Mar 052009

Darnton, Robert. The Forbidden Best-sellers of Pre-revolutionary France WW Norton & Co, 1996 Link

Justice Potter Stewart defined pornography as, “I know it when I see it.” The same could be said of genre in general. The genre of a given work is obvious, unmistakable, self-evident. A mystery story is a mystery because, well, there’s a mystery and it is solved.

However, genre is rarely pure, and there are many instances of works that defy categorization. Is James Cameron’s Aliens horror, science fiction or action? Also, genre becomes even less distinct when we backtrack, trying to find the first example of a given form. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is often cited as the first science fiction novel, but is it actually that, or a Gothic novel?

This gets even harder when you try to excavate the history of pornography. Case in point: the anonymous novel Therese Philosophe, published in 1748 (the same year as Denis Diderot’s erotica/satire The Indiscrete Jewels, and John Cleland’s apolitical Fanny Hill). It is usually attributed to the Marquis d’Argens.

The book came out at a time when there was an explosion of new books in France, and other European countries, ranging from outright porn to outright philosophy and everything in between. There was no consensus about what was acceptable or legal. Diderot tells of flirting with a sales girl in a book shop, and both think nothing of his request for a certain erotic novel, but both blush and stammer when he asks for another.

Therese Philosophe is very much about sex, but also very much about materialism and atheism, and the two are intertwined. It uses popular genres like the bildungsroman, the anti-clerical story, and the “whore dialog”, to preach the new ideas of materialism and hedonism. La Mettries’ L’Homme-machine was published the same year.

It falls into four parts. In the first, Therese is one of the students of “Father Dirrag”, and she observes him with her fellow student, “Mlle. Eradice.” This is a satire/parody/roman-a-clef of the Girard-Cadiere case of 1730, and would have been familiar to the book’s readers. Therese secretly observes Dirrag “counseling” Cadiere, guiding her through what she thinks is a religious experience like that of St. Theresa of Avila, but is really sexual arousal through flagellation and penetration. Dirrag is a Jesuit, but also a closet materialist, preaching that all phenomena are just matter in motion.

In short, the Dirrag Affair demonstrated that seduction was an inverted form of Christianity, and it prepared the reader to consider the proposition in reverse: Christianity was a form of seduction.


Therese sees and hears all of this from her secret observing post, and brings herself to pleasure while watching. Masturbation and visual and auditory voyeurism are the key sexual acts in this story, not intercourse. In fact, Therese is terrified of intercourse, fearing death in childbirth (a reasonable prospect at the time).

Therese next gets dumped into a convent and gets sick because her “principle of pleasure”, now awakened, is not allowed to run free and thus her body-machine is disordered. She is rescued by the libertine couple of Mme. C and the Abbe T, who discuss political philosophy between and during trysts.

Whoever wrote Therese Philosophe wasn’t exactly a liberal. Church and state are bunk, and the proper measure of the world is the individual. However, religion has a use as the opiate of the masses, which would work hard to sustain the lifestyle of libertines. The book is aimed at a would-be elite, who position themselves as the new aristocracy of libertinism, but it should be kept from the lower ranks. Yet if the history of pornography and media in general tells us anything, it’s that ideas and texts spread promiscuously and widely.

In the third part, Therese is educated in alternative sexuality by an old courtesan, Mme. Bois-Laurier. It’s basically locker-room talk between an old sex worker and a new one, a favorite pornographic format long before this book, including L’Academie des dames, L’Ecole des filles and Aretino’s Ragionamenti.

In the fourth, Therese hooks up with the unnamed Count, who wants her as his mistress. He finally makes a bet with her to get her to have intercourse with him: if she can last two weeks in a room chock full of erotic books and paintings, without masturbating, she doesn’t have to have intercourse with him. She loses, of course, after a greatest hits tour of pre-18th century porn.

The narrative ends with Therese as the Count’s mistress, living Happily Ever After, “without a problem, without a worry, without children.” Not only is the Church rejected, so is the child-centered family.

The first part, the Dirrag-Cadiere affair, is the most overtly sadomasochistic. The techniques of religious ordeals are used for sexual ecstasy, in the context of a knowledgeable male teacher/dominant and innocent female student/submissive. This is the pornographic version of familiar real-world issue, the role of the church in the family. It also follows the initiation narrative.

In the next few decades, such scenarios would connect with the new Gothic form for both pornographic and political applications. What is generally regarded as the first Gothic novel, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, was published in 1764. In France, Linguet’s Memoires sure las Bastille (1783) and Mirabeau’s Des Lettres de Cachet et des prisons d’état (1782) both used Gothic horror style to expose state injustice.

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