La Torpille


La Torpille is the nickname of Esther Gobseck, the principal whore of  A Harlot High & Low (Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes) by Balzac.  Translated, it’s The Torpedo, an example of which – it’s a fish – you can see at the left above.  Touch it, and you get an electric shock.

Later, naval mines were called torpedoes – touch them, and you are blown up!  (Now torpedoes are self-propelled.)  In the case of Esther, any man who saw her, let alone touched her! was stunned, knocked out, and totally in thrall to her.  The elderly, ultra-rich, super-cynical banker, Nucingen, sees her by chance out for a walk alone in a Paris wood and is totally felled by love.  He who loves only bank accounts!

What might these women have looked like?  These images of fashionable, but respectable women from the 1820s give us a hint.

marchesa_marianna_florenzi_by_heinrich_maria_von_hess_1824 1823-ball-gown-diaphanous-overskirt

4 Responses to La Torpille

  1. Man of Roma says:

    Wonderful creatures, les courtesans. Difficult to imagine them now. The modern equivalent could be an high-class escort, maybe.

    These courtisanes were more than just prostitutes. Were they for pleasure in a nobler sense, and prostitutes for simpler needs? I have in mind the famous words by Demosthenes (‘We have hetairai for pleasure, pallakai for the body’s daily needs and gunaikes for the bearing of legitimate children and for the guardianship of our houses) which suggest such distinction between a nobler pleasure and bodily needs. At that time, probably ‘nobler’ in the real sense of the word. Interesting (as for the change of mores) how edgy, avant-garde, Pericles appears to our eyes, his official partner being Aspasia, an hetaera. Now that I think of it, le plaisir des courtisanes had to be different in Balzac’s Paris, being necessarily a bit sinful, which can imply something even more spicy, no doubt, but in my view a bit baser.

  2. lichanos says:

    I find it impossible to think myself into the sexual relations of the 1830’s so I’m not convinced that we have anything comparable to La Torpille today. Of course, how would I know in the circles I move in?

    In Harlot High & Low, Balzac is at pains to point out that Esther, La Torpille, is nothing more than just a harlot, although for a while she is portrayed as almost angelic. The descriptions of how the world of whoredom fleeces the mega-millionaire, Nuncingen, is one of the best parts so far.

    Thinking back into Greek relations is even less possible for me. There is a parallel to the example you mention in the Greek attitude towards homosexuality.

    As an undergraduate in an ancient history class, I told my professor, quite a renowned scholar, that I wanted to write about their attitudes towards it. He must of thought I was gay, or more likely, that I thought I was being provocative. He didn’t bat an eye. He told me that instead of reading a lot of secondary sources I should just analyse one speech, Demosthenes against Timarchus.

    Timarchus was known for having lots of sexual relations with boys, not all that unusual in those days, of course. But Demosthenes slams him for it. I forget the nuance of the argument, but basically he was saying, “Look, we all like sex with boys, but there are limits, and we have to behave properly.” Certain types of affairs with properly bred boys were okay, but not with just any boy, which is how the randy Timarchus carried on, it seems. Demosthenes explicity makes the comparison to heterosexual relations with heterae.

    Really, in the end, is there a difference? Treating a woman you marry as a producer of heirs and locking her away so you can have “nobler” relations with seductive ladies of freer morals, ladies who leave you unencumbered? I can’t parse through it. Clearly, women were on the short end of the deal.

  3. Man of Roma says:

    Yes, it’s difficult to think back into Greek or Roman relations and habits. Surely, as you say, limits and propriety were important.

    Some ideas of this ancient and far way world we can have by observing the manners of the poorer and (backward?) parts of southern Europe or of North African countries, where a clear distinction still exists between the good girls to make a family with (who are like nuns sexually before marriage), and the prostitutes or freer women, meant for free pleasure.

    The Cairo trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz for example is dominated by this patriarch par excellence, Ahmed Abd el-Gawwad, a wealthy merchant and almighty husband and father, pious and inflexible with his family by day, sensual and witty with his male friends and Cairo’s ladies of pleasure by night. I think he provides an idea of this division between heterae and wives, and of what a Roman pater familias could have been.

    I’m digressing, but I’ve always thought that a peasant from the Italian South (or from Greece) is closer to the Greco-Romans than any historian of antiquity. For example, in order to understand the ‘noble death’ of Cato who killed himself after the victory of Caesar, or of Lucretia, who killed herself because raped, the study of honour killing and suicides in Sicily or southern France could in my view be more useful than any essay on the subject.

    This is not only true of the Old World. In the New World some primordial traits are preserved, like hibernated, while here they can disappear: take archaisms in language (US ‘gotten’ instead of the more recent UK ‘got’), or cultures like the Amish in Ohio & Pennsylvania.

  4. lichanos says:

    Interesting points. I must go and read some of Mahfouz’ trilogy.

    I recall a time I spent in eastern Turkey after college. I found myself face to face with real peasants, small-holding farmers. People who had lived their lives in very remote rural areas. As a child of American suburbia, this was a totally new experience. They seemed to have a different repetoire of facial expressions and body language. Suddenly, I understood in a new and deeper way the endless dwelling on the theme of metropolis and province in English and French novels.

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