Aeschylus in the Boudoir: Tragedy, Pornography, Ideology

Marquis de Sade’s Philosophy in the Boudoir is a pornographic parody of the philosophic dialogue, in which acts of exorbitant depravity are mixed, rather incongruously, with (im)moral and even political didacticism. This is a tradition that goes back at least to Pietro Aretino‘s dialogues (such as The School of Whoredom), if not to Lucian‘s Dialogues of Courtesans (which however are closer to the theatrical mime than to Plato).

To Daddy with Love


Portrait_de_Sade (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Anyhow, back to Marquis de Sade and his Philosophy in the Boudoir. In the Third Dialogue, two libertines, Madame de Saint-Ange and Monsieur Dolmancé, take it upon themselves to educate the young and inexperienced Eugénie de Mistival in all sorts of debauchery and sexual licence. Grotesquely, Eugénie’s education includes a no-holds-barred lesson in human anatomy and the mechanism of conception. When Dolmancé drops the word “womb”, in a context too lubricious to describe here, Eugénie grows curious:

EUGÉNIE: […] First of all: what does “womb” mean?

MADAME DE SAINT-ANGE: It’s a sort of vase resembling a bottle: its neck embraces the man’s member and receives the come produced in the woman by the oozing of the glands, and in the man by the ejaculation, which we’ll show you. And the blending of these liquids generates the seed that brings forth either a boy or a girl.

EUGÉNIE: Ah! I understand. […] And so it’s the union of those two juices that’s necessary for the formation of the fetus?

MADAME DE SAINT-ANGE: Definitely. Even though it’s been proven that the fetus owes its existence purely to the man’s come. But, launched alone, this come would never succeed without blending with the woman’s come. The come that we furnish serves only to elaborate. It doesn’t create, it merely helps creation without causing it. Some modern scientists actually claim that this come is useless. Hence, the moralists, who are always guided by scientific discoveries, have concluded, with great likelihood, that in this case, the child formed with the father’s blood owes his filial love purely to his father. This assertion seems quite probable, and even though I’m a woman, I won’t try to fight it.

EUGÉNIE: Dear friend, in my heart I feel the proof of what you’re saying, for I’m crazy about my father, but I feel that I hate my mother.

Jean-Baptiste_François_Joseph_de_Sade, father ...

Jean-Baptiste_François_Joseph_de_Sade, father of Donatien Alphonse François de Sade (Marquis de Sade) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

DOLMANCÉ: There’s nothing astonishing about your predilection. I’ve felt the same way. I still haven’t gotten over my father’s death; but when I lost my mother, I lit a bonfire! … I despised her with all my heart! Don’t be afraid to adopt those same feelings, Eugénie. They are quite natural. Formed, as we are, purely by the blood of our fathers, we owe absolutely nothing to our mothers. Besides, they merely submitted to the act, while the father instigated it. Hence, our fathers wanted our birth, while our mothers simply acquiesced. What a difference in the emotions!

(transl. Joachim Neugroschel, Penguin Classics [adapted])

The shocking statement that it is “natural” to hate one’s mother probably conceals an autobiographic element. As Francine du Plessix Gray explains in the Introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Philosophy in the Boudoir (p. ix), de Sade’s “mother was a distant, glacial woman who so hated family life that she sought refuge in a convent soon after her son’s birth.” By contrast, de Sade’s “merrily bisexual playboy father, an erstwhile diplomat, was one of the most notorious rakes of Louis XV’s reign.”

Cover of "Philosophy in the Boudoir: Or, ...

Cover via Amazon

Embryology and Patriarchy

But there’s more than mere autobiography here. It is clear that de Sade was keeping up with contemporary theories of embryology, hence his reference to “modern scientists” (naturalistes). The idea that human conception involves the male semen, which is active and productive, and a female reproductive element, which is passive and merely provides material for the semen to work upon, goes back to Aristotle and his Generation of Animals (21. 729b). Notoriously, Aristotle considered the female to be inherently inferior to the male, and so could not accept the idea of females contributing in equal measure to the reproductive process.

A different view was held by the author of the Hippocratic treatises On the Seed and On the Nature of the Child, and later by the physician Galen. These authors believed, essentially, in the existence of female, as well as male, “semen” and argued that the embryo is produced by the fusion of these two types of semen. Male and female “semen” may vary in strength and quantity, they thought, but they are both equally indispensable for conception.

Neither Aristotle nor the Hippocratics or Galen can have belonged to the unnamed “modern scientists” invoked by de Sade. The contemporary naturaliste the Marquis must have had in mind is, in all likelihood, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788), or Buffon for short.

Portrait de Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon

Portrait de Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a partial revival of the “Hippocratic” theory of conception, Buffon argued that both male and female “semen” contained animalcules, or fully formed miniature humans, who provided the organic particles that came together to form the embryo.

The interesting thing is that Buffon persevered in his theory of preformation (the notion that animals are already formed in miniature in parental semen) despite the fact that such theories had been exploded a century earlier by the illustrious William Harvey (1578-1657) in his Exercitationes de generatione animalium (London 1651). T885360_09Among other things, Harvey insisted that “everything comes from an egg” (ex ovo omnia): all organisms, however complex, originate in the relatively simple cell-formations of an egg rather in preformed animalcules. While it is true, then, that de Sade is citing cutting-edge science, this doesn’t mean that the science he’s citing is the best available in his time.

Killing Mom Softly

To anyone familiar with Greek tragedy, the way de Sade is using contemporary biological theories of embryogenesis to bolster his exorbitantly patriarchal ideas brings to mind Apollo’s arguments in the trial scene of Aeschylus’ Eumenides. In that play, Apollo, who is defending Orestes from the charge of killing his own mother Clytemnestra, claims that

“what we call ‘mother’ is not really the child’s parent, only the nourisher of a newly-sown foetus.”

The child’s only true parent, Apollo continues, is the father, who merely entrusts the embryo to the female’s womb for safekeeping (658-61).Ap17ApolloBelvedere

Apollo’s point is, of course, that, since a mother is not really a parent, Orestes didn’t really commit parricide. There is no way of telling whether Aeschylus is making the physiological argument up, or whether he is reflecting contemporary embryological theories, such as Anaxagoras’ (mentioned in Aristotle’s Generation of Animals, 4. 763b). Still, it seems reasonable to assume that Aeschylus will have been familiar with contemporary scientific thought. It may even be that the idea of the father as a child’s only true parent came to Greece from Egypt, since Diodorus of Sicily (1.80.4) reports on similar beliefs among the Egyptians:

for they have taken the general position that the father is the sole author of procreation and that the mother only supplies the fetus with nourishment and a place to live. (Transl. C.H. Oldfather, Loeb Classical Library)

Whatever the case may be, the point is that Aeschylus is advancing an argument from science (as he perceived it) to bolster a nakedly patriarchal thesis: the human race owes its existence exclusively to males. Absurd as it obviously is, this assumption paves the way for the new order that Apollo aspires to establish. The new order is decidedly patriarchal: paternal rights outweigh maternal rights, and a father’s death is far more serious a crime than matricide. Symbolically, the Erinyes, the ancient female deities that uphold a mother’s prerogatives, are at the end of the play perpetually confined in the sanctuary of Athena — the very goddess who (as Apollo emphatically claims) was born directly from her father without the intervention of a mother.erinyes

Aeschylus’ (mis?)use of his time’s science to underpin his city’s patriarchal constitution may border on the ridiculous, at least for modern readers. But if Aeschylus is overplaying his hand, de Sade is downright appalling in his recycling of contemporary biology to justify his male-supremacist pornography. Whereas he seems to understand Buffon’s point that, as Eugénie puts it, “it is the union of those two juices that’s necessary for the formation of the fetus,” he immediately reverts, through Madame de Saint-Ange, to a version of the old Aristotelian theory, according to which female reproductive fluid “doesn’t create, it merely helps creation without causing it.” Out of this (pseudo-)scientific higgledy-piggledy emerges the further assertion that female “semen” is “useless” — an astonishing claim to make, even by the standards of 18th century biology.

It may well be that, to some extent, de Sade —or even Aeschylus, for that matter— may misrepresent or deliberately distort the scientific discourse of their times to serve their ideological agendas. The important point here, however, is that scientific discourse is itself subject, almost by definition, to the distortions imposed by dominant ideologies, biases, and preconceptions. Even when representing (or presented as) a novelty, a breakthrough, a radical revision of former certainties, science can be, and very often is, pressed to the service of the status quo — whether this is manifested in the prerogatives of Athenian male citizenry or in the despotic, objectifying male fantasies of de Sade’s pornography.

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