Eroticism and the Body Politic; a Review Essay

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Lynn Hunt has put together an insightful compilation on the subject of women in 18th and 19th century France. Scholars in history, art history, and literature are brought together in nine essays broken up into three sections of three essays each focused respectively on the 18th century, the Revolution, and the fin de si¨cle. The nine varying scholars are brought together and edited by Hunt to discuss the body erotic and the body politic of women in France. With a wide variety of authors, scholars in many areas, and essays of varying opinions and experience over a large period of time, Hunts Eroticism and the Body Politic gives a multi-faceted look into how women and the roles of their bodies were perceived in 18th and 19th century France. Also discussed are two reviews by Thomas Laqueur and Ruth P. Thomas, used to compare and contrast insights on the argument Hunt forms as to what is a woman and her body, erotically and politically.

Proposed is the idea that there is a connection between the erotic and the political and at the very center of it all is the question of womens place. Throughout European history when thinking of power one would put it under the domain of men. Though men could not relate to one another without their relationship to women and their bodies, nor could social or political order continue to reproduce without a womans body. In this time women were thought of as dangerous when meddling in the public, in political affairs with their fickle thoughts and irrational emotions. In 18th century France women had a very clear role and it was not one of power. For example most peasant or petty bourgeois womens aspirations were to marry a worthy man and make him proud by running a home and raising his children.

Women dare not aim higher because it was not their job to; their duty was to the family, to their men. Even with a woman of royalty, she could marry a king, even birth one, yet they could never be queens in their own right like other countries such as England. As France went through great changes during this time period, changes in politics, the birth of democracy, the issue of womens place arose. Women were seen nurturers, the givers of life; they could lead men to righteousness. They were also seen as depravers with the potential to lead men down a path of ignorance and neglect. From a time when womens place was very well defined, it is now changing and the role of womens bodies has become up for discussion. One argument of womens place as discussed by Mary Sheriffs Fragonards Erotic Mothers and the Politics of Reproduction and especially put forward by Rousseau, is in the home. The role of her body is to be that of a mother, to raise and provide for her children, and of her body as a wife, to support and please her husband. A womans body could not do both; convenience, tradition, and economic reasons had many women sending children off with wet-nurses so that they may continue their full duties as wives to their husbands bodies.

Moralists found issue with women who did this, arguing that mothers employing wet-nurses were neglecting their natural and patriotic duties, choosing instead to preserve their beauty, satisfy their selfish vanity, and enjoy unfettered the pleasures of society.(Sheriff, 21). Enlightened beliefs of where a womans body belonged viewed women as a wife to her husband, a mother to his children, and completely removed from the public sphere, this was what writers of the enlightenment described as natural mothers. A natural womans body belonged in the home, with the family, her body as a representation of great maternal love. A leading argument for the proper place for women was that they did not belong in the public, that is, the political sphere. Since women had the power to nurture, they also had the power to nurture immoral and irrational thoughts into the minds of men and their children. Many at the time believed womens bodies could and would seduce a man to her temptress will, even against the republic, and lead men astray. Queen Marie Antoinette was the perfect example of a womans body under scrutiny.

Marie Antoinette was a woman much involved in the public sphere, if not always by choice. Her husband was King of France, her son the Dauphin and her brother the Emperor of Austria, made Marie Antoinette a public figure, though a woman whose body has no place in the public. Marie Antoinette was ill-liked throughout France, described by Sarah Maza as, the most famously infamous queen consort in European history. (63). France was at war with Austria and many thought her partial to her brother, placing their potential gains together over the gains of her now people of France. Things would only get worse as the Revolution came into full effect. The French people viewed royalty as all that was wrong and evil with France; their power, their riches, their conniving directly contrasted the fair, equal, enlightened views of the Revolution. None were viewed as the epitome of all that was wrong in France more than Marie Antoinette.

The people projected many ills and their feelings of dislike towards the queen onto the fact that she was a woman. The people saw her body as unnatural. They called her Madame Deficit, declaring her an unfit woman because of her difficulties with childbearing and rumors of her, at the time, unnatural sexual and erotic tendencies towards women. When Marie Antoinette finally did have children it put forward proof of her ability to bear children, and of the consummated legitimacy of her marriage to the king. Her first child was a girl to the displeasure of everyone, her next child, a son, still could not regain the approval of her people. Even still she was labeled an unfit mother. It was rumored Marie Antoinette was inappropriately erotic with her son the Dauphin and his Aunt. Stories circulated of her teaching the Dauphin to masturbate, rumors of incest, stories of the most unnatural kind. Marie Antoinette in the eyes of the French people was a woman of unnatural eroticism and body.

She had used the eroticism of her female body for the evil of incest, manipulated the young Dauphin, lead the King away from the wants of the people, hampering the Revolution. The Queens body in essence was no more than the body of a woman, coming with it irrationality and unbridled eroticism. Marie Antoinette did not portray the image of her body as natural and therefore deemed an unfit body for that of a Queen. An example of the Queens body exemplifying all evils the people thought of it is represented in Mazas, The Diamond Necklace Affair Revisited , In this story a woman, Jeanne La Motte has used her body, charm and of course the protection of wealthy men to work her way up the social ladder. Conning and taking advantage of the gullibility of men was her talent, and Louis de Rohan gave her the perfect opportunity for climbing and seemingly endless source of revenue. Rohan, a man driven by a powerful obsession for political high office, believed that only the queen, whom he had alienated previously, stood in the way of his ambitions.

Seeing an opportunity, La Motte formed a plan. In the gardens of the Palais-Royal, a young woman, Nicole Le Guay, whose features approximated those of the queen and carefully coached on how to act, met with Rohan. Rohan, believing he had met the queen now saw his chance for power. La Motte persuaded Rohan that the queen had her heart set on this diamond necklace, and that the procurement of which would ensure Rohans political fortune. A purchase order for the necklace supposedly signed by the queen was promptly produced, and the necklace quickly delivered to Rohan and La Motte who then sent it off with a man disguised as the queens personal valet. The necklace never reached the queen, and was promptly picked apart, the gems sold on the black markets. La Mottes luck was soon to end. About a year after the meeting in the garden, arrests were made and one of the most sensational trials to date was to commence.

Based on political integrity, Louis XVI decided to take the case before the magistrates, putting it under the eye of the public once again on Marie Antoinette. Though Marie Antoinette had no direct dealings in the event, the people took this opportunity to attack her body. The connections between the queen and La Motte, some said La Mottes real first name was Marie Antoinette, had been made and there was no going back. The belief of the queens body as corrupt was further set in stone; her image as the unnatural mother of France was proven in the eyes of the people. Marie Antoinettes principal aim in The Diamond Necklace Affair, as explained by Maza, was to undermine the kingdom and turn it over to her brother, the Austrian Emperor (81) Further described by Maza are the social and sexual ties between women, no matter the woman herself, Social and sexual decay results from the dangerous confusion of female identities: the closer it came to the sacred center of royal power, the more female sexuality could act as a force potent enough to overpower conventional social and political distinctions.

In the end, contemporaries could not entirely blame a Jeanne de La Motte or a Nicole Le Guay for their impersonations of the queen: these women were simply acting out a script dictated by the sovereign herself, and by the Pompadours and Du Barrys who had preceded her. (81) Marie Antoinette became the subject for of substantial erotic and pornographic literature and Lynn Hunt in The Many Bodies of Marie Antoinette states that, when royal bodies become the focus of such interest, we can be sure that something is at issue with the larger body politic(108), and indeed something was. Women became identified purely by their bodies, bodies of women. Their sexuality connected them to each other, though no connections were made more than that of the queen herself and Madame Du Barry. Du Barry was a famous mistress to King Louis XV and a famous social climber. The very necklace at stake in the Diamond Necklace Affair was in fact commissioned for Madame Du Barry and the queens, even if forged, request for the same necklace tied in the desires of a professional mistress and those of a queen as one and the same.

Many labeled Marie Antoinette a prostitute, unfit for the position of queen, unfit for France. The queen, like Du Barry, had used her sexual body to climb her way into the kings bed and into his mind, poisoning it. The impotency of King Louis XVI was blamed on the queen who was as pointed out by Hunt no better than a mistress and no more fit for the title of queen. If it could be argued that Marie Antoinette played a role in the downfall of King Louis XVI then it goes hand in hand with her role in the Revolution. Her body represented everything the Revolution was fighting; her body was born an aristocrat, it was born to Austria, it was born a woman, and her body was all the people of France saw. The queen represented, not only the ultimate in counterrevolutionary conspiracy, but also the menace of the feminine and the effeminizing to republican notions of manhood and virility. (Hunt, 110) Marie Antoinette was the clearest and easiest of targets once the Revolutionary Tribunal trials began. She was tried like all other criminals of the Revolution, not brought before Convention itself.

Her nonmystical body as labeled by Hunt, a body not of the Gods, was a body that when presented with death was only mortal, making it that much easier to kill. When tried, the denunciations of Marie Antoinettes body took center stage. Her orgy in Versailles on October 1st, 1789, when the queen had supposedly encouraged royal officers to trample on the revolutionary tricolor cockade, a charge of incest and attacks on her morality were all brought to light during the trial of the queen. Marie Antoinette didnt stand a chance, Hunt described her trial as a sham, and the queen was executed October 16th, 1793. In two reviews by Thomas Laqueur and Ruth Thomas, opinions follow a similar trend in the discussions of women and their bodies, erotically and physically. Laqueur goes on to say that the denunciations against the queen, specifically that of incest with the young Dauphin, seemed credible and thus politically potent in a world where women in the public sphere carried with them the scent of disordered sexuality, and argues that, political power is often figured as sexual power, which is extremely true in the case of women in 19th century France (1597).

In the case of The Diamond Necklace Affair Revisited, Laqueur believes Maza, shows precisely how a set of deeply rooted assumptions about aristocratic, and more particularly queenly sexuality, dictated that Marie Antoinette would be at an embarrassing late night meeting, at least in spirit, if not actually in the flesh(1597). Determining that the queens birth, as royal and as a woman, had already set the stage for the way her body would be perceived, politically and erotically before Marie Antoinette had to actually do anything. Thomas quickly agrees with Hunt that, power is essentially conceived of as masculine(1072), an idea coursing through the entirety of Eroticism and the Body Politic.

In the case of the queen, Thomas writes that, Marie Antoinette took on emblematic status in an ideological climate where the combination of female sexual and political activity came to signify political decay(1072), ever showing womens discourse in politics and power, due to the fact of their bodies as women. In almost the exact language as Hunt, Thomas continues that, Marie Antoinette represented the threat of the feminine and the effeminizing to male republican ideals of masculinity and virility.

She was implicated in an implicit gender drama where gender boundaries and sexual differentiation seemed to disintegrate. (1072-1073) A drama where gender is the star, not the Revolution, not France, not even Marie Antoinette, but women as a sex. Defined by her body, the woman exists for and confirms the functions of male desire. At the same time female sexuality is acknowledged and complements male desire(Thomas, 1073), when woman does not fulfill the expectations of her male counterpart is when woman is seen as unnatural, disruptive, and corrupt.

Lynn Hunts compilation of essays gives direct insight into women of 18th and 19th century France. Women at the time were mothers, wives, and even queens, but they were not supposed to be powerful. In the case of Marie Antoinette, she was a woman who in the eyes of the people of France abused her body as a women, using her eroticism to counteract the Revolution, in which she was later tried and executed for. Hunts writing along with specifically Mary Sheriff and Sarah Maza propose that there is a connection between the erotic and the political, more so when gendered, and at the very center of it all is the question of womens place.

Works Cited
Hunt, Lynn. The Many Bodies of Marie Antoinette: Political Pornography and the Problem of the Feminine in the French Revolution. Eroticism and the Body Politic. Lynn Hunt, ed. Baltimore, MA: The Johns Hopkins University
Press, 1991. 108-130. Book. Laqueur, Thomas. Rev. of Eroticism and the Body Politic, by Lynn Hunt. The American Historical Review, vol. 98, no. 5. Dec., 1993. 1596-1598. PDF. Maza, Sarah. The Diamond Necklace Affair Revisited. Eroticism and the Body Politic. Lynn Hunt, ed. Baltimore, MA: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991. 63-89. Book. Sheriff, Mary. Fragronards Erotic Mothers and the Politics of Reproduction. Eroticism and the Body Politic. Lynn Hunt, ed. Baltimore, MA: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991. 14-40. Book. Thomas, Ruth. P. Rev. of Eroticism and the Body Politic, by Lynn Hunt. The French Review, vol. 67, no. 6. May, 1994. 1072-1073. PDF.

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