The French have an old and rich tradition of eroticism, celebrating the dark as well as the luminous side of sexuality. Gilbert Reid
explores French eroticism from the Marquis de Sade
to Madame Bovary
and The Story of O
to learn what it has to tell us about romance and desire, sexuality and human nature.
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"I remember as a young man first coming to France in the early 1960s and sensing, in a confused adolescent way, that there was something different about the place and the people - different, at least, from the way things were done, in pre-sexual revolution Southern Ontario.
|Innocence abroad: Gilbert Reid about to leave for wicked France, Summer 1962.|
In France, it seemed, men and women looked each other straight in the eye; they seemed to talk easily about every subject, even the most taboo subjects; they seemed, even if they were merely friends, to have no qualms about embracing - in public; and they seemed to have no trouble at all mixing sexual allusions - and gallant or flattering remarks - with witty exchanges and an easy and open way of being friends. They seemed to be at ease with themselves - and with their way of life - in a way we Anglo-Saxons were not.
I soon discovered that the young people I first met then - on the beach at Nice or in the streets of Paris - were playing their parts in a very long and rich tradition.
For many centuries France - and in particular the city of Paris - has developed a particular mystique around romance, sex, gallantry, and eroticism, and a rich repertoire of ways of talking about them.
The tradition does go back a long way, and it has deep roots, as deep as France itself, in pagan mythology and poetry, in Indian, Persian, and Arab poetry, and in many forms of mysticism, both Christian and non-Christian.
These influences came together in France in a particularly intense way.
In the 12th and 13th Centuries, the troubadours of southern France sang, in a newly exalted way, about courtly love, chivalrous love, impossible love, adulterous love, unrequited love, and yearning, nostalgic, erotic love.
In many ways, the troubadours created our modern, Western vocabulary for talking about heterosexual desire.
Writers in the French Renaissance, a few centuries later, people such as that wild monk and doctor, François Rabelais
, added an exuberant, over-the-top, almost surreal version of bawdy eroticism; Rabelais, and his fellow writers, provided the template for almost every dirty schoolboy joke you might have heard.
In the 17th and 18th Century, French libertine writers promoted free thought, criticized the Church, and turned novels of erotic initiation - and sexual education - into liberating philosophic tracts. The libertines brought together ideology, intellect, and sex, in an attractively explosive mixture you could still find not so long ago, occasionally, in Paris cafés or salons.
During the 18th Century and up until just before the French Revolution many aristocrats - and prelates - reveled in a cult of good conversation, wit, pleasure - above all, pleasure. And pleasure often involved complex games of erotic seduction, such as those immortalized in Pierre Choderlos de Laclos'
1782 novel, Dangerous Liaisons
, where the salon and boudoir replace the battlefield as settings for tactical and strategic prowess.
At the same time as Laclos was writing his masterpiece, a decadent and violently perverse minor aristocrat, The Marquis de Sade
, was exploring the darkest sides of human desire - filling literally thousands of pages with his unbridled sexual fantasies and atheistic and materialist philosophic speculations.
The Marquis, of course, gave his name to the perversion known as "sadism", and his willingness - his determination - to imagine anything and everything - however perverse, however wild - has left a deep mark on the French imagination, even today: the unspeakable, in France, can easily be spoken.
The city of Paris and the courts and chateaux of France have added their allure to this potentially intoxicating mixture of the luminous and the dark sides of sexuality.
In the 19th Century, the famous courtesans - nicknamed "Les Grandes Horizontales" - created an image of the city of light marked by refined and perverse pleasure; and poets such as Charles Baudelaire
gave new resonance to the word "decadent", while cabarets such as the Moulin Rouge and the Folies Bergères - and innumerable houses of prostitution - added to the renown of Paris as a city of pleasure - and sin.
Paris, in fact, is the scene of innumerable love stories - and erotic stories - which mingle a love of place with a love of gazing at people - and being gazed at. Its architecture - the cafes, arcades, broad sidewalks, formal gardens, and quays of the Seine - provide a theatrical setting in which life can be played out as a very pubic drama.
Paris is a paradise for the gentle, aesthetically minded, vaguely eroticized voyeur, for aimless strolling and looking. It is a place for the aesthete, a place where you can relax, seize the moment, and turn it, if you wish, into eternity. It's a place where you can make contact - if you are so inclined and lucky - and flirt, if you wish, maybe just for conversation and a drink, maybe for an affair, maybe for a lifetime... who knows... In Paris anything seems possible - or so it seemed, once upon a time, not so long ago."
- Gilbert Reid
Bibliographic hints from Gilbert Reid
Just as desire has infinite variants and expresses itself in infinite ways - in friendship, love, intense obsession, perverse abjection, flirtatious gallantry, amused observation, mystical exaltation - so the literature of eroticism is vast and varied, and obviously not limited to the French.
As a bibliographic guide, Pascal Pia
has edited a Dictionnaire des oeuvres érotiques; domaine française
, which is available in a paperback from Robert Laffont editions. Maurice Lever
is editing a series of volumes of Anthologies of Erotic Literature
, in French, with the same publisher, Robert Laffont. In the broader sense, much of French literature has an erotic side - which extends from the titillation provided by the tradition of French farce - through the sensuality of Colette and the joyful over-the-top pornography of some surrealist poets - to the more solemn and ritualized prose of writers such as Pauline Réage
, Georges Bataille
, and Pierre Klossowski
. In addition, there is a feminist school of erotic writing in France, including writers such as, Monique Wittig
, Hélène Cixous
, and many women writers whose work has a definite erotic dimension, including Violette Leduc
and Marguerite Duras
. Among contributors to the program, John Phillips
has written on the novels of the Marquis de Sade
, and, with writer and playwright Gaëtan Brulotte
, he is editor of the Routledge Encyclopedia of Erotic Literature
. Jennifer Birkette
has edited an anthology of French erotic literature, The Body and the Dream
, and she has written on the decadents of the 19th Century - The Sins of the Fathers
- and on women and feminist French writers working in the erotic tradition.
Among the classics that are easily available in English:
The Nun by Denis Diderot
Dangerous Liaisons by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
The Story of O by Pauline Réage
120 days of Sodom and Other Works by the Marquis de Sade.
Then, of course, there are the works of Anaïs Nin.
Expatriate and foreign takes on Paris and its erotic or non erotic side include works by
Edmund White and John Baxter above, and:
Paris is a Movable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
Black Spring by Henry Miller
Quiet Days in Clichy by Henry Miller
Le Divorce by Diane Johnson
Paris Stories by Mavis Gallant
Memoirs of Montparnasse by John Glassco
My own book of short stories, So This Is Love (by Gilbert Reid) contains a few stories that could be considered erotic, with one set in Paris, and another featuring a young French woman.
For exploring the seamier more picturesque sides of Paris, visit the
Paris Through Expatriate Eyes website.