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The Cruelty of Eros

Sex tips from the Marquise de Pompadour

by Alykhan Velshi (Jan. 2007)

Some study history for knowledge, others to honor their ancestors, but few, I suspect, do so to improve their sex lives. This is most unfortunate, since buried within the lives of great men are history's compelling stories of romance, and in them useful, practical lessons on how to seduce that special, or even not-so-special, someone. For my own part, I feel a pressing urge to write a few kind words about a certain marquise de Pompadour, best known as Louis XV’s official mistress, and someone who, I think, has much to teach us about seduction and human nature.

That history has ignored the woman who seduced Louis XV is disappointing but not altogether surprising, for to have as your life's principal achievement the seduction of an utter mediocrity, to be, as it were, the Edwina Currie of the ancien régime, inspires more contempt than admiration. Baudelaire wrote no poetry in Pompadour's honor, Camille Paglia passed her over in Sexual Personae, and the nicest thing I could find that anyone interesting has written about Pompadour was, “Elle pensait comme il faut”, which, since it came from the author of Candide, is probably a mark against her. Though not, perhaps, the most significant event in pre-revolutionary French history, Pompadour's seduction of Louis was a remarkable accomplishment in its own right, since only a very special woman is able to seduce the King of France.

Born outside the French nobility—née Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson—the future marquise de Pompadour learned early on that status was earned, not inherited, and that those who carry themselves with dignity and respect, even if born in the middle class, could still achieve a measure of respectability. Eighteenth-century England had absorbed a similar lesson, where the honorific “gentleman” was conferred on those who held no baronetcy, but nevertheless set a good example for the common man. Understanding the subtle distinction between class and status, that the former is intractable, while the latter is not (JAMES II: “I could make him a nobleman, but God Almighty could not make him a gentleman.”), allowed Pompadour to climb the ranks of French society, seducing her way to the very top.

Pompadour was probably a bastard-child, since her mother was a courtesan, and, on her father’s death, which occurred when she was still quite young, a curiously large number of older men offered to pay for her schooling, and generally to assume the responsibilities of fatherhood. Fortunately, and to her credit, Pompadour made the most of these opportunities, immersing herself in French literature and perfecting her riding skills, two traits that, as Dr Johnson would remark to Boswell, were the defining virtues of a well-bred woman.

In 1741, Poisson, as she then was, married up, becoming the wife of Charles-Guillaume le Normant d’Etiolles, a mostly unremarkable man whose saving grace was birth in a good family. The marriage, it seems, was cursed from the beginning: the product of its consummation was stillborn, and another child born several years later died young. The historical record does not relate any details of love or devotion between husband and wife, so perhaps it is somewhat fortunate that the Etiolles produced no other offspring, and that Charles-Guillaume eventually went mad, possibly from syphilis.

In 1745, while attending a masked ball, madame d’Etiolles, as she then was, began her seduction of Louis XV, about whom I should probably write a few words.

Louis XV acceded to the throne on the death of Louis XIV, le roi soleil. At first, he was a popular king, and his people held high hopes for his reign; indeed, the French began referring to him as "Louis Quinze" instead of Louis, in the expectation that his accomplishments would outlast him. Unfortunately, early failures in the conduct of foreign policy in Europe ended Louis's honeymoon with the people, and poisoned the remainder of his reign.

The king soon stopped concerning himself with matters of state, which he found profoundly boring, and began instead to satisfy his baser instincts and indulge in the vice of gambling and cheap thrill of hunting. Louis XV's advisers, seeking to curry favor with the king, would pander to his frivolous desires, which only encouraged Louis to further abdicate his responsibilities, as well as sabotage his chance at greatness.

Here is where the story of Pompadour's trickery and seduction begins. Only after everyone in the kingdom, including Louis himself, knew that his reign would be utterly unremarkable, did Pompadour, still married to Charles-Guillaume, enter the picture. What few details are known about the seduction of Louis XV suggest that it began at a ball to celebrate the marriage of his son, Louis, dauphin de France, who went on to father three future kings of France: Louis XVI, Louis XVIII, and Charles X.

The seduction continued for several months afterwards, most fruitfully when the king was engaging in a favorite past-time, hunting, on an estate adjacent to the Etiolles's, during which Pompadour would ride nearby in an open carriage. In short order, Louis XV fell madly in love with her, granted her a divorce from her husband, and in 1745 purchased the marquisate of Pompadour for her.

But how exactly did Pompadour seduce Louis XV? And what can this teach us about human nature and romance?

Pompadour did not, it is fair to say, have a romantic conception of love. Indeed, the Italian sociologist Francesco Alberoni probably summed up her approach to romance quite nicely when he wrote that "the experience of falling in love originates in extreme depression, an inability to find value in everyday life." From the very beginning, Pompadour acted as though the key to Louis's heart was through exploiting his insecurities as well as his fear of the future. Pompadour's insight into human nature, as I hope shall become clear shortly, is a particularly shrewd one when seduction, and seduction alone, is the overriding goal.

Before she could prey on Louis's insecurities, Pompadour had to reckon with the irksome fact that Louis XV, having long since abandoned any hope of being a great king, was becoming more and more carefree. How do you make someone feel insecure about that which they no longer care about, or to which they remain oblivious?

Pompadour's strategy, which was sheer genius in conception and execution, was to open the wounds of failure, rub salt in them, and then offer Louis the hope of closing them. Basically, since the king had few insecurities, Pompadour had to create them. Pompadour strongly hinted to Louis that the reason for his unpopularity was that the French felt he would not live up to the legacy of his auspicious predecessor, Louis XIV.

This much, I rather suspect, Louis XV already knew deep down; but since most of his advisers, through politeness or sycophancy, avoided making this point directly to the king, Louis XV thought Pompadour's observation particularly novel, and profound, and was impressed that someone could see so deeply inside him. As if meeting a stranger who knew all his stories, Louis began falling for Pompadour's spell.

Preying on his easily ascertainable yet unremarked shortcomings, and passing these off as unique insights into the real Louis XV, Pompadour began her masterful seduction. Having drawn Louis's attention to his own failures, and then nurtured his insecurities so that they could grow malignant and spread, Pompadour became the only person with whom the king felt comfortable discussing his foibles, of which he was, understandably, quite ashamed.

Pompadour shared a special bond with Louis XV: sometimes, Pompadour correctly recognized, there are things one is more comfortable confiding in a stranger than a friend; and so Pompadour used what Louis XV told to her to enhance her status from stranger to close confidant to, eventually, official mistress. But how precisely did she accomplish this successful entrapment?

Pompadour sought to bridge the gap between who Louis was, and what he felt he ought to be. Of course, and she knew this, what Louis ought to be was vastly different than what he was, or even what he could be (Pompadour did not actually believe Louis XV could amount to anything); but the key to her seduction was to convince Louis that this chasm was not as wide as everyone thought, and to make him believe that only she could bridge it. Thus Pompadour became a teacher, a confidant, and someone who made Louis feel good about himself. To Louis, the power she possessed over him was all for the good, and she gradually became indispensable to his sense of self-worth, rather like an addictive drug.

Unlike other members of Louis XV’s inner-circle, who either flattered Louis with pretty words that lacked substance or otherwise approved of his baser instincts and disreputable habits, Pompadour, after destroying Louis by pointing out his weaknesses, then inspired him, offering him a path to follow if he wanted to achieve, how shall I put it, salvation.

Perhaps Pompadour's insight into seduction—discover someone's weaknesses, then exploit them—sounds trite, but its effectiveness when executed correctly, by which I mean subtly, is so rarely remarked on nowadays: Everyone must endure the weight of insecurity, of not believing in themselves, and a person who aspires to something greater than mere ordinariness is especially burdened by this, as well as by, and this is true of the young in particular, uncertainty about what the future will bring, and a sense of powerlessness in shaping it.

Pompadour recognized this, and used it to make Louis XV emotionally dependent on her, and used that dependence, in turn, to enhance her status in the kingdom. By the time of Pompadour's death in 1764, Louis XV is said to have remarked, in tacit acknowledgment of what she had done to him, "La marquise n'aura pas beau temps pour son voyage."

Pompadour taught that effective seduction, because it requires creating something similar to an emotional dependence, cannot be a one-off affair. The seduction must be continuous. In fact, the sheer strength of Pompadour's hold on Louis became known when she, having lost the ability to excite the king in the bedroom, and in any event finding intimacy unbearable because of a painful and chronic leucorrhea, still retained her position as Louis XV's official mistress.

Gradually, Pompadour's responsibilities shifted to the exercise of a political function, where, being aware that Louis was unhappy with his accomplishments as king, she persuaded him to try to leave his mark on French foreign policy by abandoning France's traditional friendship with Prussia in favor of one with Austria. It is I think worth pausing here to note the ease with which Pompadour transitioned from the world of romance to that of politics, for ultimately, Pompadour knew, they both rewarded the same manipulative and mendacious behavior.

Two points should I think be made about Pompadour's seduction of Louis XV. First, and most importantly, Pompadour was able to maintain her dignity throughout. Historians tend to ignore Pompadour and instead celebrate Don Juan, Casanova, and Cleopatra as the apotheosis of the sexual personae. What they fail to consider, however, is that these latter three, when seducing others, demeaned themselves and their gender considerably.

Don Juan and Casanova, in addition to being scofflaws, debased themselves into androgynous figures. The two basically ceased being obtrusively masculine and instead trumpeted their femininity, prefiguring, in many ways, none to their credit, Oscar Wilde's famous prepubescent object of lust, Dorian Gray. This sort of willful and unmanly metrosexualism is unbecoming; doubtless, Don Juan and Casanova were quite happy being the little spoon, too.

Cleopatra, likewise, is hardly a figure we want women to emulate. What in particular is praiseworthy about Cleopatra hiding in a carpet and having her man-servants unfurl it in front of Julius Caesar, making a complete spectacle of herself? The Romans of the period called Cleopatra an “Egyptian whore”, which, on an honest inspection of the list of men who had their way with her, is not an entirely inaccurate charge. Additionally, Cleopatra brought ruin to Caesar and, later, Mark Anthony, probably making wittols of them both.

By contrast, Pompadour's quiet, graceful, and dignified seduction of Louis XV leaves her with nothing to be ashamed of. Surely it is Pompadour's story we should celebrate, and emulate. Yet it is ignored, partly because Pompadour's seduction of Louis XV was deeply, and palpably, unromantic; instead, it was workmanlike, shrewd, manipulative, and entrapping. And effective.

Precisely because the seduction worked, however, it repays close study. By deromanticizing seduction, Pompadour provides us with a handy map to help us obtain what we desire. Pompadour is, in many respects, the matriarch of the relationship guru, except, unlike today's men and women's magazines, Pompadour's stock-in-trade is not dull platitudes. Pompadour instead offers a subtle lesson into human weakness and insecurity, and how knowledge of these can be used to seduce others. It is dangerous knowledge, but it is knowledge nevertheless.

For Pompadour, a successful seduction can overshadow the means used to obtain it. Now, this is obviously untrue when one is hoping that a seduction will lead to a stable marriage, because manipulation of the kind Pompadour counseled will poison any long-term relationship; Pompadour's advice, however, is quite useful for short-term relationships.

During high school, college, and the early years of one's working life, few men and women are actually seeking out a partner for life. Where Pompadour's advice is helpful is in the pursuit of one-night stands or good-for-now relationships. In these trysts, does it really matter that a certain level of emotional manipulation is involved? I should hope not, for to expect every romantically-inclined young adult to pursue their lust within Kantian constraints is certain to result in an unspeakably sub-optimal number of such relationships. After all, as Pompadour reminds us, it is the cruelty of eros that elevates it above mere pleasure, and makes it sublime.

Alykhan Velshi is a lawyer and manager of research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. He lives in Washington, DC. [email protected]

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