If you were fluent in French and mingling at a French dinner party and your snooty acquaintance Genevieve likened the champagne she was sipping to la petite mort, you would know that she meant that the champagne, with it’s bubbly joy filling your nose and head, was orgasmic. But… why would you know that? “La petite mort” translates to something approximating “the little death.” That isn’t the most obvious of analogies for the glorious eruption that is an orgasm. We wanted to know more about la petit mort, so this episode is an investigation of the history of language, sexology, and indeed, orgasming, from the ancient world to the modern. Let’s plunge…erhm, dig, in.

Related Episodes:

Transcript for Orgasm: La Petite Mort, The Little Death and the History of Sexuality

Researched and written by Averill Earls, PhD

Recorded by Averill Earls, PhD and Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD

Sarah: Warning! Depending on where you work, this is probably a NSFW episode. Not grisly in the way Marissa’s episode was, but we will, for example, be saying the words penis and clitoris pretty frequently, and this little introduction is the only time we’ll bleep those anatomically correct words out, just in case you started this when your 7-year-old was in the car or at your work desk. Today is not the day you need to explain sexual reproduction to your kids, nor do we want you to get a stern talking to from HR. So plug in the headphones, turn the lights down real low, and let’s get it on.

Averill: Just kidding, please don’t masturbate to this episode.

Averill: Jean-Luc Nancy and Adèle Van Reeth, two French philosophers, discuss the origin of the condemnation of the orgasm (or, in their terminology, jouissance) in their 2016 book friskily titled Coming. When they’re talking about Christian moral condemnation of orgasms – because pleasures of the flesh are sinful and all that jazz – they describe the Passion of Christ (and passion, also a French word, has its own interesting history, which we’ll discuss a bit later). I have to quote this directly, because it’s just…something.

Sarah: “In the Passion of Christ lies the source of a jouissance made of redemptive suffering… God has emptied himself of His divinity, He has become mortal. This mortality is felt both as the death of God himself, as Luther would proclaim it much later on, but also as the divinizationof the life of man. Human truth is henceforth divided in half: One must pass through suffering in order to reach salvation.”[1]

Averill: Now, if you take that out of Nancy and Van Reeth’s book, the bit about emptying oneself of divinity and suffering to reach salvation sounds, I think, pretty run of the mill. Church talk, from fancy Church talkers. But Nancy and Van Reeth have stirred that Church talk into some context, and now you can’t unhear it – because the “suffering” is that moment just before the big O. If you’re like me, now you’re thinking about that moment. It is a kind of suffering, isn’t it? Tense limbs, labored breathing; some people even work their way to orgasm through literal inflicted pain. And then, boom – release, oblivion, salvation – jouissance. We talk about being “spent,” “empty,” languid or floating. The little death we suffer – the petite mort – leads us to glorious salvation.

Sarah: I don’t know how many pastors present that particular take in their Easter sermons.

Averill: In this chapter of their book, Van Reeth and Nancy are contemplating the intersections of jouissance and Christianity, reading between the lines, investigating concepts like “communion,” the story of the Passion, the sin of Eve and the forbidden fruit. It’s only in a few instances that their investigation of orgasm touch on what I’m most interested in – a philosophical take on a French phrase for orgasm: the petite mort, the little death. For my contribution to this series on death, I wanted to investigate the history of la petite mort. Rather than the stories of actual death and dying Marissa, Sarah and Elizabeth have dished out, I am bringing something a little more metaphorical to the table. So today we shall discuss the jouissance, the climax, the release into euphoria – la petite mort.

I’m Averill Earls

And I’m Sarah Handley-Cousins

And we are your historians for this sexy time episode of Dig

Averill: This is a tricky one. We are not going to be able to point you to a moment in history when people started talking about orgasm as a little death. The Oxford English Dictionary is very helpful in that it provides a short history of when such phrases first appear in print in the English language, and per their estimation, the earliest use of the English phrase “the little death” is from the 16th century. But the date when a phrase is committed to print is not the date that such a concept enters a lexicon. I can’t actually say to you that when the people writing the New Testament committed those words to memory or paper, they were talking about Christ’s death as sex. However intriguing a topic, I am not a religious scholar nor a philosopher, so we will not be making the leap to say, for example, whether or not John 19:30 is or is not describing an orgasmic moment.

(“It is finished!” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.)

Sarah: We’ll leave that to Nancy and Van Reeth. Or maybe our friends at Sunday School Dropouts will be tackling this in their future. Our interest today is in unpacking the historical uses of the phrase, the movement of the phrase from French to English (or vice versa?), and how this particular understanding of orgasming fits in with a longer history of the orgasm in popular, medical, cultural, and social history.

Averill: According to the Oxford English Dictionary, la petite mort has, over the last 500 years, meant “fainting fit,” “nervous spasm,” and, of course, orgasm. The combination of the feminine of petit, or little, with mort, or death, translates to mean a brief foray into a death-like state – specifically the brief loss or weakening of consciousness. Today, it specifically means the sensation of orgasm as likened to death. (So, perhaps, you can see how the Passion of Christ would slip into the pages of a French text on the philosophy and intellectuality of orgasm.) 

Sarah: The use of the feminine over the masculine iteration of the phrase in French is interesting in and of itself – but we will have to return to that later, when we actually get to talking about orgasms a bit more broadly.

Averill: According to the OED, “the little death” is a phrase that has been common in the English language since at least the 16th century; certainly it may have been earlier, just not in print. The euphemism “to die,” meaning to “spend” oneself completely in orgasm, is everywhere in 15th- and 16th-century English literature, as we can see from the works of William Shakespeare. This would have been well-known to all of London’s theater goers, from the highest echelons of society to the commoners who stood jammed around the stage, throwing things at the actors, and indicating their pleasure and displeasure loudly. Shakespeare used the euphemistic concept of dying as orgasm intentionally – to get laughs from the crowd who came to be entertained.

Sarah: That would probably give a bit more perspective to high school English students forced to read Romeo and Juliet outloud. When Juliet says “O happy dagger! This is thy sheath; there rust, and let me die,” the original audiences of the play may have gasped in sympathy with the brokenhearted girl, but may well have laughed instead. For she plunges a phallic object into her sheath – and the Latin word for sheath is, of course, vagina – and said plunging brings on her death – aka, divine spending in orgasm.

Averill: I wonder how many English teachers realize what they’re having students read? Like, were we all subjected to this because our teachers wanted to have a good laugh at our pathetic, hormonal expense? Fess up, English teachers! We know you’re listening.

Sarah: The OED identifies the first publication of the phrase “a little death” in English in the 1598 text Thule, Or Vertues Historie, by Francis Rous, a puritan. And sure, you could read Cant #4 as an early modern epic poem channeling the myths and legends of the classical era. The verses open with “Diaphon and Pirrhydor in endless blows, batter the castles of their furious hearts, brethren by birth, by deeds most cruel foes, that bloody still torment each others parts, while Algiger all mortifide in soule, the world’s short pleasures deeply doth control.” Surely as epic a beginning as ever was written, in the style of the high romantic poets of the period. The next three stanzas are about the battle that rages between these two young men, whom Discord personified has whipped into a frenzy. Discord, in this narrative, is a “she” who has come between the brothers.

Illustration from Fanny Hill, "The Bathing Party, by Éduoard-Henri Avril
Éduoard-Henri Avril, “The Bathing Party,” illustration from Fanny Hill | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Averill: Rous’s Cant lays out how, in seeking to please Discord, “one swells when down his mate he throws.” The men, enraptured by Discord, are aroused by the battle for her attention, or perhaps by the vulnerability of the other. When one falls, it causes Discord to “bellow” (perhaps moan in arousal?), and that in turn arouses the two men.

Sarah: And then they come upon a “mount,” out in the open, and a path in the hill takes them both directly to this mountable creature, and both were “willing to see what novelties” lay along the path to the mount.

Averill: And so comes the crescendo of this … “Battle.”

“Straight to their cares the sweetest harmonie doth blow, that ever sweet to ear can blow

Whose force like fire could melt black cruelty, and make it quickly gentle mercy know:

From out that little hill is soft doth fly, as if Apollo all his art would show

A little death it is, which up doth send

Our soules to heaven, before we make our end.

Sarah: And yes, maybe Francis Rous meant nothing sexual by these climatic words. Maybe it’s just a sad story of two brothers who are fighting over something boring, like a throne or a piece of land or a sheet. But wait!… there’s more:

“O cease those murdering strokes what ere thou be,

My soule will fly from hence unto thy cell,

And all in love with this will banish me;

Sweet honey issuing from a silver well,

Which givest a surset, not sacietie,

O do no more such pleasing murmurs tell,

But leave my virgin thoughts without annoy

Which thou wilt ravish with too great a joy.

Averill: Here we have killer strokes, sweet honey issuing from a silver well (vagina?), and “virgin thoughts” being ravished. To those who haven’t listened to our episode on Puritan sex practices, Rous’s not-very-subtle sex poem might be surprising. But as scholars like Richard Godbeer and Francis Breemer have shown, and as Sarah discussed in one of our very first episodes, the Puritans had lots of sex. They believed that sex was an important part of a strong marital partnership. And they also had lots of problems with Puritan church members having sex that fell outside the bounds of marriage – extra and pre-marital sex, sex between men, sex between women, sex between men or women and animals, and more. That’s why they made up all kinds of rules to govern sex – because their people were already doing those frisky things!

Sarah: Up until about the 16th century, sex was relatively unregulated. Illegitimate births were high in most western European communities, because people had sex with whom they wanted and when they wanted. While sex between adult men wasn’t usually celebrated in places like England and France, it also wasn’t strictly policed. Without reliable forms of birth control, other than herbal remedies and the like, women were just saddled with the product of such sexual encounters. As Geoffrey Quaife has shown, for example, between 1601 and 1660, unmarried men and women in Somerset, England got the majority of their pre-marital sexual release by masturbating one another.[2] Rarely did those partners go on to marry one another, but the lack of illegitimate births made the sexual contact acceptable.[3]

Averill: But starting in the 16th century, Christian hierarchies pressured governments to enforce stricter sex codes — to punish ravishment, abandonment, extra marital sex (women offenders), and prostitution — to a far greater degree than ever before. That’s where we get legislation like Henry VIII’s Buggery Act of 1533, which was used to prosecute and execute men who had sex with other men and animals for nigh on 300 years. Similarly in Florence, a previously tolerant sex regime which permitted adult men who were the sexual penertrators a good deal of license for whom they penetrated, including post-pubescent boys. That changed in 1542 when a new sodomy law was implemented, much like the English Buggery Act, outlawing same-sex sexual contact, and the local government dedicated resources to enforcing it.[4] At the same time, following the Council of Trent during the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church decided to start enforcing its own code of imposed celibacy and sexual restraint. Up until that point, celibacy was the official policy, but priests, bishops, and popes enjoyed all the carnal pleasures of life with little restraint.[5]

Sarah: By the end of the 17th century, the fruits of these restrictions were embedded in western Europe, giving even the masturbators of Somerset a revised perspective on sexual pleasure. Priests and reverends of various Christian denominations aimed to de-sexualize sex. They continued to encourage conjugal duties, but urged (or shamed) parishioners to do so without sensual enjoyment. This was, according to Robert Muchembled, different than eschewing pleasure. Doctors of the period believed that conception required that both sex partners orgasm, so pleasure could not be forboeden. But one was not supposed to engage in marital coitus with too much gusto. Thus in the Puritan communities, for example, the spiritual leaders pushed their parishioners to divulge what sexual positions they were taking, told them that all the reverse cowgirls and doggies were bad, and encouraged everyone to limit themselves to the good old missionary position. Which tells you all you need to know about the missionary position.[6]

Averill: The phrase was also used for its non-sexual meanings in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. In 1605, Joseph Hall, an English bishop, satirist, and morality, wrote “Every sicknes is a little death, I will bee content to die oft, that I may die once well.” Contextually, this use is difficult to find hidden sexual meaning (even for me, and I seem to see it everywhere…) So too did Robert Robinson put the two words together to mean that a little piece of the self died with each illness, writing in 1786 “A little cold is a little death, a little more chills us to clay, and fits us for the grave.”[7] While a good English PhD student could surely find the secret sensuality in these uses, it’s a bit of a stretch. The phrase seems to shift exclusively to sexual innuendo by the 19th century.

Sarah: What isn’t clear is if the phrase “la petite mort” is something that was commonly used in the French language before the 19th century. This may be a case of the Victorians translating a common English euphemism into the fancier-sounding French in order to shroud their sex talk in mystery, and then French authors like Honoré de Balzac adopting the phrase and its euphemistic meaning back into their lexicon. Or it could be the result of French authors adopting the common English slang of the “little death” into their 19th century literary works, only to have that cycle back around to the English, who left it in French also to sound fancy. Lesson being, of course, that French sounds fancier than English, and when hob knobbing, you should definitely find a way to slip the old “petite mort” into conversation.

Averill: I asked my colleague Doug Boudreau, the French professor at Mercyhurst, and who is, I think, a Francophile, if “la petite mort” is a way that everyday French refer to the orgasm. He confirmed what I’ve sort of gleaned from French reddit threads – that no, it’s not everyday slang. It doesn’t have the same place in the French language that “coming” has in English. It’s more, he agreed, a phrase that you’d drop into conversation if you were trying to execute a high-brow literary reference. Most French would know what you meant if you said it, but it’s not really slang or common in your everyday conversations about sex and orgasms.

Sarah: Which are, of course, every day conversations, I’m sure.

Averill: Like in our Dig group text message.

(Trying to think of a comparable thing in English – a literary or high brow phrase/concept that people would understand if they heard it but which is not part of the everyday lexicon?)

Sarah: “La petite mort” appears in the 1863 edition of the Dictionnaire de la langue francaise, possibly in response to Honore de Balzac’s use of the phrase in his mid-century novels. Most notably perhaps is La Peau de chagrin, or The Magic Skin, a fable-style tale about a man who finds a magic piece of shagreen that gives him everything he wants which inevitably gets out of control. In the opening of the story, Raphael de Valentin loses all his money, and on the way to kill himself, he stops in a curiosities shop. The shopkeeper gives a piece of shagreen, which is an untanned rawhide. There is Arabic writing on the skin, and it promises that the owner “shall possess all things.”

title page of Honoré de Balzac's the Magic Skin
Title Page of Honoré de Balzac’s The Magic Skin | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Averill: Raphael takes the skin, even after the shopkeeper tells him he probably shouldn’t, and Raphael wishes for a banquet filled with wine, women, and friends. He immediately finds what he wishes for, and goes to a wild party where he drinks and laughs all night long.

Sarah: In the next part of the story, Raphael remembers several years ago when he pined for a woman named Feodora. His quest for her is what led him to financial ruin at the beginning of the story.

Averill: Finally it returns to the third part, “The Agony,” in which the skin is working to give him everything he wishes to possess — a little too well. Each time he wishes for something and it is granted, the skin shrinks. If it disappears, he knows that it will mean his death. Then a woman named Pauline visits him, and confesses her love to him.

Sarah: ““Oh, angel,” she cried, straining Raphael to her breast in a clasp as strong as love itself, and putting her coral lips with plaintive coquetry to his, “as I saw your little death, I knew I could not survive thee. Thy life is my life, Raphael: feel, pass thy hand along my back; I felt a death-blow there; I am all cold. — Thy lips are burning, but thy hand is ice,” she added.”

Averill: Raphael de Valetin’s final wish is for this woman, Pauline. He burns with his desire. She learns the truth about the magic skin, and flees from him, knowing that if she gives in to his wish for her, the skin will disappear, and he will die. But he follows her, and they have glorious mind-blowing sex, and then he dies immediately after.

Honoré de Balzac
Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850). Daguerréotype de Louis-Auguste Bisson (1814-1876). Paris, Maison de Balzac.

Sarah: So rather than the 16th-century Shakespearean use of “to die” in the place of “to orgasm,” Balzac constructs a larger narrative arc that is sex: every wish that he has granted is a pleasurable sensation that carries him to the brink of this climax. In the original French text, he uses the phrase “petite mort”. In the English translation that we just quoted from, the translator actually has that translated to “as I saw thee turning faint,” instead of “as I saw your little death,” because la petite mort can also be understood to mean a temporary unconsciousness. But in the 1839 printed edition of Balzac’s story, he uses la petite mort, and italicizes the phrase. This makes it seem, to me, intentional, a way to make the sentiment of that phraseology resonate with the larger narrative. He doesn’t italicize the phrase in his lesser known work Une instruction criminelle, when he uses it without entendre. His character effectively says that memories of days with women, officers of the French empire, and Chinese girls, brings him to orgasm. Perhaps the italicization in The Magic Skin is intended to signal to readers that he means the phrase to have it’s double entendre. Pauline has not actually seen Raphael orgasm, but it is something she will see soon enough. (The second part of The Magic Skin is a flashback – so if I was going to keep on with this theme of the story line as these little pleasures taking him to the brink of orgasm, is that his spank bank? The world may never know.)

Averill: I wonder also if his use of the phrase in italics is intended to mark it as a foreign phrase? That in some earlier edition, he adopted the English concept of the “little death,” as articulated in Rous’s writings, or as alluded to in the Shakespearean collection, and for this edition, his publisher put it in French? This is not something that I had the power to decipher for this episode, nor was I able to read as deeply into Balzac as I would have liked, but I will include some references that discuss his novels and plays, and maybe y’all will discover something I’ve missed! 

“La petite mort” is not in any French dictionaries that I could find prior to 1863; neither the 1740, 1762, 1798, nor 1835 editions held at the Bibliotheque Nationale de France have entries for “petite mort.” It’s not listed under petite mort as a standalone phrase, and it is not in there under “mort.” If it were a common phrase, I do think it would appear there, as a range of other common usages for “mort” are contained in each of those editions of the French dictionaries, such as “mourir de sa belle mort,” “il souffre mort et passion,” and the phrase “A la vie et a la mort.” (None of which mean anything to us, so feel free to write in translations for these common uses of Mort found in the French dictionary.) And it does pop up in the 1865 French academy official dictionary, after Honoré’s de Balzac’s use of that specific phrase was published and part of the 19th century French literary canon.[8]

Sarah: The concept was certainly not foreign to the French. Corneille, a 17th-century playwright known for his tragedies, referred to the “death” of orgasmic pleasure in his play L’Occasion perdue et recouvrée (The Lost Opportunity Recovered) in 1651. The protagonists lovers “swooned with pleasure from an excess of happiness; five or six times, they died and came back to life, they lay mouth to mouth and body to body, sometimes alive and sometimes dead.”[9] According to Muchembled, “The orgasm was not only a delight of the pleasure-seeker or a cry of despair…. In the Baroque age, it constantly preyed on people’s minds, either to be rejected with horror as the work of the devil or to express a mystic experience in which souls and bodies merge, as said by Cornielle.”[10]

Averill: Despite these 17th century associations of death and orgasm, the particular phrase “petite mort” did not make it into the official French dictionary until well into the 19th century. That seems significant, but not definitive, and I hope someone, somewhere will pick up this line of inquiry. I only had access, for example, to the French dictionaries that have been digitized on the Bibliotheque Nationale Gallica website. If you’re listening and you’re in Paris, go look through other editions of the dictionary – are the 1740, 1762, 1798, and 1835 editions anomalous? Is petite mort normally included in the dictionary, and it’s just those editions that don’t have it? I’d be fascinated to learn more!

Sarah: Like Corneille’s use in the 17th-century, you can find other literary references to the orgasm as death in France well into the 19th century. Paul Verlain’s 1869 poem “Les indolents,” (which Ave only found in French, so we won’t struggle over pronunciation,) is basically about these two people, and the man says “Would you like to ‘die’ together?” and the woman says, “That’s a weird thing to ask,” and the man says “I mean die like in the Decameron, wink wink,” and the woman laughs, and that evening, the two adjourn to an “exquisite death.” Translation: they boned. 

Averill: Side note: Sarah includes a story from the Decameron in her episode on the Black Death, which is a great resource for talking and teaching about the Black Death, but the horror snippets tend to leave out all the good parts of the story. The Decameron includes tales of love, both erotic and tragic. The premise of the book is that it is 100 tales told by seven young women and three young men who are taking shelter outside of Venice to avoid the Black Death.

Sarah: (aka, kids with nothing better to do but the 14th century version of Netflix and Chill.)

Averill: Anyway. When I came to this topic, I assumed that petite mort was just a French phrase that has been absorbed into the English language. And at least since the 19th century, French writers and intellectuals have used the phrase cheekily and straight-forwardly to describe the moment after orgasm in which the spirit seems to leave the corporeal body, particularly for men.

Sarah: In 1966, Virginia Johnson and William Masters reported on a 10 year study that set out to answer two questions: 1. What physical reactions develop as the human male and female respond to effective stimulation? And 2. Why do men and women behave as they do when responding to effective sexual stimulation? This was cutting-edge research into human sexual responses, and nothing so comprehensive has been undertaken since — perhaps because this study required researchers to observe people having sex or masturbating in a lab while hooked up to EKG and heart monitoring systems. This might be a challenging set of experiment parameters to get through an Institutional Review Board these days.

Averill: One of the most important contributions to the mid-century sexology conversations that Masters and Johnson made was debunking Alfred Kinsey’s vaginal orgasm myth. While a range of physical stimuli could contribute to a woman’s excitement and plateauing, generally some kind of interaction with the clitoris is needed for female orgasm. There are always exceptions, because human bodies are weird and wonderful, but generally speaking, it’s all about the clitoris.

Sarah: Masters and Johnson categorized reaction to sexual stimuli into: the excitement phase, the plateau phase, the orgasmic phase, and the resolution phase. They mapped the genital and extragenital reactions of males and females, and the effect of each phase on different parts of the body – breasts, sex flush, myotonia, rectum, hyperventilation, tachychardia, blood pressure, perspiratory reaction, clitoris, vagina, uterus, labia majora, labia minor, bartholin’s glands, cowper’s glands, scrotum, testes and penis. It’s a scintillating read, and I highly recommend you find a copy at your local library. (You might have to inter library loan it though!) In very non-romantic terms, Masters and Johnson describe the petite mort, the little death, as the refractory period:

graph of the sexual arousal cycle identified by Masters and Johnson
Graph of the sexual arousal cycle identified by Masters and Johnson | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

“The orgasmic phase is limited to those few seconds during which the vasoconcentration and myotonia developed from sexual stimuli are released… The human male and female resolve from the height of their orgasmic expressions into the last or resolution phase of the sexual cycle. This involutionary period of tension loss develops as a reverse reaction pattern that returns the individual through plateau and excitement levels to an unstimulated state.”[11]

Averill: Very sexy.

Sarah: But also illustrative. Whether it’s French or English in origin, the physical response of the post-orgasm oblivion is the core of the “petite mort” concept. Masters and Johnson’s research also showed the debilitating nature of the male orgasm versus the female orgasm. Men could almost never experience multiple orgasms in a single session, requiring a return to an unstimulated state before being able to pass through the three phases to climax again. Women were more likely to be able to achieve multiple orgasms in a single session, reverberating between the Plateau and Orgasm. The petite mort, then, despite (or because of?) it’s grammatical gender, is more a little death for males than for females.

Averill: So if we don’t die in our lovers laps, are we exclusively the killers? That might be a question for another day.

The physical changes that Masters and Johnson observed and recorded are fascinating. In their observations of the labia minora, for example, in the excitement phase they note that the labial thickening and expansion extended vaginal barrel approximately 1 cm, and in the plateau the color of the labia went from a lighter color to a bright red or deep wine color, indicative of an impending orgasm. (In other words, the labia minor grew in size in most women when they were excited). The labia minora had no observed reaction during orgasm, but in the resolution phase (the little death), the color changed from bright red to light within 10-15 seconds, and the vasocongestive size decreased markedly. In more romantic terms, the labia minora – and most genital and non-genitals that were stimulated by the experienced – die a little.

Sarah: Today when the French invoke the phrase, they’re conjuring a particular sentiment about the experience of orgasm. The moment of blinding oblivion is a brief departure from this earthly world. Sex, and it’s conclusion, is a spiritual experience.

Averill: When the early modern English and French evoked the concept of orgasm as a little death, they were building on contemporary medical beliefs about the body. As we’ve discussed on many occasions before, 14th and 15th century Europeans believed that the body was comprised of four competing substances – blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile – and that you generally shouldn’t expend your precious fluids unless it was doctor’s orders. The loss of seminal fluid, then, weakens a man. And this was quite a common belief across Eurasia at the time; in Hinduism, the Yoga Sastra outlines the concept of Bindu, that is, that the “falling of semen brings death; preservation of semen gives life.” Though part of a Hindu scripture, this was (and in some cases, still is) a common trope. Likely because of the feeling of languor and being “spent” after orgasm, men who’ve been thinking about the function and form of orgasm for these last 2000+ years have associated ejaculation with loss – spending (and not being able to recoup) semen, spilling seed like blood, dying, just a little, with each lovely orgasm. There are, of course, a range of Old Testament rules about spilling seed and how unclean and bad that is. But at the same time, doctors in early modern European medicine believed that orgasm was necessary for conception, and that meant orgasms for both partners, not just the seed spiller.

Sarah: (At least part of the logic behind the necessity of the double orgasm came from a popular one-sex theory of this period, in which some anatomists and doctors believed that there was one sex with two genders, and that women were merely the inverse of men. So the vagina was an inside-out penis, and the ovaries were internal testes. For a long time ovaries were just called “female testes.”)

Averill: I have literally heard male student athletes say that their coaches told them not to have sex before a game because it would “sap their strength.” So these (generally incorrect, physiologically speaking) ideas about the orgasm, like the “petite mort” as a phrase, survive today. This is of course true of many of the jokes and colloquialisms immortalized in Shakespeare — a “barefaced” lie, “break the ice,” and “catch a cold,” to name just a few.

Sarah: And “catch a cold” is a phrase that is also connected to the humoral theory of the body that shaped ideas about “wasting” semen.

Averill: Though “la petite mort” and “the little death” would have been more common in colloquialisms in the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries, both continue to pop up in as pop culture references. In 1932, describing a scene in which the main characters dance together in a huge hall, surrounded by 400 other couples gyrating to the music. “The sexophones (spelled like sexophones, btw)…moaned in the alto and tenor registers as though the little death were upon them.”

Sarah: In 1949 the very weird Arthur Koestler, known among his friends as an intellectual and sexual adventurer, wrote in his Insight and Outlook, “The corresponding self-transcending component in the sexual relation is..the depersonalization (la petite mort) of the orgasm.” He also famously said that “without an element of initial rape there is no delight,” and died in a suicide pact with his third wife, so… take his fascinationg with la petite mort with a grain of salt.

Averill: In 1959, William Golding, author of Lord of the Flies, wrote “The little death shared or self-inflicted was neither irrelevant nor sinful” in his novel, Free Fall. The book is from the perspective of an English artist being held in a German POW camp during WW2, who loves a woman who cannot return his violent passion. When she is not into the stuff he is into, he grows bored with her, and marries another woman instead

Sarah: In the last 50 years, the use of the phrase, in either French or English, is used tongue-in-cheek in various magazines and newsprint, as in a Washington Post article in 1981, a Nation article in 1995, and a GQ article in 2002. In 1981 WaPo writer Boo Browning wrote in a review of Karla Devito’s debut album, “Is This a Cool World or What?” “She can do a version of ‘Midnight Confession’ that sounds like Shirley Temple in the throes of extramarital petit-mort.” More recently in her 2009 novel Prospect Park West, Amy Sohn wrote “How could he think that her mild five-second eruptions had been real compared to this ecstatic and unbridled, seemingly endless little death?” Her use of the phrase is a clear attempt to tap into a high-brow literary trope — one that, as we’ve seen, has trickled down to our world from Shakespeare, Honoré de Balzac, and the survival of humoral theory in pop culture.

Bibliography

Peter Brooks, Realist Vision (Yale University Press, 2005).

Lizzie Crocker, “Virginia Johnson, The Woman Who Discovered The Elusive Multiple Orgasm,” The Daily Beast (1 Sep 2017)

Peter L Hays, “Sex, Death, and Pine Needles in ForWhom the Bells Tolls,” The Explicator, 69:1, 16-19

(This is not actually very good, because it’s based on an assumption that the French word for orgasm is petite mort, but that’s not the common phrase in French) Max Kenneth, “The Philology of the Orgasm,” Nassau Weekly, February 9, 2005

Dara Lind, “9 Shakespeare innuendoes you should have been embarrassed to read in English class,” Vox, Apr 22, 2016 

William Masters and Virginia Johnson, Human Sexual Response (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1966).

Robert Muchembled, Orgasm and the West: a history of pleasure from the sixteenth century to the present (Malden, MA : Polity Press, 2008).

Jean-Luc Nancy, Adèle Van Reeth, and Charlotte Mandell, Coming, (Fordham University Press, 2016)

Christopher Prendergast, Balzac: Fiction and Melodrama, (London: Edward Arnold Ltd, 1978).

Graham Robb, Balzac: A Biography, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company).

James Steintrager, The Autonomy of Pleasure : Libertines, License, and Sexual Revolution (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).

Benefits of love and sex,” National Health Service

Victor Hugo’s eulogy for Honoré de Balzac

Notes

[1] Jean-Luc Nancy, Adèle Van Reeth, and Charlotte Mandell, Coming, (Fordham University Press, 2016), 59.

[2] G.R. Quaife, Wanton Wenches and Wayward Wives: Peasants and Illicit Sex in Early Seventeenth Century England, (New Brunswick NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1979).

[3] Robert Muchembled, Orgasm and the West, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2008) 20-25.

[4] Michael Rocke, Forbidden Friendships, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).

[5] Muchembled, Orgasm and the West, 24.

[6] Muchembled, Orgasm and the West, 20-25.

[7] Oxford English Dictionary, “Little Death.” Also see Robert Robinson, Seventeen Discourses on Several Texts of Scripture, (Cummings, Hilliard & Company, 1824), and Joseph Hall, Select Pieces, (George Virtue, 1838).

[8] It does not appear as a phrase in the Dictionnaire de L’Academie francaise of 1878, or the 1919 version, and I don’t know what that means yet. Other than how challenging it is to read French sources when I don’t really speak or read French LOL.

[9] Muchembled, Orgasm and the West, 95.

[10] Muchembled, Orgasm and the West, 95.

[11] William Masters and Virginia Johnson, Human Sexual Response (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1966) 7.

[12] Muchembled, Orgasm and the West, 272.


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