Sex for Thought

L'Enfer de la Bibliothèque Nationale

seven volumes

Romans libertins du XVIIIe siècle

edited by Raymond Trousson
Laffont, 1,440 pp., 140 FF (paper)

Ces Livres qu'on ne lit que d'une main: Lecture et lecteurs de livres pornographiques au XVIIIe siècle

by Jean Marie Goulemot
Alinea, 171 pp., 129 FF (paper)

Vol. 1: Oeuvres érotiques de Mirabeau: (HIC-ETHAEC) ou l'Elève des Révérends Pères Jésuites d'Avignon Le Rideau levé ou l'éducation de Laure

Ma Conversion ou le libertin de qualité L'Abbé IL-ET-ELLE
Erotika Biblion, 603 pp., 160 FF (paper)

Vol. 2: Oeuvres érotiques de Restif de la Bretonne: règlement pour les prostituées L'Anti-Justine ou les délices de l'amour Dom Bougre aux Etats-Généraux ou doléances du Portier des Chartreux Les Revies, histories refaites sous une autre hypothèse du coeu

Le Pornographe ou idées d'un honnête homme sur un project de
595 pp., 180 FF (paper)

Vol. 3: Oeuvres anonymes du XVIIIe siècle (I): lui-mêmeMémoires du Suzon, soeur de D.. B.., portier des Chartreux, écrits par elle-même Histoire de Marguerite, fille du Suzon, nièce de D** B*****, La Cauchoise ou mémoires d'une courtisane célèbre

Histoire de Dom B…, portier des Chartreux, écrite par
471 pp., 160 FF (paper)

Vol. 4: Oeuvres anonymes du XVIIIe siècle (II): d'Eulalie, ou tableau du libertinage de Paris Lucette ou les progrès du libertinage

La courtisane anaphrodite ou la pucelle libertine Correspondance
513 pp., 160 FF (paper)

Vol. 5: Oeuvres anonymes du XVIIIe siècle (III): du Père Dirrag et de Mademoiselle Eradice Le Triomphe des religieuses ou les nonnes babillardes Lettres galantes et philosophiques de deux nonnes La Messaline française ou les nuits de la duchesse de Pol… e

Thérèse philosophe ou mémoires pour servir à l'histoire
414 pp., 160 FF (paper)

Vol. 6: Oeuvres anonymes du XVIIIe siècle (IV): célèbre libertine Décrets des sens sanctionnés par la volupté Requête et décret en faveur des putains, des fouteuses, des maquerelles et des branleuses contre les bougres, les bardaches et les brûleurs de pa

Eléonore ou l'heureuse personne Vénus en rut ou vie d'une
491 pp., 170 FF (paper)

Vol. 7: Oeuvres érotiques du XVIIe siècle: des dames Vénus dans le cloître ou la religieuse en chemise L'Académie des dames

Le Rut ou la pudeur éteinte L'Ecole des filles ou la philosophie
639 pp., 190 FF (paper)

The missing element in the current debate about pornography can be put as a proposition derived from Claude Lévi-Strauss: sex is good for thinking. In La Pensée sauvage and other works, Lévi-Strauss argues that many peoples do not think in the manner of philosophers, by manipulating abstractions. Instead, they think with things—concrete things from everyday life, like housing arrangements and tattoos, or imaginary things from myth and folklore, like Brer Rabbit and his briar patch. Just as some materials are particularly good to work with, some things are especially good to think about (bonnes à penser). They can be arranged in patterns, which bring out unsuspected relationships and define unclear boundaries.

Sex, I submit, is one of them. As carnal knowledge works its way into cultural patterns, it supplies endless material for thought, especially when it appears in narratives—dirty jokes, male braggadocio, female gossip, bawdy songs, and erotic novels. In all these forms, sex is not simply a subject but also a tool used to pry the top off things and explore their inner works. It does for ordinary people what logic does for philosophers: it helps make sense of things. And it did so with greatest effect during the golden age of pornography, from 1650 to 1800, primarily in France.


Fortunately, this proposition can be tested, because for the last ten years French publishers have been reprinting whole shelf-loads of the most illegal and most erotic works from the Old Regime. They have capitalized on the freer attitudes toward sex among the public and the police, and they have drawn on an endless supply of copy in the famous “Enfer” (“Hell”) section of the Bibliothèque Nationale.

The librarians created “l’Enfer” sometime between 1836 and 1844 in order to cope with a contradiction. On the one hand, they needed to preserve the fullest possible record of the printed word; on the other, they wanted to prevent readers from being corrupted by bad books. The answer was to cull all the most offensive erotic works from the library’s various collections and shut them up in one spot, which was declared off limits to ordinary readers.

This policy belonged to the bowdlerization of the world that took place in the nineteenth century. As part of the general buttoning-up and locking-away, the librarians everywhere put certain kinds of books beyond the reach of readers and invented codes to classify them: the “Private Case” of the British Museum, the Delta callmark of the Library of Congress, the ***** of the New York Public Library, and the Bodleian’s Greek letter Φ, which when pronounced in Oxford English sounded like “Fie!”

The greatest collection of them all was generally believed to be in the Bibliothèque Nationale, because Paris—the naughty Paris of the Regency and the Rococo—passed as the capital of pornography. Downstairs in the Nationale’s cavernous Salle des Imprimés readers sometimes allowed their thoughts to wander upstairs, where, curiously, “Hell” was located. Instead of trudging through the sermons of Bourdaloue or the histories of Rollin,…

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