Dorian Gray had a little yellow book.
I had The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
The cult classic’s plot is as familiar as it is overwrought: Dr. Frank-N-Furter, a transvestite from the planet Transylvania, creates his perfect man, Rocky, and seduces and corrupts two kids on a night out, Brad and Janet, in an orgiastic night at his castle. The movie, which came out in 1975, has an essence that mirrors in many ways the decadent mindset of Oscar Wilde or Rachilde. The similarities between Rocky Horror and Monsieur Vénus helped me draw new connections to Rachilde’s text regarding the relationships between desire and science and between private and public vice.
Both Rocky Horror and the ending of Monsieur Vénus make a connection between the construction of the perfect sex object and the idea of scientific progress. In class we discussed thematic similarities between the construction of a transgender (or simply atypically gendered) body and the creation of the Frankenstein monster. Raoule’s loving—if disturbing—shrine to Jacques, his own body parts attached to a dummy similar to the anatomical Vénus models used for medicine, and necrophilia suggests that she has conquered death (as did Dr. Frankenstein) through science, clearing all boundaries between her and her “perverted” sexual desires. Dr. Frank-N-Furter in Rocky Horror accomplishes a similar task with Rocky, in a campy send-up of the Frankenstein story. He lists Rocky’s purpose as relieving his sexual tension and announces his discovery as “the secret to life itself.” For stories that otherwise eschew reason for decadence both of these texts actually do rely, in the end, on the rationalism (if in a much campier and much less well-tested sense) of science and invention, or at least on the enthusiasm of that mode of thought. They link these visions of boundless scientific progress with sexual corruption, connecting two instances of expanding knowledge in order to fetishize the act of invention while inventing new fetishes.
Another shared thematic concern is the navigation of private and public vice. In Monsieur Vénus Raoule and Jacques’ relationship is kept private and sacred in certain respects. The special cloistered Temple of Love she builds, for example, and the subtle, secretive ways they discuss their relationship with others shows a need to protect and hide, to some extent, their lifestyle. At the same time, the scandal the couple causes is part of the fun, and their public appearances together as well as their atypical gender presentations reveal to the public that something is different about them. Similarly in Rocky Horror Frank made Rocky as his personal sex object. Rocky and Frank, like Raoule and Jacques, also have their own bridal suite. Also, Frank’s seduction of Brad and Janet is done under at least the pretense of secrecy (though both find out about the other quickly enough). At the same time, Frank invited dozens of Transylvanians to witness his creation of Rocky, and he ultimately prefers the visible conversions of Brad and Janet into seekers of absolute pleasure to their clandestine seductions. This double-vision of private vice and public scandal links both texts. They reveal “perverted” relationships that are hidden yet invite viewers. And the stories themselves encourage voyeurism in a scandalous and tantalizing way, inviting their readers/viewers to join in with the public keeping track of such vice and granting them a privileged look into the unimaginably scandalous private lives of others.
An element of this voyeurism is the power of the text to corrupt those who encounter it. Brad and Janet’s speedy conversion from squeaky clean fiancés into hedonistic cross-dressers has a disastrous end suggesting the dangers of such a lifestyle, and Dr. Scott (their high school science teacher, who also winds up at the castle) even declares, “We’ve gotta get out of this trap before this decadence saps our will…” Rachilde’s preface achieves a similar goal. This threat of the transformation of normal society is perhaps what increases the appeal of such cultural products. They seem so removed from our lives and yet so capable of corrupting and changing them. That decadent narratives in the 1890s and 1970s could shock and amuse their very different audiences with their vices and fetishes suggests an allure of this kind of story (or a weakness of its audiences) that can still inspire a search for and a fear of absolute pleasure.