The French, Sex, Power – and Syria, Too

The Dominique Strauss-Kahn case has been one of those periodic cultural Rorschach’s we get to experience, in this case internationally. You learn things about people you might never have known or guessed. Some people’s reputations and I don’t mean DSK’s, are ruined in other people’s eyes.

Jack Lang, minister of culture under François Mitterrand,” we are told in a recent Newsweek article [that’s minister of culture, recall, in the administration of a famous French Socialist] said, “’Il n’y a pas mort d’homme’ (‘No one got killed’) and has kept a low profile ever since.”

One couldn’t help noting who they were who rushed like the henchmen for privilege and power to attack the maid, when nothing was known about her, or who feel vindicated now because circumstance reveals that the maid is not a paragon, whereas Strauss-Kahn is – and besides, if you were surprised by that sixty-plus doughboy with the masterful white mien emerging from a hotel shower, would you not, too, rush, beyond all self-control, between changing the sheets and brushing the toilet, to kneel before the irresistible totem of his power and go down on him?

I’m just asking.

Much more was soon enough revealed about maid and master, and accordingly, in master’s case, reawakened in the public mind about French mores. One may revere the French Revolution, after all, but one must, from day to day live, mon Dieu!

The “droit de cuissage,” or right to deflower any maiden, was a prerogative of men in power, and still is. The tumbling of servants has its own term: “les amours ancillaires.” The events in Room 2806 provoked the same hilarity as the plays of Feydeau, in which the master does the maid between doorways while the mistress awaits in one room and the wife in another.

And we are elsewhere told,

 The editor and founder of the magazine Marianne, Jean-François Kahn, declared of the Strauss-Kahn Sofitel case, “Ce n’est qu’un troussage de domestique” (“It’s no more than tumbling a servant”). He had to resign from his own magazine.

It takes some, perhaps, but not too much worldly experience to know that there are very much maids who will joy in the tumbling of the master, and even thereby become mistresses, but the world is often crueler than that. The author of the Newsweek article drove it home deeply, with thrust and no parry needed:

In a less sophisticated setting, only the man has fun: secretaries service the boss in factories and gas stations to keep their jobs. What is delightful Feydeau to those with the references is grim reality without the comforts of culture.

Wow. Yes. There it is. So well said. The essential truth over which we eternally do battle. References. Culture. Power. Privilege. And it needn’t be a Versailles Palace, but instead a boardroom, une Écoles normales supérieures, the editorial suite of an influential magazine, the right parties, all from which, even though we try to resist, we draw upon our references, we don our culture, we exercise our power, we assume our privilege.

One need abandon little of one’s proper skepticism to recognize in DSK a swine ready to be fitted for his apple and the center platter at a Cuban feast.

I was finishing the two-week-old article, impressed with the observer and the observations, when it occurred to me that I hadn’t yet checked the author’s name. I did. She is Joan Juliet Buck, author of this misaligned meditation on masters and maids, removed soon after from the Vogue website like the Politburo fallen from a Mayday photo.

I returned to the kitchen and the soup I’d been preparing, peppered it with delicious irony, swirled it amid the rising heat with my spoon.

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