Sex in the Stacks

«Les seins aux fleurs rouges» by Gauguin, a century after Diderot spoke of the sexual customs of Tahitians.

«Les seins aux fleurs rouges» by Gauguin, a century after Diderot spoke of the sexual customs of Tahitians.

I think that for these blog articles I’ve been writing I must be subconsciously patterning myself after Stephen Jay Gould in his Natural History magazine monthly column entitled “This View of Life” that ran from 1974 to 2001, where he of course follows a main theme, but also mentions subjects far afield.  (Many of these articles enjoyed a second life in Gould’s books, such as The Panda’s Thumb, Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes and Dinosaur in a Haystack.)  Would that I could ever equal that man’s genius, but attempting to emulate him is noble effort enough.  This style, called discursive by some, meandering by others, was also the favorite of the 18th-Century French philosophers, where the conversation style of writing was de rigueur: non-linear, with digressions, parenthetical asides, attempting to make connections with other sciences, and delighting in serendipitous discoveries that ensue when employing such a style.  This was the thinking style as well, the cogitative mode, the conversation that one has with oneself, as thoughts run through the mind unfettered by the barriers placed by religion, freed from superstition, liberated by the imagination, but loosely guided by Cartesian methodology, in other words, Reason and the system of Science.

Einstein, for instance, had his “thought experiments” because it was impossible to carry them out in real life.  But if he were flying alongside a beam of light, it was not to celebrate the possibility of flying—not possible!—or flying at the speed of light—exponentially not possible!  But, rather, it was his mind working in an attempt to imagine the wave of light “frozen” in its movement, like a surfer remaining on a wave that he knows is moving, for he can feel it, yet it remains motionless relative to his feet. But when speaking about “unleashing” one’s thoughts perhaps we should not begin with such a spectacularly abstract field as physics, although it can be said that if modern physicists had not overcome the force of gravity, at least in their minds, they never would have expanded to such a degree our knowledge of the cosmos. Thoughts, accompanied by math, are reliable and Cartesian, and let’s not forget that Descartes was a mathematician.

Diderot famously said, «Mes pensées, ce sont mes catins.»  “My thoughts are my strumpets.”

[The whole context of this quote is beautiful:

« Qu’il fasse beau, qu’il fasse laid, c’est mon habitude d’aller sur les cinq heures du soir me promener au Palais-Royal. C’est moi qu’on voit, toujours seul, rêvant sur le banc d’Argenson. Je m’entretiens avec moi-même de politique, d’amour, de goût ou de philosophie. J’abandonne mon esprit à tout son libertinage. Je le laisse maître de suivre la première idée sage ou folle qui se présente, comme on voit dans l’allée de Foy nos jeunes dissolus marcher sur les pas d’une courtisane à l’air éventé, au visage riant, à l’œil vif, au nez retroussé, quitter celle-ci pour une autre, les attaquant toutes et ne s’attachant à personne. Mes pensées, ce sont mes catins. »

Here it is in English: “Whether it’s beautiful out, or ugly, it is my habit to go around five o’clock in the evening to stroll at the Palais-Royal. ‘Tis I who is seen, always alone, dreaming on d’Argenson’s bench. I converse with myself about politics, love, propriety or philosophy. I abandon my mind to all its freethinking.  I allow it to be master of following the first idea, wise or insane, that presents itself, as one sees in the passageway of Foy how our dissolute young men walk behind a courtesan with a breezy air, a smiling face, a lively eye, a turned-up nose, and leave her for another, charging at all of them and not attaching themselves to any of them.  My thoughts, they’re my strumpets.”

I found a better translation than mine, by Ian C. Johnston of Malaspina University-College in British Columbia, better in that it flows easier and is more charming and artisitic, and therefore strays a tiny bit more than mine from Diderot’s original meaning.  (At a later date I would love to discuss the complete connotations of the word goût, taste, but which I translated as “propriety”; there’s no time for that now.)  Juggling both translations in tandem you will have an excellent idea of what Diderot meant.

No matter what the weather, rain or shine, it’s my habit every evening at about five o’clock to take a walk around the Palais Royal. I’m the one you see dreaming on the bench in Argenson’s Alley, always alone. I talk to myself about politics, love, taste, or philosophy. I let my spirit roam at will, allowing it to follow the first idea, wise or foolish, which presents itself, just as we see our dissolute young men on Foy’s Walk following in the footsteps of a prostitute with a smiling face, an inviting air, and a turned-up nose, then leaving her for another, going after all of them and sticking to none. For me, my thoughts are my prostitutes. ]

Denis Diderot by van Loo-b

Denis Diderot by van Loo

This is from Diderot’s novel, if it can be called that, Le Neveu de Rameau, a book written probably in the 1760s or 70s, in the form of a dialogue, or perhaps a diatribe à deux.  Please know that Diderot did not publish this book during his lifetime, wisely leaving it to a posthumous discovery of fortuitous serendipity, part of his future legacy, which was, one must admit, optimistic, since he hoped that the future would be a tad more permissive.  (And we were!)  A librarian rummaging among books in a Parisian bookstore found Diderot’s signed original manuscript in 1891.  You ask, why didn’t Diderot publish it while he was still alive?  The philosopher-writers of the Enlightenment circulated many of their works only among their trusted friends in the form of manuscripts that, if published, would have brought a lot of grief to their authors: abuse from the despotic government, persecution by the Church, forced exile, stints in the Bastille or, in the case of Diderot, in the prison at Vincennes.  In order to maintain a happy quality of life, these authors kept many of their texts under wraps.  Such is the power of their texts, including Rameau’s Nephew.

Getting back to the first paragraph of the book, I do feel that catin, meaning strumpet, perhaps tart, in the sense of trollop, would today not be politically correct; but I doubt that it ever was, in English.  I would never dream of saying to my girlfriend, in a dreamy, fetching sort of way, “Come here, my little whore,” but in French I can, and have, said things like, “Viens là, ma petite cocotte,” or, if I was feeling especially frisky, “ma petite catin,” although “Je t’aime, mon adorable pute” should definitly not be attempted.  (And English speakers: don’t call your honey by names of foods because, with only one exception, that doesn’t work in French.  So “pumpkin” and “sugar” and “cupcake” or even “sweetheart” are not directly translatable.  The exception is «chou», which means “cabbage” but also denotes a type of pastry.)  In any case, the French definitely have different ideas about their sex workers, especially when it comes to the higher class, the aristocracy of call girls, called courtisanes.  Ah, there you have whole blocks of literature devoted to them, e.g. Manon Lescaut by l’abbé Prévost; La Dame aux Camélias by Dumas, fils; Nana, by Zola; Chéri, by Colette; Du côté de chez Swann, by Marcel Proust; dames of an aristocratic bearing, studies in elegance and savoir-faire, savvy females who come out on top because they use the brutish force of men’s lust against them, inveigling them into parting with their lucre.  If at the end they die the deaths they deserve it is either to appease the shocked critics or to exhibit verisimilitude: everyone dies, at the end, including, and especially, the saints.

So, what did Diderot mean by calling his thoughts harlots?  That his thoughts were immoral?  That his notions were wicked?  That his ideas were depraved?  That his dissolute mind was spewing forth figments of shameful introspection, or meditation that was wanton and promiscuous?  If you think like this, you must be a speaker of English.  The French do have a different idea of what it means to be a harlot.  Their idea is not tinged by or fraught with judgmental Puritanical prudishness, where promiscuity is seen as a blot on the character, a sin against society and God.  A prostitute is a working girl who avails herself of what nature gave her, same as a restaurant worker who strives to satisfy another physical need.  Why should a server feel shame by assuaging a client’s hunger?  On the contrary, the better his or her service, the bigger the tip!  If you can liberate your mind from the religious precipitation that daily falls on our heads in the USA, from the constant hostility that rains down on open sexuality, from the cold sleet of judgmental gossip that drenches us silly, you can, I hope, manage to begin to understand what Diderot meant.

But first, I would like to remind you that Diderot wrote another text, which he called Supplement to the Voyage of Bougainville, published in 1772, which consists of, once again, a series of dialogues, this time in a fictionalized addendum to the voyage of Bougainville, the French explorer and contemporary of James Cook, who, also like Cook, had published an account of his world travels the year before.  One of the places visited by the real Bougainville was Tahiti, and Diderot latches on to it as an ideal place, in two meanings of the word: ideal place as in utopia; ideal place as in the best terrain in which to fight for his theme.  This theme is sexual, and, when I used to be a teacher and would have my students read the Supplement, I found that 96% of my students were rabidly hostile to it, while the remaining 4%, denoting one student, was at first astounded, then resistant to it, but finally a convert.  Tahiti was an untouched, unspoiled tropical paradise, a society so far removed from the west that the sexual mores of the “natives” were incomprehensible to westerners.  Tahitians took the laws of hospitality to new territory: not only were guests offered something to eat, something to drink, and somewhere to sleep, but they were also offered someone to sleep with, their choice.  Like my students, most of the westerners who came into contact with these quaint cultural practices, after their initial shock, either took the Tahitians up on this last offer, or not.  The chaplain of the ship, as is to be guessed, refused, not as politely as he should have, after having gone through a gamut of emotions (centering, I infer, around embarrassment and mortification) that puzzled the natives and remained alien to them.

—Please, won’t you have a crumpet and a spot o’ tea?  How about my wife?

—Oy beg ya pardun, suh?  Oy should have your strumpet, er, your crumpet?

—They are both divine, I assure you!

The sailors, I imagine, based their decision on how strongly this peculiar social custom weighed on their conscience: hating to anger their host by not being polite and accepting a bedmate, versus their scruples about committing adultery, or fornication, with their host’s wife or daughter.  Diderot turns this false debate on its head: their host offers his family’s sexuality freely, like they give food and drink, and does not hoist tons of moral considerations on a part of human behavior which they call natural.  Nature has given humanity the gift of sex; why encumber it with questions of morality?  In Europe, rules and regulations abounded: for a couple to be able to have sex they need to be married first, that marriage is between one man and one woman; then the conjugal union also becomes fraught with conditions: sex must exclude certain practices, sex may not be practiced at certain times of the month, that the only goal of sex is to procreate; in other places of the world conditions required that the penis be disfigured, that the clitoris be removed; and in most places socio-cultural mores commanded that nature be so far removed from sex that any question of pleasure became the thin edge of the wedge, wherein a Pandora’s box of immorality came pouring in to ruin everybody’s day: with the eating of the apocryphal apple came perversion, fornication, adultery, lust, promiscuity, whorishness (there’s the slut, again!), and after a while we are exhausted but we have not come any closer to the peace and tranquility that reign in Tahiti about sexual matters: no shame comes into play, no negativity, no recriminations, no remorse, no guilt, since taking your neighbor’s wife to bed is consensual, amoral and non-judgmental.

So what did Diderot mean when he said that his thoughts were his strumpets?  I believe that what he meant by this brilliant metaphor was that being with his thoughts was akin to being with his strumpets, who don’t get jealous of each other, who are refreshingly Bohemian, and who allow him to be free and dissolute—away from the straight-jacket of conventional and socially appropriate behavior.  His thoughts, like his cocottes, entertain him, amuse him, pique him, in a way that a strait-laced Puritanical American hausfrau could never do.  He is free to think his thoughts, no matter how outrageous, no matter how scandalous, no matter how enjoyable.  Just that one sentence, “J’abandonne mon esprit à tout son libertinage,” (I abandon my mind to all its freethinking) must have been upsetting to religious folk.  Imagine, pursuing libertinism, where the word alone is fraught with loathsome, negative connotations.  Just because one pursued liberty of thought, one was considered immoral, and being a freethinker was tantamount to being a pervert.  And no, thinking the thing and committing it is not the same thing.  Thinking a thought is made of neuron-stuff, electrical impulses in the brain that remain private and ensconced in the secret mystery of gray matter.  If I think of defenestrating my boss (the big boss, not the departmental one) I derive pleasure from it; if I think of seducing one of my students, it quickens my heart but, alas, I am such a victim of my culture, that it brings shame to me and, lately, fear.  But I am guilty of no crime, I am not an assassin and I am not a Lothario, or, at the very least, I am no longer a Lothario.

Do you agree with Diderot?  To live free to think what you will, to stray far and wide in the company of your ideas, to get lost in deliberation, to ponder free of gravity, to scatter your reveries out into the universe, to tart up your musings and ornament your daydreams, in the arms of Muses, nine of them, beautiful creatures who caress your fancies and stroke your intellect, who inspire you but won’t judge you, that is the way to live, n’est-ce pas?  So let’s all practice soaring alone with our thoughts, liberating them from the confines of conventionality, and if you’re a scientist, from the barriers of orthodoxy.  Oh, to become an individual, independent and autonomous!  Love your thoughts, and they’ll love you back.

Sadly, this utopia in which everybody thinks for him- or herself has an opposite, for in that bleak world you disown your free thoughts, you exchange them for received ideas and platitudes, you empty your mind and have someone else fill it for you with whatever it is they want you to think.  After a while, especially if the victim is young, the stultified mind falls into disuse, independent thought is no longer possible, and the mind’s owner becomes an automaton, acting and reacting according to the dictates of someone else, believing irrationalities and inconsistencies and impossibilities.  Enlightenment for such people has died.

From «Les Galères sous Louis XIV» <

From «Les Galères sous Louis XIV» <

I’ll leave the last word to Voltaire.  In an article, «Freedom of Thought», taken from the third edition of his Dictionnaire philosophique, published in 1765, Voltaire describes a conversation between a Portuguese count, Medroso, and an Englishman, milord Boldmind, in which Boldmind discuss the advantages for a society to have citizens who are allowed to think freely.  Medroso (a name Voltaire took from the Spanish adjective meaning fearful or timid), having grown up in a society ruled despotically and militantly by the Church/State combo which since the 9th century has been supported by the martial forces of the Inquisition, finds it difficult even to believe that individual thought is possible, let alone try to imagine thinking independently of his society.  Here is the end of their conversation:

Boldmind: It is up to you only to learn how to think; you were born with a mind; you are a bird in the cage of the Inquisition; the Holy Office has trimmed your wings, but they can come back.  He who does not know geometry can learn it; every man can educate himself: it is shameful to place one’s soul in the hands of those to whom you would not confide your money.  Dare to think for yourself.

Medroso: They say that if everybody thought for himself there would be a strange confusion.

Boldmind: It’s the complete oppposite.  When one goes to the theater, each person speaks his own opinion about the show, and the peace is not disturbed; but if some insolent protector of a bad poet wanted to force everybody with taste to find good what they found bad, then catcalls would be heard, and the two groups could throw apples at each other’s heads as it happened once in London.  They are tyrants of the mind who have caused a part of the misfortunes of the world.  We are happy here in England since each person enjoys freely the right to speak his own mind.

Medroso: We are also very tranquil in Lisbon, where nobody can speak theirs.

Boldmind: You are tranquil, but you are not happy; it’s the tranquility of the galleys, whose convicts row in cadence and in silence.

Medroso: You think then that my soul is in the galleys?

Boldmind: Yes, and I’d like to save it.

Medroso: But if I feel okay in the galleys?

Boldmind: In that case, you deserve to be there.


About the author

Roy Luna: Roy Luna is a retired French professor who dabbles in the arts, tinkers with music, reads heavily in fiction and history, but does not neglect biographies or science. His main efforts these days are devoted to writing a trilogy of novels based on events occurring during the years between the death of Voltaire (1778) and the French Revolution (1789-94), years rich in both enlightened human progress and dark, evil terror. Three times a week he volunteers at Dunbar Old Books, making sure orphaned books find their way to other readers. His library at home may have surpassed the 10,000 mark, and he valiantly tries to read them all… The one important thing to retain about Roy is his horror at the sins, the injustice, the atrocities, the crimes against humanity that are perpetrated and justified in the name of religion. Any belief system that condones such savagery has discarded its humanity, abandoned its compassion, and forsaken its principles of empathy, tolerance and love of one’s neighbor.


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