Booknotes: Therese Philosophe

Last Tuesday, in my intellectual history class ("The Modern Imaginary"), we discussed Therese Philosophe, a bawdy, "forbidden best-seller" of pre-revolutionary France. The novella is an erotic novel and philosophic treatise in which the titular character, a young woman named Therese, recounts her sexual and philosophic coming-of-age to her present lover, the unnamed Count. Not having previously read any one complete example of Enlightenment-era pornography, I had few pre-conceptions about the genre when I sat down to read Therese.

This is an anonymously-written work, published in 1740s, tentatively attributed to a marquis named Jean-Baptiste de Boyer and was a runaway best-seller, according to translator Robert Darnton. Yet even though the author is likely male, and his understanding of the pleasures of sexual activity is definitely phallo-centric, the novel presents us with a complex, possibly even (early) feminist, understanding of sexuality. The novel is told from the point of view of a woman who discovers that sexual fantasy and sexual activity (whether alone or with a partner) can be a "healthful" and deeply gratifying part of her life. Sexual activity is assumed to be pleasureable for both women and men, and there is little differentiation between how women and men experience that pleasure, at least physically. Women, as well as men, for example, are encouraged to masturbate. At the same time, the characters acknowledge the material vulnerability of women who engage in heterosexual activity: the fear of pregnancy and death in childbirth; potential loss of social standing which will threaten their ability to contract a financially stable marriage. Therese and her mentors negotiate with their sexual partners over what sexual activities are acceptable given these real-world constraints, and those conversations serve as both philosophical debates and integral to the erotic encounters themselves.

Some of the students in the class were skeptical that this text constituted "intellectual history," and in addition there was a lot of resistance to reading the sexually-explicit passages as necessary or integral to the intellectual importance of the work. Their impulse was to argue that either the smut was a ploy to sell the philosophy, or the philosophy was an excuse to write the smut. Either way, they considered the sex was gratuitous to the historic or intellectual importance of the piece. I would actually argue the opposite. In Therese Philosophe, it's not the sex or the philosophy that are the "real" reason for the novel's existence -- it's the sex and the philosophy. Both are necessary to make the story work. More importantly, I would argue that it's not just the philosophy that works better because of the sex, but the sex that works better because of the philosophy.

Reading this one example made me curious to sample more 18th-century erotica and see how gender and sexual negotiation are portrayed. Is Therese an exceptional voice? And is is possible to uncover why her story was so compelling to the readers who purchased it is such great numbers that it became a best-seller? I am also fascinated by the similarities, as well as the differences, I see between how human sexuality and sexual relations are portrayed in Therese and how they are written in modern-day erotica. Perhaps that project can be thesis number three or four . . . !

Cross-posted @ feministing community.


  1. just curious- is this a book that you'd consider something enjoyable to read for leisure? or more something that only works as a text in a class/intellectual discussion kind of situation? this sounds really interesting, but i don't want to start reading it if i'm not going to get much out of it without discussion/critical reviews/etc. thanks!

  2. Good question, Colleen. On the one hand, "Therese" is a short read, about fifty pages. But the philosophical issues she's dealing with are fairly esoteric. Her sexual adventuring is all tied into a critique of the church and into materialist philosophy. So it's not exactly light reading. I definitely felt I got more out of it having read it in the context of a class, with some historical background.

  3. thanks for the answer. maybe i'll just wait to see if it comes up in one of my academic endeavors before cracking the spine. although it's definitely on my 'to-read' list now!

  4. I'm glad you agree that the sex and philosophy go together because when you mentioned that fellow students thought "that either the smut was a ploy to sell the philosophy, or the philosophy was an excuse to write the smut" I was deeply saddened at their simplicity. In reading this novel you must read it in its historical context. The church reigned supreme during the eighteenth century and there was still a monarch (divinely chosen). It was when the "Lumieres" began to question the church and demanded that people "thought for themselves" and not strictly to the ideas of church and society. It is through Therese's sexual experiences that she understands the falsity of the church and can thus accept the philosophy that is contradictory to the dogmas of the church (d├ęterminisme, sensualisme, even points of structuralisme although it didn't exist until the 1950's). Sorry I could go for pages explaining the pertinence of both the sexual exploits and philosophy but if one cannot discern their congruous importance then there is no reason to explain. In short, through sexuality Therese questions the church, which opens her conscience to philosophy. She understands that all religions are a cult, she understands there is no sin to sexuality because god created nature and nature installs sexual desires within us. Therese philosophe was written for picayune minds of the 18th century who needed a broadening of conscience but it is obviously applicable to today.

  5. Also in French its around 120 pages??? Did you read part two? And I forgot to mention materialism!