Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Solitary Relation: Modes of Sexual Retreat in Huysmans, Rachilde and Colette
by Duggan, Niamh, Ph.D., New York University, 2014, 236; 3614866
Abstract (Summary)

My project focuses on the representation of two divergent models of sexual retreat in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century French literature. I argue that the first model is exemplified in the work of Huysmans, and the second in the work of Rachilde and Colette. Sexual retreat in Huymans's À Rebours figures the narcissistic shutting down of relation and the shoring up of the sovereign self. The retreat from sexual relation here conserves rather than disturbs dominant modes of relation.

On the other hand, drawing on Barthes notion of "le neutre", I argue that the representation of sexual retreat in the work of Rachilde and Colette provides the basis for a momentary escape from modes of relation grounded in the distinction between masculine and feminine, heterosexual and homosexual identity. It opens a space of sexual and affective neutrality in which the violence of the heteronormative couple is suspended. It also allows for the investment of modes of relation to the side of sexual relation, relations which have not been structured by discursive sexuality and to which gender and sexual norms do not apply. In Rachilde's novel La Jongleuse for example, the turn away from human sexual relation opens up a depersonalized relation with objects. Similarly for Colette, the retreat from sexual relation permits the exploration of relations of sleep, lesbianism, and friendship, as well as the cultivation of relations with strangers, animals and the natural world.

My dissertation adds to scholarship on nineteenth and early-twentieth-century French literature, by arguing that the practice of sexual retreat is not the exclusive preserve of the célibataire and the dandy, and that the texts I study provide a little-studied exploration of sexual retreat as a utopian mode of relationality. I argue that as well as figuring anti-social withdrawal, sexual retreat figures the cultivation of a feminist ethics which both suspends identity and allows for the opening up of modes of being and relating for women which were unavailable within phallocentric structures.

Theoretically, I ground my exploration of sexual retreat within the field of queer studies, particularly within the body of work that explores what Foucault termed "new modes of relationality". My first chapter on Huysmans argues that des Esseintes' sexual retreat may be read as an early instance of what has become known as the antisocial thesis in queer theory. The subsequent three chapters in which I focus on the work of Rachilde and Colette argue that sexual retreat is both anti-relational and utopian. It melds two approaches which are often thought of as separate, the anti-relational approach, which focuses on the movement away from sociality, and the reparative, utopian approach, which emphasizes the creation of new modes of sociality. My project, since it traces a movement away from the social, which at the same time aims to reconfigure it, explores sexual retreat as both an anti-relational and a utopian practice.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Apter, Emily
Commitee: Cobb, Michael, Hollier, Denis, Miller, Judith, Sieburth, Richard
School: New York University
Department: French
School Location: United States -- New York
Source: DAI-A 75/08(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Modern literature, LGBTQ studies, Gender studies
Keywords: French literature, Gender, Sexual retreat, Sexuality
Publication Number: 3614866
ISBN: 978-1-303-80560-8
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