Thursday, February 21, 2013

Mirabeau's The Lifted Curtain

Comte de Mirabeau -- sexy man!

Wow, I'm busy! With a flu worse than anything I've experienced in years, teaching, marking, researching and preparing for my little sister's upcoming wedding, recreational reading finds itself at the bottom of my to-do list. Still, I have been doing some reading, and I wanted to share some thoughts....

As I briefly mentioned in a previous post, my recent research focuses on two areas: representations of animals and transgressive sexualities. Currently I'm trying to find a way to effectively combine them, and it's proving to be an enjoyable challenge. The Lifted Curtain by Honore Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau decidedly falls into the latter category. While he's not known to many, Mirabeau is an eighteenth-century French revolutionary, politician...and writer of erotica. 

If his Wikipedia biography can be trusted (doubtful, but let's run with it!), Mirabeau led a colorful life. Disfigurement as the result of smallpox contracted at the age of three only served to earn his father's disdain. He engaged in a plethora of scandalous affairs, was condemned to death and imprisoned, etc., etc. Really, it reads like a novel. Funnily enough he and the Marquis de Sade were acquainted with one another but, despite their similarities, firmly disliked one another. This snippet concerning how he came to be married especially fascinated me:

After several months of failed attempts at being introduced to the heiress, Mirabeau bribed one of the young lady's maids to let him into her residence, where he pretended to have had a sexual encounter with Emilie. To avoid losing face, her father saw that they got married just a couple of days afterwards. 

I think I can safely assume that, even back then, this is not the how-we-met story about which a young girl dreamed.

With these biographical tidbits in mind, much of The Lifted Curtain doesn't surprise me: thin on plot, heavy on sexcapades in which rules and inhibitions merit no consideration. I won't delve into details in case any shy readers stumble upon this, but suffice it to say this novella seemingly promotes a libertinism in which anything goes in the bedroom...or out of it for that matter.

Yet in The Lifted Curtain and other similar texts I've noticed a worrying trend. While this novella smugly claims to promote sexual freedom in a repressive society, sexually liberated women undoubtedly threaten Mirabeau and his contemporaries. At the very least, a palpable air of discomfort permeates the genre. A stock figure emerges time and again: the woman who is too unrestrained, enjoys sex too much and inevitably comes to a bad end.

The character of Rose serves as a manifestation of archetype. Well, she's not a character, as I'm not sure Mirabeau explores any fictional personage with enough depth to warrant the term; so there's not much to say about her. What happens to her intrigues me. Shortly after her introduction in the narrative, the protagonist's father figure divulges the following:

Rose will be the victim of her own passion and fiery temperament. There is no holding her back. Already she is abandoning herself to pleasure with a fury that I have never before seen in a woman. You can bet your last franc that she will pay a heavy penalty for her excesses. 

Strong words. Interestingly enough, the father figure in question exhibits the most taboo behaviour in the narrative. By far. Nevertheless, his actions are unreservedly excused while the author condemns the woman. Sure enough, she soon meets the afore-mentioned inevitable bad end:

Unable to stop herself in her mad drive for pleasure. Rose finally succumbed to it. When she stopped menstruating, she had an abortion, which took a terrible toll on her. She suffered from agonizing fits of dizziness and her sight began to fail. She more resembled a walking wraith than a human being. The cheerful spirited young woman had vanished. Finally, the lingering illness brought her to the grave. 

Bleak indeed.

What's curious to me as a reader is this: we so often write off, no pun inteded, authors like Dickens for his blatant sexism. (And rightfully so! Much as I love him, misogyny was his flaw.) Yet Mirabeau, the Marquis de Sade and others often get a free pass because they're hiding behind this mask of sexual freedom. What they really mean is sexual freedom for men, or sexual liberation for women as it serves men's purposes. In my mind, this doesn't qualify as liberation at all. They are, as the film incarnation of Bridget Jones would say, 'just as bad as the rest of them.' Many have labelled this genre as progressive, but I just don't see it. While Mirabeau cries for revolution and liberty, his gender politics remain archaic.

Have you noticed any similar dichotomies between what authors claim to promote and what their writing actually suggests? I feel like this happens more frequently than we readers notice or acknowledge. But now that it's on my mind I'm trying to think of further instances. Can you offer any examples?

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