Perverting Degeneration: Bestiality, Atavism, and Rachilde’s L’Animale
Critics have read Rachilde’s novel of bestiality, 1893’s L’Animale, as one of her least perverse works. This judgment mirrored the declining fortunes of bestiality itself, which remained a capital crime into the seventeenth century but was not even seen as a true perversion by fin-de-siècle sexologists. I read the transgressive violence of interspecies entanglement back into the novel, viewing it as a fatal satire on the force of nature that criminologists, literary critics, and natural scientists vainly sought to order and control. Contemporary critical receptions of Rachilde diminished her authorial agency by using biological models that relied on hopelessly shifting analogies between man, woman, and beast. The novel’s narrative of bestial desire between girl and cat plays on this unstable analogical structure to restore a capacity for language, desire, and creative transgression to both the heroine and her stray lover, whose violent entanglement avoids capture by the masculine discourse that seeks to put it in a proper place—an allegory for the power of evolutionary complexity to escape the systematizing impulse of post-Darwinian natural science.