Fagley on Hérelle (2014)



Thomson, Clive, ed. Georges Hérelle: Archéologue de l’inversion sexuelle fin de siècle.” Paris: Éditions du Félin, 2014. Pp. 414. ISBN: 978-2-8664-5816-4

Robert M. Fagley, Slippery Rock University, Pennsylvania

In this volume’s preface, Philippe Artières introduces the subject, Georges Hérelle, describing the Italian villa of the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, whose work Hérelle translated. In addition to these well-recognized translations, Hérelle was a professeur de lycée for much of his career, and became a professor of philosophy at the Collège de Dieppe in 1871. He changed positions regularly while continuing to publish translations and other scholarly works. Hérelle also became an avid folklorist after transferring to Bayonne to teach philosophy in 1896; he collected and archived Basque pastorals.

Editor Clive Thomson’s volume presents previously unpublished documents pertaining to the more private interests of the scholar archivist, specifically, his interest in “Greek love,” l’amour grec. Artières describes what he refers to as Hérelle’s “cheval de Troyes”: the strategy he used to have his entire, immense collection of documents on the subject housed at the library of Troyes. He baited the curator with his translation works of D’Annunzio and others, and slowly, with some resistance on the part of the library, proposing his collection of scholarship related to “sexual inversion.”  This is one of the terms current in nineteenth-century discourses on homosexuality; the other is “uranism,” which was coined around 1869 by Austro-Hungarian philosopher Karoly Maria Benkert, before finding its way into English and French towards the end of the century.

Clive Thomson begins with the ideological and historical context of the volume, where he concisely reminds his reader of the state of French society during the life and career of Georges Hérelle and his contemporaries who grew up in the Second Empire, and matured with the Third Republic. Hérelle’s childhood, education, friendships, career milestones, private relations, and peregrinations are presented in a precise chronological manner by Thomson, who reminds the reader of Hérelle’s projected readership: future generations.

After the lengthy and welcome introduction to the life of Georges Hérelle and to his work, the chapters collect a wide variety of texts from Hérelle’s life, travels, and research. The first chapter includes Hérelle’s correspondence with the brothers Félix and Paul Bourget, whom Hérelle had met and befriended in 1867. The second chapter includes notes and surveys on male prostitution in Italy. Hérelle took detailed notes and conducted interviews with male prostitutes during his travels to Rome and Naples beginning in 1890. 

Chapter three, the most substantial and arguably the most valuable chapter for social scientists, is a collection of questions and responses from the questionnaires on male homosexuality that Hérelle had given to friends and acquaintances, and taken himself, beginning around 1894. The questionnaire “A” was inspired by that of doctor Georges Saint-Paul, published in a revue in 1894. However, while Saint-Paul’s text is especially clinical and seeks mostly to classify different types of inverts, Hérelle’s questionnaires invite a much more psychological and socially inquisitive result. Only Hérelle’s friend, Le Hénaff, transcribed and composed his own answers to the questionnaire. Le Hénaff, experienced by the reader through the document’s first-person consciousness, provides a rare and honest portrait of a gay French man, closeted by social reality and circumstance, grappling with the challenges inherent in that historical period. These texts offer a rare view of attitudes and practices of gay men in France, albeit a view of somewhat limited scope with respect to socio-economic diversity. The responses and analyses of the questionnaires are accompanied by Hérelle’s philosophical notes on pederasty and passages from a previously published critique of Aristotle entitled Aristote: problèmes sur l’amour physique (1900).

Separating the third and fourth chapters is a collection of beautiful reproductions of notes and photos of Hérelle and of his life and travels. Chapters four and five reproduce manuscripts of an unfinished philosophical récit entitled Les Opinions de Simplice Quilibet, and Hérelle’s literary memoires, respectively. Closing the volume, chapter six presents several letters from Hérelle’s lengthy correspondence with the library of Troyes, from 1925 to 1934.

This important and compact volume sheds new light on the life of Georges Hérelle and his contemporaries. As Artières reminds us in the preface, Hérelle’s work was intended to benefit generations of readers to come after him: “Hérelle croit à sa postériorité.” Thomson’s volume is an important piece in the historical documentation of male homosexuality in nineteenth-century France. These documents, never before published, are of special interest to scholars in nineteenth-century French studies, psychology, gender studies, queer studies, as well as any discipline exploring diachronic human sexuality.