Finn on Díaz Cornide (2019)


Díaz Cornide, Martina. La Belle Époque des amours fétichistes. Classiques Garnier, 2019, pp. 417, ISBN 978-2-406-08275-0  

Michael R. Finn, Ryerson University, Toronto

This imposing volume divides its some 400 pages evenly between the initial religious, then later medical, origins of the term fetishism, and the impact that medicalized, sexual fetishism had on literature at the turn of the nineteenth century and during the Belle Époque. The true origin of the French medical interest in fetishism is probably the Jean-Martin Charcot/Valentin Magnan essay of 1882 on homosexuality “and other sexual perversions”; the latter included male erotic arousal at the click of female shoes on a pavement and excitement over the sight of aprons and a woman’s nightcap. The two doctors did not employ the term fetishism and were content to present the phenomenon rather than analyze it in any depth. The latter was the work of the psychologist Alfred Binet in an 1887 essay that attracted phenomenal interest, “Le Fétichisme dans l’amour.” Because he suggested that all love possessed some element of fetishism, that is, attraction to a particular feature of the beloved, Binet contributed to a medico-psychological rumination on “normal love” and helped to plant the seeds of a literary interest in medical discussions of things sexual.

One aim of Díaz Cornide’s text is to correct a tendency that has readers cruise directly from Binet to Sigmund Freud’s Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905) and his article on fetishism (1927), thus ignoring the writings of French psychologists and doctors such as Émile Laurent and Paul Garnier, and, to some extent, of Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis. (Ellis, for example, saw a movement toward idealization in the fetishistic instinct.) In general, Díaz Cornide is wary of psychoanalytical readings of literature and both Naomi Schor and Emily Apter are briefly critiqued for their use of Freudian prisms in feminist analyses.

The French medical interest in fetishism is discussed in substantial sections, “La Science du fétichisme” and “Écritures cliniques.” One interesting chapter focuses on the medical claim that women were never fetishists, this in spite of publications by Gaëtan Gatien de Clérambault on the erotic passion of women for fabrics such as silk. Another chapter focuses on the nineteenth-century rehabilitation of Rétif de la Bretonne whose writings, one hundred years before Binet, celebrate female feet and footware and, anticipating turn-of-the-the-century science, attracted the interest of nineteenth-century personalities such as the psychologist Jules Soury, and writers Gérard de Nerval, Octave Uzanne, and Charles Monselet.

If there is one discussion that invites a challenge, it is the argument that a fetishism of disparate objects, that is, a special consumerism, characterized French society at the turn of the century: “les charmantes choses dépossèdent le sujet, happé par leur abondance, par leur exposition, par leur ‘prostitution,’ pour reprendre Baudelaire. Le rapport à la marchandise est donc d’ordre érotique” (61). This society of “bibelot” acquirers was also conversant with a semi-sexuality of flirts, caresses and touchings, the latter with pre-agreed limits. The combination of these two attitudes, one consumerist, one sexual (or so the argument goes), encouraged and eroticized the idea of accepting the part for the whole.

Díaz Cornide approaches the impact and presence of the fetishistic in literature from two perspectives. On the one hand, she draws attention to the plethora of pseudo-scientific fiction, and details the popularity of entire series that featured sexual perversions including exposés on fetishism. On the other, she examines more aestheticized fetishisms in Jules Laforgue, Guy de Maupassant, Jean Lorrain, and Georges Rodenbach. Under various pseudonyms, Jean Fauconney authored some twenty “medical” (read, erotically suggestive) works in his series Bibliothèque des connaissances médicales. Armand Dubarry brought together a dozen novels with titles such as Le Coupeur de nattesLes Flagellants,and Le Plaisir sanglant under the heading Les Déséquilibrés de l’amour. Sadism and fetishism began to be conflated in works such as Le Règne de la cravache et de la bottine by Bernard Valonne. ­ 

Rachilde’s novel La Jongleuse merits special investigation as one of the sole examples of female fetishism, with its powerful episode in which a lecherous male is forced to watch the self-induced orgasm of his would-be partner Éliante, as she fondles a humanoid urn to climax. Díaz Cornide finds a myriad of examples of fetishistic language in Jean Lorrain’s Monsieur de PhocasMonsieur de Bougrelon, and his Âmes d’automne. The stories of Guy de Maupassant, a writer characterized by Max Nordau as an “érotique, hypnotisé par le jupon et le bas à jour des femmes,” are discussed in much detail, especially his story “La Chevelure,” where eroticized hair takes on a sexual life of its own. Maupassant was, of course, persuaded that the male mustache functioned as a tool of pleasure for many female partners. 

There are a few typos and oversights in the text: “des rapports volatils,” “qui souhaite commendre,” “peu femmes,” “embélir,” “énimemment,” and the Index is missing certain individuals discussed in the text, for example, Jacques Lacan, Jules Laforgue, and J.-B.-Pontalis. These are minor editorial lapses in a volume that makes a substantial contribution to the field of medical humanities and impresses with the depth of its erudition.