"The Golden fly" Darwinism and degeneration in Emile Zola's Nana.
First published in 1880, Nana is the ninth of Emile Zola's Rougon-Macquart cycle. The story of a working-class prostitute who wreaks havoc among the upper echelons of the French Second Empire, the novel shocked and fascinated contemporary readers in equal measure. It is set between 1867 and 1870, allowing Zola to attack the hypocrisy and decadence of the Second Empire (1852-1870). The theme of class rebellion is grafted onto Zola's political attack on this regime, since Nana, born in the gutter in the year the Second Empire was established, uses her sexual appeal to avenge her lowly origins on a decadent aristocracy. Nana's death does rotor at least does not simply--signify the demise of a single courtesan, but marks the collapse of a degenerate social order. Published on the cusp of the fin de siecle, Zola's controversial novel signals the emergence of a proliferation of discourses on degeneration in late nineteenth-century Europe.
The concept of degeneration was first introduced by the French doctor Benedict-Augustin Morel in the 1850s. As the earlier nineteenth-century belief in progress was eroded by fin tie siecle fears of reverse evolution and cultural decline, the idea of degeneration gained widespread authority. Though initially reconciled with Victorian ideas of progress, Charles Darwin's theory of evolution provided considerable impetus for notions of degeneration. In Degeneration: A Chapter in Darwinism (1880), the zoologist Ray Lankester emphasized the importance of degeneration in natural selection and even speculated on the decline of European civilization. Darwin himself uncovered the continuity between humans and animals, suggesting the capacity for horno sapiens to revert to its bestial origins. Degeneration was never a single or cohesive theory, but rather a concept applied across a variety of disciplines to a range of phenomena, including sexual deviance, criminality, lunacy, and the adverse effects of modern life. As Daniel Pick points out, degeneration became "the ultimate signifier of pathology" (1989, 8). In the emerging scientific discipline of sexology Richard von Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis ( 1998) rediagnosed conditions like nymphomania as forms of degeneracy.
The major proponent of degeneration theory in the 1890s was the German polymath Max Nordau. His Degeneration [Entartung] (1892) was a lengthy diatribe against modern culture. Nordau concluded that the progress of the last half-century had created a frantic pace of life which was exposing the whole of civilized humanity to exhaustion and, ultimately, degeneration. Modern artists, in Nordau's view, made no attempt to adapt humanity to contemporary life. According to Nordau, writers like Zola and Ibsen were as degenerate as prostitutes and criminals, and satisfied their unhealthy impulses with pen and pencil rather than with the knife of the assassin. Nordau's emphasis on the alleged degeneracy of modern artists was quickly ridiculed by his contemporaries. George Bernard Shaw, for example, dismissed Nordau's arguments in his The Sanity of Art: An Exposure of the Current Nonsense About Artists Being Degenerate (1895). Still more revealingly, the scientific credibility of Nordau's book was also questioned.The Saturday Review, for example, remarked that Nordau "assumes the grand air with his readers, poses as a 'scientist' with the best of them, but he has read his biology and psychology out of popular manuals, and carelessly" (quoted in Pick 1989, 26). While aspects of Degeneration are undoubtedly alarmist, Nordau's apprehension that modernity itself is causing degeneration found considerable resonance in contemporary science: "Evolutionary scientists, criminal anthropologists and medical psychiatrists confronted themselves with the apparent paradox that civilisation, science, and economic progress might be the catalyst of, as much as the defence against, physical and social pathology" (Pick 1989, 11).
There are a number of links between Nana and the work of figures like Darwin, Krafft-Ebing, and Nordau. Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859) was translated into French by Clemence Royer in the 1860s and Zola read Darwin before starting his Rougon-Macquart cycle. (1) Krafft-Ebing refers to Nana in his discussion of masochism in Psychopathia Sexualis (1998, 113). Zola himself was, of course, prominent among those authors Nordau dismissed as degenerate, a fact which has perhaps discouraged critics from examining the connections between novels like Nana and Degeneration. The fact that Nana was published in the same year as Degeneration: A Chapter in Darwinism invites comparison of these two works.The lack of sustained examination of the connections between Nana and the work of theorists like Darwin, Lankester, Krafft-Ebing, and Nordau provides considerable scope for investigating the novel's relationship with discourses on degeneration. (2)
This article examines how Nana anticipates and responds to emerging debates on degeneration. Critics have of course remarked on the relationship between Nana and the idea of degeneration.Yet, there has been a tendency to identify Nana herself as the locus of degeneration in the novel. Pick, for example, claims that Nana "is portrayed as at once the castrator, femme fatale and harbinger of anarchy" (1989, 85). Such reductionist interpretations have obstructed any consideration of how, in its depiction of Second Empire Paris, Nana anticipates the view that degeneracy is an inevitable consequence of modernity. Moreover, assessments such as Pick's fundamentally misinterpret Nana's characterisation, since Zola's heroine is not nearly as degenerate as critics imagine her to be. Indeed, Nana departs from scientific conceptions of degeneration by refusing to depict female sexual deviance as inherently degenerate.
This essay seeks to provide a more nuanced understanding of Nana's engagement with discourses of degeneration. Despite Nordau's dismissal of Zola as a degenerate artist, this article contends that Nana prefigures Nordau's emphasis on the degenerative conditions of modern life, and relates Zola's depiction of atavism in crowds to the theories of Gustave Le Bon. The essay also examines Nana's characterization, and its complex relationship to debates on degeneration. Nana's magnetic sexuality is understood as an inversion of Darwin's explanation of the process of sexual selection in human society. The destructiveness that accompanies Nana's irresistible appeal has led critics to identify her as the essence of female sexual degeneracy. Yet Zola's refusal to make her conform to medical conceptions of nymphomania means that his heroine is not portrayed as possessing an entirely depraved or degenerate female sexuality. Certain aspects of Nana's sexuality would undoubtedly be viewed as degenerate in the late nineteenth century, and the intention here is not to exonerate Zola's heroine entirely from blame.Yet the analysis shows that the degeneracy associated with Nana's sexuality is, to a large extent at least, a consequence of unrestrained male desire. The manner in which Nana exploits male lust is related to Lankester's conception of parasitism. The discussion further examines how Zola contrasts the destruction associated with Nana's inherited urge to avenge her lowly origins to the primitive and oppressive patriarchal structures that operate in the novel. Indeed, it argues that Nana's lesbian relations with Satin emerge as a direct response to male oppression, and substantiate Krafft-Ebing's contention that female sexual preference is malleable. Finally, the article considers how, far from her being the sole conduit of degeneration in the novel, Nana's activities--and indeed her very being--reflect the sensual preoccupations of a society marching toward ruin.
The Frenzy of Modern Life
In his protracted denunciation of Zola as a degenerate artist, Nordau specifically mentions the lasciviousness portrayed in Nana in support of his claim that Zola's bestselling novels owe "their success [only] to the lowest instincts of the masses, [and] to its brutish passion for the sight of crime and voluptuousness" (1993, 504). Matthew Brinton Tildesley elaborates on Havelock Ellis's spirited defense of Zola in response to Nordau's relentless criticism of the author. Writing in the short-lived periodical, the Savoy, Ellis shows how Zola's treatment of sexuality and the body in fact "enlarged the field of the novel" (quoted in Tildesley 2008, 8). The purpose here, however, is not to ponder the specifics of Nordau's denunciation of Zola. Rather, it is to consider how Nana prefigures the account of modern life outlined in Nordau's Degeneration.
For Nordau, the emergence of industrial society has irrevocably changed the conditions of human existence. Whereas previous discoveries did not fundamentally alter the material circumstances of humanity, such forces of modernity as "steam and electricity have turned the customs of life of every member of the civilized nations upside down" (Nordau 1993, 37). According to Nordau, the excessive reading demanded by the ever proliferating number of newspapers and the expansion of rail travel are symptomatic of an enormous increase in human activity.The frenzied pace of modern life taxes the nervous system in an unprecedented manner:
All these activities, however, even the simplest, involve an effort of the nervous system and a wearing of the tissue. Every line we read or write, every human face we see, every conversation we carry on, every scene we perceive through the window of the flying express, sets in actity our sensory nerves and our brain centers. Even the little not perceived by consciousness, the perpetual noises, and the various sights in the streets of a large town, our suspense pending the sequel of progressing events, the constant expectation of the newspaper, of the postman, of the visitor, cost our brains wear and tear. In the last fifty years the population of Europe has not doubled, whereas the sum of its labors has increased tenfold, in part even fifty-fold. Every civilized man furnishes, at. the present time, from five to twenty-five times as much work as was demanded of him half a century ago. (Nordau 1993, 39)
Nordau is emphatic that the human organism has not had time to adapt to the demands of modern life. Consequently, the whole of civilized humanity has been exposed to fatigue for fifty years. This fatigue results in hysteria and neurasthenia, making individuals prone to degeneracy. Nordau presents the image of the prematurely aged individual as proof of the degenerative consequences of overstrain in modern society. Such images confirm that fatigue and exhaustion "are the effect of contemporary civilization, of the vertigo and whirl of our frenzied life, the vastly increased number of sense impressions and organic reactions, and therefore of perceptions, judgments, and motor impulses, which at present are forced into a given unity of time" (Nordau 1993, 42). Nordau identifies the growth of large towns as the greatest single cause of degeneration: "The effect of a large town on the human organism offers the closest analogy to that of the Maremma, and its population falls victim to the same fatality of degeneracy and destruction as the victims of malaria." Inhabitants of large towns breathe "an atmosphere charged with organic detritus" and feel themselves "in a state of constant nervous excitement" (35). Nordau also notes how the death rate for a large town is nearly double that of the open country, despite being populated by people of the most vigorous ages.
The high pace of Nana's opening very much anticipates Nordau's ideas about the frenzied pace of modern life. The "vertigo and whirl" of contemporary civilization are immediately evident in the hustle and bustle visible outside the Varietes theatre:
Through the three open entrance gates you could glimpse the bustling life on the boulevard, glittering and crowded with people on this lovely April evening. Carriages were rumbling up and halting, their doors were slammed, and little groups of people were making their way in, stopping to have their tickets checked and moving along up the double staircase at the back, where the ladies were lingering, swaying their hips. In the harsh glare of the gas-lamps outside, on the pale, bare facade, with its skimpy Empire decoration producing the effect of a cardboard temple peristyle, garish yellow posters were displaying the name "Nana" in large black letters, read by men who looked as if their eyes had suddenly been caught as they were passing by; others were standing chatting, blocking the entrance, while beside the box-office, a burly man with a big, clean-shaven face was giving short shrift to the people who were pressing him for seats. (Zola 1992, 2-3)
This passage anticipates Nordau's emphasis on the diverse range of sights, sounds and events that are compressed into a single unity of time in his contemporary world. The way in which the eyes of men are involuntarily "caught" by posters displaying Nana's name prefigures Nordau's point that increased reading is an inevitable outcome of modern life. That brightly lit advertising pillars enable posters to be "read as easily as in broad daylight" (5) also suggests the excessive reading demanded of the modern citizen.
Within the theatre itself, the demands of modern civilization are equally apparent. Awaiting the opening performance of The Blond Venus, the expectant theatregoers are characterized by an army of sensory activities:
The musicians were tuning up at their desks; the light trills of the flutes, the muffled sighs of the horns, and the tuneful voice of the violins rose above the increasing buzz of conversation. The audience were all chatting, pushing, and settling clown after the scramble for their seats; in the corridors, a jostling mass of people was jamming the doorways; the stream seemed endless. People were waving to each other, dresses were being crumpled, the parading skirts and hairstyles were interspersed with black frock coats or tails. But the rows of seats were gradually filling up; the eye was caught by a pale dress, a face with a delicate profile bending forward, a flash of jewelry entwined in a chignon. (Zola 1992, 8-9)
Preoccupied with numerous conversations and distracted by various sights and sounds, the audience expends exactly the type of organic labor that Nordau would later associate with the fatigue of modern life, even at this supposed time of leisure. Nordau's conclusion that every human face we see increases our fatigue is foreshadowed as the "heaving mass of faces" visible during the interval reduces women to "wearily watching the crowds flow past" (Zola 1992, 17). Indeed, the tiring effect of seeing so many countenances at once is seemingly intensified in the Cafe de Varietes by large mirrors, in which a "solid mass of faces was reflected to infinity" (23).
That such organic expenditure overtaxes the nervous system in the manner subsequently identified by Nordau is revealed in the narrator's observation that "the devout religious atmosphere full of whispers and slamming doors" was "getting on" (Zola 1992, 2) Fauchery's nerves. Fauchery's own remark that "This is adding years to my life" (2) explicitly anticipates Nordau's connection between the conditions of modern society and premature aging. The fatigue Nordau associates with contemporary civilization is prefigured in the "look of feverish excitement and weariness painted on every face" (10) in the audience. Given that they expend so much organic energy during their visit to the theatre, it is perhaps inevitable that the audience should be "overcome by the exhaustion and nervous prostration inevitable at the end of any show" (27).
Later passages of the novel suggest additional ways in which Nana prefigures Nordau's account of modern life. Nordau's emphasis on the unnerving effects of the constant expectation of visitors is prefigured as the inhabitants of Nana's flat are constantly interrupted by the electric doorbell on the morning after the first performance of The Blond Venus. Zola uses free indirect discourse to emphasize the unnerving effect of these constant interruptions on Zoe: "As she was heaping sugar into her brandy, the electric bell made her jump. Hell's bells, couldn't she even have a little drink in peace!" (Zola 1992, 41). Nordau's point about the degenerative effects of the growth of large towns is seemingly anticipated as Nana becomes so reinvigorated by her move to the countryside "that she felt that she'd left Paris twenty years ago," an idea that draws on Romantic and pastoral traditions (156). Shortly afterwards Rose Mignon writes to both her husband and her lover "urging them to continue to benefit from the good country air for a little while longer" (167)--thus implying the unhealthy environment they had been exposed to in Paris. The description of Countess Sabine on the morning following her tryst with Fauchery explicitly connects her tiredness to the rail travel Nordau had identified as a major source of fatigue in modern life: "The countess seemed to be asleep on her feet, as though exhausted by a night in the train" (209).
In addition to prefiguring the account provided by Nordau, the opening of Nana reveals more directly the latent degeneracy inherent in modern life. As various critics have established, Nana arouses La bete humaine in the audience: "She was like an animal on heat whose ruttishness had permeated the whole theatre" (Zola 1992, 26). Indeed, Bordenave positioning Nana as a sexual object provokes the formation of a social aggregation closely associated with atavism in the late-nineteenth century: the crowd.3 While the connections between Zola's fiction and the work of Gustave Le Bon have long been established (see Matthews 1958, 109-113), the relationship between Nana and Le Bon's crowd theory has been noted only fleetingly. In his hook The Crowd (3) A Study of the Popular Mind, first published in 1895, Le Bon delineates the characteristics of what he terms the psychological crowd. He emphasizes that a number of individuals gathered in one place does not necessarily constitute a psychological crowd. Such a crowd is formed only when a group of individuals respond to a common object or shared event. Once part of a crowd, the conscious personality weakens and the individual becomes subject to contagion in a manner analogous to hypnotism. the formation of a psychological crowd eliminates class distinctions, since, as Le Bon puts it: "Men the most unlike in the matter of their intelligence possess instincts, passions and feelings that are very similar" (2006, 5). As part of a crowd, moreover, "a man descends several rungs in the ladder of civilization" and "possesses the spontaneity, the violence, the ferocity, and also the enthusiasm and heroism of primitive beings" (8).
Georges's involuntary cry, "Fantastic!" (Zola 1992, 14), incites the transformation of the diverse theatre audience into a psychological crowd. That Georges's shout creates the contagion that Le Bon would later associate with crowds is evident as the audience, disarmed by his remark, starts laughing, "while the smart young men in white gloves, [who were] also carried away by Nana's shapely curves" (14) repeat his cry. The hypnotic suggestibility of crowds is revealed in a passage that hints at the intense sexual primitivism invoked in Nana's first audience "The whole house was in a trance, their heads were reeling from weariness and excitement, in the grip of that sleepy sort of lust that comes in inarticulate gasps from lovers' beds in the middle of the night" (27). Nana herself appears to assume the role of a hypnotist as her seductive movements enable her to control men "as if their nerves were being vibrated by invisible violin bows" (26). Even Nana's name, which is chanted like a primitive refrain, suggests her capacity to arouse the enthusiasm and heroism of the crowd: "The name sounded endearing; it had a nice familiar ring to it, everybody liked pronouncing it; merely saying it made the crowd cheerful and sympathetically inclined" (6). The elimination of social distinctions Le Bon later identified in crowds is apparent as the excitement caused by the portrayal of Venus spreads "upwards from one gallery to the next" (20), thus anticipating the way in which Nana will homogenize class differences. The crowd at the races reveals still more explicitly the dormant atavism inherent in contemporary civilization: "And the roar of the mob, the roar of a wild beast emerging from its lair, hidden under these frock-coats, was becoming plainer and plainer" (335). Naomi Schor notes the orgasmic noisiness of this collective roar (1978, 85), an observation which confirms that Nana (or at least her equestrian double) again becomes the object of the crowd's primitive sexual desire.
The Blond Venus
Nana's capacity to arouse the sexual desire of crowds is a consequence of her irresistible appeal. Nana possesses the overwhelming sexual appeal of the goddess Venus. This is particularly evident in the depiction of "her sexuality [as] powerful enough to destroy all these people and remain unscathed" (Zola 1992, 27). The immense force of Nana's sexuality relates to Charles Darwin's account of sexual selection in The Descent of Man, published in 1871. In that work, Darwin attempts to explain characteristics, like the peacock's plume, that are aesthetically beautiful but serve little or no purpose in terms of natural selection. He attributes the existence of such characteristics to the separate mechanism of sexual selection. Sexual selection determines the transmission of what Darwin calls secondary sexual characteristics; features that, like the tail feathers of peacocks, are not involved directly in reproduction but prove attractive to the opposite sex. The selector of secondary sexual characteristics is not the impersonal agent of natural selection, but rather individual creatures themselves, particularly the females. Darwin emphasizes the prevalence of female choice in the natural world. Thus peacocks display their plumes, while the peahen chooses. The male might fight of or even occasionally kill his rival, but, since she is pursued by a number of potential mates, the female always has a choice. Turning to humans, Darwin observes that men retain the greater physical strength that is characteristic of the male sex in nature. They have "squarer shoulders and more plainly-pronounced muscles" (Darwin 2004, 621) than women, as well as more powerful voices. He concludes that men possess superior intellect to women and a greater capacity for reason. Indeed, he suggests that man's superior physical strength and intellect have enabled him to usurp the position of selector. In a passage that was perhaps motivated by the need to conform to Victorian social conventions, Darwin also remarks on how women's adornment with the plumes of male birds and jewelry reverses the process of sexual selection in the natural world:
Man is more powerful in body and mind than woman, and in the savage state he keeps her in a far more abject state of bondage than does the male of any other animal; therefore it is not surprising that he should have gained the power of selection. Women are everywhere conscious of the value of their own beauty; and when they have the means, they take more delight in decorating themselves with all sorts of ornaments than do men. They borrow the plumes of male birds, with which nature decked this sex in order to charm the females. (Darwin 2004, 665)
While he notes that "the arbitrament of battle for the possession of the women has long ceased" among civilized peoples, Darwin does acknowledge that a man is more likely to be the rival of other men (2004, 628). Though men have assumed the power of selection. Darwin identifies the beard as a residual secondary sexual characteristic.
In Darwin, Literature and Victorian Respectability (2007), Gowan Dawson examines contemporary responses to The Descent of Man in order to demonstrate that the attainment of respectability for Darwin's evolutionary theories was by no means certain or unproblematic. Dawson shows that, despite the endeavors of Darwin and his publisher John Murray to erase any indelicate references from the manuscript, the Descent was considered by some to have transgressed Victorian notions of respectability. While most contemporary notices were positive, some reviewers "raised eyebrows at the Descent's apparent preoccupation with sex" (Dawson 2007, 43). Reviewers in the conservative Athenaeum and Edinburgh Review were rendered "almost speechless" by the "obsession with sex and its attendant passions evinced by Darwin's latest book" (45). Dawson reveals how the Edinburgh Review made a potentially damaging connection between the Descent and the controversial poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, whose work "celebrated precisely the kind of sexually desirous and dangerously dominant woman whose very existence Darwin ... had been reluctant even to countenance" (49). In addition to examining how reviewers linked the Descent to Swinburne's allegedly lewd poetry, Dawson considers how pornographic etchings crafted in response to the Descent explore the potential for women to choose their sexual partners. One such etching is Felicien Rops's Transformisme no 3 / Troisieme darwinique. Le Predecesseur (c.1879). As Dawson points out, Rops's etchings "depicted an anthropoid ape performing cunnilingus on a reclining and entirely nude Caucasian woman" (2007, 68). Unlike previous accounts of women being forced to submit to the bestial desires of highly sexed simians, "in Rops's etchings ... there existed an even more disconcerting possibility that nubile Caucasian females might actually welcome and even initiate such carnal encounters with creatures that, putatively at least, were so magnificently virile and sexually prepossessing" (69-70). Though its circulation seems likely to have been restricted to a select handful of collectors in Paris, Rops's etching, with its powerful contradiction of "Darwin's contentious insistence that, with humans, it was only the males who played an active role in sexual selection," hints at a central preoccupation of Zola's contemporaneous novel (72).
At first glance, Nana would appear to substantiate Darwin's account of sexual selection in human society. The way women in the novel decorate themselves with jewelry is typified by Sabine "wearing all her diamonds" (Zola 1992, 354). Nana herself carefully applies make-up, suggesting she is conscious of the value of her beauty. Yet the sheer power of Nana's sexual magnetism inverts Darwin's conception of human sexuality, since it provides her with the power of selection. The novel presents a somewhat unflattering picture of the male pursuit of Nana that relates to Zola's notes for the story, where he states his intention to portray "[a] pack after a bitch who's not on heat and despises the dogs following her" (quoted in Parmee 1992, viii). The way in which his heroine reduces men to the status of males pursuing a female in nature is encapsulated as Nana pokes fun at the "pack" who track her down after her opening performance: "she could hear their heavy breathing; they must look very odd, all with their tongues hanging out like so many lapdogs sitting on their backsides in a circle" (Zola 1992, 52). Nana accentuates the rivalry between men acknowledged by Darwin. As Muffat waits for her in front of the theatre, he exchanges a look with the fair-haired gentleman that contains "a glint of lingering distrust as to possible rivalry" (183). Similarly, Georges concludes that "Philippe had ousted him because he was able to grow a beard" (379)--thus identifying an advantage in his brother's possession of this secondary sexual characteristic. More particularly, Nana's overwhelming sexual appeal disrupts the reason Darwin had associated with the allegedly superior male intellect. This is especially true of Muffat. The manner in which Nana's irresistible sexuality disrupts his reason is explicitly revealed as Muffat attempts to free himself from the humiliation she inflicts upon him: "He capitulated to love and religion, those two mainsprings of human existence; but the madness which overcame him in Nana's bedroom always conquered the struggles and scruples of his reason" (397). Muffat in many senses exemplifies Darwin's idea of the physical superiority of man, with his "sturdy and strong" (47) constitution and stern, powerful voice. Yet such is the force of Nana's sexual appeal that this strong man is soon behaving like a child, falling at her feet "as though wanting to force his way into her, between her thighs" (260). CountVandeuvres is another man whose reason is disrupted by the power of Nana's sexual attraction. This is apparent in his determination to provide Nana with the chateau he promised her, "even though she got on his nerves and he found her so stupid he could have thrashed her" (324). Hence by making Nana fundamentally stupid, but endowing her with the irresistible appeal of Venus, Zola undercuts the entire thrust of Darwin's claim that man's superior physical strength and intellect have enabled him to gain the power of selection. In contrast to Darwin, then, Zola sees human sexuality--and more especially, men's sexuality--as inherently animalistic. Whereas Darwin concludes that superior intellect has enabled men to usurp the power of selection, for Zola that same intellect is subordinated to the bestial pursuit of sexual gratification. Indeed, the confusion generated by their superior capacity for reason merely accentuates the powerlessness of men in the face of Nana's overwhelming sexuality.
Nana's immensely powerful sexuality has been construed as purely degenerative. Jane Goodall, for example, claims that Zola's portrayal of his heroine's "trail of destruction reveals that female sexuality is the very principle of degeneracy" (2002, 160). Such claims, however, understate the complexity of Nana's sexuality. Zola does not, in fact, portray Nana's (and, by extension, female) sexuality as entirely degenerate. Her prostitution and constant sexual activity hint at the importance of nineteenth-century conceptions of nymphomania as a context for understanding Nana's sexuality. Once Nana is considered in this context, the way in which Zola resists discourses associated with sexual degeneracy becomes distinctly apparent. As Carol Groneman establishes, nineteenth-century medical discourse identified nymphomania as a specific disease. The key symptom of this disease was believed to be women's excessive desire for sexual intercourse. The German physician Gottlieb Heinrich Georg Jahr, writing in the 1850s, remarks that "nymphomania is a real disease, characterized by a violent desire for sexual union" (1856, 154). Jahr is careful to distinguish nymphomania from the related condition of erotomania, in which the patient's desire need not find consummation in the material act of intercourse: "In erotomania the desire is of a spiritual, in nymphomania, of a physical nature" (1859, 154), he says. Jahr typifies the consensus of nineteenth-century medicine when he notes that "a women affected with nymphomania, desires sexual intercourse with any person indiscriminately" (154). Indeed, in the opinion of the medical profession, "Nymphomaniacs were [often] driven to prostitution to satisfy their desires" (Groneman 1995, 235). In one case study from 1856 reported by Groneman, the American doctor John Tompkins Walton became convinced that the cause of his patient's nymphomania "was seated in her 'animal organization,' which he deduced from her small eyes, large, broad nose and chin, [and] thick lips" (220). Groneman points out that in the late nine-teenth century "nymphomania was transformed from a biological to a psychological disease" (1995, 224). As the nineteenth century progressed, so nymphomania was increasingly identified as a form of degeneracy--neatly summarized in the following passage from Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis (1998, 322): "nymphomania is only a syndrome within the sphere of psychical degeneration." For Krafft-Ebing, severe or chronic nymphomania affects "those unfortunate women who by irresistible impulses are forced to sacrifice feminine honor and dignity." Even in milder cases of nymphomania, according to Krafft-Ebing, "the slightest cause will produce a crisis in which a veritable abnormal mental and sexual excitement" torments the sufferer. Like earlier theorists, Krafft-Ebing notes that nymphomaniacs are often driven to prostitution in order to "find satisfaction and relief with one man after another" (323).
Vincenzo Ruggiero identifies Nana's apparent nymphomania as a symbol of her degeneracy (2003, 89). There is, however, little textual evidence to support his claim. For much of the novel, Zola resists depicting his protagonist as a nymphomaniac. Nana does not turn to prostitution as a means to satisfy a violent desire for sexual union. Indeed, she derives no sexual gratification whatsoever from the men who keep her, a fact established at the outset of the novel. Returning from an afternoon rendezvous on the day after her triumphant entry into the world of the theatre, Nana is emphatic that she did not experience any pleasure: "Do you think I got any fun out of it? It went on and on ... I could have smacked his face, I was so furious!" (Zola 1992, 43). Nana's exasperation at the duration of this encounter hardly suggests the insatiable desire for sexual intercourse characteristic of nymphomania. Her determination in this instance to sleep by herself for "one whole night" (53), and thus gain a welcome respite from providing her services to men, further resists associating prostitution with an unquenchable thirst for sex. Far from using them to fulfill insatiable desires, the protagonist has no sexual feelings for her clients. Hence, she goes to bed with Muffat "without enjoyment" (178). More generally, she finds sex with the men who provide for her something of a chore. The way "she wearily submitted to [them], in order to oblige" (286) confirms that Nana experiences the opposite of the excessive desire for sex associated with nymphomania.
The male characters, of course, nevertheless attempt to construe Nana in terms of an aberrant female sexuality. This is evident in Fauchery's article, "The Golden Fly," in which the journalist remarks on the "unhinging [of] the nervous balance of her sexuality" (Zola 1992, 190). Muffat's perception of Nana as a "stupid woman with an inborn compulsion to strip off" specifically suggests nymphomania (385).Yet it needs to be remembered that these (somewhat hysterical) male perspectives are generated by the frustration of not being able to control Nana's sexuality. For the most part, Nana in fact sees sex as a commodity to be carefully regulated and exchanged only for money, or for the exposure that will enable her to enhance her value in the system of sexual exchange that operates in the novel.4 Hence, when Fauchery publishes a positive review of her first performance, Nana decides "she'd reward him for his good turn" (35). The brutality with which she reminds Muffat that she has sex with him for money rather than his "manly beauty" (386) affirms how Nana has the same power of selection as the female in nature, and substantiates the connections between Zola's novel and Darwin's The Descent of Man.
While Nana is not a nymphomaniac, there is a hint that Countess Sabine is, thus placing this form of degeneracy higher up in the social order. Indeed, the description of Sabine explicitly recalls the physical characteristics identified in nymphomaniacs by doctors like Walton in the mid-nineteenth century: "only her mouth, with its rather thick lips, hinted at a compulsive sensuality" (Zola 1992, 58; emphasis added). At the same time as he reveals the hypocrisy of upper-class sexuality--the distinguished Madame Roberts, for example, abandons "her normal modest demeanor for one that was quite the reverse" (225)--Zola demonstrates his sympathy for those women forced into the sex trade at the lower end of the social scale. This sympathy is apparent as Nana is forced to become a streetwalker, which she--and by implicadon other women in the same circumstances--does only "out of necessity" and without pleasure (241).
Although she derives no pleasure from the men who provide for her in any circumstance, Nana does experience far greater sexual desire than was typically ascribed to women by nineteenth-century medical science. (5) Thus, she begins to fancy Prulliere "because of his good looks" (Zola 1992, 214). Later, at the races, she looks "to see if she could find a nice-looking bookmaker" (312). With her immense appeal making it possible for her to fulfill her desires when she chooses, Nana can be seen as the embodiment of an independent female sexuality. She asserts her sexual independence after having reluctantly agreed to make Muffat her sole lover and provider by giving herself to Vandeuvres "to prove to herself that she was a free woman" (279). Her subsequent retort to Muffles objections--"When I fancy a man, I go. to bed with him" (385)--should not be understood as the expression of an insatiable nymphomaniac, but rather as a further assertion of an independent female sexuality. Indeed, the extent of Nana's sexual independence is such that she even wants to separate sexual activity from the uterine system that was considered women's very purpose for being in nineteenth-century medical science. As she learns she has had a miscarriage, Nana feels "as if her sex organs had let her down" (344) and asks: "Oughtn't you to be allowed to use your body as your fancy took you without having all that fuss?" (344).
Battening on the Stupidity of and Beastliness of Males
Her sexual desire and aspiration to separate sex from its reproductive function would undoubtedly be viewed as degenerate in the late nineteenth century. It might even be tempting to conclude that Nana's death and horrific disfigurement is Zola's punishment for her status as a sexually independent woman. (6) Yet this would be to understate the complexity of the author's achievement in the novel. As Valerie Minogue points out, if Zola "denounces loose women for their exploitation of men, he also castigates the patriarchal Establishment that fosters them, and the undisciplined 'masculine lusts' that make men so readily exploitable" (2007, 134). In fact, Nana's providers are prepared to support her independent sexuality as long as she (even occasionally) satisfies their masculine lusts. Muffat in particular will endure almost any humiliation "for [the] one night of love that made up for a whole week of martyrdom" (Zola 1992, 385). Further, the upper-class men portrayed in the novel are ripe for exploitation by Nana. Thus Muffat's pious character gives way to "a passionate adolescent [who] was greedily awakening to the pleasures of sex" (144)--making him easy prey for Nana. Muffat in fact displays the symptoms of monomania as he becomes "obsessed by a single erotic vision" (161). For all that Nana's sexual appeal disrupts the male intellect, the way Steiner "turned into a complete idiot each time he fell for a woman" (92) hints that loss of rationality is a common effect of unrestrained male desire.
The way Nana exploits the sexual needs of these men relates to the English zoologist Ray Lankester's treatise Degeneration: A Chapter in Danvinism, which was published in the same year as Nana. While there is no question of influence between the two men, there are definite parallels between Lankester's account of parasitism and the characterisation of Zola's heroine. In his book, Lankester argues for the need to acknowledge the importance of degeneration in the process of natural selection. He defines degeneration as a reduction of complexity that results in the organism becoming adapted to less varied and less complex conditions. He cites the parasite as a well-known example of degeneration. The parasite resides in "conditions ... which render its food and safety very easily attained, [and] seem to lead as a rule to Degeneration." Lankester emphasizes that parasitism constitutes a suppression of form in the organism: "Let the parasitic life once be secured, and away go legs, jaws, eyes, and ears; the active, highly-gifted crab, insect, or annelid may become a mere sac, absorbing nourishment and laying eggs," he says (Lankester 1880, 33).
The descriptions of Nana suggest that she exists in a parasitic relationship to her providers. She is described as "sharpening her lovely white teeth" (Zola 1992, 93) in anticipation of consuming Steiner's fortune. Still more explicitly, she is almost vampirish as she violently devours material wealth: "She had a glint in her vacuous eyes and her lips were drawn tightly back over her white teeth" (371). At the height of her time as a kept woman, Nana reveals explicit parallels with Lankester's conception of parasitism:
In her idle exigence, time dragged on monotonously, hour after hour. She lived like a bird, with no thought of the morrow, sure of being fed and all ready to perch for the night on the most convenient branch. Safe in the knowledge of where her next meal was coming from, she loafed about all day and every day, listless and lethargic, a drowsy, acquiescent victim of her profession of tart, as cloistered as in a convent.As she always took a carriage, she was losing the use of her legs. (Zola 1992, 286)
Here Nana's food and safety are easily assured. Consequently, she is subject to the same degenerative process as Lankester's parasitic animal. Her listlessness and lethargy suggest that she becomes adapted to less varied and less complex conditions as a direct result of the safety provided by the "knowledge of where her next meal was coming from. That Nana was losing the use of her legs" as a consequence of always travelling in carriages explicitly parallels Lankester's idea that parasitism constitutes a suppression of form in the organism. (7)
As she emerges from her lethargy to feel "the immense force of her sexuality" (Zola 1992, 305) like never before, the proletarian Nana wreaks the class revenge she is predetermined by heredity to exact. Brian Nelson points out in relation to Nana that "slex provides a power that overrides class concerns, reversing the currents of influence and converting oppressor into oppressed" (2001, 419). Nana uses the power of sex to satisfy her inherited desire to degrade and destroy the upper classes. As she ruins Steiner and degrades his Jewishness, she is "seemingly satisfying an age-old hatred which she hardly realized" (Zola 1992, 392). Similarly, when she stamps on the insignia of Muffat's chamberlain's uniform, Nana "was settling old scores and satisfying an inherited, unconscious, family grudge" (399). That her urge for revenge is largely unconscious explains how Nana remains a good-natured girl while acting as a destructive "force of nature." (8) Fauchery's article is accurate in its depiction of the protagonist carrying "pollution upwards to contaminate the aristocracy," since at the height of her destructiveness this "golden fly" is indeed able to poison men merely by touching them (190). (9) Nana's destructiveness extends to the material wealth that enables the aristocracy to oppress the lower classes. She transforms the vast "stream of money flowing through her thighs" into frivolous expenditure (369). Incapable "of seeing anything expensive without wanting to acquire it" (368), Nana reduces the expensive commodities bought for her by aristocratic men into "garbage for the gutter" (399). (10)
For all that critics have connected her trail of destruction with female sexual degeneracy, men are in fact complicit in Nana's destructiveness. La Faloise in particular is "clamoring for the honor of being ruined by her" since he believes "this would consecrate him as the smartest man about town" (Zola 1992, 393). Further, the destruction associated with Nana's sexuality is contrasted to the oppressive and primitive patriarchal structures that operate more implicitly in the text. If Nana warns of the destructive potential of female sexuality, then Zola clearly does not advocate domestic passivity either. The novel presents an unsettling picture of domesticity as a form of female oppression when Nana sets up home with the atavistic Fontan. Her reward for "playing at being the simple secluded housewife" is to be beaten relentlessly by this "monkey of a man" (215, 231). The disparaging view of domestic submissiveness presented in the novel is confirmed as others attempt to convince Nana that she will not receive "a prize for good conduct" for enduring Fontan's violent outbursts in the name of love (241).The primitivism underlying modern patriarchal structures is established at the outset of the novel, where it is revealed that Bordenave drives women "like galley slaves" (3). A domineering patriarch who positions himself as "Daddy" (84), Bordenave articulates a conservative ideal of womanhood as Rose and Lucy help serve him dinner after he turns up injured at Nana's party: "That's just what women are made for," he declares (90). Certain patriarchal structures apparent in Zola's novel relate to Darwin's discussion of primitive marriage customs in The Descent of Man. There Darwin contrasts sexual selection in the civilized nations to the practices of African tribes, the so-called "Kafirs," who were believed to purchase their wives. The Marquis de Chouard's purchase of Amelie "for a sum rumored to be thirty thousand francs" explicitly recalls the customs of the "Kafirs," and suggests the primitivism inherent in civilized society (325). Despite her formidable sexuality, Nana herself retains her fear of the law, "that unknown power by which men could wreak vengeance on her and eliminate her" (240).
Although homosexuality was viewed as degenerate in the late nineteenth century, Nana's lesbianism unmistakably emerges as a response to male oppression.Thus Nana succumbs to Satin's advances as a direct result of being barred from her own home by the savage Fontan: "Cuddling in her soft arms, Nana gradually dried her tears. Feeling affectionate herself, she started kissing and hugging Satin, too. When the clock struck two, the candle still hadn't been put out; they were both billing and cooing (Zola 1992, 244-45). Nana anticipates Krafft-Ebing's observation that "lesbian love" is not an innate desire. Krafft-Ebing emphasizes that "[t]he majority of female yearnings do not act in obedience to an innate impulse," but rather lesbian desires develop in particular circumstances (1998, 406).The development of the protagonist's lesbian relations with Satin demonstrates the malleability of female sexuality. On her first visit to Laure's restaurant, "Nana pursed her lips disgustedly" at the lesbian activity surrounding her (Zola 1992, 225). Later, she becomes intrigued by the love affairs and jealousies of the female customers, while comforting herself with the thought that "she wasn't one of them yet" (Zola 1992, 236). Having succumbed to Satin's advances, Nana finally flaunts her lesbianism in front of men. The existence of Laure's as a lesbian establishment confirms that it is not just Nana who participates in this supposed form of degeneracy. Indeed, Nana could be seen as part of what Michel Foucault terms "the veritable discursive explosion" surrounding sex in the nineteenth century (1990, 17). After all, the novel presents a range of deviant sexual types. These include Labordette, an example of the homosexual personage who would, in Foucault's terminology, be identified as a member of a distinct "species" (Foucault 1990, 43) at the time of the novel's publication. There is also the peculiar arrangement between the Mignons, where the husband exploits his wife's beauty and acting ability to such an extent that the couple openly form a menage-a-trois with Rose's current lover.
When They Take their Wrappings Off
While her lesbian relations form part of a spectrum of deviant sexualities in the text, the comparisons between Nana and animals would appear to function as an exclusive marker of the protagonist's degeneracy. Indeed, several of the novel's dominant images liken Nana to animals. She is described as having the "tawny inane of a wild animal" (Zola 1992, 15). She is then compared to a "wild beast [that] had escaped from a zoo" (166). (11) Later, her hair is likened to "an enormous red horsetail" (307). Such comparisons, however, indicate the continuity between humans and animals established in the novel. These comparisons also reveal an additional parallel between Zola's novel and the work of Darwin. In The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, published in 1872, Darwin examined how the expression of emotion indicates the common descent of man and animals. Nana demonstrates Darwin's point in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals that animals experience emotions comparable to those of humans. As Vandeuvres's horses perish in his suicidal blaze, "You could hear them lashing out and smashing against the doors and crying out like human beings" (Zola 1992, 341). This passage recalls Darwin's observation that, while horses suffer great pain in silence, "when this is excessive, and especially when associated with terror, they utter fearful sounds" (1985, 84).
Nana, in fact, is never the sole conduit of degeneration in the novel. Critics have, of course, related her failure to reproduce the species to degeneration (Pick 1989, 86), and her short-lived offspring indeed looks "a sickly, anaemic little boy" (Zola 1992, 246). Yet little Louis's sickliness is symptomatic of the degeneracy that is already inherent in the social fabric, and specifically the inherited degeneracy of aristocracy, suggested by the mention of the "unhealthy-looking blond young man [who] bore the name of a great French family" (104). Similarly, Nana and Muffat's submission to "bestial impulses, [and] a mad urge to get down on all fours and bite" (398) like animals is merely part of the "wild randiness" sweeping Paris:
all their veneer vanished, they became like animals, insisting on the most revolting practices and every possible refinement of perversion. ... Even Nana, who had certain preconceptions which Satin was busily demolishing, was surprised that smart people could sink so low So there's no decency left any more, she'd say, when she was in a serious mood: people were lying to each other, from the top to the bottom. Well, a fine sight that must be in Paris from nine in the evening to three o'clock in the morning! And she laughed out loud and exclaimed that you'd see some funny things if you could look into every bedroom, with ordinary people having it off with each other like mad and quite a few grand people, here and there, with their snouts in the trough, even dirtier than the others. (Zola 1992, 238-9)
This passage hints at how, despite his denunciation of the novel's lasciviousness, Nana prefigures Nordau's warning in Degeneration that any society in which sexual desire was not regulated would end in certain ruin:
The systematic incitation to lasciviousness causes the gravest injury to the bodily and mental health of individuals, and a society composed of individuals sexally over-stimulated, knowing no longer any self-control, any discipline, any shame, marches to its certain ruin, because it is too worn out and flaccid to perform great tasks. ... No task of civilization has been so painfully laborious as the subjugation of lasciviousness. (Nordau 1993, 557)
Zola himself stated that "the philosophical subject [of the novel] is this: a whole society rushing to get sex" (Zola quoted in Parmee 1992, viii). The lasciviousness of the French Second Empire in its march toward ruin is signified by the aristocracy's indulgence in "a mad, insatiable pursuit of pleasure" (Zola 1992, 56). Even princes in the novel appear more concerned with the pursuit of pleasure than with affairs of state. As Larry Duffy points out, Zola's success in portraying an entire society's obsession with the pursuit of sex "suggest[s] that Nana is not ultimately to blame, that far from being the root cause of the ruin of the social body, she is merely a creation of ... that very body" (2005, 179-80). The attainment of the sensual delights she offers may become "the epitome of a nation's keenest pleasures" (Zola 1992, 388), but Nana is just one of many courtesans who thrive on the needs of a society preoccupied with sex.
Of course, Nana's constant sexual activity means her "jaded body" eventually acquires "perverse tastes" (Zola 1992, 389). Her consequent participation in orgies and "the constant stream of males leaping in and out of her bed" (Zola 1992, 391) recall Jahr's point that "excessive sexual intercourse" (1856, 156) leads to nymphomania. That "there were men all over the place" (Zola 1992, 389) in Nana's house suggests that she might have lost her capacity to reach sexual climax, since women who are nonorgasmic are more likely to be insatiable. Even here, however, it is debatable whether Nana displays the indiscriminate desire for sex associated with nymphomania, since she still has no sexual feelings for her providers. Nana's jaded body finds its equivalent in the worn out body of the Marquis de Chouard, which finally fails the old man after one last night of depravity: "A limp rag, rotten with decay from sixty years of debauchery, he looked like a death's head at this feast celebrating Nana's all-conquering flesh" (401).
Nana's death, however, is not explicitly connected to her way of life, nor is it exclusively related to degeneracy. It is debatable whether her death signifies the triumph of patriarchy, since Estelle's transformation from an insignificant beanpole "into an iron-willed termagant, [who was] so domineering that Daguenet was terrified of her" (Zola 1992, 386) suggests--albeit in a slightly comical manner--that the potential for female dominance endures after Nana's demise. Nana's death both symbolises and coincides with the collapse of the entire social order that is the French Second Empire. The cries of "On to Berlin" (425) that close the novel mark the onset of the Franco-Prussian War, an event foreshadowed at the beginning of the novel by applause that sounds "like the rattle of gunfire" (12).
Emile Zola's Nana, then, both prefigures and engages with a range of scientific discourses related to the concept of degeneration. Despite Nordau's dismissal of Zola as a degenerate artist, Nana prefigures the account of modern life provided by Nordau in Degeneration. More especially, the high pace of the novel's opening anticipates Nordau's emphasis on how the debilitating frenzy of the modern world leads to fatigue and, ultimately, degeneration. The formation of a psychological crowd during the premiere of The Blond Venus reveals more explicitly the latent degeneracy inherent in modern life, as well as illuminating a further connection between Zola's fiction and the work of Gustave Le Bon.The protagonist's characterisation relates to Charles Darwin's The Descent of Man. Nana inverts Darwin's explanation of sexual selection in human society, since her irresistible appeal provides her with the power of selection and disrupts the capacity for reason associated with the allegedly superior male intellect. Though critics have related her overwhelmingly powerful appeal to female sexual degeneracy, Zola does riot portray Nana as entirely degenerate. The author's refusal to characterise his tagonist as completely degenerate becomes apparent when the novel is considered in the context of nineteenth-century conceptions of nymphomania. In fact, it is the aristocratic Countess Sabine who appears to exhibit the symptoms of this form of sexual degeneracy. Nana herself has no sexual feelings for the men who keep her and clearly does not turn to prostitution as a means to satisfy an insatiable urge for sex. Instead, she sees sex as a commodity and, ultimately, uses it as a means to satisfy her unconscious urge to avenge her class. There are, of course, definite aspects of Nana's sexuality that would undoubtedly be viewed as degenerate in the late nineteenth century, such as her sexual desire and aspiration to separate sex from its reproductive function.Yet there is little doubt that men support her independent sexuality as long as she agrees to satisfy their base desires. Indeed, men are to a large extent responsible for generating the degeneracy associated with Nana's sexuality. Her parasitism--which reveals the parallels between her characterisation and the work of English zoologist Ray Lankester--is only made possible by readily exploitable male lust. Relatedly, Nana's lesbian relations emerge as a direct consequence of male oppression, since she succumbs to Satin's advances immediately after Fontan brutally excludes her from her own home. For all that Nana might be identified as the novel's corrupting influence, her activities and perhaps her very being--are symptomatic of the degeneracy already inherent in society. Even Nana's death is not--or at least, is not simply--Zola's punishment for the degenerate lifestyle of a single courtesan. Rather, her death symbolises the inevitable demise of the French Second Empire, and the fate of any social order pieoccupied with the pursuit of sensual pleasure.
I am deeply indebted to David Baguley for encouraging my interest in Zola and for his insightful remarks on an earlier version of this paper. I am also indebted to Julia Podziewska for her proofreading.
(1.) Zola's perusal of Darwin is mentioned for example by I W. J. Hemmings (1966, 53). Royer's endeavour to translate Darwin's work into French is discussed by Joy Harvey (1989, 147-171).
(2.) Of these figures, only the relation of Darwin's ideas to Zola's novel appears to have been touched upon. See Ross Shideler (1999, 40).
(3.) The parading of Nana connotes the "Hottentot Venus", Sarah Baartman, a young African woman who was exhibited in London and then Paris in the 1810s. On the connections between Nana and Baartman, see Sander L. Gilman (1985), especially chapter 10.
(4.) Thus as Brian Nelson points out, while her "friends cannot understand why she is not upset by" Fauchery's article, Nana embraces the publicity provided by the item because she knows "Commerce needs advertising" and "how to market herself" (2001, 421).
(5.) The physician William Acton is the figure most commonly associated with the nineteenth-century idea that women did not experience sexual excitement.
(6.) Nana's eventual disfigurement unmistakably recalls that of Madame de Merteuil at the end of Choderlos de Laclos's Les Liaisons daugereuses (1782).
(7.) That there is no question of influence between Zola and Lankester means this parallel provides an instance of literature and science concurrently diagnosing the same conditions of degeneracy.
(8.) On goodness in Nana and related novels, see Hela Michot-Dietrick (1975, 215-222).
(9.) The infectious way in which Nana is able to poison men suggests disease, and specifically syphilis. It should be noted, however, that Nana dies of smallpox.
(10.) Just as Nana is forced to work as a streetwalker, these expensive commodities are returned to her origins in the gutter.
(11.) It should he remembered that Nana is described as a "wild beast" from the perspective of Madame Hugon, a bourgeois character who construes her as a threat to the existing social order.
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Steven McLean writes on the interconnections between literature and science in nineteenth-century literature. He is the author of The Early Fiction of H. C. Wells: Fantasies of Science (2009) and the editor of H. G. Wells: interdisciplinary Essays (2008). He has taught at a range of academic institutions.
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|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2012|
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