Jiří Kylián created Petite Mort for the Nederlands Dans Theater in 1991, and it’s been popular ever since. Petite mort, translated from French, means “little death”, and is generally used as a euphemism for orgasm. Kylián’s Petite Mort plays on this meaning with subtle sexual symbolism.
13 Jun 2014
The term la petite mort has quite a history. In the 18th and 19th centuries, it referred to a temporary and brief loss of consciousness, such as one may experience from fainting or dizziness. But the term has always been linked in some way with sexual release.
During medieval times, physicians believed that too much sex was bad for your health, sometimes leading to death because the act of sexual climax resulted in the “life force” being drained from the body. The term la petite mort became aligned with this medical belief, which persisted well into the Renaissance era and beyond.
There are many allusions to la petite mort in our most famous literature. In Chaucer’s more bawdy moments in The Canterbury Tales, he humorously mentions the ills of too-frequent sex, linking it to death. Shakespeare also referenced la petite mort in many of his plays. Lines such as “I will live in thy heart, die in thy lap, and be buried in thy eyes” from Much Ado About Nothing and “I will die bravely, like a smug bridegroom” from King Lear were not simply romantic declarations, they were bold references to orgasm.
The Romantics took la petite mort to the flowery extreme in their poetry, with images of wild seas crashing into rocks and toppling mountains representing the “death” of orgasm, which Shelley called “the death which lovers love” in his poem “The Boat on the Serchio” (1824). Thomas Hardy, on the other hand, explicitly used la petite mort in Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) to describe his heroine’s reaction to meeting her future rapist, predicting her loss of innocence: “She felt the petite mort at this unexpectedly gruesome information, and left the solitary man behind her”. Here, Hardy reveals another meaning for la petite mort, often used by philosophers.
For modern philosophers, la petite mort is about more than just the physical act of sexual climax, it’s also about psychological loss. Some philosophers have theorised that la petite mort is about the spiritual release that comes with orgasm. This spiritual release, they argue, makes you temporarily “lose” yourself. Some scientists have linked this feeling to the release of oxytocin in the brain after an orgasm. For a philosopher like the Roland Barthes, it’s a feeling that we can find beyond the bedroom.
Barthes used the concept of la petite mort, which he called jouissance (translated as “bliss”), to describe how we should feel about reading certain books in his well-known work The Pleasure of the Text (1973). A book that inspires feelings of jouissance, he theorised, will cause readers to momentarily lose themselves in the work. We’re all familiar with the expression of “losing yourself in a good book”, but how many of us know that this concept was originally theorised in relation to a euphemism for orgasm?
More recently, romance novels and erotica such as Fifty Shades of Grey tend to use the idea of “blacking out” or entering another state of consciousness through sexual orgasm. These are our own modern uses of la petite mort, a concept which remains seductive in our popular imagination. In Kylián’s Petite Mort, it’s a concept that he explores with characteristic humour, wit and eroticism.