Sharon Larson: The Dancing Decadent, Salomé and Literary Creation at the Fin de Siècle

For a literary movement that celebrates form over content and privileges the aesthetic values of a work’s components, writing about writing is a defining characteristic and mise-en-abyme of Decadent poetics. Such self-consciousness explains the proliferation of male protagonists that occupy to role of artist or writer in Decadent fiction. Interestingly, however, many of them fail at their respective art forms, having been exposed to the noxious artistic influence of the ubiquitous femme fatale. More than simply a product of male anxiety about female sexuality, the figure of the femme fatale is also symptomatic of many aesthetic preoccupations of the Decadent novel. Most notably, her attack on her male companion has linguistic consequences: the male characters suffer from artistic impotence, lose the capacity for speech or reason, or regress to infantile forms of self-expression.

Belgian art critic and novelist Camille Lemonnier (1844-1913) is one such writer who embraced the Decadent thematic coupling of malevolent female sexuality and male productivity.

While he is oftentimes considered to be the Zola of Belgium, Lemonnier’s literary contributions went well beyond the Naturalism put forth in his early works. Rather, like many Naturalist writers of the late nineteenth-century, he made a transition to Decadence and continued to demonstrate a concurrent concern for both literary aesthetics and dangerous women, themes at the forefront of many of his novels and short stories. Le Possédé (1890) marks this very break from the Naturalism that defined his earlier fiction. Subtitled “étude passionnelle,” the novel documents an influential judicial magistrate’s professional, familial and sexual ruin brought on by an affair with his daughter’s governess. Following Rakma’s initial seduction of Lépervié, the relationship culminates in an all-consuming, violently sadistic “possession” that the magistrate cannot resist.

Le Possédé’s unique structure and style consist of a fragmented and disjointed web of limited third-person narration, free indirect discourse and a series of letters and journal entries (which are curiously in the third-person). This grouping of various narrative techniques and genres (including the epistolary), as well as Lemonnier’s penchant for neologisms and lofty, exaggerated prose, result in a profound attentiveness to language at the expense of a coherent and linear plot. It also attests to Lemonnier’s rhetorical and syntactical shift to Decadent style and aesthetics.  Le Possédé’s linguistic jumble of impressions and subjectivities reflects exactly the sexual, intellectual and linguistic breakdown of its male protagonist in a mise-en-abyme of Decadent themes.

The woman responsible for this attack is Rakma. Veritable femme fatale, Rakma’s characteristics and behaviors at times appropriately evoke one of the great nineteenth century female iconic figures, the “mythe par excellence de la féminité mauvaise,” the biblical Salomé (Dottin-Orsini 9). Having steadily evolved throughout the centuries in art and literature, the myth of Salomé takes on unprecedented proportions at the end of the XIXth century; terming these thematic trends “Salomania,” Charles Berhnheimer estimates that over one thousand versions of Salomé were produced in art and literature between the years 1870 and 1920 (105, 104). Salomé’s iconographic evolution from the unnamed figure of the Bible to the seductive castrator of the fin de siècle reflects an ever-increasing obsession with female sexuality that is specific to the late nineteenth century.  Dottin-Orsini meticulously traces the artistic iconography of Salomé and notes that later paintings, particularly those in the late nineteenth century, portray her as the central figure, going so far as to neglect corporal reference to her decapitated victim: after 1870, John the Baptist’s head no longer appears in most visual representations of Salomé (35). Eclipsing all reference to her victim, Salomé upstages him in representations of his decapitation and independently emerges as a widely-recognizable icon for fatal—as well as castrating—female sexuality. Though Dottin-Orsini’s focus here is on Salomé in artistic milieux, her findings regarding Salomé’s new iconographic “independence” carry aesthetic implications that are equally significant in Decadent literature. Indeed, Salomé not only signals an obsession with malevolent female sexuality that is inherent to the fin de siècle, but also a preoccupation with artistic production that generally characterizes the self-consciousness of the Decadent text. More specifically, Salomé mesmerizes both the male protagonists and authors alike through her one creative and artistic act: her dance.

Like Salomé, Rakma dances in Le Possédé. And like her fatal forerunner, her art enthralls the male spectator. In one particular episode, Rakma invades Mme Lépervié’s wardrobe and taunts her lover as she wears his wife’s coat. Lépervié begs her to remove it, but Rakma refuses and instead begins a seduction through dance that leaves the magistrate both mesmerized and powerless: “tout à coup, la sombre dalmatique s’écartait; il voyait pointer les bruns girofles de ses aigus tétins, et toupillant sur ses hanches, elle balançait un lent rythme de danse” (154). Lépervié attempts to resist Rakma’s fatal movements, but her choreography captivates and controls:

Un instant, il restait sous le saisissement de cette étrange vision; mais, avec des tortillements plus irrités, comme en un pas maintenant de bayadère, elle se rapprochait, lui injectait ses corrosives prunelles, subitement l’enfermait aux plis profonds de l’étoffe reployée par-dessus leurs deux têtes. [. . .] Ensuite, comme des gousses dégorgeant leurs rêches piments, ses lèvres diligentes furieusement lui versaient les poivres du baiser. Et c’était la fin, il l’emportait à l’alcôve, la jetait à travers les coussins, la possédait dans la dépouille de l’épouse. (Lemonnier 154-155)

Despite his initial protest and resistance, this “bayadère” with hypnotic eyes succeeds in seducing Lépervié through her dance.  Armed with an art form that will contribute to the magistrate’s eventual intellectual and moral collapse, Rakma also draws attention to artistic production on a textual level. Appropriately, this passage is as aesthetically charged as the dance that it describes, and the figure of Salomé provides Lemonnier with a means to expresses his own creative preoccupations.

This episode recalls a nightmare that Lépervié has following a sexually violent encounter with Rakma. In his dream, a disturbing “orchestique” of dancing women, each resembling Rakma, devour the flesh from the side of his body:

Avec des baisers au bout du geste de leur bras et qu’elles prenaient à leur corps (là où s’ouvrait le mensonge des bouches), ensuite elles nouaient une orchestique, arrivaient en dansant jusqu’à le toucher ; et chacune à son tour arrachait un lambeau de l’étrange pic qui lui jaillissait du flanc, le donnait à manger aux cruelles lèvres affamés de ses plaies. Et à la fin il ne restait plus, à la place de son flanc, qu’une ouverture caverneuse par où son vert intestin dégorgeait et qui laissait béer l’ossature intérieure, dénudant la double dalle du sternum, comme si des nuées de rats lui avaient foui les entrailles. (Lemonnier 179)

As Dottin-Orsini has suggested, John the Baptist’s head on a platter has cannibalistic implications for Salomé (134). In this scene, Lépervié is a physical victim of female cannibalism, but these Salomé figures do not dine on his body alone. Upon waking, Lépervié interprets this metaphorical vision as a “rapt qui le dépossédait de sa virilité”, wishing “[s]i du moins je pouvais récupérer ce qu’elles m’ont pris” (180). The plethora of starving mouths feed not only on his body, but also his virility, and this symbolic castration is symptomatic of the unconventional power dynamic in his relationship with Rakma. Lépervié’s “castration,” however, extends from his body to his mind, and as we shall see, the magistrate gradually loses his capacity for reason and expression as Rakma’s influence escalates. Indeed, in his nightmare as in real life, the dancing mistress literally sucks him of his creativity and productivity.

As Lépervié’s intellectual ruin progresses, Rakma concurrently occupies a space of creativity—at the expense of her lover. For example, shortly after the consummation of their relationship, Lépervié experiences an unprecedented effortlessness as he composes a well-received article for a judicial journal. In his critique of components of the Belgian law, he is amazed at his own ideas: “la page [. . .] lui coulait de la plume, d’une éloquence cubique et nourrie qui, l’article paru, l’étonna lui-même” (65). It is at this surprising moment of creative ease that Lépervié’s split self—la Voix—appears and gestures towards Rakma’s invasive creative powers: “La Voix dit: -Mais c’est elle, elle seule qui, [. . .] par sa présence en toi, te délie à cette clairvoyance! – Cela se pourrait-il vraiment? pensa le président, avec un regret d’amour-propre” (66). Rakma’s creative influence has destructive consequences for Lépervié, who no longer recognizes himself as the author of his successful article: “Mais c’est un effroyable schisme, pensait-il; [. . .] [J]e ne pense plus un mot de tout ce que j’ai écrit” (77). The intellectual abyss that exists between himself and the work that he produced calls attention to larger questions about artistic production that continue to be raised throughout this Decadent text.

Similarly, Rakma’s effects on Lépervié’s command of language are palpable and progressive throughout the course of the novel. As Lépervié’s body continually suffers sexual attacks by Rakma’s sadistic tendencies, he gradually loses various cognitive and cerebral skills and is unable to articulate his ideas. Lemonnier writes, “[d]epuis ces deux derniers mois, son intelligence subissait un tel déchet qu’il ne parvenait plus à abouter ses idées. Celles-ci gluaient en une bouillie épaisse comme si sa substance cervicale, barattée sans répit, se fût à la longue gélatinée” (307). While these initial symptoms of linguistic trouble manifest themselves amidst a culmination of sexual encounters, Rakma’s ultimate blow—abandoning Lépervié and fleeing with his son—is one that leaves him literally speechless. A final image of a demented and delirious Lépervié underlines his inability to express himself linguistically: “À tout bout de champ il était contraint de substituer aux dénominations usuelles des formules parasites et indéterminées, (‘chose, machin’) dont s’empâtait sa langue, à défaut de termes précis” (340). Lépervié’s lack of precision and reliance on platitudes and “formules” can be attributed to an inability to create, such as with his writing. In true fin-de-siècle fashion, Rakma’s malevolence clearly has creative repercussions for the male protagonist in Lemonnier’s novel. Given these examples, how, then, does this Salomé-like femme fatale contribute to larger aesthetic questions about textual production and the Decadent novel?

In his “Carnet vert,” J. K. Huysmans associates the artist’s creations with his sexual pleasure:

Il semble que les artistes aient, seuls, le pouvoir de pécher mieux—un réel privilège—s’exciter, par exemple, sur Esther—coucher nocturnement avec elle, c’est coucher avec une créature artificielle, née de soi—c’est un inceste onaniaque. Il y a du succubat. Coucher avec la Salomé de Moreau, c’est coucher avec la créature née de l’âme de l’homme. C’est pis que la bestialité. La bestialité, la sodomie, sont naturelles. Le baisage avec une morte serait moins grave. Car elle est. C’est le péché suprême, commis avec un être sans vie, n’existant pas, n’étant pas directement créé par Dieu, étant l’artificiel. (Dottin-Orsini 125)

In sexualizing the relationship between the artist and his work, or more specifically, between the artist and the women that figure in his work, this passage confirms the fin-de-siècle association of fatal femininity with artistic production. By virtue of her artificiality, the female figure seduces her very creator in a relationship that is akin to incest. Whether it is the virtuous figure of Esther or the sexually dangerous femme fatale icon of Salomé, Huysmans’s artist allows himself to be aroused by projections of his imagination. Like the voracious women haunting and consuming Lépervié in his dreams, the figure of Salomé in Decadent literature is not far removed from Huysmans’s “succube.” Salomé’s iconography is a product of anxiety about artistic creation and female sexuality, reflections of both aesthetic exploration and artistic vulnerability. Huysmans’s passage suggests an additional understanding of artist figures and other femmes fatales that proliferate in Decadent literature. Perhaps more than just a site reflecting apprehension about female sexuality and male writing, Huysmans invites us to consider the femme fatale as a medium through which the writer can be experimental, transgressive, and explore his own aesthetics. And through Salomé, Lemonnier does just that.

Bibliography

Bernheimer, Charles, Decadent Subjects: The Idea of Decadence in Art, Literature,

Philosophy and Culture of the Fin de Siècle in Europe, Eds. T. Jefferson Kline and Naomi Schor, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.

Dottin-Orsini, Mireille, Cette femme qu’ils disent fatale: textes et images de la misogynie fin-de-siècle, Paris, Bernard Grasset, 1993.

—. Salomé, Paris, Éditions Autrement, 1996.

Lemonnier, Camille, Le Possédé: étude passionnelle, Paris, Bibliothèque Charpentier, 1890

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[i]Original emphasis.

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