At this year’s M4 Rencontres Littéraires at Crans-Montana, French-speaking writers, historians, actors, Sorbonne professors, filmmakers and critics along with the curator of the Musée D’Orsay in Paris, met at the Hotel Royal in Crans-Montana this year to discuss art, sex and literature.
After last year’s edition on the writing of the self, the literary meeting organised by the M4 Culture platform in Crans-Montana kept the same guiding line about the expression of personal experience, but with a quite audacious topic: art, sex and literature.
Be forewarned! It was not an occasion to talk mildly on the subject or to echo the omnipresent and consensual Fifty Shades of Grey that went on screen a couple of weeks ago.
To speak and debate this topic, Robert Kopp, the host of the event and professor of French literature at Basel University, invited a number of writers and researchers, all experts in fields around the topic:
- Philippe Caubère, a renowned actor and writer with a free mind and some strong views on the matter of sexuality.
- Arthur Dreyfus, a 28 years old French writer whose third book was Histoire de ma sexualité (Story of my sexuality).
- Dominique Fernandez, a well-established author and first openly gay member of the Académie Française.
- Catherine Millet, most known for her first book, La vie sexuelle de Catherine M. (The sexual life of Catherine M.), in which she describes crudely her sexual experiences in the following of the movement of May 68.
- Jacques Henric, husband of the former and also writer.
- Laurence Plazenet, author of several novels and professor at the Sorbonne University, where she teaches the Jansenist movement and authors of the 17th
- Michel Delon, professor at the Sorbonne University and an expert in the authors of the 18th century and especially in the Libertinism.
- Hervé Aubron, assistant editor of the Magazine littéraire and film critic specialist of Pier Paolo Pasolini.
- Harry Bellet, art historian specialised in the 16th century and author of a recent book inspired by the figure of the painter Hans Holbein
- Stéphane Guégan, curator of the Musée D’Orsay in Paris, host of the famous Origine du monde by Gustave Courbet (you might have had the opportunity to see this painting at the Fondation Beyeler in Basel during the Courbet exhibition last year).
- Albert Serra, a film director who won the Pardo d’oro (Locarno film festival highest distinction) in 2013 for his film La historia de la meva mort (Story of my death) featuring Casanova and Dracula considering their own deaths.
Each participant brought a distinctive point of view to these two afternoons during which he or she freely discussed the subject, answering suggestions and questions of both the others participants and the public. During Friday’s session, the discussions were more moral, historical and sociological, maybe due to the subject of the film shown at the beginning of the afternoon, La luxure (Lechery), a featurette by Jacques Demy in the 1961 film Les sept péchés capitaux (the seven deadly sins). Beginning with an analysis of continental sexuality, they pointed out that it seems to be quite oriented toward a kind of performance influenced by the aesthetic of porn and that we do not assume that sensuality is present in sexuality. Arthur Dreyfus noted that often, the drift from sexuality to sensuality is seen as a sign of the transformation from passion to love. The debate then moved to prostitution and while some participants like Laurence Plazenet or Harry Bellet weren’t very supportive of it, others like Philippe Caubère, Catherine Millet and Jacques Henric were fairly accepting, arguing that for some prostitutes it was a choice. This position raised some lively reactions from the public, who did not agree with Caubère’s, Millet’s or Henric’s position. As the afternoon went on, Philippe Caubère read some early texts of his to the audience. The very graphic descriptions of Caubère’s texts shocked a few members of the public, who decided to leave.
On Saturday, the discussion was more about sex from a literary point of view. After watching the opening scene of La historia de meva mort, in which Casanova explains to his servant the moral considerations that drive him and his intention to write his memoirs, the discussion moved to the difference between sex as a means of mutual pleasure and sex as a mean of domination. As Michel Delon pointed out, as an expert on both Casanova and Sade, we are all torn between these two opposite visions of sex, and literature gives us ample examples of that. Although somebody like Sade spoke openly about sex in gruesome detail, Dominique Fernandez reminded us that writing about homosexuality was nearly impossible before May 68. He linked his personal experience with a string of gay authors, like Thomas Mann, who could only touch upon the subject without explicitly mentioning it.
But recent news was not forgotten. Somebody in the public asked if one could compare Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) to Casanova, for his taste of debauchery as exposed during the recent trial. In the midst of the ascending voices, Michel Delon stated that for him, DSK could not be compared to Casanova, as Casanova truly committed himself to every affair he had where DSK only consumed the prostitutes, without any commitment. For Catherine Millet and Philippe Caubère, DSK was facing trial only because he is a public figure. His acts were not worthy of blame.
To conclude this second edition of the literary meeting at Crans-Montana, Philippe Caubère read aloud the beginning of Aragon’s novel Le con d’Irène. His stern voice at the beginning changed to a more malicious one as the narrator started to recount a very naïve first encounter with a prostitute.
In this relaxed atmosphere, one was able to catch the perspective of each participant, shaped by his or her field of expertise and personal experience. The writers were more focused on practical matters while the historians argued from historical and perhaps philosophical perspectives. Nonetheless, none of the speakers was reluctant to call a spade a spade, thus providing vivid and lively discussion, although arguably far too often quelled in the name of morality.
This weekend was even more pleasing for me as the organisers were kind enough to invite me to join all these fine people for supper, an opportunity for me to get to know them a bit better and to learn about their other fields of study. For example, Laurence Plazenet explained to me that there are several philosophical references, to French philosopher and polymath Blaise Pascal, in comic books such as Boule et Bill (French humour about a boy and his dog) and Achille Talon (Walter Melon). It was a real pleasure to spend some informal time with these very warm people. The organisers were also very friendly, giving me a ride to my hotel after leaving the restaurant at around midnight. Thanks M4 Culture for creating such a convivial setting to discuss literature!
By Jonathan Bischoff