Pénétra

Bonnie Smith

Jacques-Louis Ménétra was an 18th-century glazier who worked for abbesses, for aristocrats, and for Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s landlord. Like Rousseau, but unlike any other artisan of his time, Ménétra has left an account of an adventurous life, full of journeyman’s wanderings, picaresque characters and amorous conquests. In his 19th year the aspiring craftsman left his embattled Parisian family for the artisan’s traditional tour de France. En route he met some of the great criminals of his day, engaged in important popular confrontations in the lead-up to the Revolution, and had sex with as many women as possible. By the time of his marriage at the age of 27, Ménétra had chalked up more than fifty affairs, not to mention innumerable one-night stands and encounters with prostitutes. Such activities made his youth the ‘years of pleasure’. While ivy-tower historians may analyse Ménétra as the prototypical homo faber of the Ancien Régime, some readers will fix on homo fornicator.

These two themes – work and love – dominate the journal. Ménétra makes constant ‘offerings at Cupid’s altar’, and in later life sets up other households besides the one he maintains with his wife. Women who escaped him were rewarded with practical jokes; country maids were often the victims of his violent attentions; more than one woman gets her revenge – he is constantly catching venereal disease, which he calls syphilis. At the same time he carries on his trade, making hundreds of lanterns for one town or another and fitting church windows. Business in convents he finds especially appealing, for it enables him to take his pleasure with at least one of the nuns. A third theme is that of the brutal, drunken father who provokes his son’s hatred and rebellion, though in old age the father becomes an object of pity. After years of vilification, Ménétra affects sympathy for his dying progenitor and scorns the sister who obviously has no such feeling for the old degenerate. The birth of the patriarchal myth occurs at the moment of his father’s death: Ménétra comes to appreciate paternal authority so thoroughly that he can later take his place in the local councils of Revolution. Hyper-libidinous, hyper-filial, and egocentrically devoted to craft and achievement, Ménétra tells a story that parallels the Freudian drama.

Ménétra’s journal is not only about a libidinous and laborious life: it is also about writing, rewriting and the telling of lies. According to Daniel Roche, whose hundred-page commentary could be a book in itself, Ménétra fashioned his work in several stages and, over a lifetime of composition, took it through several revisions, the last one in the Napoleonic period. What we see is the transformation of a madcap artisan into a serious author. On the other hand, as Roche shows us, his trickery and deception carried over into his writing – which includes several occasional pieces as well as the journal. Only in his writings, for example, did Ménétra meet the notorious criminal Mandrin, who was dead before Ménétra started his tour; and aside from his journal, there is no record of the massive uprisings he reportedly led. Had the intense friendship with Rousseau actually existed, Roche assures us, Rousseau himself would have mentioned it. By historical standards, the journal is a tissue of lies. One wonders why Ménétra ever decided to weave it.

The fact remains, however, that he did spin this big yarn. Not only that, he continued to shape and embellish it so effectively that its recent discovery has occasioned academic rejoicing. This celebration is not inappropriate. For all the embellishments, Ménétra instinctively knew that it takes a heap of writing or rewriting to make a life worth telling, that writing has its own demands, its own countervailing truth. Either Ménétra invented his friendship with Rousseau or Rousseau expurgated his with Ménétra: either way, it makes a good story. So too does the organising trinity of love (id), work (ego) and castrating father (super-ego). The compagnons with whom Ménétra pursued tricks throughout his life were an unbeatable brotherband which went on to make a revolution and kill the king.

The school of French historians associated with the late Michel Foucault sees these carnivalesque and robust Ménétras ultimately subsumed in the discourse about human behaviour developed by scientists and social scientists. This discourse represents a form of power which was all the more insidious because it emanated, not from a visible institution like the monarchy, but from the participation of individuals acting in response to the bureaucratic hegemony of knowledge, in the effort to achieve greater hygiene, healthier cities and deodorised homes. In this historiography Ménétra’s Paris, his pleasures and his profession appear well on the way to dissolution by the 1830s. In that decade Parent-Duchâtelet, whose passion was urban sewage, undertook his study of prostitutes and the system by which they were incarcerated and checked for disease. A Ménétra of the next generation would not be able to stride so confidently through the familiar urban spaces, he would be less liable to venereal disease, but his sexual life would fall into a more predictable pattern. Similarly, he would have missed those years when the literary establishment encouraged so many artisans to become writers. Eventually, the institutionalisation of worker-poets rendered them suspect, even ‘dangerous’. Ménétra’s facility with various drugs and potions had made him friends under the old regime, so he said, but such amateur medical practice was also suspect a generation later. Under the July Monarchy doctors enforced their claims to wider influence and began cornering the medical market. In fact, the literary tropes of the day, as Louis Chevalier has made us aware, confounded the worker and the disease, a confounding which was reinforced by the great disasters of the decade – artisanal uprisings and cholera.

This is the major theme of François Delaporte’s Disease and Civilisation: The Cholera in Paris, 1832, which places the disease at the centre of the transformation of Ménétra’s world. The approach of cholera from the East caught the eye of social commentators as well as medical practitioners. Most of them initially believed that it would abate at the French doorstep, that civilisation would itself act as an antidote to a phenomenon associated with backward ways of living. Indeed for Delaporte cholera was not a disease but a ‘set of practices’. Underlying these practices was the rivalry of different groups struggling to impose their own interpretation and explanation of what cholera involved. Poor Parisians saw the devastation as a bourgeois plot, while the bourgeois blamed it on the poor. Meanwhile medical men took many sides in the discussion and in so doing produced a medical discourse about disease and civilisation.

Within the space of a few months the death toll climbed into the tens of thousands. The medical profession was divided. One group believed in cholera as contagion: another associated it with infection. Because the former theory explained cholera in terms of direct contact, the measures it entailed included closing the country’s borders and placing areas as well as individuals under quarantine. Opponents of the contagion theory argued that infection came from airborne emanations: they sought ways of disinfecting cities and neighbourhoods, and concerned themselves with water, sewers and drainage, and with cleanliness in general. Though theories of infection would meet with scepticism later in the century, they gained some credence during the 1830s, in part because they coincided with an attendant theory of political economy based on the free circulation of goods, the opening of ports and the widening of streets and harbours. Laissez-faire doctors aiming to disinfect France opposed any kind of restrictive practice: among their slogans were light, freedom and circulation. Arising from a national catastrophe, the debate over cholera produced in the long run a ‘political hygiene’ connecting the individual body to the institutions of the state.

Despite Foucauldian assertions of cholera’s overwhelming impact, the development of political hygiene has had its ups and downs. On the one hand, 1832 saw the beginning of building inspections in which officials investigated what Alain Corbin has described as ‘the stench of the pauper and of his lair’. On the other, Parisians, despite their susceptibility to everything fashionable and new, were slow to relinquish their traditional obstinacy when it came to conforming to the new hygienic prescriptions. Avant-garde infectionists believed cholera would rid the city of its degenerates and troublemakers; cleanliness, too, was held to be a pacifying agent. Only two years later, however, descendants of Ménétra took to the streets as they were to do in 1848, 1870 and, in minor ways, throughout the century. If political hygiene was the ‘instrument of the hegemony’, not everyone was in on the secret. Baron Haussman waged major battles just to widen streets, make sewers adequate and provide the city with a pure water supply. At the Fin de Siècle, moreover, the French were still resisting all sorts of sanitary practices – their interest in running water, for example, was comparatively slight. The only time Pauline de Broglie bathed in her youth was after a case of measles, and it seemed so wicked that the family discussed it for days.

Where Delaporte sees discourse, Eugene Weber describes material existence. Weber saturates his narrative with all those consumer goods industrial society now concentrated on producing: cycles – uni-, bi- and tri-; footballs, pasteurised milk, omnibuses, lavatory seats and resort hotels. Fin-de-Siècle France proved so interesting because, rather than continuing the old pattern of restriction and repression, it had unleashed the desire for commodities. Now one could travel and indulge in one new cure after another; there were more newspapers, more chic revues, theatres and cafés chantants, more mineral water, meat, tobacco and light. Whole segments of public space became candy-stores of commodities made enchanting by glittering display and colourful advertising. Weber ticks off these attractions one by one, without regard to any grammar of use or rhetoric of display. They are given to us higgledy-piggledy, in an imitation of the avalanche of goods, inventions and everyday happenings. From these accumulated impressions arise the contours of sadness and gaiety, despair and optimism, associated with the contradictory turn into modernity.

All this illustrates for Weber the ‘unexceptional nature of Fin-de-Siècle France’. Yes, he admits, the Dreyfus Affair tore some families apart with great publicity, and yes, terrorists turned streets and cafés from centres of sociability into bleeding, contested terrain. Far from eclipsing all else, however, such events merely threaded their way through a dense fabric of events, emotions and commodities. Blocked from view by the scenery, individual actors like the terrorist Ravachol, the author Renée Vivien, or Ferdinand de Lesseps, make only fleeting appearances. Like young Pauline de Broglie in her bath, Weber’s cast of characters pass briefly across his stage: his real protagonist is the time-space continuum we call Fin-de-Siècle France. An ego like Ménétra’s, fit to dominate stories, must give way to officialdom and industry, to goods and the march of modernity. A collective portrait, drawn by a master impressionist, replaces the braggadocio and lies of a virtuoso self-portraitist.