Pierre Louÿs (1870-1925) was a French author, poet and photographer. He explored various aspects of sexuality, especially focusing on lesbianism. Among others, his works included Astarte; The Songs of Bilitis; Aphrodite – Ancient Manners; The Adventures of King Pausolus; The She-Devils; The Woman and the Puppet; Death Watch and The Young Girl’s Handbook of Good Manners for Use in Educational Establishments. He was greatly influenced by the classical Greeks and by the Parnassian and Symbolist schools. As well, he took over 10,000 nude and erotic photographs.
Louÿs was a best-selling author of his day. He was made a Chevalier, then an Officer of the Legion of Honor for his contributions to French literature. Based on his work, Debussy scored the musical accompaniments Songs of Bilitis and Six Antique Epigraphs; Bunuel made the film That Obscure Object of Desire; and Honegger composed the operetta King Pausolus. Many artists illustrated his writings, like Barbier, Foujita and Manara. He was a close friend of Wilde, Valery, Mallarme, Gide and Debussy. The Daughters of Bilitis, a pioneering lesbian organization, was named after The Songs of Bilitis.
I enjoyed Louÿs work. I thought his style was exquisite, if a little ornate. He wrote lightly but seriously about sexuality. The Songs of Bilitis is an elegant collection of verse by a Greek poet, c. 600 BC, centering on her love for other women, with Louÿs as translator. (A sensation when published, it was ultimately revealed that Louÿs had actually written it). Aphrodite – Ancient Manners tells the sensuous story of a courtesan in ancient Alexandria. The Young Girls Handbook is a raucous parody of instructions for female students. A remarkable achievement: a widely-read and critically-respected writer of erotica.
The poem “To Her Breasts” from The Songs of Bilitis:
Flowers in flesh, oh my breasts! How richly voluptuous you are! My breasts in my hands, how you have softness and mellow warmth and youthful perfume!
Formerly, you were icy like the breasts of a statue and hard like insensible marble. But since you have become yielding, I will cherish you more, you that were already loved.
Your sleek and rounded shape is the honor of my brown body. Whether I imprison you under a golden fishnet, whether I set you free naked, you precede me with your splendor.
Be then happy this night. If my fingers beget caresses, you alone will know them until tomorrow morning; for this night, Bilitis has paid Bilitis.