If I were king, women would be worth more and men would gain something new to emulate.
— Émilie du Châtelet
Born Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Émilie’s one of my favorite figures from history, as noted here once or twice before. She was a big, tall, athletic woman who lived in Semur-en-Auxois in the Burgundy region of France after her marriage at 18 to some Marquis who spent most of his time gallivanting all over the world, sticking his nose into other countries’ wars. That was fine by her because she really never wanted to be the marrying kind, although the mores of her time — she was born in late 1706 — required her to be somebody’s wife.
Growing up, she was something of a wunderkind, her innate curiosity leading her to become expert in mathematics, physics, natural philosophy, and other sciences. Her daddy-o encouraged her intellectual pursuits but her mere did not, reasoning that a woman with brains made as much good sense as an owl wearing a leisure suit. In any case, she took a break from her studies to get hitched. She and her Marquis had three children and then she resumed hitting the books.
She set up a salon at her manor in Burgundy, drawing smart guys from all over the Continent. She held court with them, and didn’t give an inch to them in terms of scholarly acumen, considering she was an awfully competitive soul (as a teen, she’d been a top-notch fencer, usually kicking the crap out of her male opponents). After Voltaire started hanging around her salon she took him on as a lover, even having secret passageways built into her home so he could visit her in her room late at night when her husband was around during one of his rare stop-overs.
Perhaps her greatest achievement was her translation of Newton’s Principia into French. Now, get this — she even improved on one key aspect of Newton’s work, clarifying the relationships between momentum, friction, and kinetic energy. Wow. Not only that, she’d been working on many of the ideas about vision and light that Newton himself would codify in another of his landmark tomes, Opticks.
In any case, the fact that she’s as unknown to us today as the fellow who picks up our weekly recyclables is a crime. I’ll just put her in Big Mike’s Heretofore-Anonymous-Females Hall of Fame (the HAF-HoF) along with Pauli Murray, whom I raved about the other day.
There Was A Real Rikki
Have you ever wondered who the Rikki was in the Steely Dan hit, “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number”?
There was indeed such a human to whom Donald Fagen dedicated the song. Her full name was Rikki Ducornet (born: Erica DeGre). She and Fagen were students at Bard College in Annendale, New York, in the mid-Sixties. Fagen met her at a party one night and, even though she was married and pregnant at the time, became transfixed. He gave her his phone number on a slip of paper and, acc’d’g to legend, left her with the words that’d become the title of his future band’s third Top 40 hit.
Ducornet literally grew up on the Bard campus where her daddy-o was a sociology prof. She’d go on to become a cult figure as a novelist, poet, and visual artist. Her books include Entering Fire, Gazelle, and Netsuke.
The I Fell Gallery will host an exhibit of her work with the opening tonight between 6 and 9pm. The show is part of the pre-conference festival for Wounded Galaxies 1968: Paris, Prague, Chicago, February 8-11. The pre-fest includes art exhibits, film showings, music performances, and even a birthday bash for William S. Burroughs (that’ll be Monday, Feb 5, at The Blockhouse). The academic conference will feature noodling about the traumatic year, 1968, during which wars, uprisings, outright revolutions, and assassinations became nearly the norm.
There’ll be reading of Ducornet’s works at the opening tonight and I’ve been fortunate to be asked to participate. I dug up a neat short story of hers so I hope you’ll drop by the gallery at 415. W. 4th St. See you there.
Here’s your link to yesterday’s Big Talk featuring aerial silks performer and drag king Sue Rall.
Stay tuned next week, Thursday, at 5:30pm, for a chat about Bloomington’s landmark 1971 local election with Charlotte Zietlow.