In The Flowers of Evil [Les Fleurs du Mal (1857)], French poet Charles Baudelaire paints three female bodies: the mistress, the prostitute, and the lesbian. The latter appears in three of one-hundred poems but so captivated Baudelaire that he almost titled the collection The Lesbians. Censors nevertheless condemned the anthology and suppressed two of the lesbian poems. The remaining lesbian poem compares the “damned women” to “thoughtful cattle.” A rare representation of lesbian bodies, this metaphor problematically depicts them as savage.
Yet this “Other” exemplifies the baudelairean poetic ideal. By crafting Beauty, the Poet immortalizes his corpus. As the Poet’s creation, Beauty is also artificial, distinct from “despicable” nature. The “unnatural” lesbian body therefore nears Beauty. Seeming to valorize the lesbian body, this portrayal actually ignores her humanity. Only through the male Poet’s enunciation does she enter the discourse.
Humanizing a body requires it to speak, and “Baudelaire’s daughter” Renée Vivien offers that voice. Herself a lesbian in Belle-Époque France, Vivien uses her body as well as her corpus to shape a homosexual consciousness. By inserting a lesbian subject into the phallologocentric discourse, Vivien resists the savage stereotype.
Although many studies address Baudelaire’s influence on Vivien, none focus on their treatment of the lesbian body. Furthermore, when evaluating literary depictions of homosexuality in 19th-century France, Baudelaire’s poems overshadow Vivien’s abundant oeuvre. To fill the gap between Baudelaire’s imagined sapphism and Vivien’s lived experience, this paper pairs close reading with feminist and psychoanalytical theories. A sample of four poems reveals that Vivien appropriates Baudelaire’s musings to inscribe subjectivity on the lesbian body. Through the poem, the lesbian body therefore offsets phallologocentrism.
"Writing Desire on the Lesbian Body: Baudelaire’s Fantasies and Vivien’s Realities,"
Tête-à-Tête: Vol. 1, Article 3.
Available at: https://repository.lsu.edu/tete_a_tete/vol1/iss1/3