Goncourt's dream: night terrors in La Fille Elisa.
On March 13th, 1856, Baudelaire woke up from a dream so strange that he immediately set it down to paper in a letter to his friend Charles Asselineau. In the dream, Baudelaire is wandering through the empty streets of Paris before dawn, when he runs into a friend, Hippolyte Castille, and decides to ride in a carriage with him. Baudelaire holds in his lap his newly published translation of Poe's stories, which he plans to offer to the madam of a fashionable house of prostitution. In the dream, he feels it is his duty to give her the book; but after leafing through the pages, he realizes that he is holding in his hands a volume of pornography. Once Baudelaire arrives at the brothel, he notices that his penis is hanging outside of his unbuttoned trousers. His feet are wet and bare. The book never comes up again in the dream. No other dream of Baudelaire has ever been recorded. (1)
Twenty years later, in the early morning hours of October 3rd, 1876, Edmond de Goncourt wrote down in his journal a dream that had left him in a state of abject terror. In the dream, Goncourt found himself in a prison which, as he quickly realized, was a painted set: he was standing on the stage of the Theatre de l'Ambigu in Paris. Somehow, Baudelaire had infiltrated the dream. When he looked around him, Goncourt noticed that his fellow inmates, grim-looking, dandyish, and freshly tonsured for the guillotine, were all doubles of the dead poet. Then Goncourt was startled to see the Baudelaires disappear, and the prison wall open up, revealing a smaller stage with two female figures and a prison guard on it. He recognized two prisoners he had seen at the Clermont women's penitentiary while researching the novel he was about to publish, La Fille Elisa--the story of a doomed prostitute who kills her lover in a bout of hysteria and is condemned to a life sentence. Grimacing and contorting themselves, the two women eyed him provocatively while the terrifying prison guard puffed away at his clay pipe. Feeling irresistibly drawn to their blatant sexuality, Goncourt started searching for ways to elude the guard's attention so that he could get closer to them. (2)
The day before, on October 2nd, Edmond de Goncourt had received a letter from a young writer, Joris-Karl Huysmans, whose own novel about the life of a lower-class prostitute, Marthe histoire d'Une fille, had just appeared in Brussels. As Huysmans explained to Edmond de Goncourt, Marthe histoire d'Une fille was considered pornographic by custom officials and thus barred from entrance onto the French territory. Its title alone was enough to have it censored. (3) Edmond de Goncourt had good reason, then, to anticipate that his own Fille Elisa might also be suppressed, and, furthermore, that he would have to undergo the shame and indignity of a public trial. Goncourt was worried enough to consult his lawyer immediately after having received Huysmans's letter. In 1852, the Goncourt brothers had been arrested and censored for simply alluding to an erotic poem in an article. Although they were later acquitted of charges of immorality, they had learned first-hand about the punitive arbitrariness of the judicial system. Five years later, in 1857, Baudelaire had been convicted of offense to public and religious morals, not long after the Goncourts' close friend Gustave Flaubert was put on trial for Madame Bovary. In an effort to spare himself the same fate, Goncourt excised from the final version m La Fille Elisa a passage which described women at the brothel in a sadomasochistic trance. It is highly likely that Goncourt also suppressed allusions to lesbian love-affairs at the brothel and in prison; more generally, he edited out any clear description of a prostitute's relations with her customers. (4) Despite his concessions to censorship, however, Goncourt lived in constant terror in the months that followed the publication of La Fille Elisa. He kept waiting for the day when his nightmare would come true: he might be fined, sent to prison, or even stripped of his civil rights. One article by a well-known journalist denouncing La Fille Elisa would have been enough to draw the eye of the censors, creating a legal case against him. Throughout his life, Baudelaire remained convinced that Gustave Bourdin's scathing review of Les Flairs du mal in Le Figaro had triggered his own prosecution.
As it turned out, La Fille Elisa was not censored; nor was Goncourt subjected to the shame of a public trial. But the novel did cause an outcry in the press. Several critics dismissed it as mere pornography. Reviewing La Fille Elisa for Le Figaro, the influential critic Albert Wolff condemned the novel as "a guided tour of the most debased forms of prostitution ... a piece of filth unworthy of the com-passion of honest people." In Wolff's view, Elisa was nothing but "a contemptible streetwalker" (une odieuse rouleuse de trottoir). Another critic named de Pene, writing for Le Gaulois, called the book "repugnant." (5) The outrage had less to do with the subject of prostitution per se than with the abysmally low social status of the female protagonist. In 1882, Yves Guyot, a tireless proselytizer for the abolition of officially sanctioned houses of prostitution, noted that "La Fille Elisa was scandalous, because M. de Goncourt, leaving behind the region of the Demi-Monde, which swarmed with Dames aim Camelias and courtesans of the same type, turned his attention instead to the world of low prostitution." (6) Many French writers before Goncourt had found the life of the demi-monde to be an exciting and provocative topic, among them Balzac with Splendeurs et miseres des courtisanes and Dumas fils with his memorable portrait of Marguerite Gautier in La Dame aux camelias. In marked contrast to these fashionable and exotic creatures, Elisa appears so lowly that she is not graced with a nom de guerre, even less with a last name. The redemption which triumphantly concluded so many Romantic stories about courtesans is not within her reach, even after she suffers a terrible penalty for her crime. Balzac's Esther van Gobseck and Marguerite Gautier may be too successful and too articulate for their own good, but at least their early deaths enact the vengeance of a society for which the only good prostitute is a dead prostitute.
The clear-cut trajectory of the penitent courtesan, which consists of material success, suffering, and redemption through suffering, does not apply to the hysterical and criminally inclined Elisa. Since Goncourt rejects the widely accepted narrative of redemption that had become a commonplace in his time, we may wonder why he took such personal risks to describe the sordid life of a fille. In keeping with the emerging naturalistic dogma, his purpose was to provide a faithful, unbiased account of a "slice" of contemporary French life, so as to finally put to rest cliched Romantic illusions. The novel is painstakingly drawn from the personal experience of the Goncourt brothers and from extensive research. The brothers, who elaborated the novel together, drew on the memories of their common lover Maria, a midwife, to imagine Elisa's early life with her mother (Edmond completed La Fille Elisa on his own after the death of Jules in 1870). A visit to Clermont-d'Oise made by Jules and Edmond in October 1862 directly inspired the descriptions of Elisa's imprisonment in the novel. (7) As Robert Ricatte has shown in La Genese de "La Fille Elisa," the brothers sat in on court sessions in order to give a greater sense of verisimilitude to their account of Elisa's trial. They culled stories from La Gazette des Tribunaux, attended Charcot's famous Tuesday lessons at the Pitie-Salpetriere, and took notes on Dr. Jules Brachet's Traite de l'hysterie (1847) for a list of the physiological symptoms of hysteria.
In the preface to La Fille Elisa, Edmond de Goncourt points out that the prostitute as a literary character has been systematically and regrettably prettified: "The volumes that have been sprouting up in the display windows only show you the venal love affairs of the Dames aux camelias, lorettes, and filles d'amour who break the law and hide from the Morals Brigade ... " (8) In his view, this type of fiction is clearly gendered as feminine, and all the more devalued because of it. Its characteristically female frivolity stands in marked contrast to the serious, objective, scientific approach of a male novelist writing for a male audience: "In our day and age, novels ought not to be written simply for the entertainment of young ladies on a train." (9) Instead, they should be written for "mature" or "responsible" men (des hommes fails) unafraid of looking reality in the eye, no matter how painful or repugnant.
The preface makes abundantly clear that Goncourt proposes to liberate the topic of prostitution from the feminine realm of the frivolous and ornamental in order to reclaim it for a male world view that favors truth over fiction and realism over idealization. But, despite Goncourt's explicit wishes, La Fille Elisa demonstrates the impossibility of keeping a female subjectivity clearly separated from the masculine principle in which the author grounds his authority. My purpose in this essay is to suggest that, instead of turning a cold, scientific, and unambiguously male gaze on his subject, Goncourt instead chronicles, without being fully aware of it, his own uncertainty about gender differences. The prostitute's hysterical passivity, her inarticulateness, and her radical alienation from her surroundings fail to be "policed" or "contained" by a male narrator who repeatedly exhibits in himself the very symptoms he is trying to diagnose in his fictional creature.
Throughout La Fille Elisa, prostitution appears as the inevitable result of inborn tendencies, not as the outcome of a step-by-step process. In Goncourt's eyes, the main cause of prostitution is startlingly simple. Rather than poverty, a "natural" laziness is to blame: " ... in reality, the only true cause was laziness, laziness alone." (10) Elisa has chosen the "easy" path of prostitution in order to escape a "hard" life of labor. The daughter of a midwife and occasional abortionist, Elisa not only refuses to engage in an inherited vocation of grueling physical work; she also rejects the hardships of childbearing. She does not even consider alternatives to a life of prostitution. In the provincial brothel where she initially finds work, her life flows fairly easily: 'Elisa was finally free from her mother. Her basic needs were taken care of ... Monsieur and Madame seemed like decent people. The food was good. At the end of days spent without working, she enjoyed her quiet, lazy evenings ... " (11) The cliche of the lazy prostitute, who refuses to work or trouble herself with the travails of childrearing, had a long history behind it. In his celebrated treatise on prostitution in Paris, first published in 1836, Dr. Alexandre Parent-Duchatelet hammered home the idea that prostitution was the path of least resistance for working-class women. Parent-Duchatelet describes idleness as one of the many vices that typically afflict prostitutes, the others being gluttony, alcoholism, lack of personal hygiene, and a chronic inability to plan for the future. (12) In La Fille Elisa, however, apathy is not simply a moral flaw; nor is it restricted to the female sex. It also applies to a bourgeois public that favors the status quo over social reform, and so willfully blinds itself to the fate of the destitute and disenfranchised. At best, the streetwalker arouses compassion; at worst, an obscene delight in her misfortunes; but most often, the public is simply indifferent. Goncourt's express purpose is to shock his readers out of their apathy by proposing a new perspective on prostitution and criminality--a perspective scandalous enough to stir controversy, but scientific enough to appear reasonable. But just as the prostitute Elisa engages time and lime again in acts of self-destruction, Goncourt himself becomes tangled up in a self-defeating cycle of misunderstandings and confusion.
In his preface, Goncourt justifies the scabrous subject matter of the novel by pointing to its political importance. The second half of La Fille Elisa shows the horrendous effects of the penal "code of silence," imported from the Auburn Prison in New York State, which was then being imposed on inmates in some French prisons (most notably the Clermont-d'Oise women's penitentiary the Goncourt brothers visited in 1862). Under the Auburn system, the prisoners worked and ate together, but were placed in individual cells and forbidden to speak to each other. The system was intended to make individuals reflect on their crimes and repent in isolation. (13) More often than not, however, solitary confinement and continuous silence resulted in despair and insanity, instead of the reflective state of repentance the system was trying to instill in its novices. As Goncourt states, "My goal, I confess, would be to spur the readers' curiosity about prison madness (la folie penitentaire) ... Ultimately, I hope to make the readers reconsider and condemn the inane illusion of moral penitence through silence; above all, I wish that my novel would speak to the hearts and emotions of our lawmakers." (14) According to Goncourt, then, the true purpose of the novel is to instigate prison reform, which implies that the narrative of Elisa's life as a prostitute should be read as a necessary but unsavory introduction. Stepping into Victor Hugo's enormous and ill-fitting shoes, Goncourt imagines that his novel, thanks to its uncanny realism, will perhaps change the law. Elisa's passive submission to her fate is meant to offset the active role that Goncourt is writing for himself. She is a screen in his dialogue with other figures of male authority--first, the "mature" or "responsible" citizens to whom the book is addressed; and then, on a higher level, the lawmakers. The more passive, despondent, and silent Elisa becomes, the more forcefully Goncourt imagines that he makes his own voice heard, man to man, as a politically powerful instigator of social reform. (15)
Unfortunately for Edmond de Goncourt, his novel was widely read for its first half, which focused on prostitution, and not for the part that denounced the prison system. La Fille Elisa was the most commercially successful book Goncourt had ever published. Ten thousand copies of the book sold in the first few weeks, a remarkable feat for an author accustomed to selling at most fifteen hundred copies of his novels over a ten-year period. (16) La Fille Elisa was so popular that it inspired several plays, including an obscene parody entitled La Fille Elisabeth that appeared in the satirical paper Le Tintamarre. (Unlike the novel that had inspired it, the parody was put on trial for immorality and promptly condemned). As he was trying to stir up the public, and to shock politicians into action, Goncourt arrived at a dead end. His loud plea against the silent punishment imported from the United States was itself silenced by the more squalidly sexual aspects of his novel.
Goncourt's futile struggle to make his voice heard is uncannily foreshadowed in the novel by Elisa's own inarticulateness. When she is asked to explain in court the reasons why she stabbed her lover Tanchon, she cannot say a word in her defense. She cannot bring herself to mention Tanchon's rape attempt for fear of being publicly shamed and ridiculed; instead, she lets the jury believe that theft was the real motive of the crime. The idea that a prostitute could be raped was precisely what made Goncourt such an easy target for his peers. Most re-viewers dismissed Elisa's motive as ludicrous. (17) As a novel, La Fille Elisa seems to be holding back as much as its main character. The novel is literally shot through with silence--ellipses are everywhere, often signaled by dotted lines that have the look of repeated typographical errors. The sadomasochistic scene at the brothel cut out by Goncourt, and later reinstated, leaves a gap in the middle. When Flaubert privately dismissed La Fille Elisa as a "sketchy" and "anemic" novel, he was not hinting at a lack of substance on the part of his friend Edmond de Goncourt. (18) Instead, it seems that he was reacting to the almost unbearable tension between silence and language that leaves the impression of an unfinished work. Goncourt imagined a protagonist whose inarticulateness was grotesquely magnified by an inhuman prison system, only to be silenced in turn by his uncomprehending readers. As he lifted the taboo surrounding the rape of a prostitute, he sentenced himself to his own kind of "silent punishment." The sexual misfortunes of the prostitute, viewed as a form of pornography, took precedence in the readers' minds over the madness of a whole social system (la folic penitentiaire).
Even as Goncourt was trying to escape from his reputation as a wealthy aesthete and quasi-dilettante, celebrated for his exquisite collection of Japanese art, he was blamed for having chosen the path of least effort. The labor that went into La Fille Elisa remained literally invisible, as the novel produced a stillborn child instead of a viable offspring--namely, a new law. Edmond de Goncourt was bitterly aware that the success of his book resulted from a total misunderstanding: "Had I produced the most repugnant piece of pornography, without a thought for lofty ideas, consistency of style, or poetic effects, I would have been treated exactly the way I am being treated now." (19) Instead of creating for himself the opportunity to assert his social effectiveness in a man's world, Edmond de Goncourt was caught up in the infamy associated with commercial sex. His Baudelairean search for beauty in the low world of criminals and prostitutes hardly attracted anyone's notice. Few readers at the time pointed to the inventiveness of a style both drily clinical and wildly baroque, or paid much attention to the modernity of the novel, which broke up traditional chronological order and took striking liberties with narrative coherence. (20) When the novel was mistaken for what may arguably be the least aesthetically advanced and most stereotypical of genres, pornography, it failed to meet its goal even on a strictly aesthetic plane. It was no more successful as a political pamphlet than as an exquisitely crafted literary object. Goncourt's friend and patroness Princess Mathilde summed up public opinion when she told him to his face: "What you have done is so unlike you! ... It is repugnant, repugnant!" (21)
It would be too easy, however, to dismiss the public reaction as another episode in the never-ending war between the bourgeois philistine and the misunderstood genius, as Goncourt himself was quick to do. A wildly erratic novel, La Fille Elisa oscillates between compassion and disgust, instinct and analysis. Goncourt creates sympathy for Elisa as a victim of forces outside her control while also systematically pointing an accusing finger at her. Yet here again, Goncourt trips himself up as he tries to assume the tone of a clinician examining a pathological case. Throughout the novel, he authoritatively diagnoses Elisa as a test-case of hysteria. When she goes back to Paris after leaving the provincial brothel she had been working in, she becomes "a subject, in whom a series of hysterical phenomena was taking place ... " (22) During her fits, her throat stiffens, she can no longer speak, her whole body is shaken by crying fits and convulsions. Hyper-sensitivity to certain foods and smells, combined with chronic insomnia, trigger attacks of hysteria. Because of her innate sentimentalism, sexual intercourse with men fills her with revulsion. In the pivotal moment of the novel, her murderous rage against her lover Tanchon is explained by her horror of sex. Though she cannot understand or analyze it, Elisa is vaguely aware of her disorder: "Elisa did not say that she was sick, she said she was bothered (elle se disait ennuyee): using this undefined word which, in popular speech, hints at ... a vague state of suffering, of mysterious physiological disturbance, of moral despondency--the hypochondriac predisposition of a wounded soul to see the dark side of life." (23) Such a diagnosis hardly makes her more sympathetic in the reader's eyes; yet it brings her closer to Edmond de Goncourt.
When Goncourt describes Elisa as "ennuyee" he is playing on the double meaning of ennui as trouble and boredom, pointing to the affliction of choice for all the heirs of the Romantic mat du Siecle. Eli-sa cannot name, or even voice, her inexplicable sadness, because as a working-class woman, une femme du peuple, she lacks self-awareness. But Goncourt himself, most decidedly not un homme dupeiiple, spends a considerable amount of time in his journal discussing the mental affliction he is suffering from. Whether we call it spleen, ennui, hysteria, or neurosis, his affliction manifests itself in recurrent bouts of insomnia, nervous fits, anemia, and gastro-intestinal problems. A striking disgust for the female body, caused by his bizarre obsession with female excretion, partly accounted for his lifelong commitment to bachelorhood. Both for Goncourt and for Elisa, his paper-bound creature, ideal visions of romantic love clashed so violently with bodily reality that the outcome was hysteria--a physical manifestation of unbearable psychic tension. Let Fille Elisa offers such a relentlessly sordid view of reality that it ends up revolting against itself, as a hysteric would thrash about in silent rebellion against the workings of her own mind.
As a consequence of Charcot's pioneering work in the held of neurology, hysteria was no longer being solely considered as a woman's disease in the second half of the nineteenth century. (24) In 1885, shortly before Sigmund Freud arrived in Paris to study with him, Charcot told his students:
My aim is lo make you comprehend, and, so to speak, gel a concrete sense of the similarity of severe neurosis (la nevrose grave) in the two genders. For, as we outline a comparison between hysterical symptoms in men and in women in the course of this examination, we will everywhere notice the most striking analogies. (25)
Hysteria often conjures the sensationalistic vision of a woman contorting herself in front of the male physician and his male students, as in the famous painting by Andre Brouillet "A Clinical Lesson at the Salpetriere," which features a scantily dressed female patient arching her body backwards. In reality, however, Charcot often put male hysterics on display during his Tuesday lessons. But unlike Charcot's male patients, who happened to be mostly laborers and working-class people, Edmond de Goncourt had no wish to be cured of his affliction. Adopting the popular views of another medical authority, Dr. Moreau de Tours, he believed that mental illness was a prerequisite for the production of great art. (26) By contrast, being exempt from disease appeared vulgar and bourgeois: the Goncourts' diary includes many nasty asides on Flaubert's robust health and manly energy. (27) Recounting one of many uninhibited dinner conversations at Magny's restaurant with Flaubert, Taine, Gautier, and Sainte-Beuve, the brothers duly note in January 1864: "From copulation we move on to spleen. Taine complains that this is the professional disease of writers. We, who view genius as a form of neurosis (Nous, qui tenons le genie pour une nevrose), do not see anything unnatural in it." (28) When Goncourt describes Elisa's condition with the word used in popular speech, "ennuyee," he is borrowing a voice that is not his own, as the italics in the sentence indicate. Yet he finds in Elisa's ennui a mirror image of his own suffering.
In 1893, Sigmund Freud, a former student of Charcot, acknowledged his master's decisive influence in these words:
He was not a reflective man, not a thinker: he had the nature of an artist--he was, as he himself said, a visuel a man who sees. Here is what he himself told us about his method of working. He used to look again and again at the things he did not understand, to deepen his impression of them day by day, till suddenly an understanding of them dawned on him. In his mind's eye the apparent chaos presented by the continual repetition of the same symptoms then gave way to order ... (29)
This paradigm of "medical semiotics," to quote Carlo Ginzburg's brilliant essay on "Clues," pervades Goncourt's narrative. (30) When Goncourt diagnoses Elisa as a hysteric, he is trying to impose order on a particularly chaotic subject. He characterizes prostitutes in general as suffering from a continuous "shock to the nervous system" (ebranlement du systeme nerveux). (31) In his view, they possess "A fluctuating, easily distracted, inattentive mind, fleeting, empty, full of half-formed ideas, incapable of paying sustained attention to anything or to follow any line of reasoning, tormented with the desire to drown out the world in noise, movement, words." (32) Goncourt's clinical description of Elisa attempts to pin down this elusive character by summarizing her in one word: hysteria. But the narrator's desire to apply the generalizing model of medical semiotics is undermined by a relentless emphasis on detail.
As Naomi Schor has persuasively argued in Reading in Detail, the rise of the detail in nineteenth-century realist fiction can be mapped onto "a larger semantic network, bounded on the one side by the ornamental, with its traditional connotations of effeminacy and decadence, and on the other side by the everyday, whose 'prosiness' is rooted in the domestic sphere of social life presided over by women." (33) In other words, the detail has traditionally been gendered as feminine, whereas the idea of seeing a totality has been claimed as a masculine prerogative. When modern realist fiction began to give more and more prominence to details, it put itself in a sexually ambivalent space. In La Fide Elisa, details signal the novel's deep entrenchment in referential illusion--Roland Barthes's famous "effet de reel." (34) But Goncourt's attention to detail is also symptomatic of the androgynous mental disorder that affects both Elisa and her creator. The fragmented consciousness of the prostitute, who can only see details, blurs into the narrator's "scientific" diagnosis of hysteria. For most of the novel, we see the world from Elisa's point of view. There is, however, no clear distinction between Elisa's hysterical perception of her surroundings and Goncourt's own style of description. As Robert Ricatte has noted, Goncourt's female protagonist apprehends the world much the way Goncourt the novelist describes it, as a series of quick glimpses and flashing visions. (35)
Elisa is often shown looking at things that make very little sense to her. The Paris she wanders in seems small, tediously repetitive, and almost incomprehensible. Even before her physical incarceration, she is locked up in a world so visually impoverished that the most banal objects tend to provoke hallucinations. In one of her early forays into prostitution, before she moves into the brothel near the Ecole Militaire where she will meet the soldier Tanchon, she is seen endlessly marching up and down an unidentified Paris street, soliciting customers, night after night. Each time, the lights progressively go out, except in the display window of a hairdresser, where two small busts, meticulously described by Goncourt, draw Elisa's attention. One of them represents a laughing black boy with a pink vest, blue tie, and grey hat; the other a mustachioed blond gentleman with a white tie and black hat. These apparently insignificant objects literally hypnotize Elisa: " ... the two small busts, each time that Elisa passed in front of them, stopped the wandering woman cold and held her attention for long moments, during which, because of the fatigue of marching in place ... her eyes, without being aware of what they were looking at, dumbly stared at the two grisly dolls (ses yeux, sans la conscience de ce qu'ils regardaient, contemplaient stupidement les deux poupees macabres)." (36)
As Goncourt ruefully noted, Zola borrowed some anecdotes from Edmond de Goncourt when he was composing his own story of a fille. Nana, which appeared as a serial novel in 1879, only two years after La Fille Elisa. (37) The description of the two busts in the shop-window immediately brings to mind the passage in the seventh chapter of Zola's novel where Nana is fascinated by the imitation knickknacks displayed in the Passage des Panoramas, much to the consternation of her lover Count Muffat; but the difference between the two novels is just as immediately visible. Zola wants to emphasize the metonymic similarity between Nana and the objects she enjoys looking at, essentially showing that the courtesan is no more, and no less, than overpriced trash. Goncourt, on the other hand, creates an unsettling atmosphere in which such an allegorical interpretation becomes impossible. Of course, the dolls hold up an inverted mirror to the woman looking at them. In a classic example of what Freud termed "the uncanny," Elisa ends up behaving like a soulless automaton, whereas the strangely expressive busts cross over from the inanimate to the animate. (38) They seem to be looking back at her instead of being looked at, mocking her pathetic existence with their maddening suggestions of youth, merriment, and elegance. But the point of the scene is that the woman walking the streets (in Goncourt's own words, la promeneitse) is no longer conscious of what she is looking at, as if her eyes had somehow become detached from her mind. When Elisa stares at the two busts in the shop-windows, her reason deserts her. The life of a "public woman" literally entails the lack of a private space. Since she cannot, by definition, enjoy the relative privacy of a high-ranking courtesan, Elisa always has to share a space with strangers and with objects that are not her own. In this case, however, the missing private space is also internal: it is the space that connects the eyes to consciousness, allowing us to process sights and events. The vision of the two dolls entirely takes over Elisa's mind; and yet she cannot appropriate or internalize these details in a way that would make sense to her. Instead of producing a cure, or at least an elucidation of the disease, as in Charcot's lessons at the Salpetriere, hypnosis causes her to sink further and further into the opaque world of mental disease.
Such is the world that filled Goncourt with dread on the night of October 2nd, 1876, when he dreamed about the novel he was about to publish. On the stage of the Theatre de l'Ambigu--literally "the theater of the ambiguous"--Goncourt found himself acting out an unscripted, incoherent part instead of directing a play. As objects were becoming animated around him, human beings behaved randomly, having apparently lost their reason. All the details in the dream, such as the presence of Baudelaire or the prison guard's clay pipe, lured the dreamer into the illusion of meaning; yet they did not make sense as a whole. Once it is transposed to the world of dreams, realist fiction loses its social justification, and a raw truth emerges: the carefully planned composition engineered by a male author setting out to dissect a woman's madness degenerates into the ravings of an androgynous lunatic. We could imagine the world Elisa lives in as Goncourt's nightmare come to life, day after day. But we can also imagine the world Goncourt lived in as a version of Elisa's nightmarish life. In Goncourt's dream, writing La Fille Elisa is a criminal act that exposes the writer to the threat of arrest and public infamy. The dream brings to consciousness the deep-seated fear that society should place the writer, the prostitute, and the criminal in the same dock, asking them to account for their depravity, as if they were all conspiring to destroy established moral and social values.
La Fille Elisa epitomizes the terrors inherent in the modern writer's condition. Goncourt's display of male authority crumbles as it becomes more and more visible that this portrait of a fille is also an oblique self-portrait. His prison dream reveals the dark fantasy that haunts him: overpowered by his sexual desire for the female criminals who are lasciviously offering themselves to him, he is about to be engulfed by his own subject. The fille is eating up the bachelor (le vieux garcon) who, in the eyes of bourgeois society, is just as easily categorized as a reprobate, a pervert, a hysteric. Deeply ambivalent about sex, obsessed with objects, rejecting labor in the dual sense of employment and procreation, the fille and the garcon are strangely alike. Goncourt's nightmare is a wordless guilty plea. What is most uncanny, and also most touching, about La Fille Elisa, is to witness the relentlessly misogynistic Edmond de Goncourt indirectly claiming as his own the prostitute's burden of silence, madness, sexual obsession, and solitude.
(1.) Charles Baudelaire, Correspondance. ed. CI. Pichois. C. Ziegler. vol. I (Paris: Gallimard. 1973), 338-39. Letter to Charles Asselineau dated March 13, 1856. See Roberto Calasso, La Folie Baudelaire (Milan: Adelphi. 2008), and especially the illuminating chapter "II sogno del bordello-museo." 159-190.
(2.) Kdmonri and Jules de Goncoun. Journal: Memmmsde la vie liueraire, ed. Robert Ricatte, vol. II (Paris: Robert Laffont, 2004). 710-711. Hntry dated October 3. 1876.
(3.) La Fille Marthe's original publication in Brussels was particularly inauspicious, since Belgium was notorious for the production of pornographic books which were smuggled into France. As if to prove the point, the publisher of Huysmans's novel, Jean Gay, specialized in eighteenth-century erotica. It took two more years for Huysmans's novel to finally come out in Paris in 1879.
(4.) For a detailed history of the elaboration of La Fille Elisa, see Robert Ricatte, La Genese de "La Fille Elisa" (Paris: PUR 1960); and Gabrielle Houbre, "Le mauvais proces de La Fille Elisor Francofonia 21 (1991): 87-96.
(5.) See Katherine Ashley. "Policing Prostitutes: Adaptations and Reactions to Edmond de Goncourt's La Fille Elisa," Nineteenth-Century French Studies 33. 1-2 (Fall-Winter 2004-05): 135-146. All translations in this article will be mine,
(6.) Ashley, 143.
(7.) For a thorough and moving account of the Goncourt brothers' visit to the women's prison in Clermont-d'Oise on October 28, 1862. see Journal, ed. R. Ricatte, vol. I (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1989), 868-874. The description of the prison visit is included almost verbatim in the final pages of the novel.
(8.) "II n'est question dans les volumes florissant aux etalages que des amours venales de dames aux camelias, de lorettes, de filles d'amour en contravention et en rupture de ban avec la police des nioeurs ... " Edmond de Goncourt, La Fille Elisa (Paris: Zulma, 2004), 6. The word Jille d'amour comes from the technical jargon of the maisonsde tolerance. It refers to the lowest rank of brothel inmates, who had to give the money they made to the brothel madams. The term lorette designated the women of ill repute who originally lived in the area near the church Notre-Dame-de-Lorette. In 1853, the Goncourt brothers had authored a short book entitled La Lorette in the style of the moral encyclopedias popular during the Romantic era. The book, which harshly condemned these women's lifestyle, had been quite successful. As it has recently been argued, the figure of the lorette crystallized anxieties about social and economic transformations. See Courtney A. Sullivan, "'Cauteriser la plaie': The Lorette as Social III in the Goncourts and Eugene Sue" Nineteenth Century French Studies 37. 3-4 (Spring-Summer 2009): 247-261.
(9.) "On ne peut, a l'heure qu'il est, vraiment plus condamner le genre a etre l'amusement des jeunes demoiselles en chemin de fer." La Fille Elisa, 6.
(10.) " ... au fond la vraie cause determinante etait la paresse, la paresse seule." La Fille Elisa, 27.
(11.) "Elisa se voyait delivree de sa mere. Sa vie de chaque jour etait assuree ... Monsieur et Madame semblaient de bonnes gens. Elle etait bien nourrie. Au bout de journees sans travail elle avail de tranquilles soirees de paresse ... " La Fille Elisa, 28.
(12.) See Alexandre Parent-Duchatelet, De la Prostitution dans la ville de Paris, vol. I (Paris: Bailliere, 1857), 127-129. Parent-Duchatelet claims that nine-tenths of all prostitutes do nothing at all with their free time.
(13.) The Auburn Prison furnished the model for the overwhelming majority of prisons in the United States, including Sing Sing. It was studied by leading European jurists and penologists during the first half of the nineteenth century. Alexis de Tocqueville, who visited the Auburn Prison with Gustave de Beaumont in 1831, found the system relatively beneficial. See Harry Elmer Barnes, "The Historical Origin of the Prison System in America," Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology 12.1 (1921): 35-60.
(14.) "Et mon ambition, je l'avoue, serait que mon livre donnat la curiosite de lire les travaux sur la folie penitentiaire ... fit, en dernier ressort, examiner et juger la belle illusion de l'amendement moral par le silence, que mon livre eut en fin l'art de parler au coeur et a l'emotion de nos legislateurs." La Fille Elisa, 7. These are the last words of Goncourt's preface. The expression folie penitentiaire is in italics in the original. On a literal level, the expression refers to the prison-induced madness resulting from isolation and continuous silence, of which Elisa is an example. But la folie penitentiaire can also describe the madness of a penal and ideological system that views such treatment as beneficial.
(15.) See Hela Michot-Dietrich. "La Fille Elisa critique des prisons," Nineteenth Century French Studies 4.3 (Spring 1976): 323-332. Michot-Dietrich argues that Klisa's hypersensitive personality considerably weakens Goncourt's argument against the penal system. Elisa seems destined for madness from the start. The penalty of enforced silence worsens a pre-existing pathology instead of driving a healthy woman insane.
(16.) See Ashley, 137.
(17.) See Ashley. 137-138. The critic Albert Wolff ridiculed the murder scene in these words: "Mais lorsque le fusilier ... veut se livrer a une expansion plus definitive dc son amour. Elisa, irritee comme une duchesse qui aurait a defendre son honneur contre le dernier outrage, plonge son couteau dans le coeur du troubadour."
(18.) Gustave Flaubert, letter to Ed ma Roger des Genettes, April 2, 1877. Correspondence, ed. J. Bruneau, Y. Leclerc, vol. V (Paris: Gallimard. 2007), 213.
(19.) "J'aurais fait la plus orduriere chose pornographique, je n'aurais cherche ni l'elevation austere de la pensee, ni la rigidite du style, ni le coup d'aile poetique, que je serais absolument traite comme je le suis" Goncoun. Journal vol. II. 736. Entry dated April 8. 1877.
(20.) One notable exception was Guy de Maupassant, who, like Huysmans, was still at the beginning of his writing career. In a letter, he complimented Goncourt on La Lille Elisa, astutely noting that the novel was "true" and "artistic" at the same time. Maupassant also remarked on the importance of description in La Fille Elisa: in his view, each detail was so accurate and well-observed that it opened up whole new horizons. See Guy de Maupassant, Correspondance inedite, ed. A. Artinian (Paris: D. Wapler, 1951), 136. Letter dated March 23. 1877.
(21.) "Comme vous faites des choses qui vous ressemblent peu! ... Cost abominable, C'est abominable!" Goncourt, Journal, vol. II, 736. Entry dated April 4, 1877.
(22.) "Elisa, surtout depuis sa frequentation avec Alexandrine, etait devenue un sujet, en lequel avail lieu une serie de phenomenes hysteriques ... " La Lille Elisa, 89. In the Goncoun brothers' novel Germinie Lacerteux (1864), the main female protagonist was already diagnosed as a hysteric.
(23.) "Elisa ne se disait pas malade, elle se disait ennuyee: se servant de ce terme indefini qui, dans le peuple ... indique, ehez l'etre qui l'emploie, un etat vague de souffrancc, de trouble occulte de F organisation, de tristesse morale--une disposition hypocondriaque de l'ame blessee a voir la vie en noir." La Fille Elisa, 89.
(24.) For a recent study of male hysteria, see Mark Micale, Hysterical Men: The Hidden History of Male Nervous Illness (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2008). Chapter 3 of Hysterical Men (117-16) discusses Charcot's "discovery" of male hysteria. As Micale elegantly summarizes it, "For several millennia hysteria, la maladie de la matrice, had been seen as a pathology of femininity whose diagnosis served as a kind of medical metaphor for everything that male observers found mysterious or unmanageable about the opposite sex. Working in the liberal political and cultural environment of France during the late 1870s and 1880s, the premier theoretician of hysteria in Hurope formulated a full-blown theory of the disorder of I he male sex" (159). Micale also shows that most of Charcot's male patients were of working-class origin. See also Nicole Fdelman, Les metamorphoses de l'hysterique, du debut du XIXe siecle a la Grande Guerre (Paris: La Decouverte, 2003), 147-178. For a seminal study of Charcot's production of a terrifying "spectacle of pain," see Georges Didi-Huherman, L'Invention de l'hysterie (Paris: Macula, 1982).
(25.) "J'ai Pour but, surtout, de vous faire reconnaitre, et pour ainsi dire toucher du doigt, l'identite de la grande nevrose chez les deux sexes. Car, dans la comparaison que nous ferons, chemin faisant, des symptomes de la grande hysteric chez la femme et chez l'homme, partout, nous aurons a relever les analogies les plus frappantes ... " Jean-Martin Charcot, Lecons du mardi a la Salpetriere, vol. 1 (Paris: Bibliotheque des Introuvables, 2002), xii.
(26.) See J. J. Moreau de Tours, La Psychologie morbide dans ses rapports aver la philosophic de l'ltistoire, on de l'influence des nevropathies sur le dynamisme intellectuel (Paris: Masson, 1859). Moreau de Tours was one of the first psychiatrists to consider genius as a form of mental illness. He is best known for the celebrated essay Du Haschisch et de l'alienation mentale (1845) which emphasizes the similarities between dreaming and madness.
(27.) See for instance Journal, vol. II, 67: "A nous qui sommes convalescents, la sante de Flaubert, grossiere et sanguine ... nous fait paraitre l'homme un peu blessant et trop exuberant pour nos nerfs." Entry dated Feb. 25, 1867.
(28.) "Du coit on passe au spleen. Taine se plaint de cette maladie speciale de noire profession. Nous qui tenons le genie pour une nevrose, nous la trouvons bien naturelle" Journal, vol. I. 1047.
(29.) Sigmund Freud, "Charcot," The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Freud, ed. J. Strachey. vol. III (London: The Hogarth Press, 1962). 12. Literary and cultural critics have abundantly explored the centrality of hysteria and of Charcot's pioneering work to theones and practices of literary modernity in fin-de-siecle France. For an overview, see Janet Beizer, Ventriloquized Bodies: Narratives of Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century trance (Ithaca; Cornell UP, 1994); Jann Matlock, Scenes of Seduction: Prostitution. Hysteria, and Reading Differences in Nineteenth-Century France (New York: Columbia UP, 1994); Mark S. Micale, Approaching Hysteria: Disease and its Interpretations (Princeton: Princeton UP. 1995); and Mary Cluck, Popular Bohemia: Modernism and Urban Culture in Nineteenth-Century Paris (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2005).
(30.) Carlo Ginzburg. "Clues; Roots of a Scientific Paradigm," Theory and Society 7.3 (May 1979): 273-288.
(31.) La Fille Elisa, 60.
(32.) "Un esprit mobile, distrait, inattentionne, fuyant, vide et plein de vague, ne pouvants'arreter sur rien, incapable de suivre un raisonnement, tourmente du besoin de s'etourdir de bruit, de tapage, de loquacite." La Fille Elisa, 61.
(33.) Naomi Schor, Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine, rev. ed. (New York: Rout-ledge. 2007), xlii.
(34.) See Roland Barthes, "L'effet de reel," Le bruissement de la langue (Paris: Seuil, 1984) 179-187.
(35.) See Ricatte, La Genese de "La Fille Elisa," 153-54: " ... Goncourt [prete] au caractere de son personnage un trait qui appartient en fait a la technique descriptive de l'auteur; il cree ainsi une creature qui, de par son temperament et de par sa condition, n'apercoit le monde que par brefs eclairs, que par brusques echappees."
(36.) "Les deux pelits bustes, chaque fois que passait devant eux Elisa, arretaient la promeneuse et et la retenaient de longs instants pendant lesquels, dans la fatigue de ce manege sur place ... ses yeux, sans la conscience de ce qu'ils regardaient, contemplaient stupidement les deux poupees macabres." La Fille Elisa, 58-59.
(37.) See Goncourt, Journal, vol. II, 846. Entry dated October 20. 1879. According to Goncourt, the famous comparison between the 'Theatre des Varietes" and a brothel spouted by Bordenave in the opening chapter of Nana was taken from an anecdote Goncourt had shared with Zola.
(38.) See Freud, "The Uncanny," Complete Works, ed. J. Strachcy. vol. XVII (London: Hogarth, 1955), 217-253. In this celebrated essay, originally published in 1919, Freud offers a personal anecdote illustrating his definition of the uncanny that (uncannily) speaks to the topic of prostitution. One hot summer afternoon, Freud was walking around a provincial town in Italy when he happened upon a quarter of ill repute. After wandering about, he ended up in that quarter three times in a row without being able to find his way back to the piazza (237). Freud interpreted this mishap as an example of how repetition uncannily seems to transform chance into fate. Other examples of the uncanny in the essay arc epilepsy and mental disease. According to Freud, madness is uncanny because it cannot be dismissed as a radically alien phenomenon; it is present inside each of us.
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|Title Annotation:||Edmond de Goncourt|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2011|
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