“J’ai le droit de tromper le public” (I have the right to fool the public): with these words the Belgian poet Pierre Louÿs defended his role as perpetrator of one of history’s most artistically and socially consequential scams. In 1894, Louÿs published 143 poems that a German archaeologist had supposedly discovered in a tomb by the side of a rural road on Cyprus. He ascribed these poems to an ancient Greek poetess named Bilitis – an humble but beautiful country maid who was raped by a goatherd, subsequently abandoned him and their child to join the circles of Sappho on Lesbos, and ultimately moved to Cyprus, where she worked as a courtesan for the remainder of her life, living as the “purest worshipper” of Aphrodite.

What motivated the poet to mount this elaborate hoax? As a modernist author well-versed in literature and Classical antiquity, Louÿs believed society needed, in art and in general, to be able to discuss and pursue sensual beauty and human sexuality freely and openly in all forms. Even progressive Parisian society considered such subjects taboo, yet by portraying Bilitis’ rape, homosexual love, and eventual vocation as courtesan as having taken place in ancient Greece, Louÿs managed to interject these unmentionable themes into contemporary artistic and social discourse. By casting the sexually licentious Bilitis as a poet rather than a harlot, he entrusted those themes to a voice whose attributes, according to the mores of contemporary society, were noble, pure, and visionary rather than decadent. And finally, by creating under Bilitis’ name a body of poems of astonishing beauty and frankness, he provided far-reaching artistic as well as social sources of inspiration. Indeed, Louÿs’ poems have since provided inspiration for music, painting, dance, theatre, film, and virtually every other variety of artistic expression. In turn, the resultant artworks have provided case-studies for the myriad issues touching on a variety of disciplines that, if not for Louÿs’ Bilitis, would likely have remained undercurrents discussed only evasively and apologetically in Western society.

Louÿs’ scam was recognized as such quickly enough – but not before “all Paris had Bilitis in their pockets,” in the words of one of the fictitious poet’s admirers. That admirer was Claude-Achille Debussy, who quickly became one of the first composers to respond to the Bilitis phenomenon through music. The composer produced three separate musical artworks, each a marvel in its own right: in 1897, 3 Chansons de Bilitis for mezzo-soprano and piano; in 1901, 12 Chansons de Bilitis for recitation, mime, and chamber ensemble; and in 1914-15, 6 Epigraphes antiques for piano duet (two players, one piano.) Debussy found in Louÿs’ forged Classical artifacts “all that is passionate, tender, and cruel about being in love, so that the most refined voluptuaries are compelled to recognize the childishness of their activities compared to the fearsome and seductive Bilitis” (letter of 16 October 1898 to Louÿs.) Such was the influence of this cultural phenomenon that the scandal surrounding Louÿs forgery faded relatively quickly; yet, in the 115 years that have elapsed since the first publication of his poems, the word Bilitis has become emblematic of sensuality, homosexual love, sexual awakening, and self-knowledge.

Southwestern University’s Bilitis, Revisited is a twenty-first century celebration of an extraordinary artistic endeavor of fin-de-siècle Paris that used the fine arts – poetry, music, mime, and the visual arts – to engender open public discourse concerning some of human society’s most enduring themes and issues. Touching on a vast array of disciplines that otherwise operate behind artificial barriers, and calling for expertise in all of them, this endeavor is ideally suited for a Liberal Arts environment such as that at our University. Our efforts are geared toward perpetuating the extraordinary phenomenon of Bilitis on a commercially marketed DVD.

Welcome to Bilitis, Revisited. We hope you will let us hear your voice as well!

– John Michael Cooper

27 July 2009, Sarofim School of Fine Arts, Southwestern University