Morbid Love in Late Nineteenth-Century France: Between Decadence and Degeneration

During a recent frosty evening, BiGS (Birkbeck Gender and Sexuality) visiting fellow Dr. Alison Moore gave a talk about the term ‘morbid love’ during late nineteenth century France. The event was kindly chaired by Dr. Tanya Serisier from the School of Law.

Is the perverse within us all?

The term morbid love or l’amour morbide was found in respectable medical texts, but interestingly overlapped with decadent culture. Within the medical world, as well as adjacent fields like psychiatry, anthropology and criminology, it was used as a synonym for describing the perverse and pathological. However, it probed a more epistemological purpose in conjuring enchanting and evocative ideas about sexuality during this period of learning. Instead of being categorised as a lab-coat term, it also habited a literary life where morbide was understood as describing something that was luridly sickly, rather than its English translation, which points to death.

From the the view of Leopold von Sacher Masoch, morbide was part of human drama, sexual folly, alienation of the soul, tortured genius and madness against civilisation. One also thinks of Charles Baudelaire, whose poems did not specifically pair the words together, but combined the excess with decay, especially in his tempting collection, Fleurs du Mal (1857). In ‘Une Charogne’ (A Carcass), a personal hate-to-love piece, the decomposing prostitute hovers between the sensual and the revolting. The connection between medical and erotic fiction encouraged a sympathetic approach to perversion, in which doctors questioned whether l’amour morbide was within all citizens.

Why did morbid love disappear?

Morbid love experienced a short life span of about thirty years, as Dr. Moore intricately traces, replaced by more technical terms such as fetish, perversion and sexual pathology. In 1910, it disappeared from respectable disciplines, cropping up after WW1 in the form of salacious texts for general readership, before vanishing altogether by the 1930s. Many texts firmly situate morbid love as a fin-de-siècle ‘disease’ of over-stimulated nerves. Many of the victims were doomed young men who were wrongly attached, but the term also extended towards those denoted with frigidity, lesbianism and male homosexuality.

What struck a chord was that many experts agreed that the disease was hereditary, an infestation that became generational if not cured from the roots. The ubiquity and invisibility of eroto-mania was feared to be found in the ‘very best families’ of elite circles. Another point was the fusion of sexual anomalies with mental illness, in which a new domain of nervous diseases was linked to sexual crimes, as well as other abnormalities like eccentricity and idiocy. I feel that the concern for the inner monster, especially within women, has not entirely abated to this day. Translated in 1775, Dr. Bienville’s misogynistic treatise on nymphomania, explains how a young woman’s inappropriate passion results from disturbed mental fibres. That this infectious disorder is apparently fuelled by corruptible literature, and funnily chocolate and wine, is an anxiety that in part still lingers.

Medical experts began to accuse decadent novelists and poets of encouraging the degeneration of the population. They linked cultural production with mental illness, circling back to the idea of a mad genius, one who writes profusely but lacks ‘quality’. This perhaps explains the shift away from the ambiguity of morbid love in favour of more technical definitions of sickness. Labels and margins provide more control and help to settle the disturbing ambivalences of the decadent imagination.

Listen to a podcast of the full talk.

Image: Majeska 1929 cover image of the decadent erotic novel, by Rachilde, Monsieur Vénus [1884].

Pauline Suwanban is a first year PhD student in the department of English. Her research is on sexual violence as pleasurable and popular reading for women, especially Orientalist romances by female authors. She is currently an intern at the BIH and BISR, assisting with events, blogs and the graduate conference. She is also a subject editor at Dandelion Journal. @Paulinesuwanban

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