Monday, May 29th, 2023

Nonconformism in La Belle Epoque pt. 5: Art and Life

Nonconformism in


Part V: Art and Life

by Mark Daniel • translated by Marcel Martin

originally published in Tangents 1.2, Nov. 1965

Tangents November 1965

Literature, important though it may be, can never exempt the social historian from having recourse to other more direct sources of information — chronicles, mémoires, and news items. And if we are to attempt to learn something of the kind of life led in 1900 by the hundreds of thousands of “normal” homosexuals — those who were not particularly effeminate, who were not neurotic or lovers of adolescents — who quite understandably did not attract the attention of writers, it becomes particularly essential that we close the books and look for our information elsewhere.

It is true that one does find, here and there in literature a character like the Princess de Guermantes’ discreet usher in Proust’s novel who, without even knowing him, falls so sincerely in love with the Duke de Châtellerault, but characters of this kind are few, and, in general, we have to be content with imagining this kind of person for ourselves.

As an example of a virile homosexual affection I am very fond of citing the passage in which Colette, in Ces Plaisirs, speaks of her renowned friend, the poet, and of his companion, “le petit,” a fine and radiant person. We should remember, however, that this text was written well after the Belle Epoque. But I was particularly surprised to find a passage, almost equally beautiful, written by Charles-Louis Philippe, a man who was in no way homosexual. These memorable lines appeared in the August 1st issue of Canard Sauvage, 1903, in connection with the trial of Jacques d’Adelswärd-Fersen.

I remember two hobos who, one autumn evening during my childhood, were sitting on the edge of a ditch-bank. They had their arms around each other’s neck and were holding each other close: their hands were clasped and they were kissing. Life was (or them a drudgery, but their hearts were united. They had no wives, no mothers, no brothers; consequently each was for the other a wife, a mother, a brother. I was fifteen — one learns a great deal at school. I understood. I hid behind a hedge so that they could not see me, and I learned how good it was that one man could be for another: These are men of noble hearts on whom Nature has played a trick and who bear this strange passion like a burden. They are in no need of prefaces by Rostand, nor do they need corsets, jewels, or black masses. They comport themselves with passion but with simplicity. And who among us will condemn them? Who is bold enough to condemn his neighbor in his flesh and blood? …every passion is good and great and normal since it exists.

For men like these, bums or poets, ushers or clerks, their daily activities in 1900 were, with few exceptions, almost identical with those of their counterparts today, but what a difference there must be in psychological attitudes! An understanding such as that shown by Charles-Louis Philippe was then exceptional, and rare — certainly very rare indeed — were the middle-class homosexuals capable of judging their own particular nature in its true light as being not of moral order but of a biological and sociological one [34]. Now, to be exact, it is all the more difficult to form an accurate picture of such matters because the line of demarcation between certain sexual neuroses and this “normal” virile, healthy form of homosexuality which creates the attraction often felt by intellectuals for the working man, is often wavering and indistinct [35]. M. de Charlus’ inversion might just as easily have led him to a robust and masculine kind of love as to vice. Little things can make such differences. If only Jean Lorrain had not been addicted to ether, if only, instead of frequenting shadowy and questionable levels of society he had formed a lasting relationship with a colossus who might or might not wear underwear or an apple-green cardigan, far from considering him a neurotic invalid, we would consider him a “normal” homosexual. And who can say whether neuroticism plays a part in a case like that of the pianist Voyer who, the evening of the 18th of June, 1880, was surprised by the police in the Bois de Vincennes “resting his left hand on a cane, his right hand indecently on the trousers of an artilleryman?” [36].

This problem is particularly touchy when it becomes a matter of trying to define in literature someone like Georges Eeckhoud. In Eskal Vigor, in Mes Communions, what contrasts there are! On the one hand, the style is very “end of the century” — almost the “artistic” style of Jean Lorrain or Huysmans, laden with adjectives, rare words, and is further burdened with a kind of Flemish heaviness; on the other hand, there is a marked taste for popular surroundings (bordering, here, if not on anarchy, certainly on socialism). There is a rather morbid attraction for bandits, thieves, assassins, and professional murderers. But there is no trace of the invert as in the case of Jean Lorrain — there are no jewels, no dyed hair, no ivory headed canes or silk stockings. The lawyer Zambelli, in the story entitled “Le Sublime escarpe” (“The Sublime Assassin”) [37] is madly in love with a young thief who in the end, sacrifices his life for him but is, himself, possessed of irreproachable dignity.

In the novelette entitled Appol et Brouscard [38], we are witness to a reciprocal and marvelous passion between two bandits. The tale is redolent of Flemish taverns, fertile humid plains, unsavory neighborhoods, and is told with a romantic grandiloquence which at first glance appears very virile, but which is, on closer examination, found to be decidedly feminine and even somewhat puerile. The tawdry “advice to the love-lorn,” the facile poetry about good bandits, noble outlaws and sublime assassins constitute, when all’s said and done, the literature of a sentimental homosexual, and Gide is a hundred times more virile, despite his little Arabs.

But, after all, where does virility leave off, and where does effeminacy begin? But to answer this question would lead us rather for afield.

Golette relates in Ces Plaisirs a typical anecdote — which, if I judge correctly from the allusion to handlebar mustaches, must have taken place about 1900. In this one story she sums up better than might an entire exegesis, the eternal drama of those who worship virility; moreover she shows us once and for all and realistically what must have been the life of someone like Marcel Proust, who, leaving the salon of the Countess Greffulhe, would go in search of laborers or milkmen.

Pepe was a Spaniard of the old nobility: he was small, rather stiff in his manner, chaste because his very timidity kept him so, and rather pleasantly homely. He was helplessly mad for blue, gold, and crimson, for masculine beauty and those blond young men upon whom manual labor imposed the wearing of blue coveralls. Every day around six o’clock Pepe could be found leaning on the railing at the entrance to the subway watching entranced as there emerged from the darkness below the stocky blond necks of workmen clad in every possible shade of blue. Now one day, that six o’clock flood which, as it empties the metallurgical and electrical workshops, pours out on Paris all the blues of the forget-me not, the cornflower, the larkspur, the gentian and squill, brought Pepe face to face with a new and the nameless shade of blue together with a mop of dazzlingly golden hair which hung loosely over the face it framed.

“Ah!” murmured Pepe, ‘”Vercingetorix!”

He clasped both hands to bis smitten heart and bit bis lips. Now a man has every right to whisper aloud the name “Adele” or “Rose,” or even, in public, kiss the portrait of a lady, but stifle be must a name like Ernest or Jim. Pale, hesitant, like one marching to bis death, Pepe followed Vercingetorix. The collar of his jacket, the folds of his elbows, even his galoshes sparkled with freshly cut filings, and sometimes the ends of his gigantic mustache, swinging in the evening breeze, whipped all the way back around his neck. Suddenly be turned to enter a tobacco shop swerving so unexpectedly that he brushed against Pepe. Grazed by the point of his mustache, like the tip of a whip. Pepe staggered.

“I beg your pardon, sir,” said Vercingetorix.

“I must be dreaming,” Pepe said to himself, “or perhaps I’m going to die.” He apologized. He looked at me. He’s just looked at me again. Where are my knees? My legs don’t know what they’re doing, and yet I’m now standing— I’m following him. I’m…”

And then be stopped thinking al all, for Vercingetorix, looking back, flirtatiously and teasingly, had smiled at him again.

“I felt then,” said Pepe, “that agonizing feeling which warns one in sleep that an enjoyable dream is about to end. But I could not have stopped. A half hour later I was climbing, be hind my Vercingetorix, a steep narrow stairway, and then I was sitting down in a very clean, very quiet tiny room, where there must have been muslin curtains, for everything seemed very white. Vercingetorix had said: ‘Sit down,’ and he’d disappeared behind a glass-paned door. It seemed as though I was alone for a long time. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before. I kept saying to myself: ‘What if he kills me… What if he kills me…’ and I couldn’t help thinking that this would be the most glorious thing which could possibly happen to me. Finally, the door opened and Vercingetorix…”

He clasped his childlike fists and beat them one against the other. “No, not Vercingetorix! There was no more Vercingetorix! A monster. He had put on a silk shirt, open at the neck…and do you know what he had on his head? A… a… I scarcely dare tell you…”

He swallowed hard and made a gesture indicative of nausea.

A crown of pompom roses — pompom roses with leaves and ferns… And those beautiful mustaches. It was beauty defiled, a shameful masquerade…”

And then, as he said nothing a bitter expression on his face, I asked: “And then, Pepe, what happened then?’

“What happened? Nothing happened, of course, he said horrified. “Perhaps you don’t find my story funny enough for you. I left . . . I left him something on the table. [39]

But let us not get the wrong idea. In 1900, despite the International Exposition which, according to Prefect Chiappe, had brought on Paris a very troublesome wave of homosexuality (perhaps because of the great numbers of Orientals who swarmed to the capital),[40] public opinion in general, particularly the then all-powerful bourgeoisie, was much less indulgent than it is today in its attitude toward sexual behavior. Following the trial of Oscar Wilde which ended in his being sentenced to hard labor, many French writers refused to sign the protest petition which others, more courageous, sent to the English judges. After the trial of Jacques d’Adelswärd-Fersen, high society in Paris pitilessly closed its doors to him; the proof of this intolerance is found in the fact that in Proust’s novel M. de Charlus takes every possible precaution to keep from disclosing himself — twenty years later, he would have gloried in revealing his sexual proclivities at the worldly parties he attended.

As for the law, it was, in 1900, just what it was until 1942 — that is, somewhat more liberal than it is today as far as relations with minors are concerned.

The police force, which had at its head a number of distinguished men, was much less active than it is today in the matter of morals, and in general, acted with tact and discretion. In 1904, acting upon the complaint of a neighbor, the Vice Squad arrested all the participants of a “Roman orgy” (as they were called in those days) which was being held in Montparnasses at the home of a rather celebrated painter. The orgy was taking place behind closed doors, and there were no minors present. The painter and his friends were convicted, but they appealed. On June 19, 1904, the Appeals Court acquitted them and reprimanded the Vice Squad for having exceeded its authority. I am not sure that the case would turn out the same way today.

Still, the prudery of a given judge could then, as it can today, read into the law a “moralistic” interpretation, and, well before the new laws of 1942, it might introduce the idea of “act against nature” — an idea completely alien to the rationalist mind of the 1810 legislator:

Whereas…the immorality of the act against nature…is complicated by an element completely lacking in the natural passion of one sex for the other, and in the physiological movements of the human being…and whereas acts against nature…are above all acts of perversion… [41]

To be sure, and as is natural and to be expected, where minors were concerned judgments were just as severe as they are today. The story of the hapless Jacques d’Adelswärd-Fersen is there to prove it. And I am not speaking of other countries, in which the law was harsher and in which the very years of the Belle Epoque were marked by a two-fold increase in the number of convictions in matters of morals, often as the result of political or other subterfuge; in England, Oscar Wilde was condemned to three years at hard labor; in Germany there was the trial of Prince d’Eulenberg in 1908.

It was in 1902 that Baron Krupp, the great German industrialist, committed suicide in order to escape standing trial following the revelations in the newspaper Propaganda of his activities in his villa in Capri: in 1903 the English general McDonald committed suicide in the Regina Hotel in Paris for similar reasons. It is true that other countries had no monopoly on scandals such as these which were basically politically motivated: in 1876 the career of the Count de Germiny, leader of the Catholic party, was ruined by his arrest in a public urinal on the Champs-Elysées [42].

Let us pause to point out here that as one always must we should modify our generalizations. While it is indeed true that, in general, the police and the courts, during the Belle Epoque, gave every evidence of acting with tact and discretion, still we are faced with the fact that in 1909 in the notorious “affair of the rue de la Pépinière” a servant named Renaud was sentenced to forced labor on the mere “presumption of a crime,” and the presumption in turn was based solely on the fact that he was a homosexual and consequently presumed to be immoral! To be sure this scandalous sentence unleashed a veritable storm of protest in the press and among the public, but much nearer to our time a crowd in Limoges tried to lynch a man by the name of Baratoud — as much because of his homosexuality as for his crime. Prejudice, hypocrisy and stupidity are to be found in any and every period.


The advance in the social acceptance of homosexuality which so markedly characterized the beginning of the century was obviously conditioned and in no small measure initiated by the extraordinary development of scientific understanding which came to the fore at this very time. If public opinion and literature had since the Middle Ages been slow to recover any measure of good sense in sexual matters, the fault lay in the fact that science had, from the days of Antiquity, forgotten the most elementary truths of sexuality. It was for the 19th century to bring about a renaissance in this field.

The studies of Casper, Tardieu, Magnan, to cite only Frenchmen, were undertaken about the middle of the century, and their researches were to culminate around 1890 in the first basic syntheses — those of Chevalier, Westphal, Tarnowsky, Raffalovitch, Havelock Ellis, and finally Krafft-Ebing. The science of sexual psychopathology dates from this period, and the idea that homosexuality is not a crime but a simple constitutional anomaly begins to be generally accepted. Magnus Hirschfeld further stated, brilliantly and successfully, that it was, in itself, a harmless anomaly, neither a neurosis nor a predisposition to a neurosis, but an anomaly perfectly compatible with a normal and fruitful life.

It is on these scientific statements, today universally accepted, that the daily existence of our contemporary homosexuals is based. Once these truths bad been stated, it was impossible not to attempt to come to grips with ones own conscience. It was during the Belle Epoque that, in Germany, the first tentative efforts were made to form a homosexual organization. In 1910 one was to find in Binet-Valmer’s Lucien the following significant passage:

After all, I belong to myself! I am not an invalid! I don’t want to be an invalid. I don’t intend to ruin my whole life with vain complaints and worries. I have a right to life, and I intend to live.

LucienThe fact that the character who makes this declaration of faith is the son of a great psychiatrist is not without significance. It proves the close relationship between scientific discovery and the awakening of the homosexual conscience. This relationship, first engendered about 1900, would come into its own between 1920 and 1925; it continues today as demonstrated by the existence of an organization like Arcadie which bas continued to grow and to flourish for ten years.

I do not presume, in these few pages, to bave studied, or even named, every manifestation of sexual noncomformity in those years at the turn of the century. I bave not discussed “inversion,” as they called it then, in its relationship to exoticism, for such a study would bave taken us too far afield. It is for this reason that I have not even mentioned the name of Pierre Loti or others who would have to he considered in this connection [43].

To have heen complete I should have had to study not only France but countries abroad where the trial of Oscar Wilde and the “byzantine” scandals surrounding the entourage of the Kaiser brought homosexuality to the very forefront of the news. Neither have I forgotten that in addition to Sodom there is Gommorah — the Gommorah into which the novels of Colette have given us illuminating and tasteful glimpses, and which has heen admirably illustrated by the lesbian poetry of Pauline Tarn who called herself Renée Vivien. But, I prefer to say nothing rather than to say too little and to sin by abstention rather than hy omission or inadequacy.[44] In this essay I have had no other aim than to sketch the main outlines of the historical evolution of homosexuality at the meeting point of the 19th and 20th centuries.

In this field as in so many others, the Belle Epoque was a period of discovery and innovation. Together with the first telephones, the first automobiles, and thereafter the first airplanes, appear the first great studies in sexology, the first great psychoanalyses of homosexuality, the first affirmations by homosexuals of their right to a life of their own, the first realization of the homosexual self which would result later in the taking of a stand for social recognition. One may state in all reasonableness that not since the promulgation of the Theodosian Code at the beginning of the 5th century had the life of the homosexual undergone such profound changes insofar as his integration into society was concerned as took place at the beginning of the 20th century. I do not exclude from this observation the enactment of the Penal Code a hundred years before the Belle Epoque, for that rational and benign piece of legislation had had no effect whatsoever on the level with which we are here concerned.

In the field of homosexuality we have, for the last fifty years, been witnessing that “acceleration of history” which had made such an effect on Jacques Pirenne. Marcel Proust, when he was writing Cities of the Plain, could not have dared even dream of an organization so forthright, so restrained, so thoughtful and so discreetly effective as Arcadie, but those who in mid-20th century are now working for a healthful, dignified, and reasonable attitude toward homosexuality should not forget the pioneers who, in the full-bloom of the “modern style” and “artistic writing,” and at risk of their reputations, even of their liberty, opened the way which leads, ever more confidently, into the future.


34 On this subject, see the trenchant observations of F. Porche, I’Amour qui n’ose pas dire son nom, p. 14–15

35 The most complete study of this kind of attraction was made by Rodney Garland in his The Heart in Exile.

36 A. Bataille, Causes criminelles et mondaines de 1880, p. 150.

37 In Mes Communions.

38 Ibid.

39 Colette, Ces Plaisirs.

40 E. Raynaud, Police des Moeurs, p. 141-142.

41 Judgement of the Court of Appeals of Bourges, January 26, 1905 (Dalloz, “Jurisprudence générale, 1906).

42 R. Peyrefitte, I’Exilé de Capri, p, 29–30.

43 On the homosexuality of Pierre Loti, see G. Veherz, Le Paradis perdu de Pierre Loti, in Arcadie, No. 29–34 (May–October, 1956), and more recently, the Ephémérides by Xavier Beal, in Arcadie, No. 66, June, 1959, p. 376–377.

44 On Renée Vivien, who actually lived the maddest extravagances of a Des Esseintes, see Ces Plaisirs’ hy Colette.