In light of increased critical works on photography and its literary effects during the nineteenth century, I propose a new reading of the French author Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s 1886 novel, L’Eve Future.The decadent novel ponders the ideal woman, while exploring the issues of artifice, fetishism and new technology. In this study, I examine how the use of photographic techniques and images in this novel reinforce Jacques Derrida’s notion of spectrality, that is, an appearance that is at once repetition and first time. The photographic image is concerned not only with identity, but with memory and spectrality as well. In the novel, multiple versions of identity are united and separated through the use of new technologies, like photography. The tangible photographs are used to create artificial illusions of an ideal. The photograph attempts to connect the two self-representative notions of identity and spectre through a fixed temporal and spatial point. L’Eve Future shows us that we can no longer think of identity in ontological terms, but must turn to a hauntological understanding.
In Derrida’s Spectres of Marx, we glimpse a spectre of Shakespeare. In L’Eve Future, we glimpse a spectre of the future Eve, who is an impossible return to a past ideal. I will attempt to illuminate some overlooked, important issues in this nineteenth century text with the help of twentieth century thought. It is fruitful to read L’Eve Future with Derridian concepts of spectrality in mind. At the same time, it is also useful to read Derrida’s writings on spectrality and exemplarity with L’Eve Future in mind. In this study, I will show the ways in which this novel has reinforced Derridian notions of spectrality, while challenging Platonic theories of mimesis. This fin-de-siècle text problematises both Plato and Derrida’s conceptualizations of the Ideal through the android character. Photographic techniques described in the novel serve as a new technological and optical tool that question traditional conceptions of mimesis and the Ideal. Ultimately, I will illuminate how Villiers uses Hadaly, the character of the ideal android in L’Eve Future, to embody the spirit of the Derridian spectre.
The novel depicts the story of a lovesick man, Lord Ewald, who goes to his inventor friend, Thomas Alva Edison, for some advice. Lord Ewald has fallen for a beautiful woman, Miss Alicia Clary, who is cursed with a mediocre soul. Because Ewald thinks that he cannot love another woman and because Alicia Clary is not the woman that he would ideally like to love, he feels that his only escape is suicide. Edison claims that he is able to create the ideal woman in the exact physical likeness of Alicia Clary, sans her empty personality, and vows to do so within 21 days in order to save his friend. Lord Ewald, obviously stunned at this proposition, but so deep in his misery that he prefers this outlandish attempt to suicide, accepts Edison’s offer and they begin work conceptualizing this ideal woman.
Edison’s laboratory includes a secluded estate outside of New York City as well as an underground cave where he conducts experiments and houses his myriad inventions. Under the pretext of creating a bust of Alicia Clary in order to increase her fame as a singer, Edison invites her to stay with him so that he can accurately and completely record all of her physical features. He uses many new techniques of the nineteenth century: photosculpture, photography and the phonograph. Once Alicia’s likeness has been artificially reproduced on the form of an android named Hadaly (the name, according to Villiers, means Ideal in Persian) she is presented to Lord Ewald, who at first does not even recognize that he is with the android copy and not the original human (Villiers, 1886, 209). Ewald and Hadaly board the ship, the Wonderful, to make their home back in England; the ship, mid-way through its voyage across the Atlantic capsizes and Hadaly sinks to the bottom of the ocean in her traveling coffin.
Villiers’s novel is reflective of the end of the nineteenth century thought in France; it is concerned with how to situate new technologies in the arts, how to view the female as both subject and object and how to approach philosophical dilemmas in modern ways. To begin, it is a work that deals with the artistic notion of mimesis, which Plato discusses in Book X of The Republic. Edison, the inventor, attempts to create a perfect, or even more perfect, copy of Alicia Clary. When speaking of mimesis in relation to people, this of course brings up questions of identity that I will approach later. On the inside, the android is constructed of various metals, fluids and magnets to regulate her activities. On the outside, artificial substances form her hair, flesh and overall look to mimic those of Alicia. Edison is an example of the imitator about whom Plato speaks in his conversation with Socrates in The Republic:
Now, if [the imitator] does not make what is, he will not make the real, but something which is of the same nature with but is not the real […] Then let us not be surprised if the manufactured article is also somewhat indistinct as compared with truth. (Plato, 1992, 284)
Because the real article exists only in theory or in thought, the imitator or inventor cannot create it. Everything that he creates will necessarily be a copy, even if it is his first creation.
It is important to note, as Marie Lathers does, that the methods that Edison uses to create the physical copy do not require Alicia’s physical presence after they have been exercised. The photographic references in the text:
remind the reader that it is the model’s image that Edison and Sowana intend to capture and transpose. […] Alicia’s physical presence is not needed in order to establish her as a personality.’ (Lathers, 1996, 87)
Also, Alicia as the origina,l from which a copy is made, is not a fully accurate portrayal of her identity. She is already a double or a copy from the beginning. Outside the scope of this study, but a problem that many critics have posed, is the representation of the female in L’Eve Future. Villiers dedicates a large portion of his novel to the description of the female, as he and his characters conceive her. Carole de Dobay Rifelj notes the relation of the female to multiplicity:
[w]omen are replaceable by a replicant not only because their element is artifice and the artificial, but also because they are not always the same; they are not identical to themselves’ (Rifelj, 1992, 434).
Thus, the issues surrounding Alicia’s identity problematise the idea of mimesis from the start.
The ‘truth’ that Plato cites in The Republic refers to the higher ‘Form’, or what Saussure might call the referent, in linguistic terms. It is the ultimate idea or ideal of an object, which all others attempt to copy or to duplicate. In the Phaedrus, Plato describes the forms that represent the ideals of all important notions in life. These forms are a part of the unconscious of every person because he has witnessed their manifestations and characteristics in a past life. The Ideal is the same for everyone and manifests itself in everyday events and objects. It is up to the individual to remain alert in order to notice these manifestations. Plato discusses these forms in the Phaedrus in another rhetorical exercise with Socrates. As opposed to the manufactured articles that the imitator creates, Plato describes a form as:
without color and without shape and without solidity, a being that really is what it is, the subject of all true knowledge, visible only to intelligence.’ (Plato, 1995, 33)
The form, therefore, is not a physical object, like one that an inventor could create, but an abstract idea that exists in the mind.
If we were to name one of these supreme forms ‘Woman’, then we would have the situation of the future Eve. Hadaly, the android, is the inventor’s attempt to create a copy of the ideal Woman. Although she is the first physical being to be constructed, she is a double copy: first, she is a copy of Alicia Clary, the real woman; second, she is a copy of the ideal form that exists in the mind of Edison and Ewald. Plato also elaborates this ‘theory of Recollection’ in the Phaedrus:
[t]hat process is the recollection of the things our soul saw when it was traveling with god, when it disregarded the things we now call real and lifted up its head to what is truly real instead. (Plato, 1995, 37)
Lord Ewald and Mr. Edison have never perceived the ideal Woman during their lives, but she remains in their subconscious as a vestige of their experience at some point with the true forms.
The photograph and photographic techniques are used in L’Eve Future as the means to fix the image of the beautiful woman, Alicia Clary, so that the ideal woman, Hadaly, can be created. This new technique of the nineteenth century allowed scientists, artists, doctors and others to view the world in a different way. Marie Lathers dedicates a chapter of her book on L’Eve Future to the subject of photography. Villiers was writing at a time:
when critics and artists either disputed or upheld photography’s membership in the fine arts. Discussions of the aesthetic categories of the real and ideal invariably included references to photography, whose supposed affinity to a real was viewed as either monstrous or liberating. (Lathers, 1996, 85).
Villiers’s use of this new technique in the creation of a future Eve, who is at once an artistic and technological marvel, is reflective of the issues surrounding the use of photography during his time. He uses the novel technique of photography to both create a monster and to liberate Ewald’s character from death.
Edison uses the photosculpture technique on Alicia in order to recreate her exterior physique exactly. Lathers writes that, ‘photosculpture attempts to include a new and much-debated art, photography, in the already accepted practice of replicating plastic art objects’ (Lathers, 1996, 54). This technique consists in taking many simultaneous photographs of different angles of a subject. The photographs are developed and then enlarged so that a copyist can trace them while his pen is linked to a special machine that carves the sculpture material at the same time . Edison, the artist and technician, then uses various artificial substances and make-up to imitate reality.
In essence, Edison’s goal is to create a more perfect version of Alicia, the visually perfect but substantially imperfect, individual. The photograph serves as a memory tool, or a tool of recollection. In photographing and meticulously recording all of Alicia’s visual and audio characteristics, Edison is metonymically re-creating this woman. In a photograph of her face, for example, he creates a visual copy that he then uses as the basis for construction of her artificial copy, the android Hadaly. Jacques Noiray focuses on Villiers’s reasons for insisting so strongly on the methods of reproduction in L’Eve Future in his large work on the novelist and the machine. ‘The care that Villiers exercises in detailing the procedures of reproduction underlines the importance attributed, in L’Eve Future, to the exactness of the copy’, but also that the characters need ‘to guard themselves against a danger that would be an excess of perfection of resemblance’ (Noiray, 1982, 315/6). Creating an artificial copy of a human certainly goes against nature, but perfecting this copy to excess would go beyond the realm of ontological understanding.
The photograph, taken at a specific moment in time, creates another Alicia. ‘The two meanings (the single original and the multipliable copy) cohabit here; they are – or seem to be – the same, and that is the whole story’, writes Derrida (Derrida, 1997, 4). In essence, what Derrida claims is that there is no difference between Alicia the person and Alicia the photograph. They are both copies and originals simultaneously; each version of Alicia puts the other’s subjectivity into question. Roland Barthes also struggles with the essence and purpose of photographs when writing about his mother’s image. He wants to connect his memory of his mother to the image that he sees in her photographs, attempting to make one identity out of separate ones. Barthes writes:
And here the essential question first appeared: did I recognize her? According to these photographs, sometimes I recognized a region of her face, a certain relation of nose and forehead, the movement of her arms, her hands. I never recognized her except in fragments, which is to say that I missed her being, and that therefore I missed her altogether. It was not she, and yet it was no one else. I would have recognized her among thousands of other women, yet I did not ‘find’ her. I recognized her differentially, not essentially. Photography thereby compelled me to perform a painful labor; straining toward the essence of her identity, I was struggling among images partially true, and therefore totally false. (Barthes, 1987, 65/6)
Just like the photograph of a portion of Alicia Clary, the photographs of Barthes’s mother are originals, yet copies at the same time. Therefore, it is impossible to find the essence or identity of the individual in the photograph. Barthes, just like Edison or Ewald, is conjuring his memory of his mother and trying to match the physical object to it.
An example of questioned subjectivity through a moving photographic image manifests in the character of Evelyn Habal. Edison recounts the story of a former close friend, Edward Anderson, who fell for an exotic dancer, Evelyn, and left his wife and family. He eventually met his demise after being ruined by this evil woman. In the novel, L’Eve Future, Villiers gives the reader a preview of cinematographic technologies that would soon be developed in France by the Lumière brothers. A short, moving image of a beautiful exotic dancer is projected onto a white screen so that Edison can demonstrate the visual miracles of artifice. Edison and Ewald watch, commenting on her beauty as she dances and sings along to the music. Edison then changes the film and projects the image of what Ewald perceives as a ‘witch’.
”Why, it’s the same one,” Edison [sic] said calmly, “only the real one. The one beneath the appearance of the other”’ responds Edison to Ewald’s surprised horror. (Villiers, 1981, 135)
He then goes on to extol the virtues of modern cosmetics. Therefore, both images are of the same woman, but ‘the same here is none other than the other’ (Derrida, 1997, 7). We must recognize, as Derrida suggests, that the same and the other co-exist in one being, each forming a part of an ontological duality.
There are several other ways that critics of L’Eve Future have used to conceptualize this co-existence of the same and the other. In her study of the novel, Deborah Conyngham insists on the hollow form of Hadaly as a receptacle that needs to be filled with another entity in order to be complete. According to her study, the android figure is composed of two separate, but necessary parts: the Beyond, which is personified by Sowana , another character who resides in Edison’s laboratory, and the Inward (or the Inside), which manifests in Hadaly, the physical shell. Conyngham describes this relation as such:
The exact relation between Hadaly and Sowana is the result of the fact that the soul liberated from the body, and the body without the soul both find each other in this ‘superior state’ of virtuality and can thus adapt to each other. United, Sowana and Hadaly form ‘A duality .’ (Conyngham, 1975, 145)
They form a singular entity that is composed of two very different parts. Carol de Dobay Rifelj notes that this duality of identity also raises philosophical questions. As mentioned earlier, ontological and metaphysical problems are an important part of Villiers’s novel and others of the period. She situates these questions in relation to the dual entity of Hadaly/Sowana:
The problem of personal identity arises within the framework of metaphysical dualism: since the body and soul are separate, they can be conceived as separable. In which, then, does personal identity reside? And how can two elements so distinct be so intimately interrelated? What are the mechanisms of this exchange? (Rifelj, 1992, 438)
I would argue that the mechanism of this exchange of entities is the spectre and that Derrida’s notion of spectrality is essential to the complete understanding of L’Eve Futureand the questions that the novel poses. I will therefore proceed from the ontological questions that others critics have raised about the novel to hauntological questions dealing with the spectre and identity.
I have noted several examples in the novel that illustrate the notions of mimesis and ideal. However, it seems so me that the greater questions that this novel poses cannot be answered with Platonic ontological explanations. In fact, it appears that Plato’s notions of Mimesis are not adequate in order to analyze and begin to understand the implications of the novel. Derrida notes that we can ‘distinguish the spectre not only from the icon or the idol but also from the image of the image’ (Derrida, 1994, 7). Derrida’s short sentence here encompasses each of the problems that I aim to study inL’Eve Future: those of mimesis, the ideal, and the spectre. After studying the mimetic and idealistic characteristics of the android, questions still remain about how to link the copy to the original and how they both relate to the higher ideal, if at all. The spectre, as Derrida claims, is the missing link to understanding how all of these philosophical notions are related.
In the Historical Dictionary of the French Language, the entry for ‘spectre’ is defined as borrowed from the Latin ‘spectrum’ or ‘simulacrum’, as well as a term created to translate the Greek ‘eidôlon’ or ‘idol’ (Rey, 2006, 3613). The proximity of ‘idol’ to ‘ideal’ is striking and lends itself to a study of how we can problematise the spectre in relation to the ideal. According to Derrida, the spectre is a being and non-being that returns to the present from the future, for the first and last time. In other words, ‘a spectre is always a revenant. One cannot control its comings and goings because it begins by coming back’ (Derrida, 1994, 11). If something begins by coming back, then it must have had what I would could call a ‘pre-origin’. I would liken this ‘pre-origin’ to the ideal forms to which Plato refers in the Phaedrus. They are the ever-present, yet absent, referents that inform and embody everything that exists or that will exist in the physical world.
In his article on L’Eve Future, Rodolphe Gasché alludes to the Derridian idea of spectrality without ever defining it exactly as such. He claims that:
Edison’s improvement must be such that it allows for a repetition prior to the original to be repeated; and indeed, Edison suggests that he may have discovered the possibility of repetition without a model, or in short, the possibility of originary and original repetition. (Gasché, 1983, 302)
It is clear here that Gasché means to explain Edison’s attempt at creating the ideal woman as a spectre who reappears as her first appearance. Edison’s goal is to re-create the ideal, to create an artificial woman who is in the exact image of a real, albeit psychically imperfect woman. In L’Eve Future, Hadaly exemplifies the spectre. She is the first physical copy of the ideal, an ideal that, in essence and in fact, has never before existed in the world.
Because Alicia Clary is an individual who can be copied, Villiers introduces a new conception of the uniqueness of the individual. Alicia was copied because of her immense beauty, but more importantly because another person chose to copy her. She did not seek the copy of herself. Ontologically, it would seem that no individual would want a copy of herself because it would diminish or challenge her originality. However, when speaking of copies and examples, especially with Derrida in mind, I underline that every being has a hauntological origin of repetition and first time and last time. As Teyssot recalls Deleuze and Derrida, ‘difference is the only origin’ (Teyssot, 1993, 79). Every instance of repeatability is also unique, because a new and different copy is formed.
Hadaly is the ultimate spectre, a simultaneous being and non-being, who is brought back to the present by a creator. Derrida describes the temporal domain of the spectre in the following way: ‘the passage of this time of the present comes from the future to go toward the past, toward the going of the gone’ (Derrida, 1994, 24). There is a seeming paradox in the novel and Hadaly’s presence as spectre. Ewald, through his wish, and Edison, through his capacity as inventor have conjured Hadaly into being. She exists only because they have willed her into existence in the world. ‘The existence of Hadaly depends on the will of Lord Ewald’, notes Conyngham (Conyngham, 1975, 148). However, Derrida’s notion of the spectre is of an entity that conjures those around it into being. The spectre appears and insists that it be recognized as an entity, but does not necessarily recognize that same notion of being of the other. In fact, ‘the spectre is a paradoxical incorporation, the becoming-body, a certain phenomenal and carnal form of the spirit’ (Derrida, 1994, 6). The fact that the android is made up of Sowana, the spirit, and Hadaly, the physical shell, is not impossible, according to Derrida. The very concept of the spectre is a paradox, so it stands to reason that the unanswered ontological questions about the Hadaly/Sowana entity point toward the spectre as a resolution.
When Edison first presents the idea of creating an ideal android to Lord Ewald, he is stunned and cannot understand how this feat would be possible. He ‘considered the inventor, anxious and astonished’ (Villiers, 1981, 60). All of his conceptions of reality are based on what he can see and understand, and the idea of an ideal, artificial copy of a human being is completely outside of his realm of comprehension. I assert that Ewald’s inability to comprehend the idea of Hadaly stems from his position as a traditional spectator, in Derrida’s sense. Derrida describes the characteristics of this spectator inSpectres of Marx:
A traditional scholar does not believe in ghosts – or in all that could be called the virtual space of spectrality. There has never been a scholar who, as such, does not believe in the sharp distinction between the real and the unreal, the actual and the inactual, the living and the non-living, being and non being […], in the opposition between what is present and what is not, for example in the form of objectivity. (Derrida, 1994, 11)
Hadaly is the spectre figure for the two men who are spectators, so Ewald needs much explanation from Edison in order to comprehend this new being, who is at once present and absent.
Hadaly’s first appearance in Edison’s workshop is perplexing for Ewald, who does not know what to make of this strange being and non-being. In the chapter titled ‘Apparition’, Villiers describes Hadaly’s physical appearance in dark and ambiguous terms:
The vision seemed to have a face of tenebrae. A net of pearls around her forehead secured the rippling yards of mourning crepe which hid her in the shadows. There could be discerned a feminine armature in burnished silver leaf, radiant yet mat white, moulded with a thousand perfect nuances, with svelte and virginal forms. The sections of the veil crossed beneath the collar over a gorget of metal. (Villiers, 1981, 65)
Not only is Hadaly a strange and mysterious creature, but she also bears a striking resemblance to Derrida’s description of the ghost of the King in his example of Hamletin Spectres of Marx. When the ghost of the King first appears on stage, he is wearing his armor and helmet, rendering it impossible for witnesses to see him, while he can see them. Hadaly, too, is clothed in an ‘armature’, which covers whatever may be underneath. Part of the mystery is that neither Ewald nor the reader knows if anything does in fact exist beneath the armor. She also wears a long veil to shield any exposed part of her body from the men while she ‘advanced towards the two spectators in all her disturbing beauty’ (Villiers, 1981, 65). Derrida, in reference to the spectre in Hamlet, calls this the ‘visor effect’:
This spectral someone other looks at us, we feel ourselves being looked at by it, outside of any synchrony, even before and beyond any look on our part, according to an absolute anteriority […] and asymmetry, according to an absolutely unmasterable disproportion.’ (Derrida, 1994, 7)
Derrida argues that the spectre itself calls those around it into being and makes its presence known by projecting its own entity and non-entity to its spectators.
Hadaly’s armor serves another purpose other than to act as a visor in order to block others’ perception of her. As mentioned earlier, the android is a duality containing the shell, Hadaly, and the soul, Sowana. In order for the ideal android to exist, the shell of armor must be present to enclose Sowana’s soul, which reaches out. Derrida situates Hamlet’s armor in a similar fashion: ‘The armor may be but the body of a real artifact, a kind of technical prosthesis, a body foreign to the spectral body that it dresses, dissimulates, and protects, masking even its identity’ (Derrida, 1994, 8). Again, the two parts of the spectre are confused; it is not necessary, however, to choose which part of the duality is the spectre and which part is a material or spiritual being. The spectre is the duality; it contains both parts and must contain both parts to function as such, according to Derrida’s definition. Perhaps Dobay Rifelj summarizes it well in the description of Hadaly as ‘the juncture of these realms, a mechanical body and spirit, and therefore a person like a human being’ (Rifelj, 1992, 445). After all, wasn’t Edison’s original purpose to create the ideal woman who would replicate an actual human being?
Gasché , who essentially argues the same way as Derrida about Hadaly’s spectral nature, finds that Edison concludes otherwise about who conjures and who is conjured. Edison, according to Gasché, believes that ‘the reality [of Hadaly] depends entirely on its listener and beholder’ (Gasché, 1983, 302). Edison, as a spectator, is not in the position to relinquish his power as inventor, creator and potential conjurer of Hadaly. From the outside, it is in fact the ‘intermediary being, suspended between Nothingness and Being, between emptiness and plenitude’ who calls her spectators into being with her presence (Gasché, 1983, 309). Quite literally, Lord Ewald’s life depends upon Hadaly’s appearance at just the right moment. It would also seem that Edison’s life’s work has led him to the point when he could finally put all of his inventions and experiments to work for one ultimate goal: saving a life.
‘The time is out of joint’, always and everywhere, reminds Derrida (Derrida, 1994, 18). Individuals are connecting with others at different axes, but that does not mean that one meeting happens before or after another. This problem of the concept of time lies at the heart of hauntology. Davis writes:
[h]auntology supplants its near-homonym ontology, replacing the priority of being and presence with the figure of the ghost as that which is neither present nor absent, neither dead nor alive.(Davis, 2005, 373)
Hadaly, as a spectre, is both a revenant and an arrivant. According to Derrida, the spectre is ‘a question of repetition: a spectre is always a revenant’ (Derrida, 1994, 11).
Derrida’s study of hauntology exactly fits the character of Hadaly in L’Eve Future. She is at once a repetition and first time and a repetition and last time, ‘since the singularity of any first time makes of it also a last time’ (Derrida, 1994, 10). In the novel, Edison is called upon for his help in the desperate situation of his friend, Lord Ewald. His project demonstrates that there is, in fact, no Ideal in the text. Villiers is interested in the technique of photography to tell his story because ‘it exposes at the same time visions and a conception of the world’ (Grojnowski, 2002, 27). In this study, I have shown how the new technique of photography is important in illuminating the main themes of the novel. In order to produce an exact copy of Alicia Clary, Edison uses photographs and photosculpture in his mimetic exercise of creation. Just like a photograph, ‘Hadaly is the hovering possibility of a relation between a dead or imaginary original and its living actualization in the idealizing reflective gaze of a beholder (Gasché, 1983, 313). Villiers’s scene of the moving photographic picture demonstrates the illusion of the ideal by literally effacing the beautiful image of Evelyn Habal. Finally, I have argued that Hadaly is the image of a Derridian spectre par excellence, with her double identity and mysterious presence. She is an impossible creation and Villiers recognizes this fact. It is impossible to create an actual copy of an ideal and Hadaly, the ultimate woman created by man, does not have a chance to survive in the world. Hadaly, the Ideal, is necessarily destroyed at the end of L’Eve Future.
- Lathers provides a detailed, yet succinct description of this technique in Chapter 2 of The Aesthetics of Artifice: Villiers’s L’Eve Future.
- Sowana is a sort of muse or somnambulist figure, who was formerly Miss Anderson, the wife of Edison’s friend, Edward Anderson. Anderson was the man who fell for Evelyn Habal and left his wife. Edison took her into his care and she eventually lost her normal identity and came to be known only as Sowana, a soul who could reach beyond normal human capacities.
- All translations of Conyngham’s text are my own.
- I acknowledge that Rodolphe Gasché’s article on L’Eve Future reveals some of the same arguments that I make in my own study. He does not, however, make the connection to Derrida’s Spectres of Marx; nor does he focus on the importance of the photograph in the novel with respect to identity and spectrality.
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