I wrote this essay for Libertinage in Ancien Régime France, my favorite module during my time at Durham. As modules go, this one was pretty out there -- and I loved it.
Libertinage is a concept applied to a group of 17th and 18th-century rebels who placed value on the physical pleasures of life, flouting respectable codes of conduct that restrained them morally, religiously and philosophically.
The libertine's attitude to and behavior within life -- and more specifically, sex -- greatly interested me, not least because talking sex in an academic context is thrillingly incongruous.
Let's face it: Even in today's morally loose society "sex" is a dirty word, so exploring it through the medium of lectures and journals was a liberating experience.
On enrolling in the module, the taboo was lifted, and sexuality -- that timeless and ubiquitous of themes -- became a subject that was analyzed and discussed with verve and curiosity. It's true to say that the topic pervades daily life in one way or another, and for this reason the study of it deserves a greater degree of authority and respect in the academic arena.
In taking this module, I discovered that a subject need not be dry for it to be considered academic -- and winning the Undergraduate Award bolstered my belief in this notion.
Diderot -- a name normally associated with great works of serious literature, was in my essay analyzed for his novel about talking genitals. You can imagine me sitting there during a rainy Wednesday morning lecture when my tutor announced the premise: a mystical sultan points his magic ring at women's vaginas, who then openly discuss their "owner's" (for want of a better word!) shenanigans. This was one French novel I could not put down.
Sade too is an extremely interesting figure, and delving into his works was at once a disturbing and intriguing experience. Uncovering the machinations of the man who gave his name to sadism entailed research the likes of which I had never foreseen myself undertaking, but which was once again utterly captivating. Strange as I know that sounds, when I used to think of of 17th-century France, debauchery was not the first word that sprang to mind. And debauchery is the libertine's middle name.
The libertine is an interesting figure, because he forgoes the moral and societal restraints of his era and takes pride in enjoying any anti-establishment activity -- from blaspheming to anal sex.
And that's how I think I came to be a winner of an Undergraduate Award -- because I became absolutely absorbed in my topic. I carried out research more out of genuine interest than a need to find a decent quote, which meant the whole process was a real pleasure. I'm sure I'm not the only student who finds dragging useful information out of heavy periodicals an onerous process.
So what exactly was my essay about? The primary focus of the work was to discern the extent to which libertinage allowed for diverse sexual identities. In short, I explored a range of sexual preferences that would be considered unusual, and strove to discover whether libertine writers endorsed or excoriated them.
I explored homosexuality, bestiality and the licentious woman, and such concepts all appeared in both positive and negative lights in libertine works. I came to the conclusion that some libertines, such as Diderot, appeared to abhor such tastes, while others, such as Sade, encouraged them (although if I'm honest Sade was into pretty much anything). The fluid nature of libertinage enabled this paradoxical co-existence of a mind-set encapsulating both rigid rule-following of heteronormative behavior and unashamed pleasure-taking in whatever form.
Delving into all this -- as well as taking into account the societal norms of 17th century France -- I found myself profoundly engrossed in the minutiae of sexual morality. This interest was deepened further still by the fact I wrote a column for a Durham tabloid that discussed modern day sexual politics.
Although not quite analyzing the protean nature of the libertine's sexual preferences, the column provided for me an interesting contrast between past and present, academic and entertaining. I could discuss the ultimate libertine ladies man -- Valmont from Les Liaisons Dangereuses -- in my essay, and then go on to warn about the wily ways of the modern day player in my column. The parallels I found myself drawing were without limit: Time may pass, but the parameters of what is sexually acceptable will always be open for discussion.
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