MARY D. SHERIFF
Moved by Love: Inspired Artists and Deviant Women in Eighteenth-Century France
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. 320 pp.; 63 halftones. $35.00
One of the more notable lines in Pierre Marivaux's The Game of Love and Chance (1730) is delivered by his young protagonist, Silvia, who masquerades as her servant Lisette in order to test her lover's devotion. "I want a combat between love and reason," she affirms at the close of act 3, scene 4, this to justify keeping the ruse going until Dorante, undone by his feelings, requests her hand in marriage despite the evident class misalliance. (1) The play ends in Silvia's triumph; she reveals herself only to maintain the fiction that arranged marriages and heartfelt sentiments actually coincide in ancien regime France, a fiction that has emerged to hold social hierarchies and conventions in place. Given Silvia's guise as amante, intrigante, and petite soubrette, her words and machinations have everything to do with the theatrical genre of surprises de l'amour (so-called by the writer Jean-Baptiste de Boyer, marquis d'Argens, following the title of several of Marivaux's productions) and its painted counterpart in the canvases of, say, Antoine Watteau. Beyond this, the face-off between amorous impulse and disciplined mind that Silvia identifies, then puts into play, as it were, speaks not only to eighteenth-century assumptions about woman's nature but also to the wisdom and logic of women artists, poets, writers, and thinkers who take reason, intellectuality, art, and philosophy as theirs to possess or produce.
Where eighteenth-century assumptions are concerned, listen to Abbe Nicolas Lenglet Dufresnoy, in whom earnest sympathy for the opposite sex means asserting that history indeed reveres women--women, that is, who are illustrious solely on the basis of virtuous love. As he explains in L'histoire justifiee contre les remans (1735), which pits the scrupulousness of historical narrative against the frivolity of the novel, "Here, then, are two maxims that I have established ... first, that illustrious women of all kinds appear with distinction in history, and in a manner that honors them; second, that history represents the excellence of virtuous love, and that it distances passionate love by showing how it destroys the economy of the wisest governments." (2) Clio the Proclaimer, in short, has no place on her scroll for depraved Messalina. Now heed the insights of philosopher Michele Le Doeuff writing in 1998 on gender and epistemology, on women as objects of study and not makers of knowledge. After wondering whether women are "the reliquaries or the rubbish of History," then scanning any number of representative moments--from Plato to Nicolas Bourbaki (the pseudonym for a group of mainly French mathematicians, highly influential in the twentieth century)--cementing the alliance of the masculine with reason and the feminine with intuition, she concludes: "The discourse on the cognitive difference of women occupies a realm entirely different from what you are, from what I am, and it is not even sure that the word that supposedly designates us has a clear referent." (3) The pronouns here are gendered--and this all by itself scripts a decisive attunement of the male indexing of philosophy's purportedly neutral and universal postures. As for cognitive difference between the sexes, it is revealed as indelibly marked by a shady "referent" whose spurious basis in fact is continually occulted by dominant discourses.
Mary D. Sheriff's most recent book, Moved by Love: Inspired Artists and Deviant Women in Eighteenth-Century France, can be understood as an effort to locate that referent during the Enlightenment, to take stock of its instabilities, and to parse out the ways in which the pronouncements it spawned about gender and identity came to shape myths about the creation and experience of art. Central is the conflict-ridden exchange--discernible, she proposes, in everything from Encyclopedie entries and Salon criticism to medical treatises and philosophies of the senses--between speculations on the inspired artist and conceptualizations of woman (cognitive as well as psychological, physiological, and moral). The exchange traverses a set of defining terms Sheriff brings together to structure her analysis and place the slipperiness and resultant ubiquity of Le Doeuff's "referent" into view. Intuition--and this surely goes to the heart of Le Doeuff's point--is a theme whose tiresome variations seem at once repetitious and inexhaustible. In Sheriff's scheme of things, it gets replaced with a circuit of associations linking together enthusiasm, emulation, inspiration, imagination, passion, fire, possession, artifice, melancholia, erotomania, nymphomania, deviance, and that most cherished item in the cult of sensibility, love. The reigning male figure in this circuit of art and desire is Pygmalion, retrieved from Ovid in Enlightenment aesthetics as a paradigm for the creative endeavor. For Sheriff,
... figuring enthusiasm as reason's masterpiece worked to secure the artist on the side of the eternally masculine, posing (masculine) reason and not (feminine) imagination as what generates images and excites the desire to create. The Pygmalion story in an allied gesture invests reproductive power in the male creator and repudiates female sexuality. In each case such a move was necessary because in so many ways the artist/Pygmalion resembled a woman. (p. 144)
Or, more precisely, what was construed as a woman--which is to say that by displaying the signs of fureur poetique (or artistic inspiration), Pygmalion exhibits the symptoms of fureur uterine (or sexual insatiability). With semantic migrations and gender confusions set in her sights, Sheriff scrutinizes "the complicated gendering of creativity and spectatorship in eighteenth-century France" (p. 6), all the while taking pleasure in watching Eros run riot.
What brings Sheriff to her subject? First, there is the question of how the Enlightenment recycled the reputations of an available roster of exceptional women. Inspired or monstrous, depending on the vantage, the Pythia, Sappho, the twelfth-century abbess Heloise, Saint Teresa of Avila, and Madeleine de Scudery are cast, Sheriff argues, either as passionate makers and defenders of prophecy, poetry, epistolary romance, mystical writing, and the historical novel or as creatures governed by unnatural inclinations (these range from isolated melancholic stupor to collective tribadic excess). Sheriff relies for her claims on the writings of Peggy Kamuf, Joan DeJean, Page DuBois, Giulia Sissa, and Marie-Helene Huet, among others, who are acknowledged at the outset as sounding board, model, or source for the book's arguments. Second, there is a commitment to mining relevant eighteenth-century sources from fields outside art history (literary criticism, moral philosophy, religious studies, and the history of medicine). These are selected to help unravel the knots (or what Sheriff also terms "clusters") of ideas binding "discourses on creativity" to troublesome notions of sexual identity--notions undoubtedly in need of the psychoanalytically informed eye she provides. And third, there is Sheriff's own intellectual trajectory, a personal evolution of scholarly thought briefly summarized by way of the introduction in order to stress that Moved by Love is rooted in, yet remains distinct from, her previous work. Myths of...