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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, they imagined themselves climbing up two flights into a Baudelairean realm of luxe, calme, et volupté. “Hell” therefore became something more than a storage space defined by call numbers—the D2 series devised in 1702 and the extraordinary Y2, which goes back to 1750. “Hell” was heaven, an escape fantasy charged with poetic energy.

One of France’s greatest poets, Guillaume Apollinaire, visited it and catalogued its holdings in 1911: 930 works, one apparently more delicious than another. A more scholarly catalog produced by Pascal Pia in 1978 lists 1,730 titles, although many are modern reprints, the originals having disappeared from the stacks at various times since the seventeenth century. Evidently “Hell” contained a huge supply of forbidden fruit, but most of it remained beyond the reach of ordinary readers until 1980, when the Enfer was abolished and the publishers began to reprint its contents.

Now all this literature has fallen into the public domain. You can pick some up in any Parisian bookstore and sample vast amounts in the seven-volume selection from the Enfer published by Fayard: twenty-nine novels complete with scholarly introductions and illustrations. The Fayard series does not include many of the most important works, such as Margot la ravaudeuse, Les Lauriers ecclésiastiques, and La Chandelle d’Arras, which were best sellers in the clandestine book trade of the Old Regime. But some of them can be found in an excellent anthology published last year by Raymond Trousson, Romans libertins du XVIIIe siècle: a dozen novels and stories crammed into one volume of 1,300 pages. So now at last one can take a fairly complete tour of France’s literary Hell. What does it reveal about the history of pornography and pornography’s place in the history of thought?

The word, like the thing, is a matter of dispute. For some “pornography” should be restricted to its etymological root, meaning writing about prostitutes, as distinct from eroticism in general. For others, it involves descriptions of sexual activity that are meant to arouse the reader or beholder and that violate conventional morality. A postmodernist might argue that the thing did not come into existence until the word was coined—i.e., not until the first half of the nineteenth century (the earliest use of a related term seems to be in Restif de la Bretonne’s tract about public prostitution, Le Pornographe, of 1769). Only then, through measures like the creation of the Enfer, did the public discourse on sex define a category of erotica as peculiarly worthy of repression.

The difficulty with such definitions is that sexual practices and cultural taboos keep shifting. Indeed, it is their very shiftiness that made sex so good for thinking, because it served as a way to explore ambiguities and establish boundaries. No one in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries thought of banning books because of bawdiness that might be considered pornographic today Religion, not sex, determined the main boundary lines of illicitness. But it is impossible to separate sex from religion in the earliest works of modern pornography: Aretino’s Ragionamenti (1536), where the most lascivious scenes are set in a convent; L’Ecole des filles (1655) and L’Académie des dames (1680), which adapt Aretino’s themes to French anticlericalism; and Vénus dans le cloître (c. 1682), where free love promotes free thinking. At the high tide of pornography in the eighteenth century, best-selling works like Thérèse philosophe (1748) employed eroticism in the cause of Enlightenment. And on the eve of the Revolution, sex books such as Correspondance d’Eulalie (1784) served above all as vehicles of social criticism.

After 1789, pornography provided a whole arsenal of weapons for bashing aristocrats, clergymen, and the monarchy. But after turning political (e.g., Dom Bougre aux Etats-Généraux, an indictment of deputies in the Estates General), it became trivial (Les Quarante manières de foutre, a pseudo-sex manual that reads like a recipe book, most of it for fast food: “Take a thigh, add butter, cover, heat to simmering…”) True, the century ended with the Marquis de Sade, whom some have hailed as a prophet of the modern avant-grade. But the endless permutation of copulating bodies in the work of a more typical author, André-Robert Andréa de Nerciat, suggests a genre that had exhausted itself. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Baudelaire and Bataille made sex good for thinking in new ways; and the new era of mass literacy and mass production turned pornography into a phenomenon of mass consumption. 1

In short, pornography has a history. It grew within a body of literature whose contours kept changing but which maintained a certain coherence. The works in the Enfer constantly refer back to the same sources, especially Aretino and the ancient phallic cult of Priapus. They cite one another, sometimes by describing “gallant libraries” that are used as sexual props. They exploit the same devices, above all voyeurism (the reader is made to look over the shoulder of someone looking through a keyhole at a couple copulating in front of a mirror or under pictures of copulating couples on the wall). They use the same narrative strategies: first-person autobiographies by courtesans, dialogues between sexual veterans and innocent beginners, pseudo-sex manuals, and tours of convents and brothels (which are always presented as two versions of the same thing, a usage preserved in the slang expression abbaye for whore house). In many cases, they even give their characters the same names—Nana, Agnès, Suzon were favorites—and advertise their wares by means of the same false addresses on their title pages: “à Rome, de l’imprimerie du Saint Père,” “à Gratte-mon-con, chez Henri Branle-Motte,” “à Tribaldis, de l’imprimerie de Priape,” “à Cythère, au Temple de la Volupté,” “à Lèchecon, et se trouve dans les coulisses de tous les théâtres.”

Yet despite these conventions, which cast the reader in the role of a voyeur and oriented his expectations toward an erotic experience, early modern pornography did not stand out in the eyes of its contemporaries as a clear and distinct genre of literature. Instead, it belonged to a general category, known at the time as “philosophical.” Eighteenth-century publishers and booksellers used the term “philosophical books” to designate illegal merchandise, whether it was irreligious, seditious, or obscene. They did not bother about finer distinctions, because most forbidden books gave offense in several ways. Libre in the jargon of their trade sometimes meant lascivious, but it invoked the libertinism of the seventeenth century—that is, free thinking. By 1750, libertinism had become a matter of the body and the mind, of pornography and philosophy. Readers could recognize a sex book when they saw one, but they expected sex to serve as a vehicle for attacks on the church, the crown, and all sorts of social abuses.

Consider Thérèse philosophe, one of the two or three most important pornographic works of the eighteenth century. It begins with a fictitious version of a notorious scandal in which a Jesuit priest seduced a young woman who had come to him for spiritual guidance. In the novel, the Jesuit preaches a radical variety of Cartesianism. He expounds Descartes’s dichotomy between spirit and matter by instructing his pupil, Mlle. Eradice, to detach her soul from her body through spiritual exercises, such as lifting her skirts while he flagellates her buttocks and she concentrates on the Holy Ghost. If she concentrates hard enough, he assures her, she won’t feel any pain. Instead, her soul will abandon her body and soar to heaven on a wave of spiritual ecstasy.

After an adequate flogging, Eradice is ready for the ultimate spiritual exercise: sexual intercourse. The Jesuit explains that thanks to the use of a relic—a stiff remnant of the rope that Saint Francis wore around his habit—she will undergo a pure form of spiritual penetration. Then, as she prays from a nearly prostrate position, he mounts her from behind. The scene is described by Thérèse, the heroine and narrator of the novel, as she witnessed it from a hiding place:

  1. 1

    The best general history of erotic literature is still Paul Englisch, Geschichte der erotischen Literatur (Stuttgart: J. Püttmann, 1927). As an example of current scholarship, see Lynn Hunt, editor, The Invention of Pornography: Obscenity and the Origins of Modernity, 1500–1800 (Zone Books, 1993), especially the excellent chapters by Lynn Hunt and Paula Findlen.

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