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  • La Belle Cul-de-Jatte:A Tragicomic fin-de-siècle Love Story
  • Alexandra Courtois de Viçose

ONE BROTHER WRITES. The other draws. In 1894, the humoristic newspaper Gil Blas contracted Pierre (1869–1942) and Jean (1864–1928) Veber for weekly collaborations.1 On November 5, they presented a singular world in the bottom registers of the first two pages (Figures 1 and 2). Typographically, Pierre's fantastical short story, dizzyingly peppered with word puns, looped around Jean's illustrations. Together, they constructed a French village solely inhabited by double leg amputees, where having legs was considered a deformity. Pierre concisely outlined the history of the place to contextualize the tragic story of a young female protagonist whose heartbreak led her to die by suicide. She loved a man whose legs unfathomably grew back and who consequently left her for a woman described as "à sa hauteur," a double entendre capturing both equal height and social status. A close analysis of this satirical column reveals late nineteenth-century France's attitudes towards physical difference and speaks to anxieties well beyond the fictional narrative's scope. Among other forces, widespread theories about hereditary degeneration, enduring concerns about French masculinity, and capitalist pressures about individual and national labor productivity made French society a hostile environment for individuals with disabilities.

The issue was published during a year of social and political upheaval: French anarchist Émile Henry detonated a bomb in the busy Gare Saint-Lazare's Café Terminus in February 1894 (a crime for which he was executed in May); President Marie François Sadi Carnot was assassinated a few months later, on June 25; and France was still reeling from the crushing military defeat suffered in the 1870 Franco-Prussian war. As Robert A. Nye tells us, after "having been the dominant military power in Europe for a quarter of a millennium, […] France was sliding into the status of a second-rate power."2 Perceptions of national strength associated with stereotypical gendering emerged in popular visual culture: "In the iconography and caricature that flourished during and after the war […] 'France' was frequently pictured as a provincial maid, a victim of aggression or rape. The military disaster also encouraged another kind of personification, that of the nation as a wounded body" (Nye 79). Amputation was part of that rhetoric, as the German Empire's annexation of Alsace-Lorraine was represented as having one of the nation's [End Page 153]

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Figure 1.

A. Dumont (founder), Gil Blas, November 5, 1894, page 1 (public domain, Bibliothèque Nationale de France).

limbs removed.3 The physical body of the French nation was compromised by consecutive revolutions, as was its socio-political structure. Plunging birth rates fueled doubts about France's ability to regenerate and about the worth of its progeny.4 Indeed, "the medical and scientific community was engaged in spirited discussions on the relative quality of the population; it was in this context that the notion of degeneration as a social question was first raised."5

The second half of the century thus was marred by overwhelming anxieties over the individual body as it related to the national body. Individual pathologies were seen as both symptoms of the national disease and a cause of future hereditary decline when, in fact, France suffered no more from physical, social or economic dislocation than its industrializing neighbors.6 Eugenics, a term coined by British scholar Francis Galton in his 1883 Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development, further contributed to this apprehensive [End Page 154]

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Figure 2.

A. Dumont (founder), Gil Blas, November 5, 1894, page 2 (public domain, Bibliothèque Nationale de France).

climate. His brand of eugenics proposed to intervene upon the body for the "bettering" of the human species according to the normative definition of the able and moral body.7 Earlier in the century, Honoré de Balzac had revealed prejudices towards unconventional bodies, culs-de-jatte in particular. For his 1833 study "Théorie de la démarche," Balzac related having observed 254 and ½ individuals. The half, it turns out, represented a cul-de-jatte who counted only as...


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