The Wild Woman, the Little Mistress, the Hottentot Venus, and the Pedestal Monster

Living Curiosities and Their Counter-spaces in Two Texts by Charles Baudelaire

in Exploring the Black Venus Figure in Aesthetic Practices

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Abstract

Drawing on nineteenth-century medicine and natural history, Margery Vibe Skagen compares the Hottentot Venus figure in Baudelaire’s prose poem “La femme sauvage et la petite maîtresse” with a dream of a monstrous male counterpart on display in a museum/brothel, which is recounted in his correspondence. The two texts have never previously been explored in relation to the figure of Black Venus. Both evoke socio-cultural urban spaces associated with different kinds of spectatorship (the fair, the brothel, the freak show, and the museum), as well as the living curiosities or monsters these sites display. With reference to Michel Foucault’s notion of heterotopia, Skagen considers these spaces as “counter-spaces” which express a strong cultural critique that also targets imperialist power structures and enlightenment ideals. Her readings indicate how heterotopias challenge established scientific truths and the existing world order by inverting them. Thus, through a transference of meaning between the different spaces they mirror, Baudelaire’s texts raise questions of race, animality, gender, prostitution and violence, without giving any definite answers.