of supposed sin and debauch, only to find deeper good, and more profound forms of humanity than we had known before, there is a need to constantly re-evaluate ones position and viewpoint amongst the homosexual confessions, the serial sexual exploits, and the confused minglings of affection and passion between pubescent and adult.
Mlle de Maupin is apparently the Romantic novel par excellence, and lays out many of the tropes that came to define the romantic atmosphere, from the power of androgyny (although after this mostly kept as feminine attributes in a male character), to the free appeal of sensual liberation coupled with a nostalgia for gallantry and pre-industrial chivalry, and the ultimate impossibility of lasting love. Romantic in the best sense of the word, the book is stifling in its desire to break free of any moral straightjacket, any outside force that may exert pressure on the novel itself, and the content within it, to serve any specific purpose, any moral good. It serves itself and sets us a little bit freer because of it, a little bit freer and a lot more desirous. It is almost a system of libidinous reconfiguration, somewhere in between Sade and Masoch, in which uncertainty, introspection and acting create a tense fever-pitch of speculation and amplified desires, heightening the potency of every physical description, every possible point of contact between characters.
Either way, Gautier was explicit and self conscious in his construction of the book’s world, intending it as a rallying cry against the critics of the time who were demanding that art either “serve” the Republican cause, be “morally uplifting” for the people, be “virtuous”, or be “useful” and help further “progress”. Below are some extracts from the Preface to the book, which is long, aggressive, eloquent, quite devastating, and aimed as a riposte to those very critics, all demanding that literature serve what they saw as necessary causes, with Gautier standing up and, daggers of sarcasm in hand, spectacularly managing to reclaim his own ground. As an architect, I was set alight by the preface (which has been called a manifesto for Romanticism, and art for art’s sake), since, like the way in which the book triumphantly describes and celebrates things which were considered somehow shameful, he takes an attitude to art production seen as contemptible, one rooted in pleasure and elegance, whose system of value is based entirely upon stimulation, and propounds its transcendence, explains how for him it was the very essence of literature. I am also fascinated by, and hold most dear, everything that comes after the point of appeased necessity, and while I have only respect for those who make their business the solving of problems, the furthering of causes, or the alleviation of physical poverty, I have always wondered why the production of pleasure and the celebration of life through art, and architecture, always either gets mistaken (how?!) for the pompous showmanship of wealth in search of signs of differentiation, or else is attacked for being unnecessary and wasteful.
Enough for now, the extracts from this manifesto of manifestos (1837…):
In the glorious age in which we have the good fortune to live nothing is more ridiculous than the efforts being made by every journal, of whatever political hue be it red, green, or tricolour, to re-establish morality. Morality is of course greatly to be respected, and, heaven knows, we shouldn’t want to treat her discourteously. She is a good and worthy woman. We are indeed of the opinion that behind her spectacles her eyes are brilliant enough; that her stockings are properly adjusted; that from her gold snuff box she takes her snuff as elegantly as can be; that her lapdog bows like a dancing master. That is our opinion. We shall even concede that she is in pretty good shape for her age and carries her years very well. For a grandmother she looks fine, but she is nevertheless a grandmother… It would seem quite normal, especially when you are twenty, to prefer some immoral, pert, coquettish and feminine little thing, with tumbling curls and a skirt somewhat on the short side, with provocative eyes and feet, a flush on her cheek, laughter on her lips and her heart on her sleeve. Even those journalists who are monstrously virtuous would not argue with that. And if they say the opposite, more likely than not they do not believe it. Thinking one thing and saying another is something that people, especially the moral ones, do every single day.
You fools, you imbeciles, you goitrous idiots, a book does not make jellied soup; a novel is not a pair of seamless boots nor is a sonnet a vaginal syringe; a drama is not a railway; all of these things that are essential to civilisation and to the advancement of humanity along the path of progress.
By the bowels of all the popes past, present and future, no, two hundred thousand times no.
You cannot make a cotton bonnet out of a metonym and you cannot put on a comparison as you do a slipper; you cannot use an antithesis like an umbrella; you could not, more’s the pity, wrap a few multicoloured rhymes round your middle by way of a waistcoat. It is my deep conviction that an ode is too light for winter wear and that you would be no better clothed with a strophe, antistrophe or epode than was the cynic’s wife who made do with her virtue for a chemise and went stark naked, or so the story goes.
People who claim to be economists, and who want to rebuild society from scratch, seriously suggest such nonsense.
I should like to know first of all the precise meaning of the great gangling fellow of a noun they pepper their vacuous columns with every day, and which they use as a shibboleth or a sacred word. Utility. What does it mean and what is its application?
There are two sorts of utility and the meaning of this word is only ever relative. What is useful to one person is no use to another. You are a cobbler, I am a poet. It is useful for me that my first line rhymes with my second. A rhyming dictionary is very useful to me; but you don’t need one to mend a pair of old boots; and it is fair to say that a shoe-maker’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 the one than the other. Without wishing to disparage the noble profession of cobbler, which I esteem equal to that of constitutional monarch, I humbly submit that I should prefer to leave my shoes unstitched than my verses badly rhymed, and that I should rather do without boots than poems. As I almost never go out and since I make better progress with my head than my feet, I get through fewer pairs of shoes than a virtuous republican who does nothing but run from one ministry to the next, in the hope of landing a job somewhere.
I know some 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, in this life of ours, which is absolutely useful? In the first place there is very little use in our being on earth and alive.
Nothing that is beautiful is indispensable 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? I could do without potatoes more easily than roses and I think there is only one utilitarian in the world capable of tearing out a bed of tulips to plant cabbages. 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? What is the good of painting? Who would be mad enough to prefer Mozart to M.Carrel, and Michelangelo 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, like his poor and infirm nature. 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. Instead of a certain useful pot, I prefer a Chinese one decorated with dragons and mandarins, which is no use to me whatsoever. I should be quite happy to renounce my rights as a Frenchman and a Citizen to see and authentic picture by Raphael, or a beautiful naked woman.
I would sell my trousers for a ring, and my bread for jam. The most appropriate occupation for a civilised man seems to me to be to do nothing, or to reflect upon life as he smokes his pipe or cigar.
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, light, beautiful flowers, good wine, thoroughbred horses, greyhounds and angora cats; Who did not say to his angels “Be virtuous”, but: “Be loving”; and who has given us a mouth more sensitive than the rest of our skin for kissing women; eyes which can look up to see the light; a subtle sense of smell to breathe in the souls of flowers; strong thighs to grip the flanks of stallions and fly as fast as thought without railway or steam engine; delicate hands to stroke the long heads of greyhounds, the velvety backs of cats, and the satin shoulders of creatures with very little virtue; God who, in short, who has given to us alone the threefold glorious privilege of drinking without being thirsty, of striking a light, and of making love all year round, which distinguishes us from the animals much more than does the custom of reading journals and making charters.