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Retinal fictions: villiers, leroux, and optics at the fin-de-siecle.

In 1995, W.J.T. Mitchell proclaimed the advent of the "pictorial turn," a post-linguistic, post-semiotic critical swivel from text to picture as the paradigmatic object of cultural interpretation (16). Mitchell's prediction may have been overstated--certainly "textuality" has not been displaced in the academy--but it did set the stage for the thriving interdisciplinary field of Visual Studies exemplified by works such as Vision and Visuality (Foster 1988), Modernity and the Hegemony of Vision (Levin 1993), Vision and Textuality (Melville 1995), and Vision in Context: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on Sight (Brennan 1996). Of course, even within Visual Studies, scholars have been at pains to relativize the dominance of vision. Richard Rorty exposed as early as 1979 the Western reliance on ocular metaphor, while Martin Jay's Downcast Eyes (1993) famously traced a modern "anti-ocularcentrism" or, in less tongue-twisting form, the "denigration of vision" in twentieth-century French thought. More recently, even Jonathan Crary, whose Techniques of the Observer remains a touchstone for studies of nineteenth-century visuality, cautioned his readers against reducing the rich notion of "embodiment" to mere opticality (Suspensions 3). Moreover, historians such as Alain Corbin in France have reminded us that the non-visual senses--touch, smell, taste--have never been absent from the experiential or discursive ambits ofWestern European thought.

But such counter-eddies in the tide of visual studies serve paradoxically to reinforce the undeniable and continuing centrality of the visual mode for studies of human representation--whether pictorial, literary, or scientific. Indeed, if Visual Studies are still thriving today (as evidenced by new courses, anthologies, and journals), (1) it is not because we have left behind the linguistic to enter the age of the pictorial, but because we have been given new tools to explore the philosophical and optical premises behind all discourse, whether visual or verbal, tactile or textual. For by historicizing sight and visuality, recent studies have brought to the fore two important aspects of Western thought? The first is an abiding connection between how the eye works and how the mind knows--i.e. the fact that, from the Ancients on, optics have directly informed epistemology. The second point is that such visual epistemology is both plural and shifting, with the modern age (defined by some as post-Cartesian, by others as post-Keplerian) caught in a continuous struggle between subjectivity and objectivity, between the corporeal and the abstract, the carnal and the conceptual. (3) One might re-state this dichotomy in a number of ways, but simply put, it opposes mental vision to physical sight in order to explain how human subjects attain knowledge of the visible world.

Where does the nineteenth century stand in all this? Through works such as Crary's Techniques of the Observer, the nineteenth century in Western European thought has come to be seen as a transitional period between the idealist abstraction of a Cartesian age and the embodied contingency of early twentieth-century phenomenology. This makes a certain sense; after all, in the late eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries, scientists in the field of optics began to pay less attention to the laws of physics and more attention to the physiology of vision, in what Crary identifies as the rise of empiricist visual studies. It is in fact quite tempting to subscribe to the narrative of an epistemic shift from abstraction to corporeality--or to use Merleau-Ponty's terms, from Esprit to CEil, mind to eye. But this teleological story, while heuristically useful, holds up only in retrospect--for one thing, the opposition of idealist versus empiricist vision was put into play by the optical scientist Hermann von Helmholtz in 1867, before which time, Newtonian physics and Lockean empiricism were taken as fully compatible by thinkers like Reid, Buffon, and Hassenfrantz. (4) So rather than focus on a diachronic shift from the idealization of vision to its corporealization, I propose we look more carefully at how these two kinds of vision--objective and subjective--intersect and relate to each other within certain cultural moments, such as the fin-de-siecle.

In France in particular, the literary history of visuality reflects the complex intersections of objective (Cartesian, transcendental, visionary) and subjective (bodily, phenomenal, naturalistic) vision, with neither effacing the other in any particular text. In what follows, I will analyze two turn-of-the-century fictions that figure the eyeball--or, more specifically, the retina--as a particularly troubled site of human epistemology: Villiers de l'Isle-Adam's fantastic tale Claire Lenoir (1867/1887) and Gaston Leroux's detective story Le Mystere de la chambrejaune (1907). By connecting these fictional texts to contemporary scientific debates in the fields of optical physiology and photochemistry, this article makes the following points about fin-de-siecle visuality:

1) The genres of the fantastic and the roman policier, rather than represent two divergent epistemological modes (anti-scientific v. empiricist), both participate in the fin-de-siecle's insistent linkings of science and sensation, mind and mystery; both, moreover, harness the tropes of subjective vision to interrogate the neutral mastery of objective vision.

2) Although fictional visuality at the fin-de-siecle is undoubtedly marked by the technological context of photography, the camera obscura analogy for human knowledge owes its power at this time less to a secondary machine than to the physiology of the human eye itself.

3) Through figural links between domestic chambre and optical chamber, fin-de-siecle fictions often present women as unreliable visual subjects trapped in a bourgeois interiority. But in this age of interest in visual distortion and hysterical sight, a troubling optics affects the male domain as well, as French authors implicate their male investigators in the uncanny rift between human perception and external reality.

4) Finally, by connecting Villiers' and Leroux's fictions to the scientific discoveries of retinal violet and the retinal yellow spot, this article argues that the fin-de-siecle's burgeoning Freudianism--that is, its interest in subjectivity and in scopic impulses beyond our conscious control--is not limited only to cases of hysterical pathology (a la Charcot), but rather, that it finds its motivating logic in the ambiguities of the normally-functioning eye.


In 1876, the German scientist Franz Boll discovered the presence of a reddish-purple pigment in a dissected eye. Subsequently called "retinal violet" or le pourpre retinien, this pigmented retinal membrane registers images from the outside world through a natural process of photochemistry. It thus embodies, literally, the interaction of objective world and subjective body that constitutes the process of visual perception. The importance of such a discovery was not lost on Felix Giraud-Teulon, who described it as "une veritable revelation"; in his 1881 optical treatise, Giraud-Teulon writes that retinal violet constitutes "[u]n intermediaire inconnu, non soupconne, [qui] se montre donc entre la physique pure et la physiologie"--a theretofore unknown intermediary that reveals itself between pure physics and physiology: that is, between the two fields of optical inquiry that Helmholtz (and much later Crary) defined as divergent. Giraud-Teulon's formulation, then, points to Boll's discovery as not just one more incrementai addition to the anatomical plate, but as a key epistemological switchpoint in the study of vision. (5)

Long considered translucent (a window, rather than a screen), the retina emerged in this era as a tinted membrane, one whose liminal status encapsulates broader fin-de-siecle obsessions with blurred boundaries of all sorts: between the self and the world, certainly, but also between past and future, since its fleeting photochemistry exposed vision's temporal gaps, and between life and death, since the study of retinal violet involved morbid experiments in what Giraud-Teulon calls the "revivification of matter" (275).

Such experiments include Willy Kuhne's dissection of a rabbit's eye in 1878, in which he faced the rabbit toward a barred window for three minutes, decapitated the animal, removed its retina, then saw, printed on the retinal violet, "[...] a picture of the window with the clear pattern of its bars" (Evans 342). This recovery of a retinal image--or optogram--directly inspired a slew of popular newspaper articles as well as a number of fin-de-siecle fictions, including stories by Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, Jules Verne, Rudyard Kipling and Jules Claretie, in which the optogram (the retinal photograph) appears as a pivotal motif of mediation between living knowledge and deathly mystery.

The earliest of these optogram fictions is Villiers de l'Isle-Adam's fantastic philosophical tale Claire Lenoir, written in 1867 and revised in 1887. In this story, Villiers explicitly cites optogram science, when the eccentric narrator Tribulat Bonhomet comes across a report from the Academie des Sciences de Paris saying that animals destined for human consumption have been found to conserve in their retinas the final scenes of the slaughterhouse. (7) The report is noted as mere curiosity, but in this tale of blindness and optical obsession, it sets up the story's spectacular denouement, in which Bonhomet uses an ophthalmoscope to look into Claire Lenoir's dead eye. What he sees imprinted on her retina is the terrifying image of Claire's dead husband, reincarnated as a South Sea savage holding up the bloody, severed head of his victim, Claire's former lover. This optogram of Monsieur Lenoir's supernatural revenge shakes the narrator's belief in materialism and the tale ends with a reflection on the inpenetrable mysteries of Death, as "la Mort roule [...] ses ombres profondes surces Yeux" (122). The final words of the tale thus identify the eyes as registers of death.

Of course, the supernatural tenor of this final scene may seem to vault us far from science and into the realm of pure fantasy, since although Bonhomet cites optical laws of refraction to explain the ophthalmascopic vision, what he sees in Claire's eye has been multiply removed from any possible objective referent. Not only is Claire blind, but this supposed retinal image is hallucinated--it is the memory of a dream, a bloody murder scene that had taken place weeks earlier and thousands of miles away (by, moreover, a killer in his afterlife!). So optical physiology gives way to metaphysical mystery. But we should not be too quick to separate the story's scientific jargon from its anti-materialist theses; as Ross Chambers reminds us, Claire Lenoir's "regard scientifique" directly motivates its "vision occulte." What I would add to Chambers' thesis is the idea that this passage from scientific gaze to occult vision is not merely a fanciful leap of Villiers' imagination, but that it is made possible by the uncanny and mysterious elements that already inhabited scientific discourse on sight. As noted earlier, the discovery of retinal violet had already inserted the theme of afterlife revelation into the language of physiological optics. It is not surprising that both Jules Claretie, in L'Accusateur, and Jules Verne, in Les Freres Kip, cite "le pourpre retinien"--retinal violet--as the motivating fact for their optogram mysteries.

But Villiers' case is trickier, since Claire Lenoir was first written in 1867, that is: nine years before Boll's discovery of retinal violet. Indeed, the story's scientific premise (the image in Claire's eye) is based jointly on the recently-invented ophthalmoscope and on the scientific hypothesis of optical photochemistry. But after that hypothesis was confirmed (by the discovery of retinal violet), Villiers revised Claire Lenoir. And what I have found particularly intriguing is that although Villiers does not explicitly mention retinal violet in the second version of 1887, he does scatter new references to the color purple into the post-mortem scene. The first of these comes right after the narrator has looked into the cadaver's eye:
   Mais, au premier regard que j'aventurai ences yeux par le trou de
   l'ophtalmoscope, je reculai, [...]. Je restai [...] immobile; quant
   aux idees qui apparurent, alors, dans mon cerveau, je ne crois pas
   que l'enfer lui-meme en ait reflete d'une plus herissante horreur.
   Et, me faisant tressaillir, voici qu'empourprant les vitres, le
   bouquet du leu d'artifice de la Fete nationale eclata, dans
   l'eloignement, sur la ville exultante, aux acclamations d'une
   multitude bisexuelle. (119)

Here, Bonhomet is standing inside the private hotel room where Claire has died and is looking into the dead woman's eye, but what seems to fill him with horror is the penetration of this space by the external world, as fireworks tint the room's windows with their purplish light, creating a semi-transparent but colored border that exteriorizes "retinal violet" from optical chamber to chambre d'hotel.

In a second well-known passage of the story, borders, vision, and horror combine again under the sign of the color purple. Here, Bonhomet has looked into Claire's retina and seen its strange image, but before describing the savage "tableau" he tells us about its frame:
   Alors,--oh! l'effroi de ma vie! oh! vision qui a change pour moi le
   monde en sepulcre, qui a installe la Folie dans mon ame!--En
   examinant les yeux de la morte, je vis, distinctement, d'abord se
   decouper, comme un cadre, le lisere de papier violet qui bordait
   le haut de la muraille. Et, dans ce cadre, reverbere de la sorte,
   j'apercus un tableau que toute langue [...] est [...] hors d'etat
   d'exprimer. (120)

Reflected in the dead woman's eye, the "lisere de papier violet" frames the uncanny and spectral vision that will dominate the final pages of the story. As with the fireworks passage, the violet border warps the spatial relations of self and world: it is outside Claire's body (as wallpaper of her room), but inside her eye (as afterimage), while impossibly framing the savage vision seen by Bonhomet. Like retinal violet, Villiers' purpled window and violet border both inhabit and create an uncanny specular space between world and body, between chambre d'hotel and chamber of the eye.

Other readers of Claire Lenoir have suggestively analyzed this scene as allegory for the emergent technology of camera photography. Daniel Grojnowski, for example, writes that the "lisere de papier violet" represents the filmic negative of a metallic imprint (77), while Philippe Bonnefis reads Claire's chambre obscure as the site of an "operation photographique" (20). But neither Bonnefis nor Grojnowski remarks on the specificity of color in the "vitres empourpres" and "lisere violet" that creates an implicit link to the substance--retinal violet--that anchors the camera obscura analogy in the real anatomy of the eye. I propose that we re-orient attention from the secondary techniques of the camera toward the bodily photography that precedes it. After all, the ambivalences that critics from Barthes in the 1970s to Geoffrey Batchen today have ascribed to photography--such as its liminal life/death status, the temporal instability of a fixed print, the ambiguity of indexical relations to a referent--are already in place in the primal, visceral space of the human eye.

Claire Lenoir's double evocation, then, of a purple-tinted window and a violet border to the optical image taps into the new epistemological status of the retina--as site of literal interaction between world and self, physics and physiology. "Retinality" as a critical term has been used in our day primarily in the field of art history to describe the controversial idea of "painting what you see," but Villiers' Claire Lenoir allows us to see retinality as a compelling literary device, a synechdoche for human consciousness at the fin-de-siecle as it engages with the real and the unreal. Remember that Claire Lenoir is a philosophical tale, filled with debates about materialism and Hegelian illusionism--and that the opthalmascopic vision calls into question any epistemological certainty on the part of the human observer. Given this de-realizing function of optical science in Villiers's story, I would say that a fin-de-siecle retinality structures the very form of the literary fantastic at its peak. It signals, in other words, a break from both realist reflection (the mirror) and romantic transcendence (the lamp or clear lens), and embodies instead a textuality figured in Villiers as reciprocal refraction of the imaginary and the real.

But retinality marks more positivist genres as well, as we shall find if we turn from the fantastic tale to the detective novel: more specifically, to the popular turn-of-the-century novelist Gaston Leroux's Le Mystere de la chambre jaune--a text that, like Claire Lenoir, also figurally links domestic chambre to optical chamber through a bedroom whose features echo and exteriorize the pigmented anatomy of the human eye.


Le Mystere de la chambre jaune, written by Leroux in 1907, owed its instant popularity in part to its central topos of the "closed room" or local dos. The story's mystery revolves around an assassination attempt on Mathilde Stangerson, the adult daughter of an eminent scientist. After having worked with her father in their laboratory, she had retired to the adjacent chambre jaune, named for its yellow wallpaper. In the middle of the night, her father and a servant heard frantic cries from the locked room and when they finally entered, they found various signs of struggle: knocked-over furniture, a star-shaped, bleeding wound on Mathilde's forehead, footprints, blood, handprints, and a revolver--but no-one in the room other than the distraught victim. The mystery here arises from the Yellow Room's hermetic closure: "Mais ici, il ne saurait etre question d'aucune ouverture d'aucune sorte. La porte close et les volets fermes comme ils l'etaient, et la fenetre fermee comme elle l'etait, une mouche nepouvait entrer ni sortir!" (62, emphasis in text; my underline). And yet somehow this protected domestic space appears to have allowed for intrusion, and as the criminal investigation proceeds, the borders of the Stangerson's walled estate begin to seem unsettlingly porous. The investigators--a young journalist, Rouletabille, and an older detective, Larsan--base their inquiry on a central question: was Miss Stangerson's attacker an insider or an outsider? Both Rouletabille and his competitor Larsan conclude that he must have been an "insider"--and indeed, the criminal turns out at the end to have been Larsan himself, in disguise.

In this regard, Leroux's basic plot unexpectedly recalls a scientific question regarding the nature of another "closed chamber" supposedly impervious to intrusion by mouches--but in this case, we are talking about mouches volantes, the specks or floaters that wander into the human field of vision. Like the criminal in Leroux's story, the optical phenomenon of mouches had become the focus of an investigation into unknown origin, as scientists asked: are mouches volantes "intruders" into the optical space or are they bodies existing within the eye? And by the late nineteenth-century, their "mystery" was solved by confirmation of the hypothesis that they are "insiders," produced entirely by the subject's own body. A mouche volante is an insider, but one that is difficult to perceive clearly, for it has the "curious effect," writes Hermann von Helmholtz, of veering away from the eye's central point of fixation: its "fovea" or "rache jaune," or "yellow spot." Like a mouche volante, the faux-detective Larsan also veers away from his yellow spot, the Chambre Jaune away from which he assiduously redirects attention. Our hero Rouletabille finds this quite "curieux" and so he focuses his inquiry on the Yellow Room and on its potential openings onto the adjoining estate.

In the field of optics, it was a similar concern with the nature of openings in and out of the eye's chamber that led to study of the "yellow spot," the rache jaune, or fovea. Here is Felix Giraud-Teulon's definition of the Yellow Spot, from his 1861 treatise on binocular vision:
   Punctum centrale, ou tache jaune de la retine. Soemmering a montre
   qu'exactement sur l'axe principal de l'oeil, a quelques millimetres
   en dehors du point de penetration du nerf optique, existe une petite
   tache circulaire obscure, d'un millimetre et demi environ de large;
   elle est entouree d'une bordure jaunatre plus large qui se fond
   graduellement dans les parties contigues de la membrane. On avait
   decrit d'abord cette tache comme une ouverture existant dans la
   retine. Tous les anatomistes ont fortement discute, et le plus grand
   doute existe encore sur sa nature; il parait cependant demontre que
   cette tache ne correspond a aucune perte de substance. Nunneley la
   rapporte a un effet cadaverique, Knox et Bowmann egalement.
   (Physiologie 92)

There are three elements of this passage that invite extended comparison to Leroux's mystery tale. One, of course, is the yellowish "bordure" spreading out from the mysterious spot onto the membrane of the eye, which recalls the titular wallpaper in Miss Stangerson's lab-side bedroom. Acting a bit like an optician looking through an ophthalmoscope, Rouletabille announces that he will shed reasoned light onto the mysterious chamber rather than tear out its saffron-colored wallpaper, as do the boorish policemen assigned to the case. Skipping to the end of the Giraud-Teulon passage, we note a second reverberating element, the "effet cadaverique," a morbid trope that seems more at home in a mystery story than in a treatise on optics; in the scientific context, it introduces the threat of death inscribed in the very membranes of our body. (8) Leroux's mystery, with its insistence on the fact that violence occurred in a room that was "fermee et bien fermee a l'interieur par les soins de mademoiselle" similarly evokes the victim's vulnerability to her own body's effects: in fact, not only was it Mathilde's youthful desire that initially allowed Larsan into her life (through a secret previous marriage), but the truth is eventually revealed that her alarming head wound had been accidentally self-inflicted in the Chambre Jaune. As Rouletabille explains, the whole screaming scene in the enclosed chamber had consisted of a nightmare recreation (or somnambulistic "afterimage") of an earlier attack, so that, alone in the room Miss Stangerson had undergone a purely "subjective" somatic experience.

The echo here with the "subjective" optical phenomena of blind spots, afterimages, and mouches voulantes may still seem tenuous, but let us turn to a third element in Giraud-Teulon's passage, one that pertains more directly to Le Mystere de la chambre jaune's explicit allusions to scientific discourse and disputes. Does the fovea's yellow border indicate a hole, an opening in the retinal wall? After much debate, Giraud-Teulon tells us, scientists answered in the negative: no, there is no "perte de substance" that would indicate egress from the optical chamber. Now, "perte de substance" is exactly the same phrase that Rouletabille uses in Leroux's literary mystery: after much debate among police, witnesses, judges, and detectives, Rouletabille proclaims that there are no hidden openings in the Chambre Jaune, and that therefore there has been no "dematerialization" or "perte de substance" that would indicate the attacker's disappearance. Indeed, Rouletabille explicitly contrasts his rational solution with the scientific studies that Miss Stangerson and her father had been undertaking before the attack: inquiries into "La Dissociation de la Matiere," the dematerialization--or disappearance of matter (3, 33, 53, 106).

In these ways, then, the optical Yellow Spot and the literary Yellow Room share a narrative of discovery: from initial mystery; to the hypothesis of "lost matter"; to the revelation of materiality. They also share a shifting value according to the perspective from which observation takes place. Both can be understood as "blind spots": the "tache obscure" in the optical chamber mars the transparency of the eye, while the Yellow Room fulfills the classic function as the site of mystery, as that which cannot be seen. But paradoxically, the very spot of the optical chamber that appears the most opaque to an observer--the yellow spot--is the subject's area of highest visual acuity. Similarly, the Yellow Room is not a site of blindness for everyone involved. In fact, Miss Stangerson, the room's only occupant at the time of the nightmare episode, knows what Rouletabille is trying to discover: the identity and motive of her attacker. It is all, in other words, a question of perspective, of who is looking in (ophthalmologist, investigator: Rouletabille) and who is looking out (living patient, living victim: Miss Stangerson).

This contrast between the male observer and the female perspective brings us to a further connection between Leroux's detective novel and Villiers' fantastic story. In both Claire Lenoir and Le Mystere de la chambrejaune, a woman faces death within a closed, tinted and papered chamber (linked, as I have suggested, to the optical chamber). In both cases as well, an investigating man is given the tools and techniques of science, while the female vision is said to undermine the rationality of his observations. In Claire Lenoir's case, the image in her eye is said to defy all optical laws of time and space; while in Le Mystere de la chambrejaune, Miss Stangerson is said to be an unreliable witness because the attack has addled her senses. For these reasons, Claire Lenoir and Miss Stangerson recall another doomed heroine of the fin-de-siecle: the narrator of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" (1899), a short story that has become a classic of feminist literary history, in which a wife's enclosure in a tinted bedroom leads to "visions" whose reality status is disputed by, in this case, her husband. Where Claire Lenoir's room was illuminated by the feux d'artifice of the French Independence day, Gilman's heroine faces her domestic struggle against the American backdrop of 4th of July fireworks. But the more important intertextual details have to do with the optics in Gilman's description of her heroine's fall into hysteria and/or madness. The story's yellow wallpaper becomes the cathexized object of the narrator's anxieties, as she describes its "waves of optic horror" and then adds: "There is one marked peculiarity about this paper, a thing nobody seems to notice but myself, and that is that it changes as the light changes" (21). Nobody but she notices it--and indeed, her husband attributes her perception of its shifts to his wife's growing psychosis. But painted paper does change as the light changes; in fact, nineteenth-century physiologists from Buffon and Chevreul on had noted this optical effect as a perfectly normal subjective phenomenon of vision. So here Gilman has presented normal subjective vision as a gateway toward possible pathology, toward a psychic break with objective reality.

Similarly, the optical physiology I brought out in my readings of Claire Lenoir and Le Mystere de la chambre jaune put into question the reality status of Claire's and Miss Stangerson's visions. But Villiers and Leroux go even further in extending the slippage of subjective vision to their male characters as well, for Bonhomet's and Rouletabille's investigations, troped as scientific inquiry, leave gaping holes of mystery as the men enter the refractive spaces of the women's rooms. Indeed, rather than bolster an objective, rational male gaze, optics in these texts implicate both female and male subjects in the troubled relation between human perception and external reality.


In 1900, as Oscar Wilde lay dying in a shabby hotel room in Paris, he famously said "My wallpaper and I are in a duel to the death; one of us has got to go." As humorous adversary to a dying aesthete, the wallpaper signals the bourgeois interior that leads to so much modern ennui; but wallpaper is also a thin covering of what separates inside from outside, private from public space, self from the world--and as such, it points to the other boundaries that Wilde may have been contemplating: the temporal boundary between two modern centuries (this is 1900), the cultural boundaries between normalcy and pathology, and, of course, the metaphysical boundary between life and death.

The reader has no doubt guessed that I want to connect this wallpaper to the retina, a similarly tinted and liminal membrane whose presence in the optical chamber marks both literary and scientific discourse with fin-de-siecle anxieties about human subjectivity. In Mieke Bal's book on Proust, the "mottled screen" refers to a visual consciousness characteristic of Marcel as psychologized subject; but the fin-de-siecle retina is already a "mottled screen," a membrane tinted by the collision of body and world, one whose implications for subjective vision prepare the terrain for the subjective psyche so central to Proustian narrative. (9)

Indeed, if I have put a lot of weight on the word-play between optical chamber and domestic "chambre," it is because their metaphorical affinities so crucially structured both the science and the fiction of the day. The retina crystallizes two key fin-de-siecle anxieties: the fear of intrusions into the space of the domestic interior and the burgeoning fear of uncontrolled irruptions into the space of psychic interiority. (10)

Recent critics have described the visuality of late 19th and early-20th century Europe in a number of compelling ways. Emily Apter writes of a "garden of scopic perversion" in which pathological and political hysterias intersect. Andreas Huyssen associates visual distortion with the disorienting space of the modern metropolis. And Tom Gunning explores the Benjaminian psychopolitics of bourgeois architecture as continuously blurring interior/exterior distinctions. But we need not look outward at bedrooms and buildings to find such blurrings; they are already, as this article argues, implied by our anatomical wallpaper: by the retina whose newly-discovered pigments imprinted fin-de-siecle thought and fin-de-siecle fictions. By studying the intersections of scientific and literary discourses on sight, we can trace back the visual uncanny from projected spaces and pathological selves to the still more intimate site of visual subjectivity, the tinted chamber of the bodily eye.

University of Illinois

Department of French

707 S. Mathews Ave.

Urbana, IL 61801


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Thomson, Belinda. Vuillard. Oxford: Phaidon Press Limited, 1988.

Verne, Jules. Les Freres Kip. (1902) Paris: Hachette, 1972.

Villiers de l'Isle-Adam. Claire Lenoir et autres contes insolites. Paris: Garnier Flammarion, 1984.


(1) The first issue of the Journal of Visual Culture appeared in 2002. Other recent additions to the field include Mirzoeff, Ed.; Mirzoeff; and Sturken & Cartwright.

(2) The distinction between vision and visuality, as made by Hal Foster (see Introduction of Vision and Visuality) parallels that of sex and gender, with the first understood as biological and the second as culturally-constructed.

(3) Rosalind Krauss contrasts "carnal" and "conceptual" visions in The Optical Unconscious.

(4) For more on idealist and empiricist theories of vision in early nineteenth-century optics and literature, see Goulet.

(5) Giraud-Teulon includes a section in this treatise on "Reserves a faire encore sur le caractere photographique des images retiaiennes" (277-79), in which he cites physiological evidence (like the existence of a small non-pigmented section of the retina) to caution against a too-hasty reduction of vision to "une sorte de photographie retiaienne."

(6) Jules Claretie's text is a detective story called L'Accusateur, 1897; Jules Verne's, an ocean adventure called Les Freres Kip, 1902; and Rudyard Kipling's, a short story set in colonial India called "At the End of the Passage," 1891.

(7) As Arthur B. Evans explains in his article about optogram fictions, the scientific experiments leading to the discovery of retinal violet were made available widely to the French public of the fin-de-siecle through various newspapers, journals, and popular gazettes (341-43). In addition to discussing Verne and Villiers, Evans traces the optogram topos to cultural contexts as varied as Scotland Yard's Jack the Ripper investigation notes, post-Civil War fiction in America, and twentieth-century science fiction novels and films that employ high-tech brain scanners as imaginary variants of retinal photography.

(8) The post-mortem dissections that led to so many anatomical discoveries in science carried with them an inevitable epistemological question: did this phenomenon exist in the living body or was it caused by death? After Helmholtz's 1851 invention of the ophthalmascope, it became possible to observe the living eye, but--as Giraud-Teulon suggests--the precise nature of the ex-centric retinal blind spot remained in doubt.

(9) Bal evokes the "ecran diapre" to talk of Proustian aesthetics; the phrase, from a passage in A la recherche ... on the reading consciousness, refers to imagistic thought; I am proposing here that a physiological subjecivity at the fin-de-siecle paves the way for the psychological subjectivity that marks the early twentieth century.

(10) The fin-de-siecle paintings of Vuillard offer a suggestive parallel in art to the fictional and psycholoanalytical blurrings of interiority and exteriority discussed in this paper. In the final years of the nineteenth century, Vuillard painted many bourgeois salons; his works are well known for their melding of background wallpaper with the foregrounded patterns of textiles and human figures. See, for example, "Vallotton and Misia in the Dining-Room, rue Saint-Florentin" (1899), "Figures and Interiors" (1896), "The Suitor" (1893), and "Woman in Blue with Child" (1899), reprinted in Thomson. Intriguingly, Vuillard largely abandoned this motif after 1900.
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Author:Goulet, Andrea
Publication:Nineteenth-Century French Studies
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Sep 22, 2005
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