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  • Sapphic Fathers: Discourses of Same-Sex Desire from Nineteenth-Century France by Gretchen Schultz
  • Bruno Perreau
Gretchen Schultz. Sapphic Fathers: Discourses of Same-Sex Desire from Nineteenth-Century France. University of Toronto Press. xix, 299. $40.76

In 1888, Jean Lorrain coined the expression ''Sapphic Fathers'' to designate male writers fascinated by lesbianism. Among the most famous: Baudelaire, Verlaine, Zola, Péladan, Belot, Louÿs, Maupassant. Gretchen Schultz offers a brilliant and compelling study of the many meanings of their texts and how they reflected on, but also transformed, nineteenth-century France. She shows that lesbianism was not only a ''transactional'' metaphor for expressing anxieties on social, economic, cultural, and political changes, but was also a means to create new aesthetic genealogies across gender borders. To that extent, while most texts on same-sex desire deprived women of their own agency, they also displayed complex modes of identification, which later became a resource for many women. Schultz ends her book with a study of the reception of twentieth-century lesbian pulp fiction in the United States, where ''Frenchness'' was often perceived as a path to lesbianism. It was especially the case of Women's Barracks, published in 1950 by Tereska Torrès, who narrated the erotic tensions among women in the French army in Second World War London.

Schultz impresses by the variety of the materials she studies and her ability to connect many different texts to the turmoil of a rapidly changing society. She shows that the fascination for lesbianism has less to do with women than with masculinity and the nation. For example, numerous decadent writers used lesbianism to describe degenerate nobility, while many naturalist writers associated lesbianism with prostitution, youth corruption, and murder in order to denounce social disarray. Schultz never offers a simple picture of the articulation between sexuality and belonging. She demonstrates that ''the tribade meant different things according to an author's position and status in his field and his allegiance to specific political positions and social milieus.'' But she also maintains that these many representations piled up. Lesbianism became an instrument for producing new cultural meaning: for example, deciphering dystopic urban spaces or regulating the emerging tensions between high culture (avantgarde literature dominated by men) and popular culture (serial novels read by women). In a very Foucauldian way, Schultz shows that same-sex desire can be considered as insignificant and yet be a site of intense discursive investments. This is particularly true during periods of regime change; this is why Schultz focuses more specifically on the end of the Second Empire and the birth of the Third Republic. The importance of literature, Schultz argues, is not limited to fantasies of belonging; it also informs scientific production. Sapphic Fathers: Discourses of Same-Sex Desire from Nineteenth-Century France shows how research on same-sex desire hinged on literature to develop new concepts and methodologies. [End Page 298] Taxonomies articulate the rich literary representations of lesbian desire and anatomy (discussing, for instance, sapphism, tribadism, and clitoridism together) because they claim to contain homosexuality within the limit of scientific expertise, while literature could contaminate all women, all the more because of the democratization of education and the spread of new print technologies.

Schultz's book can be read as a meticulous study of nineteenth-century France. But it also sheds light on contemporary debates on gay marriage and the fear of American ''gender studies'' in the hexagon. By historicizing transatlantic fantasies of French sexual liberalism, Schultz demonstrates how the quest for a redeeming masculinity explains the will for revenge against minorities in today's France and also in the United States. An essential read.

Bruno Perreau
Global Studies & Languages, Massachusetts Institute of Technology


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pp. 298-299
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