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Pudeur

Peter Richard Dreyer, Attentat à la pudeur ("Indecent Assault"). Cat scratching post in the form of a cactus, toy monkey, and (fake) County Fair first prize ribbon (2023)



“I have no pudeur,” Henry Miller told me at his home in Pacific Palisades one afternoon long ago. And I’ve thought about that statement for

years, wondering, if I, too, have no pudeur—or ought to aspire to have none—and then realizing how absurd that is, that in fact I am obviously filled with pudeur, a creature of pudeur in my deepest nature, sprung from a people for whom, even though they lacked the word, pudeur was nothing short of a religion!

But what does it really mean? “Modesty, decency, bashfulness, shame, reserve,” my French dictionary says. Attentat à la pudeur is "indecent assault," a phenomenon that seems, alas, to lie at the heart of our simian history.

Derived (1542) from the Latin pudor, -oris, says Le Robert historique. The cognate “pudendum”—“the external genital organs of a human being and esp. of a woman” (Webster’s)—lurks nearby. Both derive from pudere, “to be ashamed,” a word curiously related to the Greek speudein, “strain, exert oneself, strive,” and to the Lithuanian spudeti, “take trouble.” The Indo-European root is evidently unknown.

Our word "shame”—“a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety” (Webster’s)—derives from from the Old English scamu. To say “I have no shame” is not the same as to say “I have no pudeur.” There is a profound difference of nuance.

St. Paul speaks of those “whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things” (Philippians 3:19). These guys are clearly us—we “who mind earthly things,” strain, strive, exert ourselves, and in general take trouble over them, in short, glorify them. We the bad!

It was 1975, and Henry, who claimed to feel no pudeur, had just been awarded the Légion d'honneur for his contributions to modern literature. A French TV crew had come that day to interview him.

The prostitutes of Paris had strongly objected to the award, the cute TV interviewer said. Henry was gobsmacked. He just couldn't understand it.

"But I always loved the whores!" he exclaimed in amazement.

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