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The Fan-Maker's Inquisition

"There is no explosion except a book."

--A fan is like the thighs of a woman: It opens and closes. A good fan opens with a flick of the wrist. It produces its own weather--a breeze not so strong as to muss the hair.

There is a vocabulary attendant upon fan-making. Like a person, the fan has three principal parts: Les brins, or ribs, are most often of wood; les panaches, or, as courtesans call them, the legs, are also made of wood, or ivory, or mother-of-pearl (and these may be jade: green--the color of the eye; rose--the color of the flesh; and white--the color of the teeth); the mount--and this is also a sexual term--which is sometimes called la feuille, or the leaf (another sexual term, dating, it is said, from the time of Adam)--the mount is made of paper, or silk, or swanskin--


--A fine parchment made from the skin of an unborn lamb, limed, scraped very thin, and smoothed down with pumice or chalk. The mount may be made of taffeta, or lace, or even feathers--but these are cumbersome. A fan trimmed with down has a tendency to catch to the lips if they are moist or rouged. A paper fan can be a treasure, especially if it is from Japan. The Japanese made the finest paper fans, and the most obscene. These are sturdier than one might think. Such a fan is useful when one is bored, forced to sup with an ailing relative whose ivory dentures stink. It is said that the pleated fan is an invention of the Japanese and that the Chinese collapsed in laughter when it was first introduced to China. The prostitutes, however, took to it at once.

--Why is that?

--Because it can be folded and tucked up a sleeve when, having lifted one's skirt and legs, one goes about one's business. Soon the gentlemen were sticking theirs down their boots--a gesture of evident sexual significance. One I saw a fan from India: The panaches were carved to look like hooded cobras about to strike the naked beauty who, stretched out across the mount, lay sleeping. That was a beautiful fan.

--Earlier you referred to the three parts of the person. Name these.

--The head, the trunk, and the limbs.

--Exactly so. Please continue.

--Little mirrors may be glued to the fan so that one may admire oneself and dazzle others. It may be pierced with windows of mica or studded with gems. A telescopic lens may be attached to the summit of a panache; such a fan is useful at the heater. The Comtesse Gimblette owns a fan made of a solid piece of silver cut in the form of a heart and engraved with poetry:


Is to your taste

You snap up the world

With haste!

A red fan is a symbol of love; a black one, of death, of course.

--When the fan in question--the one found in the locked chamber at La Coste--was ordered, what did Sade say, exactly?

--He came into the atelier looking very dapper, and he said: "I want to order a pornographic ventilabrum!" And he burst out laughing. I said: "I understand 'pornographic,' monsieur, but "ventilabrum'?" "A flabellum!" he cried, laughing even more. "With a scene of flagellation." "I can paint it on a fan," I said, somewhat out of patience with him, although I have to admit I found him perfectly charming, "on velvet or on velum, and I can do you a vernis Martin--" This caused him to double over with hilarity. "Do me!" he cried. "Do me, you seductive, adorable fan-maker, a vernis Martin as best you can and as quickly as you can, and I will be your eternal servant." "You do me too much honor," I replied. Then I took down his order and asked for an advance to buy the ivory. (Because of the guild regulations, I purchase the skeletons from another craftsman.) Sade wanted a swanskin mount set to ivory--which he wanted very fine.


--The ivory of domesticated elephants is brittle because the animals eat too much salt. Wild ivory is denser, far more beautiful and more expensive, too. For pierced work it cannot be surpassed. Then the mount needed thin slices of ivory cut into ovals for the faces, les fesses, the breasts...

--This request was unusual?

--I have received stranger requests, citizen.


--The slivers of ivory, no bigger than a fingernail, give beauty and interest to swanskin and velum--as does mother-of-pearl. I am sometimes able to procure these decorative elements for a fair price from a maker of buttons and belt buckles because I have an arrangement with him.

--Describe this arrangement.

--I paint his buttons.


--The making of buckles and buttons is not wasteful; nonetheless, there is always something left over, no matter the industry. I also use scraps to embellish the panaches--not where the fingers hold the fan, because over time the skin's heat causes even the best paste to soften. But farther up, the pieces hold so fast no one has ever complained.

--And this is the paste that was used to fix the six wafers to the upper section of the...mount?

--The same. Although I diluted it, as the wafers were so fragile.

--The entire fan is fragile.

--So I told Sade. He said it did not matter. The fan was an amusement. A gift for a whore.

--Some would call it blasphemy. Painting licentious acts, including sodomy, on the body of Christ.

--We are no more living beneath the boot of the Catholic Church, citizen. I never was a practicing Catholic. Like the paste that holds them to the fan, the wafers are made of flour and water. They are of human manufacture, and nothing can convince me of their sacredness.

--Your association with a notorious libertine and public enemy is under question today. Personally, I don't give a fig for blasphemy, although I believe there is not place in the Revolution for sodomites. But now, before we waste any more time, will you describe for the Comite the scenes painted on the fan. [The fan, in possession of the Comite de Surveillance de la Commune de Paris, is handed to her.] Is this the fan you made for Sade?

--Of course it is. [She examines fan, briefly.] It is a convention to paint figures and scenes within cartouches placed against a plain background or, perhaps, a background decorated with a discreet pattern of stars, or hearts, or even eyes--as I have done here. In this case there are two sets of cartouches: the six painted wafers, well varnished, at the top, and the three large, isolated scenes beneath--three being the classic number.

--And now describe for the Comite the scenes.

--There is a spaniel.

--The girl is naked.

--All the girls are naked, as are all the gentlemen. Except for the Peeping Tom hiding just outside the window.

--And the spaniel.

--He is dressed in a little vest, and he carries a whip in his teeth.

--His master's whip?

--His master's whip.

--And the...master is in the picture, too?

--Yes! Smack in the middle. It is a portrait of Sade with an enormous erection!

--As specified in the agreement?

--Exactly. "Have it point to the right!" he said. "Because if I could fuck God right in the eye, I would." And he laughed. "Point it right for Hell," he said. So I did.

--The Comite is curious to know about your continued service to the Marquis de Sade.

--I paint pictures for him, and I--

--What is the nature of these pictures? Why is he wanting pictures?

--Because he is in prison! He has nothing before his eyes but the guillotine! All day he has nothing to occupy his mind but executions, and all night nothing but his own thoughts.

--Explosive thoughts.

Excerpted from The Fan-Maker's Inquisition © Copyright 2012 by Rikki Ducornet. Reprinted with permission by Ballantine. All rights reserved.

The Fan-Maker's Inquisition
by by Rikki Ducornet

  • paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0345441044
  • ISBN-13: 9780345441041