- Last Rites, Last Rights:Corporeal Abjection as Autobiographical Performance in Suzanne Curchod Necker's Des inhumations precipitées (1790)
By all accounts, Suzanne Curchod Necker (1737–94) was, despite her Swiss background and modest upbringing, a successful and powerful woman within the eighteenth-century French elite.1 As a salonnière, she regularly welcomed some of the leading [End Page 89] minds of the Enlightenment into her home, among them Buffon, Diderot, Grimm, Marmontel, Morellet, Suard, and Thomas. She was active on the political stage as a woman engaged in public charity through her work in prison and hospital reform.2 Finally, she was a writer: her husband published posthumously five volumes of private writings—the Mélanges (1798) and Nouveaux Mélanges (1801)—as well as the Réflexions sur le divorce (1794); during her life, she published the annual accounts of the charity hospital that she led and a short treatise on premature burial, Des inhumations précipitées (1790).3 [End Page 90]
These public successes could have laid the groundwork for a happy and fulfilled life. Instead, they formed the backdrop to a life of physical suffering: illness consumed Mme Necker's body. In 1765, for example, she confided to a close friend that she was finally recovering from a lengthy sickness: "Je suis entre les mains de Mr. Tronchin," she wrote, "Grâces à Dieu depuis quelques jours je me trouve mieux à tous égards, sans oser me flatter encore, car j'ai passé deux mois dans une langueur qui ressembloit à l'anéantissement."4 Just a few years later, in September 1768, she experienced a similarly life-threatening ailment: "Un nouvel accident avoit fait craindre que ma langueur ne devînt très-dangereuse ... Ma foiblesse étoit extrême" (LD, 353). Debilitating illness and suffering overwhelmed her life experience, and the phrase "Je souffre toujours" is a common refrain in her writings.5 While these complaints bear all the hallmarks of the numerous neuroses and hypochondriac maladies to which many elite French women succumbed, her frequent references to illnesses of various sorts are confirmed by her family and friends, thus suggesting something more than psychic distress: "La santé de maman, à notre grande douleur, ne fait aucun progrès quelconque en mieux," wrote her daughter, Germaine, to a family friend; "Madame Necker est toujours bien souffrante," confirmed André Morellet.6 In attempting to treat her various illnesses, she sought [End Page 91] the professional opinions of some of the great doctors of her era, spending significant periods of time under the care of Théodore Tronchin and Samuel-Auguste Tissot.7 This knowledgable medical care was to no avail: after two years of profound suffering during which she frequently came close to death, Mme Necker died on 14 May 1794.8 She was fifty-seven years old.
In this article, I explore the sensibility of the dying body, looking at the ways in which this body was conceived, understood, and performed by Mme Necker. I look more specifically at the ways in which her autobiographical writings intersect with, challenge, and merge with the ideas presented in Des inhumations précipitées (1790). By juxtaposing her private and public selves, I suggest that the instability and uncertainty of the dying body, in the stages between what she perceived as apparent and complete death, can function as a metaphor for her own life. I position these works within the context of eighteenth-century debates on premature burial as well as Enlightenment understandings of sensibility, death, the body, and the corpse. In the process, I argue for a reconceptualization of the autobiographical act not only as text, but also as performance, such that the lived-in body of the famed salonnière functions as the locus for her self-presentation.9 Within this formulation, Mme Necker's treatise can be read as an instance of autobiographical performance, in which her own frail body, through a process of textualization, both confirmed and extended the [End Page 92] autobiographical text itself. Such a process might be considered through the lens of corporeal abjection, whereby Mme Necker, by taking the position of the living corpse, authorized the rights of the dying...