by Caroline Warman

This chapter presents the case studies of two francophone men: one a French nobleman born during the French Revolution, Astolphe de Custine, 1790–1856; and one a Swiss philosophy professor and a generation younger, Henri-Frédéric Amiel, 1821–81. For each, the central story of his life was how he related to his own fragile gender and sexuality – Custine was, it emerged, homosexual, whilst Amiel defined himself as lacking in all those attributes of strength, energy and productiveness which he himself defined as truly masculine. The histories of their gender-ing (because it was a process) oscillate suggestively between illness and text. That is to say, their stories are about illness, actual or perceived, selfdiagnosed or socially-determined, and their response – both in terms of diagnosis and resolution – is profoundly textual. By this I mean that they construe their problems in terms of a general cultural malaise exemplified by a piece of high literature, to which they respond textually, re-identifying themselves in the light of it and thus dramatising and playing out the tension between gender, sexuality, health and society that they had to live with. They therefore leave the label of ill health behind, and write themselves towards well-being. Or do they?

The ‘general cultural malaise’ to which I am alluding was what was known in France as the ‘mal du siècle’ – the sickness of the century. The text which defined, exemplified or even caused it (as a fashionable trend) is Chateaubriand’s René, first published in 1802 as part of his five-volume pro-Christian polemic, Le génie du Christianisme (The Genius of Christianity). René is the story-with-a-moral of a dispossessed young nobleman, in a state of undefined yearning, awash with emotion yet devoid of purpose in life. His older sister decides to become a nun, and on the verge of taking her vows breaks out with an admission of her incestuous feelings for him. This is the catalyst of self-realisation for René who in despair departs for America where he makes a sort of half-life with the Natchez Indians, married but childless and living separately from his Natchez wife. He is known for his mysterious melancholy. There he learns of his sister’s death, and finally reveals his story to the tribal elders, who, reprimanding him, tell him to temper [the] character which ha[d] already wreaked such havoc’. He fails to stop yearning and being melancholy, and meets death soon after in a battle. Chateaubriand explicitly – if rather ambiguously – frames this tragic story of impossible love in a disapproving context. He is, he says, painting a portrait, undiluted by adventure, of the ‘indistinctness of the passions’ whereby a ‘great misfortune is sent to punish René and shake up those young men who, surrendering themselves up to pointless dreaming, criminally evade their dues to society’.5 The ‘pointless dreaming’ very clearly refers to René’s forbidden obsession with his sister while the ‘criminal evasion of society’s dues’ as clearly refers to his refusal to take an active patriarchal role in the tribe and to start a family. That is to say, the problem arises from unacceptable sexual desire, construed as anti-social, even as destructive of society.

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