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Aphrodite

Pierre Louys


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On the heels of Bilitis, Pierre Louys published his first novel, Aphrodite in 1896. It was a bestseller, selling 350,000 copies, sealing Louys' reputation as a popular author of erotic literature. Set in Ptolemaic Alexandria, Louys' decadent, sensual vision of Egypt in classical times tells a story of transgressive love. The sculptor Demetrios, the favorite of Queen Berenice, falls for a well-to-do courtesan, Chrysis. Much of the story is set in the world of the courtesans, a realm of beauty, luxury, sapphic indulgence, and some dark shadows as well.

This book has 183 pages in the PDF version. This translation by Willis L. Parker was originally published in 1932.

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Excerpt from 'Aphrodite'

The erudite Prodicos of Ceos, who flourished toward the end of the first century before our era, is the author of the celebrated apologue which St. Basil recommended to Christian meditation: "Herakles between virtue and voluptuousness." We know that Herakles decided for the first, and was thus enabled to accomplish a certain number of great crimes against the Hinds, the Amazons, the Golden Apples and the Giants. If Prodicos had limited himself to that, he would have written only a fable of readily comprehended symbolism, but he was a clever philosopher and his repertory of tales, "The Hours," which was divided into three parts, presented the moral truths under their three different aspects which correspond to the three ages of life. For little children he was pleased to propose as an example the austere choice of Herakles; to youths he doubtless related the voluptuous choice of Paris; and I imagine that, to ripe men, he said nearly this:

"Odysseus was wandering in the chase one day, at the foot of the mountains of Delphi, when he met on his path two virgins who held each other by the hand. The one had hair of violets, transparent eyes, and grave lips; she said to him: 'I am Arete.' The other had softly tinted eyelids, delicate hands and tender breasts; she said to him: 'I am Tryphe.' And they said together: 'Choose between us.' But the subtle Odysseus responded wisely: 'How could I choose—you are inseparable. The eyes which have seen you pass—one without the other—have glimpsed but a sterile shadow. Just as sincere virtue does not deprive itself of the eternal joys which voluptuousness brings to it, so luxury would go ill without a certain grandeur of soul. I will follow you both. Show me the way.' As he finished, the two visions melted together and Odysseus knew that he had spoken with the great goddess Aphrodite."

* * *

The feminine personage who occupies the principal place in the romance whose pages you are about to turn, is an antique courtesan; but be reassured: she will not convert herself.

She will be loved neither by a monk, a prophet, nor a god. In present-day literature, this is an originality.

Rather she will be a courtesan, with all the frankness, the ardor and the pride of every human being who has a vocation and who holds in society a freely chosen place; she will aspire to raise herself to the highest point; she will not even imagine a need for excuse or mystery in her life. And this requires explanation.

Up to this day, the modern writers who have addressed themselves to a public free from the prejudices of young girls and school boys have employed a laborious stratagem whose hypocrisy displeases me: "I have depicted voluptuousness as it is," they say, "in order to exalt virtue." But I, at the beginning of a romance whose intrigue develops at Alexandria, refuse absolutely to commit this anachronism.

Love, with all its consequences, was, for the ancient Greeks, the sentiment most virtuous and most fecund in grandeurs. They did not attach to it those ideas of shamelessness and immodesty which Israelite tradition, along with the Christian doctrine, has handed down to us. Herodotos (1.10) says to us, quite naturally:—"Among some barbarous races it is considered disgraceful to appear naked." When the Greeks or the Latins wished to insult a man who frequented "daughters of love," they called him «μοῖχος» or Moechus, which merely signifies "adulterer." On the other hand, a man and a woman who, being free from other bonds, united themselves, even though this were in public and whatever their youth might be, were considered as injuring no one and were left at liberty.

One sees that the life of the ancients could not be judged after the moral ideas which come to us at the present time from Geneva.

As for me, I have written this book with the simplicity an Athenian would have brought to a relation of the same adventures. And I hope that it will be read in the same spirit.

Judging the ancient Greeks by the ideas actually received, not one exact translation of their greatest writers could be left in the hands of a young student. If M. Mounet-Sully should play his rôle of Œdipos without cuts, the police would suspend the representation. If M. Leconte de Lisle had not prudently expurgated Théocritos, his version would have been suppressed the same day it was put on sale.

One considers Aristophanes exceptional? Yet we possess important fragments of fourteen hundred and forty comedies, due to one hundred and thirty-two other Greek poets, some of whom, such as Alexis, Philetor, Strattis, Eubolos and Cratinos, have left us admirable verse, and no one has yet dared translate this shameless and sublime collection.

One quotes always, for the purpose of defending Greek customs, the teachings of some philosophers who condemned the sexual pleasures. There is confusion here. Those scattered moralists reproved all excesses of the senses indiscriminately, without the existence, for them, of a difference between the debauch of the bed and that of the table.

He who, today, at a restaurant in Paris, orders with impunity a six-louis dinner for himself alone, would have been judged by them as guilty and no less so than another who would give a too intimate assignation in the middle of the street, being for that condemned by the existing laws to a year of prison. Moreover, these austere philosophers were generally regarded by antique society as abnormal and dangerous madmen; they were mocked on the stage, treated with blows in the streets, seized by tyrants to serve as court buffoons and exiled by free citizens who judged them unworthy of submitting to capital punishment.

It is then by a conscious and voluntary deceit that modern educators from the Renaissance to the present time have represented the antique moral system as the inspiration of their narrow virtues. If this moral system were great—if it merited indeed to be taken for a model and to be obeyed—it is precisely because no system has better known how to distinguish the just from the unjust according to a criterion of beauty: to proclaim the right of every man to seek individual happiness within the limits set by the rights of others and to declare that there is nothing under the sun more sacred than physical love—nothing more beautiful than the human body.

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