For centuries, the French coyly seized
licentious art and locked it away in a library
they called Hell. Now this secret archive of
erotica has been opened up to the public.
So has the anticipation been worth the wait?
Lesley White heads off to Paris to sneak a
The French have finally come clean. For years their collection of dirty books has been filed away in the state’s sprawling archives. Now these once illegal works are on show at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris; visitors who make the journey are rewarded with prints and engravings of tumescent aristocrats, knickerless royals, not to mention the excretions of Salvador Dali (of which more later). As might befit the national library, the collection also has literary merit – included are works by Baudelaire, de Sade, Apollinaire and Diderot.
Since 1840 over 2,000 works have been marked with the special code “Enfer” (Hell), the hiding place for the library’s under-the-mattress stash of pornography – sorry, erotic art. Until 1968 these books and prints were hived off to protect public morals, but after the uprisings of ’68, in which the slogan was “it is forbidden to forbid”, the library was no longer imbued with the moral authority to bury the works of which it disapproved. Yet it was so proud of its unique archive – which over the years has accrued a reputation for crude and shocking pleasures, a fetish joint for the stay-at-home literary classes – that it couldn’t bear to let it disperse.
Erotic literature no longer needs to be hidden: one of the last entries into Enfer via the traditional route of public prosecution was the novel Le Château de Cène in 1969, but the contents of Enfer have never been revealed before. Why now, I ask the curator Marie-Françoise Quignard. She shrugs. “Why not? Later could be too late.” At first I think she means that in a highly sexualised society, eroticism will lose its pulling power; or that in a world where nobody reads for pleasure, books won’t fetch a crowd. But no, Quignard’s fear is that such an exhibition will fall prey to the moral strictures of the religious right, the new puritanism that sees only damnation in pornography but is, perversely, its most effective catalyst. “Sex is banal today,” she reflects, “but at the same time there are little groups of people, these virtuous leagues, high on moral principles.”
Since the show opened in December there hasn’t been a squeak of disapproval from censorious ministers, or the church, or the right-wing press. The new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has defined his guiding principles as “authority, morality and respect”, but the money-making, deregulated France he dreams of is not a place to waste time fretting about saucy books and prints. The days of the old paternal president successfully preaching one moral code and practising another ended with the demise of Papa Mitterrand – family man and father of a “secret” love child – after whom this library is named. Who is fit to be custodian of public morals any more? A modern literary pornographer, Catherine Millet, author of The Sexual Life of Catherine M, talks on tape at the exhibition about the “warm, encouraging” public response to the publication of her infamous (and bestselling) adventures.
Besides, outside the grandiose, modern edifice, France is in the grip of a real sexual frisson as its new president parades his supermodel, Carla Bruni, like a totem of middle-aged virility, his citizens unable to decide if they should condemn or admire him. Inside, with the dimmed bordello lighting and the hush of a sedate reading room, there is also evidence of Gallic double standards. France may be in the mood to display its dirtiest secrets, but how shocked are we? The language of the works is explicit, but the act of writing is in itself a daring subversion; this is a world of pseudonyms, false publishers’ addresses, subterfuge and anonymity. All of the exhibits from Enfer were suppressed, judged by the library to run “counter to good morals”, often gifted by the public prosecutor, having been used in obscenity trials. In the conservative Catholic France of Napoleon III, Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, the most poetic case for depravity, had six poems suppressed, though they were published nine months later. Between 1947 and 1970 the publishing house of Jean-Jacques Pauvert was the subject of serial obscenity trials. In 1947 he published Sade’s Juliette, was prosecuted and won.
Enfer was created in 1840, during the reticent reign of Louis Philippe, paradoxically the beginnings of photography and lithography, which would turn pornography from niche leisure pursuit into an industry. Once locked away, Enfer’s contents were restricted, released on written application to those finding favour with the library’s committee, as if the dirty habits described might be catching.
On a wet Wednesday morning I’m given a tour by Quignard, a small, cheerful woman whose cheeks do not colour as we pass obscene offerings stored away for dusty years in the parallel Enfer departments of books and prints and photography. One of the earlier exhibits is the 16th-century Ragionamenti of the lewd satirist Pietro Aretino: Nanna, a former prostitute, and her friend Antonia compare the lives of a whore, a married woman and a nun, concluding that the oldest profession would offer the best chance of happiness for Nana’s daughter. “In the 17th century,” laughs Quignard, “you can do whatever you want as long as no one knows.” And as long as you are a member of the leisured classes, of course. The libertine novels of the next century were protected in private libraries alongside travel and religious titles, discreetly locked away from servants in little cabinets that usually included a version of the 1748 underground bestseller Thérèse Philosophe, by Jean-Baptiste de Boyer, Marquis d’Argens. If the 18th-century enlightenment was the golden age of French eroticism, Thérèse is its conflicted, provocative heroine, aspiring virgin and rampant sex fiend. Still uninitiated at 25, she is not naive, has lived with a prostitute, and witnessed a priest sinning wildly with a penitent. Her protector the count tires of her refusals, finally lending her his salacious library of fiction and images for one year on the condition that for 15 days she must resist self-gratification. After a short time contemplating Jupiter impaling Juno with a giant phallus, randy satyrs and super-endowed athletes from a guiltless pre-Christian Arcadia where pornography flourished unfettered by law or conscience, Thérèse calls for her triumphant lover. The oldest exhibit is the 13th-century
Le Roman de la Rose, a medieval French poem surviving in illuminated manuscripts whose message is clear: even monastic life will not protect a woman from the overwhelming urges of the flesh. The illustrations here include a nun picking a ripe phallus from a tree which groans with an abundant crop. Next to it is an edition of The Black Forest, by “Merryland”, a journey through the inside of a woman’s sex, translated – it claims – from English, though this is mere hide-and-seek: if such works were tracked down they were destroyed, their authors punished. Careful disguise had proved the key to survival for a teasing genre. Licentious 17th-century sonnets are illustrated with charming daily scenes, a woman being fitted with new shoes, though in the verses underneath she is enjoying a different indulgence. The chaste packaging was partly tease, partly precaution. Among the titillating engravings sits stark reality: a letter from an agent of the crown detailing his capture of a printer of a work whose author escaped the Bastille only due to influential contacts. The work in question, Memoirs of Dom Bugger, is the story of a sexual adventurer’s travails –catching the pox, being castrated, living in nunneries (seemingly the era’s equivalent of the Playboy mansion) – becoming so addled that the only thing to revive his libido is copulation with a pious Catholic. Later there would be a list of priests discovered in flagrante with Parisian tarts in the ancien régime, taken from papers kept at the Bastille, the names and addresses of the women and details of what they did included.
Some of the authors of early soft-core thrills were respectable citizens with public lives: the statesman Mirabeau, a moderate of the revolution (though he was condemned to death for seduction and abduction) published his obscene Ma Conversion (1780) under the initials MDRCDMF, the tale of a male prostitute who specialises in servicing the old, fat and ugly. Mirabeau’s contemporary Andrea de Nerciat, a secret agent of the French government, secretly penned Le Diable au Corps, “oeuvre posthume du très recommendable Dr Cazzone”. Nerciat is keen on animals, but not as keen as his bawdy heroine Felicia, with her boudoir penchant for dogs and donkeys. It’s not so much the bestiality that shocks as her horrific comparison of black men and animals: the blacks are good as lovers but can rebel, the animals are more predictable, easier to manage for a women with needs.
The fictional 18th-century courtesan had fun. For all its ribaldry, this is popcorn porn, full of lifted skirts and expressions of eye-bulging ecstasy, and innocence. It’s like the contents of the confiscated-items cupboard at a boys’ school; naughty but nothing you’d get the authorities involved with. That changes as you turn a corner into the darkly criminal world of the Marquis de Sade, the black star of a dubious bunch, who spent 32 years in prison for his outrages against propriety. On the wall nearby are painted the names, addresses and prices of Parisian prostitutes of the time, taken from the small but essential almanacs (maybe the first Rough Guides) published in the capital. One “petite sauvette” wanted 15 louis for her attentions; another describes herself as “folâtre” (wild, baby) and does it for nothing; another wants a hat. Their likenesses, powdered and pink-cheeked, tumbling over laps and bedsteads with sturdy legs akimbo, are reproduced on jokey calling cards, the original dirty postcards.
And such pornography maps the undulations and secret pathways of French history itself; through its changing forms one glimpses the hesitant and then brutal birth of a republic. At the time of the Frondes (1648-52) the uprisings against royal power that would simmer into revolution, pornography assumed a political, pamphleteering role. Marie Antoinette was portrayed as a treacherous, incestuous whore, obsessed with sapphic orgies, low-born men, and her trusty dildo; apparently because of Louis XVI’s minute member. Priests and aristos are shown as sexual grotesques, seducing animals, vegetables, anything to sate their insane lusts; the venerable Abbé Maury, cardinal and archbishop of Paris, was insulted as voracious homosexual. The best weapon against deference was sexual attack; a satirical viciousness that was as effective as a tabloid sleaze scandal at ending political careers. While the tumbrels were prepared, the withering satire continued, the annals of Enfer piled with confiscations from ecclesiastical libraries, and those of émigrés and the condemned. The artist Dominique Vivant Denon, who accompanied Napoleon Bonaparte to Egypt and became the founding director of the Louvre, engraved in 1793 “Le Roi Phallus, Malade et Défait”, which mocked Louis for his vapid masculinity. The king’s phallus, sick and undone, receives a visit from doctors who are incapable of offering help.
The sweetest things here are the 19th-century divertissements; the phenakistiscope, an 1835 animation device showing a close-up coitus, a roundel of penises disappearing into furry fruits; the childish little drawings French Windows, which open to reveal such saucy surprises as Napoleon with a dishevelled mademoiselle on his knee. The pretty “English scene” engravings were meant to be held to the light to reveal what was really going on behind the pastoral haystack; a theme of voyeurism that runs through the exhibition, all countries, all tastes, all centuries.
One corner is dedicated to spanking, “le vice anglais” (though all the books gathered here eem to be French), but we are sorely under-represented as a nation; maybe we should be thankful for the neglect. Some aspects of Eros are distinctly unsavoury. The stain left by Salvador Dali on his engraving for the front of Georges Hugnet’s poem, Onan – dedicated to masturbation – is best not contemplated too hard. Dali, creator of The Great Masturbator, was obsessed with the subject; his surrealist compatriots were more wary about the use of pornography. They preferred to use sex in a more veiled way as they set about discrediting reality; but the Spaniard was relentless, and by 1934 he had been excommunicated by the movement. As Realism takes a fumbling hold in the fin de siècle, enthusiasts were treated to Jean-Jacques Lequeu’s (Johnny the Cock) engravings of a women’s genitalia, delicately executed, but anatomically wayward. With photography, however, came accuracy, the meeting of the fantasy and the flesh that would dominate and enslave the imagination the way no drawing ever could. The pornographic photographs of Auguste Belloc, graphic, unprimped, daring, ended up in Enfer after being seized in a police raid, many hidden inside hollowed-out books. Belloc was an enormous influence on his contemporary Gustave Courbet’s shockingly realistic female nude, L’Origine du Monde of 1866, both blatant and mysterious. Contrast Belloc’s provocative female sitter, sex revealed, eyes covered or averted, with the jolly workaday photographs of a brothel on the Rue Saint-Lazare in 1900, commissioned as part of a police report, which records a respectable-looking Mademoiselle Nini charging five francs for the girl and five francs for the house.
By this time, the names associated with Enfer are the big hitters of modernist French Lit; it was the age of the iconoclastic artist and the publisher with a taste for a fight with the state. August Poulet-Malassis published Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal. The first printed catalogue of the contents of Enfer was edited by the symbolist poet Guillaume Apollinaire in 1913, the same year he published his controversial anthology Alcools. He also championed libertine texts, wrote but never publicly acknowledged authorship of a 1907 erotic novel, Les Onze Mille Verges (Eleven Thousand Penises), which was banned until 1970, and edited an anthology of Sade. Another pioneering publisher, Jean-Jacques Pauvert, published the complete works of Sade, after winning a public prosecution case, which makes our own Lady Chatterley trial look like a fight to publish Bambi. Pauvert also published Georges Bataille, a conservator at the Bibliothèque National and author – though he never admitted it – of L’Histoire de l’Oeil, the story of two teenaged lovers and their accelerating perversions, in which exhibitionism and soft-boiled eggs play a supporting role.
In 1969, Enfer closed. The system changed: if salacious works were judged of historical interest, they were placed in a special reserve, though not a hidden one. The rest had no special sanctuary. This distinction soon revealed the snobbery surrounding pornography as art: the 1969 novel Le Château de Cène, by Urbain d’Orlhac, was considered vulgar porn, until it emerged that its author was the esteemed Bernard Noël, and its status upgraded. In 1983, Enfer staged a comeback, reopened because, as Quignard says, “it had meant something” and transformed from a hellhole to a treasure chest, bursting with beautiful words of erotica such as Francesco Clemente’s lithographs for Harry Matthews’s Singular Pleasures (1988), one of the few examples of more recent addictions to the stock. According to the organisers, works continue to arrive, gifted by private collectors, but new titles are rarely extended the compliment of a place in Hell.
Can a library exhibition about sex be sexy? Though under-16s are barred, the exhibits are harmless enough. They are in the most part antique books about spent passions, old drawings, dusty relics of someone else’s fetish. Until, that is, you turn a corner and see the grainy monochrome film – jerky as a Chaplin comedy walk – L’Atelier Faiminette, which was shown in the waiting rooms of Paris brothels in the early 1920s. A cross between slapstick and hard-core, the look on the only male client’s face as he services a small harem is one of fierce concentration rather than the po-faced mask of ecstasy demanded of the modern porn hero. In its quaintness the home movie is endearing, and yet it is also drawing the sort of interest one might expect at a porn show.
Most of the visitors today are women, but I watch one man, smart, middle-aged, circling the glass-topped cabinets, returning again and again to that vaudeville scene of real, moving flesh, clearly unable to stop looking, and reminding us that the point of all this refined, sometimes exquisite, high art was voyeuristic pleasure.
As the rumours swirl about “Sarko’s” marriage and his girlfriend’s reported pregnancy, you can see that, for snatching the attention of the immoral majority, the celeb-mags and gossip rags have it over the porno-lit any day.