aroused by the sights and sounds of the exposition universelle

January 14, 2018

Sarah Bernhardt in pensive mood

I exist here in the wrong time and place. This is more than a feeling with me: it is an absolute certainty, I belong elsewhere – “fin de siècle”  Paris, for example!

Yes, a time of ‘semiotic arousal’, and in a place considered the heart of civilisation.

Why not?

The year 1900. The newly gilded Eiffel Tower thrusting into the soft grey underbelly of the evening sky. Lights glowing along the Boulevard de Strasbourg, circles of yellow eating into the gloom. The Théâtre-Français is my destination. Here, the long-awaited premiere of Edmond Rostand’s play L’ Aiglon, staring that most popular of actresses, Sarah Bernhardt, is about to take place.

Ah, Bernhardt, her ripe fifty-five-year-old figure laced into a black satin corset before dressing in the tight uniform of the Duc de Reichstadt. How I would love to charm and seduce her. Together we could sip the best champagne from frosted crystal flutes following her stunning performance. I could unlace that confining corset, and free tiny pale breasts.

During rehearsals of the play, dear Sarah insisted in one scene on having a horse on stage. What Sarah wanted, Sarah got. A horse was duly sent for – but proved too ‘frisky’ for the great actress. A second horse was supplied, but this one, unfortunately, suffered from terrible flatulence, and the many farts erupting from its rear-end were unacceptable to all. A third horse was to be summoned, but Bernhardt had changed her mind. There would be no horse in the scene.

Where was I? Oh, yes, fondling those small but beautiful breasts, lightly kissing the rosette nipples.

Sarah was born Henriette Rosine Bernard and her legendary affairs were the talk of the town. Napoleon III and Edward, Prince of Wales had both taken their delight in Sarah’s naked flesh (not, of course, at the same time!); they were just two of a coterie of lovers attracted to the bright flame that was Sarah Bernhardt. Her body was pale and skinny like a boy’s – which may be why she played so many male parts on stage?

“It’s not that I prefer male roles, it’s that I prefer male minds,” she once commented.

Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900

The Great Exposition Universelle – Paris 1900

Leaving Sarah semi-naked in her dressing room, I exit the theatre and make my way to the Place de la Concord – here I find the brilliantly lighted, multicoloured dome that houses fifty-six ticket offices for the exposition universelle: this is the entrance, Porte Binet, to the exhibition site.

There is, on my righthand, a fifteen foot high plaster statue symbolizing Paris, with great tits and flowing robes designed by Paquin. La Parisienne, sculpted by Paul Moreau–Vauthier, modeled on non-other than Sarah Bernhardt and described by many as ‘The triumph of Prostitution’; it is typical of the use of sculpted allegory throughout the exhibition grounds. No matter where you turn, you are confronted by plump plaster breasts, curvaceous bellies or muscular male athletes, semi-nude, with huge rippling biceps.

Dear Sarah, walking here amongst all this exposed allegorical flesh, would undoubtedly feel a certain dampness in her baggy silken drawers – as, in all probability, do many visiting females. Speaking for the male of the species, I find Loie Fuller’s spectacular dancing in her own art nouveau theater, quite arousing: those whiplash curves match the flowing movements of her body and flying, illuminated veils. It all leads one, inevitably, to remain in the perpendicular throughout her performance.

The most obviously picturesque sections of the exhibition lay along the banks of the Seine. Old Paris on the Right Bank with its gables and spires and its costumed actors; on the Left Bank, overshadowing it, rests the Rue des Nations – great pavilions erected by the many foreign powers (but not the US whose modest building is wedged between Australia and Turkey, elsewhere). Richness metamorphosed into vulgarity. The plaster picturesqueness of the colonial section below the Trocadero, where Javanese nymphets vie with devil dancers from Ceylon, Chinese violins, Spanish castanets, African drums and high pitched wails of Algerian singers, mingle –

And the pretty Moroccan boys with their dark, restless eyes who offer to take your penis in their mouth for a couple of francs. Buggery is slightly more expensive, of course.

Paris moving pavements designed for the Exposition

Moving Pavements designed for the Exposition

Art and sex go hand-in-hand. For the gentleman impossibly aroused by the sights and sounds of the exposition universelle and with no desire for young boys, then beyond the exhibition grounds are the maisons closes, or “shuttered houses”; for example number 12, rue Chabanais, a prestigious bordello where you can bathe with prostitutes in a huge copper bathtub of champagne – for a price! There are other brothels offering more specialised services: dominatrix role play, for example. You can be birched by the dominatrix for five francs a stroke, ‘manual relief’ may be offered afterwards for a further five francs.

Typical Parisian brothel on a quiet day

Paris 1900 is an island of fantasy and pleasure. It is a time of sadomasochistic impulses, Oedipal desires, homosexuality, incest, violence and the irrationality that hides beneath the fragile veneer of civilisation.

Ah, but I cannot remain in this wonderful Paris – I must return to my damp, cold moor at the edge of the world; to this place, home, and my reckless liaisons. To this world where one powerful, egotistical child informs another powerful, egotistical child: ‘My button is bigger than your button!’

Who says satire is dead?

Depressing démarche!

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