La Petite Mort: Investigating the History of Orgasm, aka The Little Death


Manage episode 247712300 series 1987326
By Recorded History Podcast Network. Discovered by Player FM and our community — copyright is owned by the publisher, not Player FM, and audio is streamed directly from their servers. Hit the Subscribe button to track updates in Player FM, or paste the feed URL into other podcast apps.

Death Series, Episode #4 of 4. If you were fluent in French and mingling at a French dinner party and your snooty acquaintance Genevieve likened the champagne she was sipping to la petite mort, you would know that she meant that the champagne, with it’s bubbly joy filling your nose and head, was orgasmic. But… why would you know that? “La petite mort” translates to something approximating “the little death.” That isn’t the most obvious of analogies for the glorious eruption that is an orgasm. We wanted to know more about la petite mort, so this episode is an investigation of the history of language, sexology, and indeed, orgasming, from the ancient world to the modern. Let’s plunge...erhm, dig, in.

For the complete transcript and more episodes like this one, visit


Peter Brooks, Realist Vision (Yale University Press, 2005).

Lizzie Crocker, “Virginia Johnson, The Woman Who Discovered The Elusive Multiple Orgasm,” The Daily Beast (1 Sep 2017)

Peter L Hays, “Sex, Death, and Pine Needles in ForWhom the Bells Tolls,” The Explicator, 69:1, 16-19

Max Kenneth, “The Philology of the Orgasm,” Nassau Weekly, February 9, 2005 (This is not actually very good, because it’s based on an assumption that the French word for orgasm is petite mort, but that’s not the common phrase in French)

Dara Lind, “9 Shakespeare innuendoes you should have been embarrassed to read in English class,” Vox, Apr 22, 2016

William Masters and Virginia Johnson, Human Sexual Response (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1966).

Robert Muchembled, Orgasm and the West: a history of pleasure from the sixteenth century to the present (Malden, MA : Polity Press, 2008).

Jean-Luc Nancy, Adèle Van Reeth, and Charlotte Mandell, Coming, (Fordham University Press, 2016)

Christopher Prendergast, Balzac: Fiction and Melodrama, (London: Edward Arnold Ltd, 1978).

Graham Robb, Balzac: A Biography, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company).

James Steintrager, The Autonomy of Pleasure : Libertines, License, and Sexual Revolution (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).

Benefits of love and sex,” National Health Service

Victor Hugo’s eulogy for Honoré de Balzac

Learn more about your ad choices. Visit

98 episodes