restricted access 8. Death and the Retina: Claire Lenoir, L'Accusateur, and Les Frères Kip

From: Optiques

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Chapter 8 Death and the Retina: Claire Lenoir, L 'Accusateur, and Les Freres Kip While the burgeoning detective genre strained to locate solutions to mystery in the ratiocinating mind, one literary topos at the fin de siecle proposed an astoundingly literal discovery of truth in the body-namely, in the retinal membrane of a corpse's eye. Recent scientific findings that images are photochemically imprinted in the eye directly inspired three French authors to imagine the dramatic implications to the recovery of those images. What if a corpse could reveal its own murderer's identity? Or, as a character inJules Claretie's L'Accusateurputs it, "what if the final image seen, that of the murderer himself, were permanently fixed on the retina of his victim?" What might we learn by retrieving that image? How might our very bodily matter serve as witness and proof ofwhat has been? Villiers de l'Isle-Adam's fantastic philosophical tale Claire Lenoir (1867/ 1887) ,Jules Claretie's little-known detective story L'Accusateur (1897), and Jules Verne's science-fiction sea adventure Les Freres Kip (1902) answer these questions with varying degrees of fantastic imagination and philosophical reflection, but all three texts revolve around the conceit of the optogram: a photograph of a dead body's eye. The simplest, Verne's Les Freres Kip, is the story of Harry Gibson, a sea captain who is stabbed to death by two of his men on a remote island in the tropical South Pacific. Two of his passengers, the titular Dutch Brothers Kip, are falsely accused of the murder and imprisoned, until the captain's son happens to look closely with a magnifying glass at an enlarged photograph of his dead father's eye. The retinal image he sees is blurry, but distinct enough to identify the faces of the two actual killers. In light ofthis new evidence, the brothers Kip are exculpated and set free. In L'Accusateur, byJules Claretie, a retired foreign consul is stabbed to death in his Paris apartment and the typically eccentric detective Monsieur Bernardet is called in to investigate. Bolstered by an amateur interest in optical science and photography, Bernardet convinces a magistrate to photograph the dissected retina of the murdered man's eye. The resulting image, reasons Bernardet, may well reveal the identity of the 156 Chapter 8 last person seen by the murder victim, presumably his killer. The detective 's plan works up to a point: the photo reveals a hazy retinal image recognizable as the face of the victim's close friend, who is subsequently jailed and accused of the murder. But in fact the photo turns out to be a red herring, for the last image seen by the victim, Monsieur Rovere, had not been his murderer's face, but a portrait of his close friend (the man who would be thus unjustly accused). At the end of the novel, the truth is revealed-not by the optogram, as it is in Les Freres Kip, but by circumstance and confession. Finally, the earliest and best known of the three texts is Villiers' fantastic and philosophical Claire Lenoir. In this tale, the unreliable eccentric Tribulat Bonhomet reports on his philosophical debates with the married couple Claire and Cesaire Lenoir. Claire, who is blind, has had a secret affair with a naval officer. Claire's husband knows nothing about it until his untimely death, but he wreaks posthumous revenge on the adulterous couple by coming back in the form of a savage South Sea pirate who brutally murders his wife's lover. The story's fantastic denouement finds Tribulat Bonhomet at Claire's deathbed, about a year later. Mter watching Claire die in a state of visionary horror, Bonhomet performs an unwieldy examination of her eyeball with an ophthalmoscope (not, one should note, a camera, as in the other two texts). Through the eyepiece of the ophthalmoscope-or as he calls it, the keyhole to infinity-Tribulat sees a horrifYing retinal image: a vampiric savage holding high in triumph the bloody head of his victim, identifiable as Claire Lenoir's sea captain lover. This vision of Monsieur Lenoir's supernatural revenge shakes Tribulat's belief in materialism and the tale ends with a reflection on the impenetrable mysteries of death. In all three of these fictions, then, the observation of a newly dead person 's retina reveals the last image seen by that person, thereby apparently communicating to an observer the mysterious circumstances of the victim's death...