Hermaphrodites, Deviants, and Sociopaths: Were these the Communards of 1871?

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Hermaphrodites, Deviants, and Sociopaths: Were these the Communards of 1871?

  • David A. Shafer

Before getting into the substance of my paper, I’m goint to provide some foundation by, first, discussing the development of the female image and then examining the events to which my paper will make reference. The female republican allegory in France - Marianne – that ubiquitous, yet anonymous everywoman - debuted during the early days of the French Revolution as the symbol of liberty, before assuming, with the fall of the monarchy, her inextricable association with republicanism. Marina Warner has observed that “the iconography of Liberty thus operates on the central premise that signs of Otherness can be recuperated to express an ideal.” Consequently, images of a goddess representing such lofty ideals as reason, force, justice, equality, and liberty were merely abstractions, representing conceps that otherwise defy human representation.

However, the adoption of Marianne as the visualization of the republic should not be confused with the inclusion of women in the public space of the republic: quite the contrary. Whereas the reigning monarch incarnated monarchy and monarchial sovereignty, the selection of an abstract individual who lacked a specifically recognizable identity correlated with a republic comprised of anonymous sovereigns. The image, though, is more than just a composite. As a woman, Marianne was outside the community of sovereigns possessing a civic identity; in fact, it was precisely her lack of rights that rendered Marianne such an ideal figuration of the republic. While images of Marianne conveyed the attributes of republicanism when faced with the vicissitudes of nineteenth century circumstances: fortitude, virtue, stoicism, and vulnerability.
As Joan Landes has pointed out with reference to the female allegory during the French Revolution, “Virile man’s new partner – the Republic as chaste mother rather than a sister goddess – was desexualized but not altogether desensualized.” In other words, part of the attraction of representing the Republic in a female form was, well, that she was attractive. This rendered her both vulnerable and frail (qualities the republicans did not want associated with their republic!), but also potentially immodest. To counter both of these potential impressions, republican propagandists also endowed Marianne with masculine attributes, thus elevating her beyond mortal women; at the same time, of course, the allegory confusingly presented Marianne as both an object of sexual desire and of filial protective duty. The duality of this imagery created, however, tension between an image that was, at once sensual, maternal, and of an ambiguous sexuality.
Now for some context. On 4 September, upon the news of Napoléon III’s surrender to the Prussians at Sedan, republicans at Paris iniiated France’s third attempt at a republic. Republicanism, though, was no monolith; the inglorious life of the Second Republic between 1848 and 1851 revealed an ideological fracture between social and political republicans. While republicanism remained somewhat dormant after Napoléon III’s coup d’état in 1851, it resurfaced in 1868 after the Emperor’s reform of hyper restrictive press and public meeting laws. Upon the Third Republic’s declaration, republicans, temporarily intoxicated by the moment, submerged their differences. Invigorated by the belief that, as in 1792, republican France would reverse the military losses suffered by an authoritarian government, republicans coalesced around a government – unsuitably, as we will see, named the Government of National Defense - dominated by liberals – who swore to continue the war until France was victorious. The Prussians had other ideas, though, and continued their encroachment on French soil until encircling Paris, a besiegement that would last for 133 days. The first image – produced during the siege – reflected an idealized republican belief in the qualitative distincition between Imperial and Republican Paris and the respective moral authority of the capital under each régime. This distinction was also premised on the gendering of political régimes - the feminized monarchy – frivolous, indulgent, decadent, sensual – and the masculinzed republic. This characterization was not simply premised on arbitrarily-assigned contrasts, but had its roots in republican conceptions of female social and cultual authority during monarchial periods and during Napoléon III’s tenure. Just as Rousseau identified public women as a principal source for the corruption and immorality of the ancien régime, this caricature conjured up images of unrstrained female sensuaity and debauchery as symptomatic of national decline. But observe the two images: the one on the left appears to corresond – on a physical level – with an authentic woman; lascivious and hedonistic, she’s a cautionary tale of a society where female authority leads to societal degradation. On the other hand, the image symbolizing republican France is a pure abstraction: the degendered female form masculinized both by her demeanor and by the weapons and accoutrements that surround her. The artist of this allegory, Vérnier, employed familiar idealizations of women to make an allegorical statement in which decadence and virtue serve as short-hand for political designations, as well as dualistic constructs of womanhood.
Anyway, whatever optimism the advent of the republic had generated rapidly faded. In short order, republicanism was again prey to fratricidal recriminations, as the republic proved not to be the panacea for French military defeats. In fact, the siege of Paris subjected the capital’s population to isolation and the ravages of food shortages, epidemic diseases, and exposure to the elements. Militant, revolutionary republicanism resurfaced and the republican credentials of those in authority were soon subject to scrutiny. Faced with the combination of an unwinnable war, increasing political militantism at Paris, and the desire to restore bourgeois order and authority in France, the Government of National capitulated to Prussia in January, 1871. Iniitially, caricaturists focused their attention on those seen as responsible for the defeat and capitulation. the moderate republican head of the government, Jules Favre, and on two influential political chameleons – Jules Trochu and Adolph Thiers – former contstitutional monarchists who had, of late, reconciled themselves to republicanism. In the words of Thiers, “it was the government that divides us least.” For many Parisians, Thiers, Trochu, and Favre were not only unfaithful guardians of the Republic, but, if left to their own devices, would eviscerate it and either restore or pave the way for a restoration of some form of authoritarian government.
In several illustrations, caricaturists filtered political commentary through the public’s greater familiarity with sexual relations. In these illustrations, Marianne is either the unwilling object of seduction or the helpless victim of a violation or sexual murder. With respect to the seductive images, he message could not be any more stark: on one side, republicanism’s nemeses are physically repulsive and almost grotesque in appearance; their chief weapons - deceit, immorality, dissimulation. While Marianne appears coquettish and fliratious in one illustration and vulnerable in both, her monopoly on virtue, self-discipline, and probity permit her to resist the seduction. But, all told, the focus is squarely on those who seek to violate the republic incarnated by Marianne. Just as the chaste woman had to guard against attempts on her purity, so too, Marianne resists the insidiousness designs of Thiers, Trochu, and Favre.
More troubling, however, are the illustrations featuring sexual murder. In her study of theatrical, cinematic and visual representations of sexual murder in Weimar Germany, Maria Tatar wrote that “while we often efface violent subject matter by dismissing it as mere convention or aesthetic strategy, morbid curiosity just as frequently gets the better of us. We may be repulsed by images and descriptions of bodily violations yet we also feel irresistibly drawn to gape, ogle, and stare – to take a good hard look or to make sure that we do not miss a word.” Although the three illustrations I have provided do not draw upon actual murders nor were they intended to elicit sympathy or empathy for the agressor (as was the case with the examples explored by Tatar), nonethetless, there is almost something fetishistic and voyeuristic in employing sexual murder as a visual trope. Through their corporeal evisceration of Marianne’s body – more specifically, their physical penetration of it - the perpetrators of the violence – all unmistakably identified as enemies of the republic - personalize and sexualize their crime. Unlike in the previously discussed images, in which seduction and dissimulation were the weapons of choice, in these illustrations, the ferocity of the republic’s adversaries - Favre, Thiers, Napoléon III, the House of Orléans’s pretender to the throne (the duc d’Aumale), a cleric - to republicanism is manifested by acts of bodily mutilation, an act rendered more visceral, more believable through the Republic’s embodiment in a female form.
Looking more closely at one of these illustrations – another production by Vernier – we see a maniacal looking Favre, adorned with a crucifix, a Prussian helmet taming his unruly hair, viciously stabbing “Paris” in the back. In deconstructing the idiom of this work, we find a somewhat mixed collecion of metaphors. The female figure recalls the proliferation of homages to the Virgin Mary during the Empire; Favre, on the other hand, in betraying the Republic, is cast as a modern day Judas. In another non-scriptural sense, however, the female figure assumes a decidedly maternal role in protecting her baby. If one of the principal hermeneutic problems of allegory is ascertaining the interpretation given an image by its contemporaries, the message behind this image would have been abundantly clear: as she endeavors to protect the baby, “Paris” is safeguarding the future of a virtuous republic.
While on the subject of religious references, at least two caricatures present Marianne being victimized by a serpent. Without going through a detailed exploration of the connotations associated with serpent symbolism, it suffices to say that, for purposes of this paper, in general, and the following two examples, in particular, the serpent functions on two separate, but not unrelated, levels: as temptation and as a phallus. In both illustrations, Marianne is enwraped in the serpent’s grip and menaced by Thiers’s gaze; both allude to the Eve Syndrome and the familiar Augustinian interpretation of the relationship between “original sin” and gender. Drawing on the audiences’ familiarity with the biblical reference and the commonly-held understanding of it, the images convey multiple, perhaps conflicting gender stereotypes: female vulnerabiltiy, innocence, vanity (the mirror held by Marianne), naiveté, gullibility (especially to sexual temptations – think of the serpent, here).
With the war over, elections for a National Assembly were hastily organized and produced a legislature – seated at Versailles - dominated by monarchists. Thiers, the leading vote getter in the February elections, assumed leadership of the government. Republican mistrust of, and hostility towards, Thiers exacerbated the already tense situation between Paris and Versailles. As relations continued on a downward spiral, they culminated in a clumsy effort by troops sent from Versailles on the morning of 17 March to disarm Paris of the cannons on the bluffs at Montmartre. Paris’s successful defense of its cannons escalated and aggravated hostilities; within days Paris announced that it would hold elections to a municipal government – the Paris Commune – a move, which, on its surface seems relatively innocuous. But if we consider the historically contentious nature of Parisian assertions of self-government – and the very steadfast refusal by every authority since the 15th century (except the first years of the Revolution), this was tantamount to a revolutionary act.
And so as Parisians defied the national government and voted for a municipal council; the majority of those elected were socialists of one variety or another. Both Paris and Versailles slid rapidly into entreched positions, recognizing that, in a political culture in which the revolutionary tradition still reverberated, this conflict could not avoid a violent resolution. But all of this over municipal autonomy? Surely there was something more formidable behind Parisian voting on 26 March. There was; and questions regarding the ultimate motivations for, and objectives of, the Commune continue to divide those of us who still examine it. While motivations for the Commune range from a betrayed sense of nationalism to a defense of republicanism in the face of a monarchist-dominated legislature at Versailles to, yes, municipal liberties, I interpret the Commune more sweepingly – as the consummate revolutionary experience, aspiring to regenerate the society it confronted; limited neither by a municipal mandate nor by patriotism. Because the Commune had a shelf life of only ten weeks, it is impossible to ascertain with any degree of certainty what the Commune would have accomplished and whether it would have fulfilled its revolutionary objectives. Inevitably, tthose objectives – a complete social and cultural regenertation - would have implications in the realms of gender constructs, gender roles, and sexuality.
As we turn to the gendered image in the Commune, there is a noticeable shift – in most cases – from the ethereal image of Marianne to insidious portrayals of female activism in the public space, sometimes cloaked in reappropriated images of Marianne, other times purporting to represent natural women with hideous features. One of the more enduring images from the Commune – though it was a totally mythic image – was that of la pétroleuse, the female arsonist who in her rage torched the city. Ever since the Jacobins during the French Revolution, intoxicated by Rousseauian constructs of gender, determined that women should play no role in the public space, This determination was largely based on an alternative construct of gender to the one I’ve been discussing. Rather than virtue, modesty, vulnerability, according to this image, women incapable of exercising reason, are prey to their emotions, vain, full of uncontrollable passions, and a destructive, rather than constructive, force.
Though the Commune’s actual accomplishments relative to gender equality were relatively sparse, the mere suggestion that women could be afforded rights to citizenship added another layer of opprobrium on the Commune by its detractors, who were never at a loss to find some disruption of the social order. Perceptions of armed, working, and politicized women – all in the public space – lent a particularly shrill tone to their characterizations of the Commune. I would hazard to add that of all the revolutions to have taken place to that date, none had been as gendered and as inextricably enveloped in mysogynistic overtones as the Commune. There really is no tangible evidence of women torching Paris during la semaine sanglante. While Paris burned, it’s more likely that the fires resulted from projectiles being fired into it by the Versailles army. That, however, did not prevent the production of insidious images holding women accountable for the wanton destruction; with nineteenth century historians like Hippolyte Taine placing responsibility on women, it’s understandable how this myth developed its own internal logic and how conventional gender constructs became a self-fulfilling prophecy for female behavior.
Several illustrations should suffice to demonstrate this. In “Paris Mutilé,” a demonic looking virago, a torch in each hand, soars above the city that bears the indelible mark of her handiwork. Wild eyed, with sagging breasts, she is the antithesis of Marianne, portrayals of whom ooze femininity and maternalism. Similarly, in “La Guerre,” the figure trampling fallen male fighters – including the one under her right foot who is protecting a baby in an image vaguely reminiscent of Daumier’s “Massacre on the Rue Transnonian” – is barely recognizable as a woman. Not only is her mien decidedly unfeminine, but in assuming a role conventionally reserved for men (and squashing a baby in the process!) she has clearly chosen to abrogate her maternal role.
Humorists and satirists, likewise, played upon views of communardes as unsexed, or unsexy, women. The nine women in “Communardiana,” further parody female communards as physically undesireable, as though there is some sort of inverse natural correlation between beauty and political convictions. Perhaps this also serves as a cautionary tale to women that support for the Commune, or maybe even the aspiration of a public role, reveals something immutable about the woman. In a series of plays on the signs of the zodiac, Nérac’s symbol for Gemini are the Siamese Twins of Destruction – an armor-plated, helmeted Prussian and a communard, both of whom are masculinized and poised to wreak destruction on civilization. For Virgo, Nérac chose a smoking, armed communarde – the caption, “Sur le champ de bataille comme au boulevard/j’tire mon homme à mi métres sans écrad” employs the verb “tirer” in its double sense: “to shoot” and “to fuck” in alluding to the widely held belief that most communardes were prostitiutes. Beneath her cigarette, soldier’s attire, and rifle, this “Jeanne d’Arc de la Commune” is a woman who strives to lose all trace of her femininity. Finally, the bulbous faced, warted Scorpio carries the caption “Club de l’Emancipation des Femmes.” Is it really necessary to comment on this? Obviously, a woman seeking her liberation is, in Nérac’s eyes, a woman for whom the protection of a man is not an option; therefore, she seeks emancipation because the social norm to which all women aspire is beyond her reach.
Just before the entry of the Versailles troops into Paris on 21 May, the lllustrated London News reproduced an engraving circulated by enemies of the Commune. To the largely bourgeois readership of the Illustrated London News, this image must have confirmed many of their worst suspicions of the Commune: not only had previous accounts in the paper of the Commune been saturated with a level of hysteria not heard since the days of Thomas Carlyle’s imprecations against the French Revolution, but the illustration of an obviously militant, working-class woman, rifle on shoulder, leading her comrades into battle while her bear-like husband tenderly, though awkwardly, looks after the baby, depicted perhaps the worst abomination imaginable – the complete subversion of the hitherto impenetrable barrier which had been carefully crafted to distinguish the separate spheres of men and women.
I wish to conclude this paper with my favorite image, one that confounds the communarde with the Commune, and appropriates and distorts the Marianne allegory. In this image, a brutish, muscular, almost deranged-looking virago is surrounded by the infamous symbols of disorder and irrational violence from past revolutions. Lacking any trace of conventional femininity and devoid of maternal instincts, she is the woman transfigured as an abomination, an identifiable beast who devalues all that is worthy in women. As Marianne’s alter ego, the figure confronts us with both her direct gaze and with the most dangerous aspects of women’s essence. But, in a way, she is also recognizable as that into which Marianne could readily mutate: from the abstract ideal of femininity to a corporealized personification of conventional ideas on female irrationalisty and the scandalized representation of the republic promised by the Commune.

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