Eccentricity and the Cultural Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Paris

Elizabeth Rechniewski revels in a scholarly account of Parisians breaking the bounds of normality

July 30, 2009

Of course, it is disappointing to discover that the poet Nerval probably did not promenade through the streets of Paris leading a lobster on a ribbon. Miranda Gill offers up for our inspection, however, many other fascinating specimens of eccentricity: the freaks at the sideshows whose deformities were often not strictly the work of nature; the writers who hoped that sartorial distinction might reflect artistic genius; the aristocrats declasses such as the Baron de Saint-Cricq, who found unusual uses for ink and hot chocolate. Concentrating on the period 1830-1870, from the relaxed mores of the July monarchy to the - superficially at least - stricter morality of the Second Empire, and drawing on a wide range of sources including etiquette manuals, psychiatric treatises and fashion journals, Gill examines the extraordinary diversity and richness of the phenomenon of eccentricity in 19th-century Paris.

Her enterprise might be likened to that of the writers she discusses, such as Champfleury, who offered up to an avid readership portraits of contemporary eccentrics. This was a time when measurement and typologies were being applied to every phenomenon - why not then to the inhabitants of Paris, who offered such a rich field of study? Or perhaps we should think of Gill's enterprise as that of a flaneur as she strolls through the different sectors of Parisian society: the demi-monde; bohemia; the "underworld"; stopping here to observe an array of dandies, there to bring to our attention natives exhibited in human zoos. One of the strengths of the book lies in Gill's ability to make connections across these apparently very different spheres, bringing within her wide-ranging discussion such disparate subjects as medical models of insanity, political preoccupations with national decline, the study of teratology (deformities) and, towards the end of the century, definitions of race.

The reader is occasionally rather overwhelmed by the fine distinctions Parisians seem to have been able to draw. The gradations are particularly subtle when it is a question of distinguishing between shades of female eccentricity, with terms such as lionne, lorette and femme a la mode, among many others, identifying types of women from prostitutes to the setters of bon ton. And to complicate the picture, as Gill emphasises, the boundaries between terms and types blur and shift as the July monarchy is replaced by the Second Empire. Public opinion was rarely tolerant, however, of expressions of female eccentricity; the widespread and repetitive characterisations of women as weak-mindedly in thrall to the sirens of fashion and luxury, or as scheming courtesans, reveal the deep-rooted misogyny of the time.

The term "eccentric" supposes a centre from which the eccentric has deviated. In 19th-century Paris, that centre was represented by the bourgeoisie, although the term "bourgeoisie" was notoriously difficult to define and, like eccentricity, was rarely an epithet applied to oneself. But certainly there circulated in the lithographs of Honore Daumier, for example, representations of the prudent, soberly dressed man of affairs, who sought to distinguish himself both from the "decadence" of the aristocracy and from the "short and brutish" life of the lower classes.

Identification of eccentrics in their manifold guises offered a means of distinction and a source of reassurance to those who could wield the term and apply it to others. Gill traces very effectively, however, the intimate relationship that in reality existed between those who upheld this normative social model and those who challenged it - often the sons of those respectable businessmen.

The general reader will be drawn to the portraits of the lost worlds of "Saltimbanques and savages" - the circuses, fairs and freak shows that often included the exhibition of "native scenes". The specialist reader will find an exhaustive, scholarly and rigorous account of the many forms that eccentricity took, including close analysis of the evolving discourse of scientists and doctors. There are interesting reflections, too, on the reasons behind the profusion of forms of eccentricity in Paris in this period. Was it an expression of the fluid, rapidly changing society of post-revolutionary France, where the frontiers of normality were constantly being redefined? Was it a reaction to and a rejection of the emerging class of the bourgeoisie?

Which prompts the question: whatever happened to eccentricity? The term seems barely to exist in contemporary culture where eccentricity is one of the multiple lifestyles offered by late capitalism: it has been brought within the centre, commodified and served up in celebrity gossip. In 1975, Gary Dahl became a very rich man by persuading millions to adopt a pet rock. So much less trouble than a pet lobster.

Eccentricity and the Cultural Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Paris

By Miranda Gill

Oxford University Press 320pp, £55.00

ISBN 9780199543281

Published 15 January 2009

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