The Drowned Muse is a study of the extraordinary destiny, in the history of European culture, of an object which could seem, at first glance, quite ordinary in the history of European culture. It tells the story of a mask, the cast of a young girl's face entitled L'Inconnue de la Seine, the Unkwn Woman of the Seine, and its subsequent metamorphoses as a cultural figure. Legend has it that the Inconnue drowned herself in Paris at the end of the nineteenth century. The forensic scientist tending to her unidentified corpse at the Paris Morgue was supposedly so struck by her allure that he captured in plaster the contours of her face. This unkwn girl, also referred to as The Mona Lisa of Suicide , has since become the object of an obsessive interest that started in the late 1890s, reached its peak in the 1930s, and continues to reverberate today. Aby Warburg defines art history as a ghost story for grown-ups. This study is similarly a ghost story for grown-ups , narrating the aura of a cultural object that crosses temporal, geographical, and linguistic frontiers. It views the Inconnue as a symptomatic expression of a modern world haunted by the earlier modernity of the nineteenth century. It investigates how the mask's metamorphoses reflect major shifts in the cultural history of the last two centuries, approaching the Inconnue as an entry point to understand a phemen characteristic of 20th- and 21st-century modernity: the translatability of media. Doing so, this study mobilizes discourses surrounding the Inconnue , casting them as points of negotiation through which we may consider the modern age.
Anne-Gaelle Saliot is Assistant Professor at Duke University, where she teaches twentieth-century French literature and cinema. In 2011, she was awarded the Mellon Fellowship for her manuscript on the legacies of literature and on visual representations of the unknown woman of the Seine. Her additional research interests include French theory of the image (Maurice Blanchot, Jacques Ranciere), literature and dance, film studies, and more especially the connections between filmmakers of the New Wave and the nineteenth century.