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SubStance 35.3 (2006) 131-148

Men, Machines, and the Modernity of Knowledge in Alfred Jarry's Le Surmâle
Philip G. Hadlock
University of South Alabama

It would be difficult to speak of the "modernity" of early twentieth-century French culture without considering its frenetic interest in machinery, and especially in modes of transportation. The first decade of the twentieth century in France produced numerous emblems of this craving to develop more powerful machines, to observe them at work, and to interact with them in new ways: the initial Tour de France cycling race took place in 1903; the internal-combustion engine, invented in the 1880's, was developed for use in the project to establish a rail network throughout France; and numerous automobile races were inaugurated in the years preceding and following the turn of the century.1 What differentiates this period from the latter part of the nineteenth-century is not merely the increased presence of mechanical or motorized devices in the functioning and organization of the social sphere, but also the dramatically altered roles that machines begin to play in shaping and (re)defining relationships between consciousness, the human body, and notions of subjectivity. Insofar as literature dramatizes the systems that bind the body to consciousness and to subjectivity as part of its ongoing efforts to make the body readable as a culturally intelligible sign, it tends to concentrate on obdurate stages in this process. In late nineteenth-century examples, literature's interest in machinery is often oriented around the endeavor to express knowledge of the sexed body. For Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, this project partakes of the prevailing logic of nineteenth-century French thought: L'Ève future(1886) conveys an overreaching male curiosity resulting in and from a newly invented female body; in this sense, it reprises thematics of male interest in woman's body as a place of special knowledge, as reflected in many major works of nineteenth-century French literature (Flaubert's Madame Bovary, Zola's Nana, the Goncourts' Germinie Lacerteux, and so forth). Tales such as Maupassant's "Le Gueux" might be cited as more challenging or [End Page 131] subversive examples; here, the text's inquiries are structured around a machine, an automobile, which cannot be contained for inspection within the narrative universe: it eludes the narrative's grasp, but only after having indelibly marked the body that the tale will represent. In this instance, narrative struggles to deal with a male body that calls attention to the making of its meaning, to its own peculiar embodiment as a cultural sign. This sort of scenario dissents with nineteenth-century conventions by presenting the male body as a revealing signifier of erasures and silences in male subjectivity, lacunæ that cannot be articulated in existing configurations of culture and language. The proliferation of machinery in early twentieth-century French life seems to enrich literature's possibilities for exploring fetishistic relationships between the mechanical and repressed sites within men's access to knowledge of their own subjectivity. An especially aggressive attempt by a male writer to exploit representations of the male body and of the mechanical in view of revising understandings of male subjectivity would be penned at the outset of the twentieth century by Alfred Jarry.

Le Surmâle (1902) vigorously takes up concerns relating to the panoply of machines that had begun to populate the literary universes of the late nineteenth century, and as the title suggests, the novel links its portrayals of mechanical contraptions to issues pertaining to maleness. Inasmuch as Jarry characterizes Le Surmâle as a "roman moderne," one might wonder if he is not trying to express hidden truths about relationships between sexual difference, consciousness, and subjectivity encoded in the modernity of the mechanical age. For the novel does not purport to present a realistic rendition of interactions between humans and machines at the turn of the century; it is, rather, a futuristic tale—set in 1920—that deliberately exaggerates its representations of people, of things, and...


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