bon diable, good Doctor, and very bad author

Julien Offray de La Mettrie is remembered today for his book Man-Machine – and by collectors of curiosa, for his paen to the sex, The Art of Orgasm (L’art de jouir – which is often translated as “come”, which takes the French term, with its sense of a radiant and sumptuous pleasure, a little too brutally out of its semantic field). In his day, he was considered a thoroughly disreputable figure – a doctor, he’d alienated the medical profession by writing satires of famous doctors; a philosopher, he seemed unacquainted with logic and all too willing to take an undignified and mocking tone towards the ancients; and he was unashamed and undisguised in his atheism, or so it seems – the issue of La Mettrie’s atheism is still debated. After his death, a French writer said that his writing read as though he’d written it while drunk. Voltaire, who knew him, said his talk was as like watching fireworks – a minute of startlingly brilliant, followed by ten minutes of boredom. Voltaire met La Mettrie at Frederick the Great’s court. He’d been brought there when his patron, Gramont, died on a battlefield and he was exposed to the malice of the doctors and the Church. Friedrich II was a collector, and he gathered many semi-scandalous names to his court. Lessing wrote that even the King was shocked by Le Mettrie’s anti-Seneque, ou Discours sur le bonheur, and tossed ten copies of it into the fire.

Carlyle quotes two sources in his biography of Frederick about the death of Le Mettrie – a death surely was an inspiration to De Sade latter on, who dramatized so many of de la Mettrie’s themes:

… [At this time there occurred,] with a hideous dash of farce in
it, the death of La Mettrie. Here are Two Accounts, by different
hands,--which represent to us an immensity of babble in the then
Voltaire circle.

LA METTRIE DIES.--Two Accounts: 1. King Friedrich's: to Wilhelmina.
"21st November, 1751. ... We have lost poor La Mettrie. He died for
a piece of fun: ate, out of banter, a whole pheasant-pie; had a
horrible indigestion; took it into his head to have blood let, and
convince the German Doctors that bleeding was good in indigestion.
But it succeeded ill with him: he took a violent fever, which
passed into putrid; and carried him off. He is regretted by all
that knew him. He was gay; BON DIABLE, good Doctor, and very bad
Author: by avoiding to read his Books, one could manage to be well
content with himself." [Ib. xxvii. i. 203.]

2. Voltaire's: to Niece Denis (NOT his first to her): Potsdam, 24th
December, 1751. ... "No end to my astonishment. Milord Tyrconnel,"
always ailing (died here himself), "sends to ask La Mettrie to come
and see him, to cure him or amuse him. The King grudges to part
with his Reader, who makes him laugh. La Mettrie sets out;
arrives at his Patient's just when Madame Tyrconnel is sitting down
to table: he eats and drinks, talks and laughs more than all the
guests; when he has got crammed (EN A JUSQU'AU MENTON), they bring
him a pie, of eagle disguised as pheasant, which had arrived from
the North, plenty of bad lard, pork-hash and ginger in it;
my gentleman eats the whole pie, and dies next day at Lord
Tyrconnel's, assisted by two Doctors," Cothenius and Lieberkuhn,
"whom he used to mock at. ... How I should have liked to ask him,
at the article of death, about that Orange-skin!" [ OEuvres
de Voltaire, lxxiv. 439, 450.]

The ‘orange skin’ reference is to Friedrich saying that you squeezed a man like La Mettrie until you got the juice out of him, as you would an orange. And then you throw away the orange skin.

Of course, there is something mythical and mysterious about this death from eating a pie of disguised meat – to those with ears for the classical reference, one can’t help thinking of Thyestes, whose jealous brother, Atrios, served him a meat pie that Thyestes eagerly swallowed down. Then Atrios informed him that the meat of the pie was a mash made from the bodies of his two sons. Thyestes cursed the House of Atrios, with results well known in tragedy and psychoanalysis. It is to this famous pie-eating that Poe refers in the purloined letter - --“Un dessein si funeste, S'il n'est digne d'Atree, est digne de Thyeste”. Since the Purloined Letter is about substitution, too – in fact, seems to peer at the very nature of substitution, which is, of course, the very nature of myth – one can only ponder the eagle disguised as pheasant. The aristocratic bird disguised as the gourmand’s bird – which brings down the man whose essay on happiness, his attack on the stoic ethos that, since the rediscovery of the stoics in late Renaissance times, had been the hidden credo of the intellectuals, was one of the true scandals of the age. And for us – looking for the separation, the crack, the felure between wisdom and happiness – there is something going on in this substitution of meats in a pie.

Are these posts really going anywhere, the reader may well ask? And when are we going to get back to Danton’s Death?!!! Goddamn it. Sorry, but first we have to check out La Mettrie’s Discourse on happiness, which caused such offense to people like Diderot. And has been dropped from the canon since.