Liberté, égalité, infidélité. The three stout pillars of the French constitution. Mitterrand, Chirac, Sarkozy, and now François Hollande: it’s a grand tradition – and if you tot their conquests up they stand a small chance of closing the gap on Berlusconi and la forza italia (with Georges “10,000” Simenon and Warren “12,775” Beatty still of course miles ahead).
Rather more shocking was Sophie Fontanel’s recent memoir, The Art of Sleeping Alone. When I first read it, the earth moved, but not in the way I had come to expect. French woman not having sex? It was like one of those oxymoronic book titles, along the lines of Antarctic Agriculture, or All Those Dashing England Centuries in the Recent Ashes Tour.
Her paradoxical impact relied on probably the greatest of all myths about the great French nation. Forget the manifest absurdity of French Women Don’t Get Fat or French Children Don’t Throw Tantrums or French Guys Are Always Suave and Witty, consider for a moment the bizarre but pervasive assumption that The French Are the Greatest Lovers.
This notion that on the other side of the Channel they are having a way better time than we are over here is obviously insane. Which, of course, has not stopped me, for one, from being convinced that it is true. But with the benefit of cooler reflection and analysis, it occurs to me that there is a tradition of thinking in France that is the philosophical equivalent of a cold shower: the anti-Eros or the Zerotic. I can only mention a few of the spectacularly unexciting highlights.
Les liaisons dangereuses
In the 17th century, Pascal argued that we should really be contemplating infinity and trying to come to terms with death instead of gambling, doing battle or falling in love. His not-very-catchy and rather negative slogan would have been “Make neither love nor war” (and no exclamation marks either, thank you). The key statement of the Pensées, which I draw to the attention of anyone thinking of getting involved with anyone else, is this: all our misfortune stems from our inability to remain at rest in a room. Alone, that is. Be cool.
I assume Descartes was saying something broadly similar when he set out his classic formulation of rationalism: cogito ergo sum – I think therefore I am. Barely tenable as a statement of fact, it stands up as a recommendation to his countrymen on how to behave. Stop being irrational instinct-driven animals. Try to forget that you even have a body. Become a thinking machine or a disembodied ghost within the machine. Remain at rest in your room and think for a change instead of this constant rolling around in the hay with the rest of the peasants. It was like an alternate droit de seigneur: you have the right and privilege not to have sex. From time to time.
Charles Fourier of course tried to put an end to all that not-having-a-good-time nonsense. He was one of those utopian dreamers touted by Marx and Engels as providing a map of the future. He thought the only dangerous thing about liaisons was not getting enough of them. In the typical “phalanstery” of the Age of Harmony (which is surely imminent) not only do people have more than enough to eat and drink (a gastronomic Olympics awards gold medals for the best croissant and gateau to the popping of a thousand champagne corks), but there will also be a guaranteed sexual “minimum”. Now we argue about whether benefits should be “capped” – then it was, do you think organised adultery and regular public orgies will be enough? Won’t people be feeling a bit deprived? OK then, we’ll throw in a sexual AA call-out service in case of emergencies.
But hold on, I can hear you saying, isn’t this is the exact opposite of what you were arguing? So the French really do have sex coming out of their ears! True, but only in the phalanstère. The clue is in the word “utopian”. Fourier actually wrote a letter to Napoleon setting out his great vision. But of course Napoleon replied, “Not tonight, Charles Fourier”. He only took half of Pascal’s “neither love nor war” slogan all that seriously. Fourier’s non-stop Olympian sexual paradise never really took off. (Yes, I know the phalanstery actually made it to the east coast of the United States, but the word “sex” got lost in the puritanical translation.)
The classic French 19th century novel is about how it all goes pear-shaped when the would-be phalansterist runs smack into the reality principle. Flaubert – inspired by Sade – punishes Madame Bovary for having too much fun and discovers “in adultery all the platitudes of marriage”. Balzac has most of his characters falling in love (a broad umbrella term which I take to include hatred, jealousy, bitterness and resentment), or at least getting into la débauche, but in his novel La Peau de chagrin he comes up with a character worthy of Pascal and Descartes. The old shopkeeper who sells the hero the magic skin recommends a life of sublimation, “a perpetual state of calm”. “My debauchery was the contemplation of seas, peoples, forests, mountains.” A sound theory duly ignored by the combustible (and thus doomed) hero.
BB and when ‘oui’ meant ‘non!’
Most people think that Albert “The Outsider” Camus took up literature as a substitute for football after he was brought down by tuberculosis. Not so, according to Camus. He admitted to being a sex addict or, in the argot of the era, a Don Juan. Writing was all about not having to take your shorts off for a while. His emotions were always “apt to overflow”; literature was his way of chilling. Being more monk.
But surely, in the 20th century, we not only have classy pornographic French novels galore (with shades of something much darker than mere grey), but we a real live female Don Juan (as one of her films described her) in the shape of Brigitte Bardot. Straight out of a Fourierist fantasy, if anyone was. A flag-waver for the orgy.
Even Simone de Beauvoir gave her rampant sexuality the seal of existential approval in her essay on “the Lolita Syndrome”. Hell is other people, but … oh well, what the hell! I only want to mention two quite important qualifications.
I grew up with the story of the donkey – nicknamed Romeo – which once spent the night in her hotel room in Spain. But my dreams were tempered when, some years later, another donkey, holidaying at her farm, was deemed too frisky and she had him castrated. She sent out another important message in her autobiography, Initiales BB. I had always seen General de Gaulle (who denied Britain entrance to the then Common Market) as the champion of the “Non!” with Bardot, in contrast, as the pure and unequivocal embodiment of the “Oui” of pure carnality. Resistance or … not-putting-up-a-lot-of-resistance. But Initiales BB reveals she had a secret fantasy man all along, beyond her actual lovers. None other than the General himself. De Gaulle was her role model. The “Oui”, in France, invariably conceals a “Non”.
The myth of France desperately needs to undergo a sex-change op. Or rather a non-sex change. From the erotic to the Zerotic. From porno to Porn … Non!