The Drowned Muse: Casting The Unknown Woman Across The Tides Of Modernity

Anne-Gaëlle Saliot

Oxford University Press 2015

This book investigates the fascination surrounding the Unknown Woman of the Seine in literature and the visual arts at the end of the nineteenth and into the twentieth century. ‘L’Inconnue de la Seine’, or the mask of a young dead woman said to have been dragged out of the river, has become, through its repeated representation within the avant-garde movements and popular media, both a commodity and a topic of general interest. Such luminaries as Rilke, Nabokov, Supervielle, Aragon, Horváth, Modiano, Cortázar, Man Ray, Magritte, Blanchot, Resnais, Truffaut, and Varda have expressed their infatuation with the Inconnue in prose, poetry, photography, and film.

Aby Warburg defines art history as ‘a ghost story for grown-ups’, which describes well this book, narrating as it does the aura of an object that crosses epochs and geographical and linguistic frontiers. Along the way, it establishes a critical dialogue between works, ranging from the marginal to the canonical, and media (from texts to photographs, films and art installations), from the advances of mechanical reproduction to the century of cinema and the Internet era. It uncovers ramifications between past and contemporary preoccupations with representations of death, the feminine, anonymity, and the urban milieu. It views the Unknown Woman as a symptomatic expression of a modern world haunted by the earlier modernity of the nineteenth century. It explores how the mask’s metamorphoses track the main shifts in the cultural history of the last two centuries, and how they constitute points of negotiation through which to understand modernity.