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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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That pornography and radical politics make apt bedfellows deserves some explanation. During the Enlightenment a number of French revolutionary thinkers start to publish obscene 'libelles' and cartoons to ridicule the ruling class, trying to oust them from the throne. Libertine pornography like the anonymous satirical caricature of the Cardinal Armand de Rohan-Soubise [supra, page x] attacks the Roman Catholic Church and its lust for power. The nobility share the fate of the clergy and both are depicted with their pants down, often quite literally. The barrage of mass-produced, anti-clerical, anti-authoritarian and anti-monarchist pamphlets are a concern to the establishment of the day, fearing -- not without reason, many of them will lose their heads in an unpleasant fashion during the French Revolution -- the questionable morality of the mob, the feeble-minded, women, slaves and illiterates.

This pamphleteering underclass uses obscene physicality as a weapon in the political struggle. For the first time in history perhaps, pen and pencil become mightier than the sword.

The alleged sexual shortcomings of Louis XVI are a favourite theme. And when the royal couple finally becomes pregnant, Marie-Anotoinette becomes the object of mockery. The satirical charges speculate about orgies, lesbian romps and the paternity of her children. One of the pamphlets is entitled Uterine Furors of Marie-Antoinette, Wife of Louis XVI.

The American cultural historian Robert Darnton, who specializes in the literary history of the French Enlightenment, made a study of banned books on the eve of the French Revolution. He opposes the prevailing view that there is a causal link between the spread of what we know as Enlightenment literature - namely by encyclopedists such as Rousseau - and the outbreak of the French Revolution. Darnton proves, on the basis of previously undiscovered bookkeeping accounts of a Swiss commercial printer that not the encyclopedists were the bestsellers of their time. That privilege was reserved for scabrous novels à la The Story of Dom Bougre, Porter of the Carthusians (1741), The Indiscreet Jewels (1748) by Diderot and Thérèse Philosophe (1748), novels which both embody enlightened philosophy, and also deal with the enlightenment in an 'embodied' fashion. These forbidden libertine books are sold 'under the counter' and pave the way for the French Revolution, to a greater degree than the Enlightenment canon. It is obvious that the ingredients of these forbidden books are 'light' versions of the Enlightenment ideals of the encyclopedists. It is unfortunate however that this amusing anarcho-erotic oeuvre was subsequently ignored and carefully excluded from our literary and political histories.

Of course I won't go so far as to say that there is a causal link between the outbreak of the French Revolution and the underground literary and visual culture of the time. In intellectual history causal relationships are often difficult or impossible to establish. But on the other hand it is true that 18th-century thought in France is too often equated to Montesquieu, Rousseau, Voltaire and Diderot. Each of them wealthy men who saw Enlightenment as something for the "great souls". They needed the little guy to fight for the revolution, but preferred not to see him enjoying its new freedoms. The hack writers of the anonymously published The Story of Dom Bougre, Porter of the Carthusians and Thérèse philosophe were small fish themselves. They most probably read Montesquieu, Rousseau and Voltaire, but translated their egalitarian ideas of liberté, égalité, fraternité - liberty, equality and fraternity - as free love.

In itself, the leveling of political equality and free love is not new. Free love is already preached in the 15th century by the revolutionary medieval Anabaptists and will rear its head with rhythmic periodicity in many following anarchist and revolutionary movements, most recently May 68 and some contemporary sects. Our patron saint Eros looks on and approves. He knows all too well that we are all sexual beings, creatures that need to be nourished and nurtured. We are slaves of our bodies and serfs of its functions. "King, Emperor, Admiral, Popla is used by all" was a famous advertising slogan of a Dutch toilet paper manufacturer in the 1970s and it makes clear that we are all human beings with the same human needs. The slogan is an echo of the message of Montaigne (1533-1592) who assured us in his Essays that "kings and philosophers shit, and so do ladies." "Nothing human is alien to us:" naked on the toilet and caught in the violent waves of lust we are all equal. In the final copulating crowd scene of the film Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006, directed by Tom Tykwer) we see 'liberty, equality and fraternity " at work.



This page Jahsonic/AHE/The 18th century: Eros Enlightened/Satirical pornography and pornographic satire, the caveman is agitated, part of the AHE project is copyright Jan Willem Geerinck and may only be cited as per the fair use doctrine. The images mentioned in the text can be found here and the translation notes here.



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