<i>Hell at the Library</i> -- Where Hell = Sex

- by Michael Stillman

X

The French National Library is lit up like a big &quot;X&quot; to mark its exhibit of erotic &quot;art.&quot;


By Michael Stillman

Leave it to the French to employ reverse psychology to bring visitors back to the library. An exhibition is currently open at the French National Library entitled Hell at the Library. The devil is in the details. Amidst the living Hell of stacks upon stacks of dull, erudite tomes traditionally associated with a library, this collection is a brief glimpse of heaven. However, for over two centuries the library kept the heavenly bodies in this collection far from the leering eyes of its depraved patrons. It was open only to the responsible librarians, mature and intellectual enough to view it only for educational purposes.

This, of course, is an exhibition of books, prints, images, recordings, even old movies that can be classified as either art or pornography, depending on your level of honesty. "Hell" was the name librarians gave to the area that housed this collection over a century and a half ago. Evidently, they either believed that this was the appropriate place for such material, or where those who looked at it would go. Nonetheless, they seemed unable to discard the stuff either. We aren't sure why it all ended up in the library in the first place, though some reportedly came there after confiscation by the police. Still, it would be intriguing to know why it was kept for so long even though not made available to the public. I have a theory.

Among the items on display is a manuscript written by that pillar of high society and good taste, the Marquis de Sade. Marie Antoinette is pilloried by being displayed in various undignified poses, a reflection of the then brewing revolution which would leave her in the even less dignified pose of having one's head separated from her body. The clergy was granted no more quarter than royalty. A pamphlet from the same era contains a list of the names of priests who consorted with women of the night, including the names and addresses of those fine ladies. This, presumably, was for those who wanted to confirm the accuracy of these claims, rather than provide the ladies with additional business. In an aside to good taste and class, the pamphlet even describes the type of activities in which the priests and their women friends allegedly engaged.

A century later, they were still compiling lists of these businesswomen, though this time the report was prepared by the police. This accounting even contains a price list. Other items include inappropriate images behind peep show style paper doors, recorded readings of once banned poetry (wow, that sounds exciting) and some grainy old movies from the 1920s.

Frankly, it doesn't sound like any of this horse-and-buggy pornography would shock anyone today, but surprisingly enough, the French, who normally aren't upset by anything, are prohibiting anyone under age 16 from attending. My guess is this is not because the young would be shocked but because they would be disappointed. They have undoubtedly seen much better. This exhibit will be open until March 22 for those wishing to revisit that good old-time pornography.