Bluebeard: Towards the Marketisation of Curiosity
We can see that venturing into Bluebeard’s cellar and delving deep into the foundations of the ‘wonderful house of horrors’ helps us to better understand who this enigmatic man is and what is at stake in his tricks, beyond his particular case. Bluebeard appears at a pivotal moment, just before modern science established itself, and just before the generalisation of consumer society. Perrault wrote his tale at a time when collecting practices were reaching their peak, while also coming into competition with quests for gold, success in business, and material pleasure. With an eye on these historic changes, we can now, therefore, study the differences between Genesis and the character of Bluebeard on the one hand, and, on the other, the relationship between Bluebeard’s collecting practices and this new economic configuration.
The main difference between Genesis and Bluebeard concerns, of course, the main protagonist. Bluebeard combines, in a single figure, the Serpent (traitor), Adam (spouse), and God (punisher), whilst at the same time being quite different from each. The blurring/differentiation of these figures is the fruit of a certain identity crisis: Bluebeard imagines himself neither as the weak Adam1 of the inaugural garden of Eden, nor as the more contemporary husband who accedes willingly to his partner’s wishes, also the subject of the tale’s ‘moral’ (see below), but rather as the domineering (if dated) figure invented by God to punish Eve. In its own way, the tale begins the movement towards secularisation, of which it is also a product: there is no imperious God in the story, nor a tempting serpent, but rather simply a man, however frightening he may be. This point is worth emphasising: with the exception of his enigmatic hirsuteness, which is only there to focus the reader’s attention, Bluebeard is far from the fantastical creatures which normally fill fairy tales; he is neither ogre, nor giant, nor sorcerer.2 Bluebeard is of course monstrous, but no more or less so than the ‘serial killers’ of the past (before Perrault: Gilles de Montmorency-Laval and Henry VIII, and after: Landru3) and the present. The character could even be considered more pathetic than frightening: he is a ‘man of possessions’, a misogynist and misanthropist who dreams of himself as both God and master, unable to become either, and who is rejected because of his blue beard, perhaps because he is not, or is no longer, blue-blooded. Bluebeard is frustrated because it is not he that is attractive to others, but rather his riches. So he kills his successive wives because they let him down; this is undoubtedly because they break their promises but equally because they systematically fall for an illusory materialism, one which, paradoxically, he also suffers from. Nor does the tale explore a universal mythical question, but rather delivers an anachronistic testimony about an era which is coming to an end: the central character, his businesses, and possessions, already have one foot in the future modern middle class, while his behaviour demonstrates that he still has one foot in the old world. Bluebeard is nostalgic about a mythical time, characterised by attitudes and values which tend to be, if not disappearing, then at least becoming less relevant (respecting promises, authority, obedience, the primacy of spirituality over material goods, as just a few examples). He is, however, marked by the inaugural zeugma which defines his identity according not to who he is, but to what he has (‘There was once a man who had fine houses, both in town and country, a deal of silver and gold plate, embroidered furniture, and coaches gilded all over with gold’; my italics) including his fateful beard (‘But this man was so unlucky as to have a blue beard’; my italics). In light of these shortcomings and contradictions (as with so many victims used as scapegoats), he condemns his wives as if he is vainly trying to forget that he is just like them, and was so long before they were, having become unworthy of the values he defends.
Box 1. Bluebeard and Psychoanalysis, or the Misfortunes of Misplaced Curiosity
Since Bettelheim (1976), it has become conventional to reduce tales to psychoanalytic fables. Bettelheim himself used Bluebeard as a way of applying his universal analytic framework, and in order to explain that the blood on the key signified that the heroine had had extramarital relations whilst her husband was away; thus the tale would be seen as confronting us with a sexual curiosity which it of course condemns.4 If I were to adopt the same approach (on which Freud’s successors were so keen) of tracking down the juicy motive, I could attempt another explanation, based on an inversion. In this case, I could place the woman in an active role with the husband adopting a passive one: on the one hand, the woman deflowers the forbidden room using a phallic key, risking a bloodstain which cannot be removed; on the other hand, her husband limits his speech and remains in the background. From this inversion, it would therefore be possible to deduce that Bluebeard is impotent. Everything would then become clear: the character would compensate for his sexual shortcomings not only with his absence, but also by putting his power to the test, as well as by transferring activity onto his wife/wives, and then finally by killing the person who represents him as the substitute for an impossible relationship (Eros and Thanatos: the theory is well known!). Psychoanalysis could even support this audacious interpretation, by referring to one of its historical variants – one that appears much later but which is equally troubling: the case of Louis XVI, a king who, when experiencing difficulties consummating his marriage and forced into political inaction, found himself (almost) like Bluebeard, distracted by his hobby of locksmithery, before this double inaction condemned both him and his wife to the fate we well know! In fact – and abandoning the historical variant I mention ‘just for fun’ – the theory about Bluebeard’s impotence seems more reasonable than Bettelheim’s interpretation. It has the advantage of proceeding carefully based only on the elements provided by Perrault, without having to involve lovers who are difficult to locate in the story (although admittedly, there are plenty of cupboards in which to hide them!). We can see that a psychoanalytic approach is never short of imagination (or fantasy?!). However, I believe this exposes it not only to the risks of over-interpretation, but also to the dangers of a certain obliviousness to other, more likely interpretations. By focusing too much attention on motivations which may not exist, we in fact end up not seeing all the rest – as in (upstream) the clear and pregnant precedent of Genesis, and (downstream) all the economic lessons which stories convey quite explicitly; no hermeneutics, other than reading carefully, is needed to explain these. Undoubtedly it is Gustave Doré who best grasped (by accident?) this point: his engravings show heavily dressed figures facing objects which are as bare as they are intrusive, perhaps to signify the extent to which the body is so much less important to this story than objects. The same could be said, of course, for the – very intense – ways in which the figures regard these objects.
Bluebeard is therefore a character who is both trivial and mysterious, but for reasons which we did not expect: he is intriguing less because of the enigmatic colour of his beard or the sexual content of the tale (see Box 1), and rather because of how he is positioned economically. The character is trivial in the sense that he is attached from the outset to a completely materialistic economy, where people are defined by neither their birth (like princes), nor their origins (like in the Middle Ages), nor their job (like modern subjects) but their possessions. Bluebeard is a fairy-tale character in a tale of facts,5 immersed in a purely materialistic universe. He nonetheless remains mysterious because he is a man about whom we know nothing, other than the fact that he has a lot of possessions, ‘both in town and country’; in other words, everywhere and nowhere. We do not know by virtue of what economic logic his possessions were acquired (inheritance, through private income, production, trade?); they were accumulated, but it appears they cannot be alienated. Bluebeard can therefore be considered as an ambiguous figure who encompasses all of these elements: assets, savings, production, and consumption/ostentation.
It is here that we touch upon the connection between curiosity and economy which would become established in the years to come. Curiously(!), the analogy we were most expecting is the one which is least effective:6 Bluebeard no longer corresponds to the figure of a collector of curiosities, despite the presence of numerous cabinets at the time: the collector from Castres (Pierre Borel, who was a contemporary of Perrault, himself knew of sixty-seven in France alone; furthermore, during this period there were ‘hundreds, if not thousands’ of cabinets of curiosity in Europe (Pomian 1990). As an initial approximation, one could certainly say that Bluebeard was a collector; twice over, perhaps, given that he collected both objects and women. In this respect, he corresponds to a traditional collector of curiosities, accumulating objects and animal carcases as well as human bodies in the form of mummies, shrunken heads, and other more or less well-preserved monsters (Pomian 1990; Schnapper 1988). However, whilst diversity in collections was the rule, and homogeneity the exception, the women that Bluebeard collects are identical. And if he is collecting them, it is only because he is unable to find the perfect wife who follows his wishes, and not, apparently, because he initially intended to multiply his crimes and trophies. But as for the rest, all the goods he possesses, in other words, Bluebeard has an entire collection of objects, the wealth of which actually masks great poverty: it all boils down to either containers that are rather hollow (‘two great wardrobes’, ‘[crockery]’, ‘strongboxes’, ‘caskets’, ‘apartments’, and a ‘little closet’), or to contents like precious stones and metals and therefore to the value they represent. We are confronted with a one-dimensional and pecuniary approach which is demonstrated by the rather vain repetition of the words ‘gold’ and ‘silver’, which little by little dissolve the real value of the associated objects (‘silver and gold plate’ (twice!), ‘coaches gilded all over with gold’, ‘gold and silver’, ‘jewels’). The emergence and invasion of a monetary standard actually extinguishes the very principle of collecting, given that, by using the same yardstick to make the collected objects commensurable and fungible, they lose their irreducible singularity.7 There is therefore a second major difference with Genesis: in Bluebeard, it is no longer a matter of forbidden knowledge but rather vain material seduction – as if the symbolic fruit had become literal; as if sacred knowledge had turned into profane tastes. In the tale, the protagonists’ appetite is, in fact, not for fundamental knowledge, but rather for quite vain objects of pleasure, until they reach that abyssal, ultimate emptiness: the forbidden room – the only true cabinet of curiosity in the story, which is filled only with the women who thought it was full.
The materialistic and vanity-driven universe which Bluebeard honed to test his victims is indeed the antechamber of the movement to come: that of the economy’s emancipation from old forms of control and social relations, and towards a new order which is based on consumption and the ‘natural’ circulation of goods in the commercial sphere. We have reached the tipping point between the economy of the Ancien Régime (literally: Old Regime) and the emerging commercial economy of the middle class. This is demonstrated by the tale’s ambiguity, which, from the first to the last lines, defines a universe that is both economic and domestic.
Right from the beginning, the tale shifts dizzyingly between economic calculations and filial relationships. Filial relations take precedence over every calculation, since children are faced with the traditional obligation to accept the suitors proposed by their parents. However, in this case the situation becomes more complicated given that the two daughters are available for just one marriage. This introduces the question of choice into the heart of traditional family relations of authority. The lack of interest and embarrassment which this problem (respectively) presents initially leads Bluebeard to delegate the management of this choice to his potential mother-in-law (‘He desired of her one of them in marriage, leaving to her choice which of the two she would bestow on him’). It is then up to her to offer her daughters the choice, in a manner of speaking, of a non-choice (this second delegation is implicit in the following wording: ‘Neither of them would have him, and they sent him backwards and forwards from one to the other, not being able to bear the thoughts of marrying a man who had a blue beard’.) The opening scene thus confronts us with a particularly original situation of impossible calculability, the opposite of that faced by Buridan’s donkey (Cochoy 2002): instead of a single economic agent, Bluebeard – or his possible mother-in-law – faces an inescapable trap, consisting of the rational choice between two potential, almost identical wives (two sisters between whom one cannot a priori differentiate: they are both said to be ‘perfect beauties’, and it is only afterwards that we find out who is the younger and more naive of the two). Ultimately, it is the two potential wives who are driven towards the choice of which one will have to be chosen! This choice is yet more complicated because the agents, far from having a preference, demonstrate an identical aversion to the object to be chosen; they thus find themselves in a situation akin to that of Buridan’s donkey, as evoked by Christian Schmidt, who had to choose not between two equally desirable quantities of food, but between two poisons (here there is only one). Now, Schmidt tells us that in such a situation, one possible and rational option is abstention, and that this must be taken into account as a real choice (Schmidt 1986: 77). However, in the tale, a choice other than abstention is at play, through the presence of both obligation (the sisters know that one of them will have to yield) and calculation. It is calculation that leads one of the girls to consent, for, after experiencing the festivities offered by Bluebeard, she believes that in the final analysis her suitor’s possessions will have sufficient appeal to overcome the repulsion which his blue beard inspires in her (‘the youngest daughter began to think that the man’s beard was not so very blue after all, and that he was a mighty civil gentleman’). The difficulty of choice is resolved by a process of calculation which includes, on the one hand, the revelation of additional information about Bluebeard (the attraction of his wealth), and, on the other hand, the revelation of physical and cognitive differences between the two sisters (one is younger and therefore more naive). Whereas the first element turns a negative preference into a positive preference, the second means they can resolve their indecision (if one of the sisters was not more naive than the other, we might assume that their calculation would have been identical – to either marry or reject Bluebeard. This would have meant the problem remained unresolved. It would thus have had to be referred to the mother for arbitration, or a convention, such as the birthright of the eldest,10 would have had to be applied. Thus, we can clearly see to what extent the tale both brings into play and calls into question the old way of managing alliances. It opens up the sphere of personal dependencies to expressions of individual preference and rationality, whilst implicitly announcing the aporias that accompany this development (possible errors in calculation, logical deadlocks, a reworking of personal dependencies, among others).
The blurring of the economic and the domestic continues in the rest of the tale, this time in relation to place. What Bluebeard offers his wife is an economic space in the sense that it is a question of choosing, exploring, consuming, and evaluating the objects that are ‘supplied’. It is important to underline the extreme degree of licence which he grants his wife: not only is she authorised to visit (almost) every place in his home, but she is also allowed to show these to her acquaintances (‘to send for her friends’), and also is given an almost total freedom of movement; she is thus far from being imprisoned in the home behind locked doors, as an overly hasty reading of the tale might lead one to believe (‘to take them into the country, if she pleased’). If it were not an anachronistic expression, one could say that Bluebeard presents his house almost as if it were a self-service emporium, where one can come and go as one pleases, and of course, where one can approach the objects without fear of being hindered by human mediation. Despite this initial impression, however, the economy that is portrayed remains strictly domestic: the universe of exploration in fact constitutes a closed circuit; it is closed by the unbreakable link that then existed between marriage and the allocation of a household’s assets. The supplied objects have no price and are inalienable. We are clearly in the presence of consumption that is preferential and non-rival: the economic relationship in this case is confined to visual exploration and does not involve the acquisition of goods. If the tale does provide forms of material seduction, then this is done in the manner of ‘window-shopping’. Indeed, this is a forewarning of future market configurations (see chapter 3), which here remains highly private and illusory, narrowly enclosed within the domain of personal property and, for the moment, far removed from the open markets which are to come.
Finally, the combination of economy and family extends to the denouement. On the one hand, after the death of Bluebeard, the distribution of his inheritance commences with activities of calculation and allocation being set into motion: the heroine, who inherits all her late husband’s assets, wisely uses a portion to marry off her sister, another to purchase captains’ commissions for her brothers, and herself uses the remainder to remarry. However, the way these different sums are employed elegantly demonstrates that we remain completely immersed in an economy of accumulation and unearned income: at Bluebeard’s, there is no production; goods do not circulate but rather stay within the circle of kinship; women have no other economic existence other than through marriage, while for men, it is through the acquisition of commissions under the Ancien Régime. The intertwining of both spheres – economic calculation and the domestic economy – reminds us once again of the extent to which the economic is not unaffected by strong ties, and vice versa (Callon and Latour 1997). What is at play in the tale is not a world of personal attachments and non-calculation which then tips over into a world of calculations and individual freedom, but rather a change in proportions between these different entities. The move is towards more flexible family relationships and an extension of the rational assessment of situations.
In this movement, the motives of self-interest and curiosity play roles which are as significant as they are subtle. In the tale, self-interest does make an appearance, but simply as something that is in the service of curiosity. The distinction between these two types of motivation, and the way in which they are brought together, appear to be clearly visible in the two sequences which follow Bluebeard’s temporary departure.
There are three characteristics proper to the first of the two. First of all, in this sequence, that which we explore is neither surprising nor curious, for Bluebeard has already (and quite meticulously) explained, revealed, and made accessible the content of each room. For visitors, it is above all a matter of experiencing the simple excitement that arises out of being able to come and see for themselves all the things that they have heard about and aspire to see and/or possess. This is an aspiration that is no doubt more general than linked to the tale’s particular plot: unlike Bluebeard’s wife, her invited friends were not provided with any specific preparation for the visit (at least, not that we know of). They therefore discover things that they had not necessarily coveted beforehand. Then, the sequence is collective. The sense of excitement appears to be shared by all of the invited friends (‘They ceased not to extol and envy the happiness of their friend’) and with the emphasis almost exclusively being placed on the degree of wealth; it is this that encourages their expression of a common passion. This is the third characteristic: everything involved in this sequence concerns the seductive nature of material goods: rooms ‘all so fine and rich that they seemed to surpass one another’, mirrors ‘in which you might see yourself from head to foot’, but paradoxically, where the reflections are admired less than the frames – ‘the finest and most magnificent that they had ever seen’. Here, the commercial value of things takes precedence over their function. All in all, what occurs in this sequence results less from curiosity – which, as we have seen, involves bringing a certain mystery into play, a personal point of view, or adopting a certain attraction to the singularity of the objects in hand – than from a novel orientation grounded in a world that is more transparent, in points of view that are more widely shared, and in an attraction towards the exchange value of these coveted items. In fact, the first sequence plays not with curiosity but with self-interest, with desire, with material pleasure, with an early form of a ‘Ladies’ Paradise’. It plays with the seduction of the false market represented by Bluebeard’s inaccessible, private offerings, which takes the form of a proto-consumer economy in which goods can be desired and looked at, but not taken away.
The contrast between this first sequence and the one that follows it is as violent as it is systematic: they oppose each other on every point. The transparency and accessibility of the rooms in the first is matched by the opacity and absolute injunction which characterise those in the second. The collective exploration of the permitted areas of the house is followed by Bluebeard’s wife’s solitary secret visit to the last room. The shift from a multiple and shared visit to an exploration that is individual and secretive, is accompanied by a change in motivation. It is possible to detect this change in the first sequence when the admiration expressed by the group of friends is contrasted with the attitude of Bluebeard’s wife, who ‘in no way diverted herself in looking upon all these rich things, because of the impatience she had to go and open the closet on the ground floor’. Thus, a naive expression of self-interest is opposed by the almost irresistible force of curiosity, a term which Perrault very significantly saved for this last sequence: ‘She was so much pressed by her ‘curiosity’ that, without considering that it was very uncivil for her to leave her company, she went down a little back staircase’ (let me be clear that the word curiosity has not appeared in the story apart from on this one occasion; it appears again later as a central motif in the story’s first ‘moral’). Between one location and the other, the purpose that guides the gaze is effectively no longer the same. This is revealed in the extraordinary game of mirrors between the two sequences, with mirrors themselves playing a crucial role in the tale, dominated as it is by the issue of the gaze and by the Augustinian theme of curiosity as the ‘concupiscence of the eyes’. In the first sequence, we may be thrilled to stand in front of the mirrors and to gaze at our reflection ‘from head to foot; however, it is in fact their frames that we subject to particular scrutiny (see above). In the second, we are frozen with fear when confronted with the ‘floor […] covered over with clotted blood’, this bloody pool, whose boundaries we cannot see but within which, on the other hand, we can clearly see reflected: ‘the bodies of several dead women, ranged against the walls’. In each mirror, the women can always see themselves from head to toe but they are neither the same mirrors nor the same women: whereas the first type of mirror is blinding, drawing attention away from the very image which it should help to anticipate, the second illuminates, by revealing too late the cost of not looking properly or looking too much. Whereas the first stimulates self-interest, at the risk of being blinded, the second ensnares the heroine in the trap of curiosity, at the risk of fatal self-knowledge.11
In the tale, Bluebeard therefore plays with not one, but two motives for action. He arouses self-interest in order to subordinate it to curiosity. By acting in this manner, he teaches us that there is nothing spontaneous about curiosity: although natural to humankind, in order to spur us to action, this is a disposition that must still be activated. To do so, the character proceeds sequentially. First of all, he uses the greed12 of his targets, including, of course, that of his wife: if, during the collective visit to Bluebeard’s house, she seems hardly aware of the economic seduction that enthrals her friends, it is not because she does not share their taste for riches but because, on the one hand, she has already experienced this opulence during the initial festivities, and on the other, because she knows what the others do not: the existence of an enigmatic room which – she believes – will be able to reawaken her interest, already blunted by the inaugural festivities and the first weeks of marriage.13 It is at this point that the second aspect of Bluebeard’s ploy intervenes: by providing a lot of information (except about one aspect) and by referring to the last key and the last room as mysterious and forbidden (and not without previously indulgently describing and opening all those rooms preceding this reference), the character creates an appetite. He arouses a hint of homology, and invites his wife (but also the readers, along with her) to co-produce the tale, through anticipation. Using the example of Little Red Riding Hood, I have previously demonstrated how all ‘captation’ operations aimed at catching our attention consist of mobilising the logic of ballistics, according to which the actors who engage in operations of captation first try to construct a model which follows their target’s path, so as then to build a device suitable for meeting this trajectory and intercepting it (Cochoy 2007a). What is interesting about Bluebeard is that the ‘catcher’ delegates this ballistic operation of calculation to its target. Unlike the wolf who asks Little Red Riding Hood questions in order to be able to guess her trajectory and to intercept her, Bluebeard does not settle for building an unequivocal model in order to anticipate the logic behind his wife’s actions and to trap her. Furthermore, his intention and the model’s determination still remain subject to caution: we will never know whether our man wanted to manipulate his wife to be certain of satisfying an urge as perverse as it is morbid, or whether he simply wanted to put her to the test, secretly hoping to finally find a woman who lives up to his wishes. In fact, let us not forget the number of fairy tales which feature the same kind of seemingly unlikely trial, consisting of successively subjecting a large number of people to the same test which they all fail, but which, however, allows the appropriate person to be identified in extremis: this is the case in Andersen’s The Princess and the Pea; it is also the case with Perrault himself, whether with Cinderella and her glass slipper, or with Donkeyskin and his fine-fingered ring.14 There is here the heritage of the values of both chivalry and courtly love, from which Bluebeard cannot be completely excluded, given that, as we saw, he manifestly still has one foot in this world (he is a fairy-tale character amongst fairy-tale characters) and the other in the modern world to come (he is a man of property, driven by ‘business’, rationality, and material possessions). Therefore, the model’s construction and the fatal ‘captation’ (i.e. seduction) are delegated to the wife. Bluebeard suggests that she build her own history (in every sense of the word: both tale and trajectory) but based on the scenario and resources which he has deliberately arranged for her (even if it is only up to her to open the door or not and to thus seal her fate; she can only do so using the doors and keys with which she is provided).15 Bluebeard gives his wife all the keys (real and figurative) she needs to be able to build and express ‘the algorithm that suits’. In the process, he invites her to pursue her exploration according to a dual sequence that proceeds from the awakening of self-interest towards the awakening of curiosity. Thus, the model to be built borrows from the highly ‘scripted’16 register of riddles or mathematical sequences: Bluebeard’s wife is implicitly led towards anticipating what the last room might contain, on the basis of and according to what she saw in the preceding rooms, without however, being formally made to do so. Therefore, the initial arousal of her self-interest serves as a first step in awakening her positively directed curiosity towards the forbidden room, which is later tested. His wife thus progresses at the mercy of an expertly crafted combination of rational expectations and passionate dreams. The fact that these expectations and dreams are finally disappointed in no way invalidates the strength of the cognitive device which has been deployed in order to awaken curiosity. On the contrary: its failure functions entirely as a sign of its remarkable effectiveness (which saddens Bluebeard just as much!).
I would like to conclude the analysis of the tale by highlighting its superb ambiguity (or perversity?). This tale is built up pragmatically by Bluebeard (but not necessarily by Perrault; see below) to condemn curiosity, but also to stimulate it, to pay tribute to it, and even to excuse it. With Bluebeard, we are in the presence of an eminently introspective tale: the horrible husband awakens not only his wife’s curiosity, but through her, ours as well. Even before the story has begun (see the enigmatic title), the reader’s cognitive enrolment in its central motif is fascinating in itself. In fact, Bluebeard should be seen as a marvellous illustration of the literary power of curiosity. It is perhaps the most beautiful of tales, because more than any other it intrigues its readers, gives them goosebumps, freezes them with terror whilst also warming their appetite for knowledge. It pushes them irresistibly forward until the last door, until the last page, preventing them from stopping or interrupting their reading. The reader is torn between the pangs of pleasure that come from wanting to know the rest of the story, and the fear of discovering what exploring the secret chamber and breaking the promise made to the unsettling blue-chinned character will bring. Certainly, this introspective twisting between the substance and the form of the story increases a problem of which its predecessors were aware but protected themselves against: Saint Augustine was wary of the romantic nature of his writing, while Apuleius warned his readers against the seductions of his rhetorical methods (Tasitano 1989). The same introspective twisting also constituted an insurmountable dilemma for the demonologists: by subjecting the curious sciences which they sought to combat to such a forensic examination, they did nothing more than heighten the charms of the curiosity they wished to condemn – charms which they in turn fell victim to (Jacques-Chaquin 1998b). Nevertheless, Perrault’s position regarding this same difficulty is different, and even radically innovative. Far from being concerned about the contradiction between the form and the substance of his story, the author instead pushes the contradiction to culmination. His tale works not only as a parable but also as a virtuoso rhetorical invocation of curiosity.
This rhetoric consists namely in a dizzying interarticulation of two styles – suspense and ellipsis – which are to curiosity as prosody is to poetry, narration to the novel, grammar to language, and the like. Ellipsis deprives us of information about Bluebeard’s previous background, including the origins of his highly unusual beard, his wife’s identity and history (even though we at least know her sister’s first name), what happened between the wedding and his departure, and so on and so forth. The use of this style creates gaping holes in the story which themselves operate as mysteries and arouse the reader’s desire for them to be filled. This desire becomes ever more strong and prolonged because it can never be satisfied. Suspense, in turn, is connected to two complementary methods. The first consists in punctuating the story with information, pregnant with meaning but truncated, whose full significance only becomes clear once the gaps are filled – perhaps later (‘he already had been married to several wives, and nobody knew what had become of them’; ‘except that little closet, which I forbid you, and forbid it in such a manner that, if you happen to open it, you may expect my just anger and resentment’)… or perhaps never (‘Bluebeard told his wife that he was obliged to take a country journey for six weeks at least, about affairs of very great consequence’17). Distilling the information in this way creates a sense of great expectation, pushing readers forward but also working on their imagination, with every movement reinforcing another.
The second method consists in stretching out the tale at those moments when time is supposed to be passing more quickly, slowing things down almost unbearably (Perrault’s systematic and collective tour of the whole house is described in ninety-three words and a single paragraph, whereas the heroine’s exploration of the small chamber alone stretches to 173 words across three paragraphs, with the division into paragraphs adding to the effect of suspense). The method of slowing down time repeats again and again at the end of the story. It first appears when everything indicates that we will finally and immediately discover the contents of the forbidden room (‘she went down a little back staircase, and with such excessive haste that she nearly fell and broke her neck’). Perrault then interrupts the progress (or rather the race which he has just promised us!) towards the denouement by adding a paragraph of suspense (‘Having come to the closet door [Are we there? Well, no, not yet!], she made a stop for some time, thinking about her husband’s orders, and considering what unhappiness might attend her if she was disobedient; but the temptation was so strong that she could not overcome it. She then took the little key, and opened it, trembling’). The method is used a second time, of course, as soon as the door is opened. This time, Perrault achieves the miracle of revealing a sight that we might a priori suppose appears at the speed of light over a seemingly interminable period of time: ‘At first she saw nothing, because the windows were shut. After some moments she began to perceive that the floor was covered with congealed blood, in which the bodies of several dead women were reflected, ranged against the walls’. The effect expected by the opening of the door is cancelled out by the closed windows; the instantaneousness of the vision is interrupted by the time her eyes need to become adjusted to the darkness. Finally, when the heroine’s pupils have sufficiently dilated, the horrific spectacle is only revealed extremely gradually and follows an indirect trajectory: it starts from the door, moves to the puddle of blood, then to its reflection, and finally from the reflection to the bodies. What is remarkable here is that Perrault is not content with writing. The author is handling material that is more visual than literary; he is scripting a cinematographic scene before its time and generating fear through the clever movement from a bird’s-eye view to a low-angle shot, prefiguring the art of a certain Alfred Hitchcock. The horror in the chamber, far from marking the end of the story and the suspense, shifts immediately to yet further revelations. It would no doubt be tedious of me to meticulously describe, in the way I have done up until now, the variants of the time-stretching methods employed at the end of the story (that, nevertheless, are just as remarkable) as Bluebeard’s threat becomes ever more pressing. In order to keep things brief, let me just mention, however, the interminable dialogue between Bluebeard and his wife, the quarter of an hour she is given to pray before he will cut her throat, and from that moment, the agonising wait (which takes the style of a countdown) for the brothers, who by chance have promised to come by that day (but nothing in this tale is for sure, given that promises have the questionable effects that we have seen). The sense of expectation is heightened by the time it takes for a laborious exchange of information and glances between the two sisters (one at the top of the tower, the other at the bottom), with the obsessive repetition of the same dialogue, emphasised by the reiteration of ‘time’ and the stammering of the rhyme (the poor afflicted girl would shout to her from time to time ‘Anne, sister Anne, do you see anyone coming?’ And Anne the sister would reply: ‘I see nothing but a cloud of dust in the sun, and the grass greening’).18 The expectation is in vain; the hope raised by a moving dust cloud is dashed when it turns out to be nothing but ‘a flock of sheep’, with the wait then further prolonged by a final lengthy exchange with Bluebeard (an exchange which hovers between efforts to plead and an attempted execution), before the two brothers finally arrive and triumph over Bluebeard (but not before a last chase). From narrative ellipses to suspense, and from textual effects to visual methods, it is thus clear that the curiosity which the tale seemed to have the ambition to condemn, paradoxically constitutes the procedure which binds it together. This ambiguity is the last of the tale’s curiosities, which sustains the startling contradiction embedded in the two morals at the end of the story:
Moral: curiosity, in spite of its appeal, often leads to deep regret. A thousand examples appear each day. To the displeasure of many a maiden, its enjoyment is short lived. Once satisfied, it ceases to exist, and always costs dearly.
Another moral: apply logic to this grim story, and you will ascertain that it took place many years ago. No husband of our age would be so terrible as to demand the impossible of his wife, nor would he be such a jealous malcontent; he is meek and mild with his wife. For, whatever the color of her husband’s beard, the wife of today will let him know who the master is.
The moral, which always appears as the final key to a tale, takes the form here of a Berlin key; in other words, a key with two blades that are not identical but symmetrical (Latour 1991): whereas one gives us access to the cellar which we have now explored in depth, while presenting curiosity as a passion as dangerous as it is illusory, the other allows us to lock up and leave, so that we can climb the very long staircase that takes us towards the chamber of novelties, towards a world where we cannot but accept our part in an irrepressible curiosity (feminine, according to the tale) and towards a certain egalitarianism, or even the potential inversion of gender relationships. As Barbara Benedict (2001) argued, curiosity expressed the transgressive desire to go beyond assigned roles and categories, especially between men and women. We must now borrow this staircase, from which a gentler atmosphere flows, in order to climb from the cellar of ‘historical’ curiosity to the attic of its renewal in markets. Thanks to the detour via the cellar and the return via the tale, we have seen that one part of Bluebeard’s character draws on his genealogy in an older world and its value in the new, and, fortified by this dual identity, another employs the nascent figure of self-interest to test the old demons of curiosity. Thanks to the tale and the exploration of the attic of commerce (which was later added to the wonderful house of horrors), we shall see that, despite Bluebeard’s death, it is also possible to implement the opposite strategy of appealing to the extremes of traditional curiosity in order to satisfy the interests of contemporary commerce (and with one often merging into the other).19 Lorraine Daston and Katherine Park explain it well: curiosity became ‘a highly refined form of consumerism, mimicking the luxury trade in its objects and its dynamic of insatiability’ (Daston and Park 1998: 310).
Bluebeard foreshadowed the shift from the economy of the Ancien Régime to the economy of the market, in that the tale was grounded in the appeal of material possessions, of monetary values, of window displays, and the like. However, the journey was far from complete: the tale exhibited ‘things to be seen’ rather than ‘things to be acquired’: it promoted an economy confined to the domestic sphere – Aristotele’s œconomia rather than Adam Smith’s – an economy without production or consumption; in other words, an economy lacking prices and the circulation of material goods. By contrast, the contemporary economy is its opposite: things are now displayed to be bought; goods are less to be collected than to be produced and consumed; things do sometimes remain immobile, but never for long: they circulate in the market as they do in our lives; the logic of flow and exchange tends to prevail over the old logic of stock and property (Vatin 1987). Sitting behind all these changes, curiosity, far from having disappeared, plays a preeminent role. However, both curiosity and the role it plays are not the same as they used to be. Now, curiosity works as a way of stimulating self-interest rather than the other way around; curiosity has today lost its previous air of sin; it has become both more discrete and more obvious: within contemporary markets, curiosity is self-consciously appreciated and cultivated by traders but also more or less consciously cultivated by their clients.
In order to demonstrate how these changes have occurred, the mechanisms behind them, their effects, and what is at stake, I propose that in the following chapters we analyse three examples of how curiosity is being used in contemporary markets. The first is the use of curiosity in the arrangement of the display windows of an American grocer in the 1940s; in this example, curiosity takes on many innovative forms, each centred around competition (chapter 3). The next two examples (both in chapter 4) relate to ‘teasing’. One concerns the design of new packaging for Kellogg’s cereals in 1955. Here, curiosity appears both as an internal component of the packaging and as an external means to promote it. The third and final example is that of the ‘Myriam’ advertising campaign in 1981. Myriam is one of the most famous campaigns in the history of French advertising. This campaign introduced the ‘teasing’ device (in other words, a series of mysterious posters aimed at preparing the audience for the final revelation of a commercial offer), and thus turned curiosity into the driving force, designed to elicit a response from the consumer. Although the choice of each of these examples is somewhat arbitrary, I hope that together they will form a heuristic whole. On the one hand, this set of examples shows that each particular device – displays, packaging, advertising – is capable of renewing and enriching the social use of curiosity in markets. On the other hand, a particular actor corresponds to each device: a small shopkeeper arranging his display window, a large company managing its packaging, and an advertising professional who offers himself as a mediator to all the others. Therefore, it clearly emerges that all the market actors – shopkeepers, manufacturers, and intermediaries – and beyond them, all the actors in society whom they address, are, for better or worse, engaged together in the game of socially activating curiosity.