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A Parisian Affair of 1904, Part 1 - Pastry, Champagne and Bananas

by Caspar Wintermans in History & Politics , 16 juli 2011

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar

Montague Summers, born in 1880, looked back in his memoirs with nostalgia on his youth during the fin-de-siècle. Art, he wrote, was still taken seriously in those days, just as the way people dressed. It was equally unthinkable that you left the house without your trousers as without gloves. A gentleman uncovered his right hand when meeting a friend or acquaintance in the street; shook his or her hand, drew on the glove again, only to take it off after the conversation for the handshake at parting.

“Life was a more leisurely, more chivalrous, nobler adventure then,” Summers maintained. “There was time for the decorums, and for the decencies of etiquette.” Art and culture flourished in Europe around 1900, but did the wealthy and the aristocrats always display the courtesy to which Summers refers? Prince Constantin Radziwill, who during the Belle Époque moved in the most brilliant circles, led the life of a respectable pater familias.

But he had a sexual preference for young men, one of whom revealed how Radziwill used to meet him regularly in a room above a glove-shop. “He entered, lay down his hat, approached me, unbuttoned my trousers and rendered me a small service, without taking off his gloves.”
Such an anecdote reveals a lot about a bygone age.

More than a century had elapsed since the Great Revolution, yet equality and fraternity were often conspicuous by their absence in France. On 6 April 1895 “Le Figaro” minutely explained to its readers how one should finish one’s letters. This depended on the recipient’s status. Pope, Emperor, King, lawyers and mayors had to be addressed with pomp and verbosity.

That fuss was superfluous when dealing with simple folk. A caretaker or valet was even ordered about in the third person: “‘I request X... (the staff member’s name) to do this or that.” (Sign with your name, no final formula.)” Flatter those above you, kick those beneath you. Civilized it was not.

At the time, socialists and anarchists agitated against the establishment. The last named did not shrink from violence. In 1893 a fanatic threw a nail bomb from the public gallery of the French Chamber of Deputies to the MPs and the members of the cabinet. The action would cost him his head, but in the midst of the smoke and the noise Mercier, the Minister of War, did not lose his.

Poster by Georges-Antoine Rochegrosse (1859-1938) for the first night of ‘Louise’ in 1900

A nail that had landed on the desk of his neighbour behind him, rebounded and dropped on the desk of Mercier. He took it up, turned round and handed it to the bewildered parliamentarian. “This belongs to you,” he said, not moving a muscle...

A year later Mercier played a less admirable role during the Dreyfus affair, when at his instigation a Jewish army captain was condemned after an unfair trial for spying for Germany, a judicial error that gave rise to an unprecedented scandal dividing France to the core for a considerable time. Anti-Semites, ultra-nationalists, high-ranking officers, reactionaries and the clergy used the case as a pretext for an offensive against progressives and seculars. These hit back with great force, and finally promulgated a law forbidding monks and priests to teach children.

Complete congregations were expelled from the country. Meantime massive strikes, brutally broken by the government, paralysed public life, while suffragettes raised their voice. The assumption that life in the Republic before the Great War was serene and neatly arranged is, therefore, utterly wrong; but, as we have said, culturally there was a lot, a great lot, to enjoy.

‘A Kind of Freemasonry’

On 2 February 1900 Gustave Charpentier received a tremendous ovation in the Opéra-Comique after the belated premiere of his opera in four acts, “Louise.” He had completed the score in 1893, but the managers he had approached had not ventured to produce the work for a long time, as they deemed the libretto to be pretty hot stuff.

Louise, a seamstress from a Parisian working-class neighbourhood, is courted by Julien, a young poet who persuades her to move in with him without getting married. His ideal of free love meets the resistance of her parents, whom he waves aside as narrow-minded and selfish.

Charpentier has represented the generation conflict in an admirable way. The music is magnificent. The final scene from the first act — Louise, torn between her affection for her family and her passion for the poet, is emotionally reading aloud from the newspaper to her father, accompanied by tender harp, flute and violin playing — that scene always brings tears to my eyes, but please keep this to yourself.

The composer Gustave Charpentier (1860-1956)

“Louise” received its 943th performance in 1950; the opera is among those most frequently given in the twentieth century. The audience identified with the pair that breaks away from social conventions. “Everyone has a right to freedom!” Julien sings in the third act. “Woe be to the one who tries to shackle the proud will of a budding soul demanding its share of sunshine and love!”

A plea which is likely to have touched gays in particular, bearing in mind that they continued to be repressed to a degree around 1900. And inevitably a large number of them had bought a ticket for the first night. For the amount of music enthusiasts among gays is remarkably high. In addition they display an exaggerated politeness. Also, they are noted for their yearning looks.

At least, that is what Ali Coffignon stated in “La Corruption à Paris,” a book from 1888 of which a Dutch translation appeared in the following year. Its title clearly shows that the author did not have a high opinion of gays; nevertheless his work tells us a lot about the contemporary way of life of “pederasts” — a term used to designate gays in general and which did not have the present-day connotation of pedosexuality.

Coffignon claimed he did not exaggerate when he wrote that “the pederasts of all nations form a kind of freemasonry.” He quoted a well-informed “individual” who maintained that gays “recognize each other immediately.” “Wherever a pederast goes, he is almost certain to find his brothers. He could travel around the globe without having to open his wallet, assured to find board and lodging with those he would honour with his favours.” The writer further remarked, as did some of his contemporaries, that “the shared vice” “removed every social distinction. The master and his valet are equals; the millionaire and the tramp fraternize; the magistrate and the recidivist exchange their vile caresses.” So the way Prince Radziwill treated his lovers was, perhaps, the exception rather than the rule. Let us hope so.

‘A True Violation of Decency’

Gays wishing to let off steam could go to certain hotels where they might get a room for three francs an hour, or they could visit specialized saunas, paying a fairly high entrance-fee of about ten to twenty francs. Coffignon mentioned an establishment in the centre of the capital which “on some days formed the theatre of a true violation of decency.” Plain clothes policemen came to investigate, and found that homosexual acts were indeed rife there. “But as they were wearing bathing-trunks it was impossible for them to arrest in flagrante delicto. And the funniest part of it all was that one of the two agents, a strong chap with an impressive physique, obviously charmed one of the sauna’s visitors, who solicited him in quite unequivocal terms.”

In 1891 the police took rigorous measures against the proprietor, staff members and visitors of a sauna in the rue de Penthièvre. Eighteen arrests were made, custodial sentences ranging from six months to two years delivered. Consensual sex between adult men was not forbidden in France (unlike in Germany and the United Kingdom), but only if it took place in private. A sauna was a public space, hence the police action. It did not matter that visitors of a gay bath house who did not have sex there, possibly did not object to those who did.

Inside a male bath house around 1900

Onlookers made up “the audience” which established the violation of public decency. It is important to remember this when later on we shall discuss the vicissitudes of Ernest Boulton and his friends.
Coffignon gave evidence in his book of the tremendous taboo concerning anal sex which existed in his time. Not just the gay variant disgusted him, the straight one did so as well. Men who in their relations with women liked the rear entrance as much as the front door were branded as “sadists” by him. He commiserated with those “decent ladies who, wishing to tie a depraved husband to the domestic hearth, submit to this lewdness.” More than one hundred of these accommodating women, he asserted, ended up each year in the hospital in the rue de Lourcine.

Anal Sex Discussed

Champions of gay emancipation deemed the aversion against the most delightful way of gay lovemaking to be one of the chief obstacles on the road to freedom. It was for this reason — at least, that is my conviction — that Dr. Paul Naecke thought fit to tamper with the statistics when he stated, in an article from 1905, that anal penetration, though “not a vice in itself,” was condemned by most “Uranians.” Only five to eight percent of gay men were supposed to indulge in this form of relaxation. In spite of this debatable remark, Naecke’s articles, published in the “Archives d’anthropologie criminelle,” form a refreshing contrast with what was being written about us in those days.

Naecke pointed out that gays are, most of them, upright, hard-working citizens; that one finds among them proportionally “more talents and geniuses” than among the rest of the population; that it is absurd to believe that boys may become gay by reading positively-worded brochures and books on “pederasty”; but that those struggling with their orientation could get enlightenment and encouragement by perusing them.

Marc-André Raffalovich strongly disagreed. He penned a reply which appeared in the magazine. Raffalovich objected to all leaflets suggesting that gay desires were normal and that their harmonious satisfaction increased one’s health and happiness. Homosexuals (“our weak brethren”) had to rise above themselves and embrace chastity. Naecke’s opinion that a young bi- or homosexual was a better judge of his orientation than a psychiatrist or GP was as sad as it was hilarious, Raffalovich thought. He ended his piece by expressing the wish that France might be safeguarded against sexologists such as Magnus Hirschfeld who in Germany campaigned for equal rights for gays.

Raffalovich himself was “so,” as it happens. One of his black sheep was Oscar Wilde, whom after his conviction he had described as “a national danger.” Thereupon Lord Alfred Douglas had revealed in the “Revue Blanche” that Raffalovich fancied men and that Wilde’s physical revulsion to the Russian with literary pretensions had been such that one day he (Wilde) had had to hurry from a restaurant when Raffalovich came in. It is difficult to appreciate this gentleman who was proficient at flower arranging; we shall meet him again later on.
The “Archives d’anthropologie criminelle” were read by specialists only: by doctors, lawyers, sociologists and biologists. The masses took note of homosexuality chiefly by means of novels and newspapers.

Passive Pederasty

Literature enjoyed a greater freedom in the Republic than in prudish England. The Decadents wrote fairly often about gays. We may instance “Les Hors nature” (1897) by Marguerite Vallette, who used the pseudonym “Rachilde,” and “Escal-Vigor” (1899) by the Belgian author Georges Eekhoud, whose work appeared in Paris. The protagonists in Rachilde’s novel are not depicted in too black a way, yet they fully live up to the cliché that gays are unbalanced, vain and superficial.

Paul and Eric de Fertzen (two brothers; that only made the story more titillating) finally perish in the flames. Such a fate for “sodomites” was conventional, too. “Escal-Vigor” also has a tragic ending (the lovers are murdered by farmers’ wives), yet the author’s sympathy clearly lies with the young men, which resulted in his being brought to trial in Bruges. Fortunately the case against him was quashed.

Some pornographic novels featuring gays and written for gays appeared during the Belle Époque as well, published anonymously and sold under the counter. By far the most curious of these curiosa is “Pédérastie passive ou Mémoires d’un enculé,” which dates from about 1897.

Paul Snijders kindly lent me his rare copy of an edition issued around 1900 in Rotterdam by the firm of Bergé-Versteeg. The book contains 129 pages and is bound in green cloth.

Covers of a 1993 and of a recently issued reprint of ‘Pédérastie passive.’ Its editor, Patrick Cardon, believes the book appeared at a much later date than a specialist such as Jean-Pierre Dutel, who thinks (and so do I) that the novel had been originally published about 1897

The title on the spine is false and carries a glaring miss-print: “Language des fleurs” (instead of “Langage des fleurs”). The text itself is full of typographical errors as well, which show that the man at the press knew French but imperfectly. To my knowledge no copy of the editio princeps has yet come to light.

“Pédérastie passive” contains the memoirs of a twenty-five-year-old bottom. At boarding school he is initiated in the delights of being fucked by one of his teachers, brother Léonce. “I quickly discovered that his reverence was kindly disposed towards me. I was never punished or saddled up with work. Light pats on my cheeks and on my buttocks especially were the only reprimands I got; moreover, these reprimands might well have passed for caresses.” During the night Léonce sings the praises of what he terms “the ultimate happiness on earth.”

“In the course of your life you will in all likelihood hear people speak of this act in terms of the deepest contempt. Numerous men who abandon themselves to all forms of debauchery and all sorts of vileness one can perform with a woman, brand the impassioned who addict themselves to this kind of pleasure as infamous persons. Don’t listen to them, and continue to make this joy the greatest delight of your life.”

Men who have sex with women are, according to the teacher, “utterly lacking in every artistic sense.”
The pupil is not disappointed with the practice (“I could never have surmised that such a bodily part inserted in my arse could provide such pleasure”); and in view of the fact that there is not to be found a single heterosexual character in the story (excepting a servant girl with whom the narrator, interestingly, sleeps during the holidays), his happiness is complete. All his teachers and all his fellow pupils share his predilection, so that lots of fun may be had in the dormitory and at the water’s edge. The meeting with abbot L*** is a particularly memorable occasion, for he has been well endowed by Mother Nature — there is “a veritable horse’s organ” dangling between his legs! — ; but it is as the partner of a wealthy man of business that the hero finds love and security. “I have lived as a bottom to this day. As a bottom I shall end my existence, to the ultimate joy of R*** and myself!”

“Pédérastie passive,” although far from being a stylistic masterpiece, forms a fascinating document. It is remarkable how utterly carefree the novelist talks about homosexuality. None of his personages is weighed down by his orientation. Desires are satisfied without the outside world showing its disapproval or even noticing what is going on. The book is a wishful dream: everyone sleeps with everyone. That the reality was altogether different, and that gays whose sex parties came to light were put in the pillory by the yellow press, will be shown by our reconstruction in next month’s issue of the affair of the boulevard Montparnasse.

(To be continued)



In the New Issue of Gay News, 323, July 2018

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