Saturday, May 02, 2009

ten franc historical research: Manet's Olympia

The object of our study is not the nineteenth century, which we have hardly researched, but the contradictions of the present.

In 1864, the year after Manet painted Olympia, and the year before it was exhibited, the Goncourt brothers reflected on the history of prostitution in Paris:

"Our little cousin Labille came to see us this morning. He had a rendezvous with a cocotte who was going to take him out to Asnières in her carriage. There exists a peculiar type of high-class prostitute nowadays who finds her custom among boys still at school, emptying their pocket-books and building up a reserve of men who will keep her in later years.

When the boy had gone, we reflected on the course taken by love in our three generations. The elder of us, at our cousins age, had a girl who stitched shoes for a living. I had a tart who always had a few sous in her chest of drawers. And this youngster has a woman who keeps her own carriage and horses. The world progresses. Here we have the three periods: Louis-Philippe, 1848, and the Second Empire."

In the early years of the nineteenth century conditions were markedly worse. Jules Janin wrote in 1839, with reference to Parent-Duchatelet's earlier study:

"If all orders of society are represented in the convict prisons of Toulon and Brest, just as they are in the Golden Book of the Legion of Honor, does that mean that the novel and the play may concern themselves with those vile heroes, ever cowering beneath the public's contempt or the warder's truncheon? In his Histoire de la prostitution publique M. Parent-Duchatelet , the learned gentleman who, out of pure charity, lived amid filth, that rigid Port-Royal Christian who lived out his whole life in haunts of ill fame out of sheer virtue, tells us that in order to perfect his frightful knowledge of Parisian vice he was once taken to a house where five-score ladies of the night were sleeping promiscuously with thieves on a great pile of rags gathered from all the garbage heaps in the kingdom. M. Parent-Duchatelet saw it; he tells us so; we must credit him. And yet, merely because the thing exists, does that mean that the novel and the play may pore over this den of vice to dredge up choice morsels? No, no, there are some things from which we must avert our eyes..."

Janin's first sentence is reflected years later in Lautrec's obituary notice, whose writer peevishly observed that the list of the artist's thousand conquests could also be found on the desk of the chief of police.

I suppose it is a question at the back of Janin's mind whether Parisian prostitutes constitute a particular "estate" within the social order, and the answer is that they do not.

During the Second Empire prostitution was legalised and subject to police regulation. The Emperor had the character of a procurer, and the bases of the bourgeois conception of prostitution altered. Syphilis was pandemic. Beyond the celebrated courtesans, the Second Empire filles publiques were multiplied and massed together in barracks, like artisans in factories or the destitute in the poorhouse. Prostitution became an integral part of the social machine of the Second Empire.

Political ideas inevitably lagged behind these social changes. Conservatism, admittedly, had already ceased to be purely dogmatic and had become more often reactive and naturalistic. But the idea of a social estate of prostitutes engaged in great factories devoted to their trade must have been necessarily disquieting. Because of the special status these women had, the Second Empire prostitutes, whose profession was somewhat naturalised and somewhat denaturalising, dramatise the contradictions of industrial civilisation as a whole, itself naturalised and unnatural.

If we accept that, intellectually at least, someone like Manet could have contemplated the Parisian prostitute with a kind of excited ambivalence, we can reapply the analysis of Alfred Jarry's poster.

A moment of everyday paranoia is pictured which threatens to be indissociable from paranoia about the whole of society. I have tried to show that this paranoia is the opposite of extreme psychopathology. It is, rather, the excited indifference of the pre-critical mindset. The type of representation involved conveys this paranoia. In place of Jarry's exaggerated double take, Manet has three figures in distinct registers: Olympia, her maid, her cat. The whole effect is something like three seperate "cut outs", assembled in the same picture, or three offkey figures from a diorama, indicating simultaneously the perspectives in which they appear realistic and nonrealistic.

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