- Eros décadent: Sexe et identité chez Rachilde
Regina Bollhalder Mayer's revised doctoral dissertation, Eros décadent, is one of the most thorough studies of the various manifestations of gender in the work of Rachilde to date. The study is divided into three parts: "La différence des sexes: une altérité fondamentale," "Transgresser l'ordre des sexes: un pari coûteux," and "L'androgyne: la fin des sexes." Each part is further subdivided into short chapters, each one addressing the next link in a tightly structured chain of reasoning that leads the reader deftly through a survey of gender-related themes. Thus, the first part deals with the battle between the sexes, an essential component of decadent eroticism, which leads to a questioning of sexual difference in the second part, which in turn leads to an examination of the androgynous ideal that results in the final part.
The battle of the sexes (the general subject of the first part) begins with the fundamental assumption of sexual difference. In Rachilde's work, embodied physical desire leads not to the fulfillment of love, Mayer argues, but rather to its failure (Chapter 1). This dynamic is first put into play by male aggression that leads inevitably to sexual violence directed at women that usually takes the form of the rape [End Page 441] of a virgin in Rachilde's work (Chapter 2). Rachilde's heroines thus frequently express hostility toward marriage and maternity (an attitude that may have its roots in Rachilde's own experience, Mayer suggests in a rare biographical speculation). Heroines who do choose marriage often do so in order to manipulate things to their own advantage somehow (Chapter 3). The result of this conflict between the sexes is that a platonic ideal of love replaces the physical expression of love in Rachilde's work, and physical desire is repressed and transformed into contemplation (Chapter 4). Mayer surveys the three types of women that result in the decadent imagination: the femme fatale, the fragile woman, and the child-woman (Chapter 5), with pertinent observations on Rachilde's transformation of the hybrid figure of the vampire into a female bloodsucker who incorporates the nymphomaniac, the whore, and the les-bian. Mayer also notes the surprising fact that the figure of the emancipated woman often emerges from the femme fatale in Rachilde's work, an interesting contribution to the complicated question of Rachilde's relation to feminism.
In the second part of her study, Mayer focuses on the way women enact role reversals in Rachilde's fiction, taking over the man's role in order to take the lead in redirecting "le jeu amoureux" (89) and teaching men new and better ways of partnering women. These role reversals often involve elements of cross-dressing and homo0sexuality. The first chapter of this section focuses, perhaps predictably, on the examples of role switching in Monsieur Vénus and La Jongleuse, readings that show how the heroine of these works, each in her own way, refuses to be reduced to merely a body. There follows a chapter on cross dressing that probes the way sexual ambiguity calls into question representation itself. In Chapter 3 of this section, on homosexuality and saphism, Mayer astutely shows how homosexuality is acceptable in Rachilde's fictional universe when it serves as an index of aestheticism, but is frequently rejected when it is a question of a sexual reality (135, 139). Male homosexuality becomes another way to "refaire l'amour" (to borrow, as Mayer frequently does, the title of one of Rachilde's novels), to erase the feminine, the flesh, and the whole problem of sexual difference. Saphism is also a way of imagining a love in which sexual difference plays no part, but it does not succeed, finally, in avoiding difference altogether for Rachilde, a concession that closes the chapter and points toward the final section of the study, androgyny as an end to the sexes.
The androgyne is a protean figure in the decadent universe, as Mayer notes by pointing out the numerous overlaps with...