mercredi, juillet 06, 2011

Historical vice vignettes from Perrottet, (first) Paris version

If you recall, there was an article in Slate a few months ago about Edward VII's "sex chair." The corpulent Prince had a chair designed so that he could do the wild thing with two women at the same time (still haven't figured out how this worked, but I clearly haven't given it enough thought).

"Bertie" apparently frequented Le Chabanais, a brothel on the Rue Chabanais, of course, made to look like a grotto. The Prince of Wales also had a huge bathtub at the brothel, which he is said to have filled with Mumm on summer evenings.

That chair is currently sitting silently (I hope) in an auctioneer's upper floor in Paris.

Did you know that, at the restaurant Laperouse, there are mirrors in the chambres particuliers, the private rooms, on which courtesans used to scratch their diamonds to see if they were real or not?

I suspect that to be that kind of a courtesan, you had to have a speciality...could it have been good conversation?

A famous courtesan, Hautense Daubinesco, made it into the society pages regularly because of her "pro bono" work with journalists. Of course, nothing like that could ever happen nowadays. Ummm...

It just goes to show that while money may not buy ya love, it can buy a very large bathtub -- but I can imagine a lot better uses for the champagne.

And if you go to see Le Chabanais (now an office building) you might want to check out the "erotic archeologist" across the Rue. But that's for another time....

lundi, juillet 04, 2011

How naughty became tame

"There may be other voluptuous as Paris, but none where love and pleasure are practiced with such exquisite refinement" wrote a visitor from England in the 1880's. I stumbled across this praise of sensuality in Tony Perrottet's marvelous ode to historical decadence "The Sinner's Grand Tour."

And no, I didn't realize when I started it that I would be introduced to 18th-century Scottish wanking club rituals. I console myself that this historical trivia could be useful as a conversation-stopper at my next party.

I don't know about you, but if I'd been in Paris in the 1880's, I would have been genuinely curious to find out what all the bother was about. Particularly if I had come from buttoned-down England, where it was so important to be earnest (unless, of course, you were Oscar, and in love with a man, in which case you ended up on trial).

What about us Americans?

We do seem a little numb -- with our overexposure to pornography, to sex in general, with the ready availability of booze, drugs and the general lack of social constraints, we may have lost our feel for vice.

In other words (and yes, I know I'm being provocative) we've lost our ability to really enjoy that which is "forbidden."

A while back I had a drink with an acquaintance ( I'm blurring the details here).

I'm not what you call a champion imbiber. After one beer, I feel pleasantly relaxed. After two, I feel dizzy. Actually, I rarely get past one and a half.

Which can be a disadvantage when those around you, as at college fraternity parties, are completely gone.

But I'm not in college anymore -- and neither was my drinking partner.

One glass of wine became two, which evolved into three, then four -- and I lost count.

Oddly, my companion didn't seem intoxicated. But neither did he/she seem to be having a great time.

I had the sense that he/she was drinking, not because they really enjoyed the feeling of being drunk, but because it was habitual. They were coping with anxiety, or lack of self-confidence, or whatever neurosis bedeviled them (I don't know them well enough), self-medicating rather than having fun.

We Americans are rather puritanical about our vices -- which really does take all the fun out of "sinning."

I consume too much sugar -- not as much as I used to take in when I was in my twenties, but more than many of my good friends. The only reason I know I'm not alone in my addiction is that I have a good friend who shares my weakness. Skinny as a beanpole, she will often be the first to spot the candy shop on our jaunts around the Northeast -- and be happy to stop.

Perhaps that's a vice -- but it sure isn't an interesting one.

I've had occasion to interview a number of alternative lifestyle advocates and practitioners. It didn't strike me that they were experiencing a lot of pleasure, such as that one has with an exquisitely prepared meal.

They were so earnest about their practice that I wondered whether they were having fun at all (though they waxed wistful about the elusive "hot bi-babe").

Perrottet describes Paris in the Belle Epoque as the chilly Anglo-Saxon visitor might have experienced it -- "the air was more fragrant, the breezes warmer, the streets more alive."

And we are still a very Anglo-Saxon country, are we not?

Think of the last time (no need to share) that a wonderful meal, or some guilty pleasure, gave you that frisson of pleasure associated with the feeling you were indulging in something slightly naughty.

I wonder if my innocence with regard to vice makes me more vulnerable to the temptations of its pleasures - or if I would say, if something or someone was on offer "I've heard it all before."

It's purely academic (sigh) speculation, of course.

Or should I say "impurely"?