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  • Albertine and the Inverted Mirrors:Reflections of Geographic and Ethnic Otherness
  • Lowry Martin

Since Justin O'Brien's 1949 article "Albertine the Ambiguous," which examined the importance of sexuality in Proust's corpus, most scholarly investigation has discussed male homosexuality in À la recherche du temps perdu.1 Proust's more robust development of Charlus and other male homosexual characters stands in contrast to the seemingly superfluous references to undeveloped lesbian characters, some of whom are either invisible or anonymous (e.g., Léa, the famous actress who is never seen or Bloch's sister and Mlle Vinteuil's lover who are never named). For many years, critics and contemporaries of Proust, such as André Gide or Jean Cocteau, claimed that these female characters, originally debuting in À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, were merely men in textual drag.2 In light of this "transposition" theory, it is understandable that for many years critics had largely passed over the racial and political nuances that filigree Proust's lesbian imaginings, and in particular, the way he imagined his character, Albertine.3 Her sexual ambiguity preoccupies Marcel, the narrator, as it fuels his imagination. The specter of lesbianism is woven throughout his work, and Proust's semiotics of this sexual other merits closer attention. My proposed reading of Albertine illustrates that representations of same-sex desire among women were more than literary afterthoughts. To the contrary, a careful reading of his treatment of Albertine and the Bloch cousins allows for a more nuanced and complicated understanding not only of Albertine but also of the rhetoric of Gomorrha (lesbianism) within Proust's imaginary. While Charlus serves as a Rosetta stone to unlocking and understanding the sign system of French underground gay culture, the portrayal of Albertine is also infused with an array [End Page 97] of contemporary discourses that highlight the political tensions and social anxieties of the period. This article focuses primarily on Proust's language of the nation and the other—national or ethnic stereotypes of the German, Austrian and Jew—which underscores the importance of contemporary cultural debates in the theorization of same-sex attraction between women. While Proust's reliance on cultural stereotypes may not have been a conscious political statement, they do illustrate just how deeply ingrained they were in the cultural thought of the period.

Proust's various depictions of lesbianism echo and incorporate racial discourses of his time and reflect some of the political and social tensions of the French Third Republic. The fact that Proust's lesbians are descendants of the "race maudite" proves important to this kind of analysis.4 Like their male counterparts, these women are the strangers at the gate—women who, in a broader cultural context, can easily be represented as threatening the security of the nation. Through a juxtaposition of excerpts from Proust's work with materials from pivotal cultural moments of the fin-de-siècle, such as the Dreyfus Affair, I underscore how medical and political currents influenced Proust's conceptions of lesbianism and were anfractuous means of referencing contemporary social concerns. Before turning to the texts, a discussion of some of the formative ideological currents of the French Third Republic will anchor my readings.

I. The Enemy Within: Creating the Threat of the Racial Other

Issues of race and ethnicity inspired and structured the organization of many of the bourgeois political, legal, and medical discourses from the late eighteenth century to the early twentieth century.5 The legacy of French theorists such as Buffon, Cuvier, and Gobineau continued to shape French ideologies of cultural and racial superiority for decades. Bertillon's anthropometrics and Gobineau and Laponge's exaltation of the Aryan races were the cornerstones of racial claims of French supremacy. The same rhetoric provided the ideological underpinnings of France's colonial intentions. The impulse to order and to "normalize" the nation stemmed from representations of cultural dissonance that contravened accepted ideas of racial purity and sexual virtue—infrangible elements of the Third Republic's [End Page 98] ideological bedrock. The interchange between sexuality and French ideas regarding the health of the State is clearer when one considers the longstanding debates regarding the falling birthrates in France...


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