Subversion in Monsieur Venus

Oh goodness, where to even start… 

Rachilde’s Monsieur Venus touches upon many of the topics we’ve discussed in our most recent classes, including domestic art as opposed to high art, and the relationships between artists and their patrons.  However, as in most every aspect of the novel, it subverts these topics from the ways we’ve seen them previously presented.

Jacques has the opportunity to arrange the flowers for Raoule’s dress, an arguably domestic art, only because his sister is ill.  We can compare his circumstances to those of the numerous female artists whose only opportunities came through their fathers’ or brothers’ craft.  Then, Raoule chooses to provide for Jacques and his pursuit of painting, a higher art, because she is physically drawn to him.  Much like Camille Claudel – or even Marie, who had to prostitute herself – Jacques receives monetary support in exchange for a sexual relationship (though he is too naive to recognize that immediately).  Marie’s role in all this is also an interesting inversion, as she is fully aware of Raoule’s physical attraction, and aims to take advantage of it at her brother’s expense.  Much like a father selling off his daughter for a bride-price, Marie essentially trades her brother’s virginity for money.  The subversion reaches its peak as Raoule claims that she is “a man in love… with a beauty” (74), thereby feminizing Jacques completely.

The novel is also described as an inversion of the Pygmalion story – referring to the myth (or perhaps the opera) as opposed to the play by George Bernard Shaw.  The myth tells the story of a sculptor, Pygmalion, who falls in love with a statue he’s made of a young woman.  The goddess Venus takes pity on him and brings the statue to life.  (In the opera, Pygmalion also has a neglected girlfriend called Cephise; a parallel could be drawn between her and Raittolbe.)  In Monsieur Venus however Raoule takes the place of Pygmalion and, as a woman of higher class, has the ability to elevate a poor man to be her lover.  Since it is the woman who is of a higher class and greater fortune, the network of relationships is essentially gender-swapped.  Raoule can empower and ‘breathe life into’ Jacques, if you will.  Jacques and Marie depend on Raoule’s fortunes, which is why the latter schemes and the former goes along with the seduction.  It may even explain the role of Raittolbe as a suitor, but I’m not sure we have enough information to fully understand that dynamic yet.  (I would love to hear anyone’s thoughts on that relationship in the comments!)  Even the title Monsieur Venus is subversive then, by masculinizing a traditionally female goddess, and referencing how Raoule is referred to as Monsieur de Venerande by both Jacques and Raittolbe.

The main tactics Rachilde employed in constructing the plot were mainly subversion, inversion, and some would even say perversion, all to undermine the status quo in as shocking and controversial a manner as possible.

The Economics of Art

A theme that continues to pop up in our discussions since reading Woolf has been the material means needed to become an artist.  Before artists can even reach the obstacles of disseminating their works, being recognized, and being appreciated as more than just a woman artist, they must first have the means to master their craft.  If we look at the six artists featured in The Guerrilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art, we can see how economic or societal advantages allowed them to pursue careers in art.  Rosa Bonheur’s father had an art school, which gave her the opportunity to learn and make connections.  Julia Margaret Cameron was in a financial position where she could afford a camera and maids to help her in a dark room.  She could afford to spend all her time taking photos, and she had the social connections to take portraits of famous men, like Charles Darwin.  Mary Cassatt was also upper class, which enabled her not only to make art, but also to collect art.  Camille Claudel was financially supported by her lover, Auguste Rodin.

Of course the flip side to these stories is how the financial support was often out of the women’s hands.  For example, once Claudel broke off her relationship with Rodin, her popularity as an artist fell into decline.  Then, once her father died, her brother forced her into an insane asylum.  Not only was her art dependent on the financial security of a sexual relationship, but her freedom was dependent on the support of her kin.  Similarly, when Julia Margaret Cameron’s husband was made governor, she essentially abandons her art to serve as a wife, first and foremost.

The stories that do not fit with this trend are those of Harriet Powers and Edmonia Lewis – which are interestingly enough the two Black artists featured in the article.  Edmonia Lewis’s brother had the means to send her to Oberlin, but the experience did not benefit her artistic career.  Harriet Powers was discovered by a white art teacher (who, in a way, used her financial and social means to support Powers’ art), but was not in a position to consider art as a viable career choice anyway.

It’s interesting to think about the Guerilla Girls’ approach to highlighting these women in history.  I personally have never taken an art history class so I am not sure how much their article differs from or subverts the usual textbook layouts, but they focus much more on the artists’ lives than on their works.  Instead of just writing specifically on their artistic contributions and notable styles, or who influenced them and who they in turn influenced, the articles provide short biographies on each woman.  In this way, the Guerilla Girls are emphasizing the struggle each faced and the role of social and financial power in each one’s relative success.

Artistic Influences, Kinship, and the Lesbian Continuum

Something that really struck me in Walker’s “Looking for Zora” was the intimacy Walker used when speaking of Hurston, despite never having met her.  Just as Sonia and Marah have pointed out, Walker begins pretending to be Hurston’s niece to ease her search for more information.  The tightknit community Zora was part of in her life is not particularly willing to share with outsiders, and she needs this connection of kinship to coax the information out.  However, as time goes on, she really starts to enjoy the role and revels in the alias she’s created for herself.  Her passion then excites others and instills an appreciation for and devotion to Zora.  For example, Rosalee from the funeral home goes from utter indifference to facing wild snakes with Walker, all to help her find Zora.  As Walker thanks her, she adds, “‘Zora thanks you too’” (Walker, 105).  She feels this connection with Zora, and that’s what drives her search and story.

It reminded me of a much earlier article we read that also discusses Zora Neale Hurston, and what it means to be a Black female.  That was, of course, Adrienne Rich’s article about the lesbian continuum, wherein she quotes Lorraine Bethel on Zora Neale Hurston, saying, “‘We have a distinct Black woman-identified folk culture based on our experiences as Black women in this society; symbols, language, and modes of expression that are specific to the realities of our lives…’” (Rich, 658).  In this regard, it makes perfect sense for Walker to feel a strong connection to Zora, not just because both are Black women, but because both are writers, drawing on the shared symbols and language Bethel describes.

Zora has passed on much of her wisdom and knowledge through her writing, and it is clear how much those writings have affected Walker.  Those artistic influences are very evident through Walker’s other work, including of course The Color Purple.  We may conclude then, that these artistic influences are comparable to the moral lessons mothers pass on to their daughters (as Sonia said).  So, the connection between these two Black female writers, though not mutual, is surprisingly similar to the kinship connections we studied in our last unit, and perhaps also similar to the connections of the lesbian continuum we studied in our very first unit.

Is this true of all artistic expression for women?  Is this a singular phenomena based on race?

One thing that struck me in A Male Mencius’s Mother Raises Her Son Properly By Moving House Three Times was the theme of young boys being coveted.  We see this in Jifang’s pursuit of Ruilang, and then again with Chengxian.

When Jifang is following Ruilang at the festival, he slips gifts into Ruilang’s sleeve to show his affection (108).  Similarly, Chengxian’s teacher slips fruit into the boy’s sleeve (129).  Ruilang and Chengxian were about the same age when these older men made their advances, and furthermore, the boys were both warned by their respective parent beforehand. Ruilang’s father warns, “‘If anyone tries to lure you into some quiet spot for a chat, take no notice of him,’” (105), and Ruiniang instructs her son, “whatever you do, you mustn’t let them play any tricks on you’”(129).  The parallel between the boys is apparent, and it appears that the only difference in the boys’ fate is how their parent reacts.

When You Shihuan sees how many men covet his son, he takes advantage and uses it as an opportunity to clear his debts.  His protection of his son, keeping him locked away from any possible suitors (112), served only to safeguard the boy’s virginity, and therefore his bride-price.  It is important to note that this was the custom of the area and was not considered shameful, and that You Shihuan even admits the fact that his son being raised in such a place was a pity (111).  However, the social implications of Ruilang being taken as a wife, and even the language used to describe other men lusting after him, “[slavering] at the mouth” (111), all contribute to the narrator’s judgment of You Shihuan.  Since he lets his son be married off, and does not protect him as Ruiniang does for her son, the father has not raised him ‘properly.’

These judgments do not even necessarily stem from the narrator’s contempt for homosexuality either.  It is clear that those taken as wives lose all opportunity for study and scholarship.  They are objectified and subjected to the same inferior position as women, and are robbed of the natural advantage they would otherwise have as men.  They have no prospect of making a name for themselves, and it is this consequence that drives Ruiniang to protect her son so vehemently.  The promise Ruilang made to Jifang on his deathbed is the impetus for Ruiniang moving her son thrice to ensure to his success (130).  In taking on the role of a mother, Ruiniang completes the only task left for women to do: aid their sons in building prosperous lives.

However, this frames the division of duties between men and women in an interesting light.  Does the father share the responsibility of the mother to protect their sons from such coveting?  Can we infer anything about the cultural attitudes toward young girls being coveted in this way?

Rubin vs. Butler on Sexual Identity

Hey all, I’m Maria, a third-year Math major/Polish minor.  I realized I didn’t include my first name in my username (sorry) so if anybody ends up calling me Decker, I’ll understand.

Though Gayle Rubin mainly explores historical examples of sexual oppression through various social movements and the resulting legislation, she employs a very precise and purposeful diction.  Just as Joan Scott believed that the definition of ‘gender’ implied an organization of social relations and representations of power, Rubin recognizes, “sexuality is political.  It is organized into systems of power, which reward and encourage some individuals and activities, while punishing and suppressing others” (Rubin, 309), often through the very language that describes erotic groups.  She acknowledges the implications of the words ‘pervert’ and ‘deviant’ (312) and actively employs them in her writing to consistently remind the reader of the inherent disapproval behind the terms.

Even more interesting, Rubin explores how these terms evolved into an identity, a process she calls “erotic speciation” (285).  She cites the example of a sixteenth-century sodomite, who engaged in the same activities as the modern gay man, but lacks the self-awareness as belonging to any particular sexuality.  The development of homosexuality as an identifier, a source of group commonality, and perhaps even an ethnic group (286) allowed gay men to create unique sexually constituted communities.  However, it also left homosexuals in general vulnerable to scapegoating and oppression.  Moral judgments were attached to the very term ‘gay.’

Rubin’s commentary on language and its effect on identity may provide a second perspective on Judith Butler’s discourse on sexual identity.  Butler too explores the stigmas attached to the words ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’, dwelling on the “regulatory imperative” inherent in identity (Butler, 16).  Both authors go on to recognize that like words, identities change over time and acquire new connotations.  Butler states that identities may “take on a future set of significations that those of us who use it now may not be able to foresee” (19).  Meanwhile, Rubin hypothesizes how anti-pornography ideology would further stigmatize sadomasochists, and how the AIDS panic would isolate the homosexual community (Rubin, 299).

However, Butler comes to a unique conclusion.  That is, Butler recognizes that not so long ago, homosexuality was not considered a possibility.  Before the ‘erotic speciation’ (to borrow Rubin’s terminology), these sexual acts were in no way connected to a sexual identity, and the very fact that there now exists an identity is a triumph, no matter the connotations attached to it (Butler 19).  In many ways, identities are restrictive, however they also allow people to assemble under one flag, which Rubin and Butler seem to agree is the only opportunity for social progress.  Where do these authors’ accounts of identity differ?  How can we alter the connotations of identifiers?