La petite mort
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La petite mort is an expression which means "the brief loss or weakening of consciousness" and in modern usage refers specifically to "the sensation of orgasm as likened to death". The expression comes from French, in which it literally means "the little death".
The first attested use of the expression in English was in 1572 with the meaning of "fainting fit". It later came to mean "nervous spasm" as well. The first attested use with the meaning of "orgasm" was only in 1882. In modern usage, this term has generally been interpreted to describe the post-orgasmic state of unconsciousness that some people have after having some sexual experiences.
More widely, it can refer to the spiritual release that comes with orgasm or to a short period of melancholy or transcendence as a result of the expenditure of the "life force". Literary critic Roland Barthes spoke of la petite mort as the chief objective of reading literature, the feeling one should get when experiencing any great literature.
The term "la petite mort" does not always apply to sexual experiences. It can also be used when some undesired thing has happened to a person and has affected them so much that "a part of them dies inside". A literary example of this is found in Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles when he uses the phrase to describe how Tess feels after she comes across a particularly gruesome omen after meeting with her own rapist:
"She felt the petite mort at this unexpectedly gruesome information, and left the solitary man behind her."
The term "little death", with which "la petite mort" is often compared, has a similar, though slightly different meaning. Namely, it means "a state or event resembling or prefiguring death; a weakening or loss of consciousness, specifically in sleep or during an orgasm". As with "la petite mort", the earlier attested uses are not related to sex or orgasm.
When referring to orgasm, it is unclear whether "la petite mort" or "little death" describe a normal post-orgasmic state, or whether they refer to a medical condition, such as sexual headaches, Dhat syndrome, post-coital tristesse (PCT), or postorgasmic illness syndrome (POIS).
- Georges Bataille
- Roland Barthes
- Sexual headache
- Dhat syndrome
- Post-coital tristesse
- Postorgasmic illness syndrome
- Vaitl, D.; Birbaumer, N.; Gruzelier, J.; Jamieson, G. A.; Kotchoubey, B.; Kübler, A.; Lehmann, D.; Miltner, W. H. et al. (2005). "Psychobiology of Altered States of Consciousness". Psychological Bulletin 131 (1): 98–127. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.131.1.98. PMID 15631555.
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- Cohen, Harvey D.; Rosen, Raymond C.; Goldstein, Leonide (May 1976). "Electroencephalographic Laterality Changes During Human Sexual Orgasm". Archives of Sexual Behavior (Springer Netherlands) 5 (3): 189–99. doi:10.1007/BF01541370. PMID 952604.
Left and right parietal EEGs were recorded while seven subjects experienced sexual climax through self-stimulation.
- Graber, B.; Rohrbaugh, J. W.; Newlin, D. B.; Varner, J. L.; Ellingson, R. J. (December 1985). "EEG During Masturbation and Ejaculation". Archives of Sexual Behavior (Springer Netherlands) 14 (6): 491–503. doi:10.1007/BF01541750. PMID 4084049.
Examination of the literature shows little agreement among reported results of studies of EEG changes during orgasm.