Queer Phenomenology and the Tattoos of Monsieur Bonheur
Updated January 10, 2023
Note: This essay was originally going to be one in a series of several on the topic. At this point I'm not sure if I will actually finish it.
For markings only skin-deep, tattoos tell us p lenty about a person's life - even that of the pseudonymous Monsieur Bonheur. Nicknamed for the most prominent of his numerous tattoos, he was purportedly a Frenchman executed for some crime, with his corpse then put on public display as a "deterrent." (He now resides in an anonymous private collection.) Recently, researchers have developed an interest in tattooed bodies such as his for their representation of European tattooing practices in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Europeans have used tattoos for many eras, and the 19th century was no exception. But the preservation of Monsieur Bonheur's body is as disturbing as it is informative about how tattoos came to be perceived by continental European criminologists as deviant. Even though his true identity has not been established, Monsieur Bonheur's tattooed body nonetheless has a fascinating genealogy that raises questions of how his body formed such a distinctive appearance, how researchers viewed (and continue to view) his unusual body, how criminologists reinterpreted it as deviant, and why his tattoos were markers of criminality in 19th-century continental Europe in the first place. Common to all these questions is the need to understand the formation and experience of social experiences, identities, and norms. Sara Ahmed's Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (2006) provides a comprehensive model for this, demonstrating "how bodies become orientated by how they take up time and space" (5). Ahmed's analysis focuses on the question of how bodies come to be gendered, sexualized, and raced, but the same framework and insights are helpful for these questions pertaining to the case of tattoos as well. This post is the first in a planned series of essays explaining concepts from each of the chapters of Queer Phenomenology. Here, this post addresses how and why tattoos manifested on his body. The intended result of this exploration is not a detailed exegesis or reinterpretation of Queer Phenomenology, but an application of it toward understanding the mysterious life and afterlife of Monsieur Bonheur.
Europeans of the 19th century had a long tradition of using tattoos to mark significant life events, especially religious pilgrimages that exposed them to radically new experiences and places. This practice grew even more prevalent as European colonization and trade networks grew, bringing Europeans in contact with other cultures that also practiced tattooing. Monsieur Bonheur's tattoos suggest that he was a well-travelled man, as shown by depictions of a Venezuelan flag and French soldiers in North Africa. Ahmed opens her book with a description of how and why he was able to become orientated in these new places (2006: 1):
If we know where we are when we turn this way or that way, then we are orientated. We have our bearings. We know what to do to get to this place or to that place. To be orientated is also to be turned toward certain objects, those that help us to find our way. These are the objects we recognize, so that when we face them we know which way we are facing. They might be landmarks or other familiar signs that give us our anchoring points. They gather on the ground, and they create a ground on which we can gather. And yet, objects gather quite differently, creating different grounds.
The type and arrangement of these "familiar signs" or "objects" varied between Venezuela and North Africa, differentiating the places from each other and thus making them different "grounds." (Later, Ahmed will use the term "grounds" interchangeably with the term "fields" [2006: 15].) None of this has to somehow be taken metaphorically: grounds or fields of objects such as Venezuela or North Africa are real places. Ahmed also uses as examples other literal things (especially tables) in subsequent chapters in ways that strongly suggest a material attribution to her main focus as well: the "concepts" of gender, sexuality, and race.
Monsieur Bonheur may not have been very familiar with, say, Venezuela when he set sail. But his familiarity with how to physically and socially navigate in space made it possible for him to orientate himself in this "unfamiliar" field of objects nonetheless. Thus (Ahmed 2006: 7):
... the differentiation between strange and familiar is not sustained. Even in a strange or unfamiliar environment we might find our way, given our familiarity with social form, with how the social is arranged.
Part of this use of the knowledge of social form, or how to acquire an orientation, is reaching toward those aforementioned "objects ... that help us find our way" (1). This process of gaining orientation by "making the strange familiar through the extension of bodies into space" is thus best described as an active process on the part of the subject, or "a dynamic negotiation between what is familiar and unfamiliar" (7, 11). In other words, to become orientated, we reach toward objects according to our preexisting knowledge of how to navigate space. This is not a matter of navigating and "becoming familiar" by differentiating between left and right sides of the body (as with Kant), or between familiarity or its lack "in" the world and its objects as a "given" (Heidegger) (6-7). In contrast, Ahmed argues that (7-8):
The familiar is an effect of inhabitance; we are not simply in the familiar, but rather the familiar is shaped by actions that reach out toward objects that are already within reach. Even when things are within reach, we still have to reach for those things for them to be reached.
As Monsieur Bonheur orientated himself in this new place, he reached toward the objects that he already “knew” would help him navigate it. These interactions, in turn, shaped his familiarity with the place and its objects – but this does not make familiarity a feature intrinsic to the reached-for objects themselves. This also implies that the distinctions between the absolute marker (location) and the relative marker (position) are collapsed, for location implies an intrinsic familiarity that fields and their objects simply do not have. But rather than space and time being relative only to the subject’s position, “the social depends in part on agreement of how we measure space and time, which is why social conflict can often be experienced as being ‘out of time’ as well as ‘out of place’ with others” (12-13). Monsieur Bonheur was able to navigate to Venezuela because of his knowledge of longitude and latitude, but that does not make longitude and latitude absolute markers or locations in space. Rather, their utility is based on shared agreement of these markers’ reality with the other people on his ship. They are orientated because they are “in line” with agreed-upon markers that form lines, and they are collectively directed by these lines more than others (as in an alternate navigation system) (15).
Regardless of the purpose of his travels, Monsieur Bonheur clearly found the experiences emotionally moving and fascinating. He thus directed these feelings of fascination toward certain objects (and perhaps other people) he observed, thus perceiving them as fascinating things to approach. “Emotions … move us ‘toward’ and ‘away’ from such objects,” but this interaction is not just limited to the movement of the subject (Ahmed 2006: 2-3):
The orientations we have toward others shape the contours of space by affecting relations of proximity and distance between bodies. … Orientations involve different ways of registering the proximity of objects and others.
One of Monsieur Bonheur’s tattoos – a Venezuelan flag – was (if our conjecture about his sailing life is correct) inspired by his encounter with some object in Venezuela, perhaps a patriotic statue. He may have felt fascinated by the sight of the statue, and in turn attributed the quality of being “fascinating” to it, and apprehended it as possessing this quality. These emotions compelled him to move closer to the object, perhaps to examine its details. In the process, the statue moved closer to him too. As he approached the object, the proximity between them decreased, and perhaps his fascination grew as he was able to apprehend more details of the statue. Eventually, he stopped to look over it thoroughly. His emotion (fascination) has changed how he inhabits space in this part of Venezuela, as well as how he is orientated in relation to the statue and its own orientation. But this focus on the statue implies that he did not direct his energy and attention toward other things – like the sun setting behind him. One of the tasks of queer phenomenology is starting by “redirecting our attention toward different objects, those that are ‘less proximate’ or even those that deviate or are deviant” (Ahmed 3). In this case, a queer phenomenology would start by paying attention to the sun in the background, deviating from Monsieur Bonheur’s orientation or line of sight, and perhaps studying how the light it cast enhanced the statue’s beauty.
Whatever Monsieur Bonheur’s life experiences were though, they left strong impressions on him – literally! He was not born with his tattoos; rather, he was inspired to take time and effort to make them appear on his skin. As he encountered many things, directed his emotions at them, and apprehended them, he built a whole life history that shaped who he ended up being by the time he saw the statue. The life history affected how his skin was impressed upon in this encounter and future ones (Ahmed 2006: 2):
The timing of this apprehension matters. For an object to make an impression is dependent on past histories, which surface as impressions on the skin.
It is important to keep in mind that “skin” does not just refer to the literal skin of the naked body, but a “social skin” impressed upon and apprehended by others. For instance, the accumulation of pins and patches on a metalhead’s battle jacket can also be described as a series of repeated impressions. This cycle of direction, apprehension, and impression underscores how emotions affect someone through habitual and repeated action across time and space. Different emotions create different effects on us and our proximity to others; they also shape the varying histories of our own which prime us to receive impressions in certain ways in the future. Monsieur Bonheur’s body was literally shaped (tattooed) by what he repeatedly did in life, such as seeing things that invoked emotions in him, creating his own tattooing habits and tendencies, and perhaps his identity as a sailor (or just a man who really likes tattoos).
In Monsieur Bonheur’s life we can see how a person’s orientation in time and space leads to the formation of some tendencies and not others. First, he was able to travel to Venezuela because of the “given” lines of navigation that were shared by others on the ship – a preexisting knowledge of how the world is arranged. Upon landing in Venezuela for the first time, he saw a statue that he directed his fascination toward, making this statue appear fascinating. This quality of the statue moved him closer to it (and away from other things that became harder to reach), but in the process he also did not direct his attention to the sun setting behind him, the object that cast light upon the statue. The statue, on the other hand, left such a strong emotional impression on him that he eventually decided to have it surface as a literal impression on his skin in the form of a tattoo representing it. This process repeated for each impression he gained, forming his unique body over time. As he wore his tattoos, it was probably a conversation-starter, and well-received by some other members of his social circle (such as sailors) who also liked getting tattoos to commemorate their travels. Today, researchers are also fascinated by his tattoos – but for very different reasons. In the next section, we will explore how researchers perceive and apprehend his body as an object today.
Content warning: Some of the following links contain photographs of dead humans' skin. Viewer discretion is advised.
Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2006.
Scharping, Nathaniel. "Tattoos, Identity, and The Disturbing Fate of 'Monsieur Bonheur.'" Atlas Obscura. June 3, 2021. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/monsieur-bonheur-tattoo-preserved-skin.
Gemma Angel's website, which contains many of her writings about tattoo research
Smith, Martin J., A. Starkie, R. Slater, and H. Manley. "A life less ordinary: analysis of the uniquely preserved dermal remains of an individual from 19th-century France." Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences 13, no. 55 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12520-021-01290-8.