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  • Pleasure and Pain in Nineteenth-Century French Literature and Culture
  • Vaheed Ramazani
Evans, David, and Kate Griffiths, eds. Pleasure and Pain in Nineteenth-Century French Literature and Culture. New York: Rodopi, 2008. Pp. 286. ISBN: 978-90-420-2502-8

This volume brings together revised versions of essays presented at a conference sponsored by the University of Edinburgh's Department of French. The essays span "the long nineteenth century," which, the editors note, begins with Sade and ends with Freud.

In Part 1, entitled "The Novel," Henri Mitterand discusses the inseparability of pleasure and pain in nineteenth-century prose and aesthetics; Michael Tilby studies the language of intoxication in Balzac's Comédie humaine; and Franceso Manzini reads pain in Balzac's L'Envers de l'histoire contemporaine as the means by which the Romantic generation expiates the sins of its forebears.

The second part, "Crime and Punishment," opens with Anne-Emmanuelle Demartini's exploration of how the writings of the famous murderer Pierre-François Lacenaire, by theorizing and poeticizing his remorseless cruelty, successfully fostered his public image as a Romantic hero. Loïc Guyon focuses on the psychopolitical resonances of the guillotine for a post-Revolutionary generation seeking to work through the guilt and trauma associated with the loss of the Ancien Régime's paternal metaphor, the king as the "head" of the body politic. In the closing chapter of Part 2, Natalia Leclerc shows how, in the (a)moral universe of Barbey d'Aurevilly's Les Diaboliques, the protagonist's will to power generally takes the form of a masochistic jouissance that, by virtue of its aesthetic and metaphysical atemporality, appears to lie beyond the worldly norms of good and evil.

Part 3, "Écritures féminines," opens with Anna Norris's study of Marie Cappelle Lafarge, an imprisoned aristocrat who never ceases to proclaim her innocence, and who in her memoirs portrays herself as having been fated since childhood to a lifetime of undeserved suffering and misfortune. Sara James then examines the poetry of Malvina Blanchecotte, an ouvrière-poète whose écriture de la douleur offers an unsentimental representation of the suffering of the working-class woman. In the final chapter of the section, Rachel Mesch places an irresolvable pleasure-pain dialectic at the center of the struggle for sexual self-determination in novels by Anna de Noailles, Lucie Dlarus-Mardrus, and Colette.

The penultimate division, "Defining Sexual Experience," details the uses of pleasure and pain in the repressive logic of fin-de-siècle medical discourses. Gretchen Schultz, through an interreading of Catulle Mendès's Méphistophélia and medical treatises by Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Julien Chevalier, reveals the extent to which fictional and scientific texts tend to echo one another in representing the wages of female homosexuality. The two remaining chapters of Part 4 deal with the medical normalization of female desire in the context of newly developed classifications such as frigidity, which is the focus of the essay by Alison Moore, and hysteria and spermattorhoea, which are analyzed by Elizabeth Stephens.

In the fifth and final part, "Aesthetics, Beauty, and the Visual Arts," Rae Beth Gordon demonstrates how beauty and ugliness were aligned with pleasure and pain in the [End Page 171] evolutionary and psycho-physiological aesthetics of late nineteenth-century scientists and artists. Carol Rifelj argues that whereas fashion manuals required that women go to great pains (literally) to create an image of effortless beauty, literary narratives often implied, conversely, that the ideal woman is most beautiful when her suffering is de-sublimated, and manifest in sartorial disarray. Claire Moran closes the volume with a study of the abstract self-figuration of the artist as Christ in the work of Odilon Redon, James Ensor, and Paul Gaugin.

We would be hard put to find a literary or artistic work that does not thematize or in some way textualize feelings of pleasure and pain. So we might expect that the usefulness and originality of a volume proposing to explore nineteenth-century literary and cultural representations of those particular sensations/affects would lie in its theorization and comparative historicization of them per se, that is, its problematization of...


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