The Libertine Reader: Eroticism and Enlightenment
in Eighteenth-Century France
Edited by Michel Feher
Zone Books, $56, $32.50 (paper)
by Christopher Cahill
As a literary artist the Marquis de Sade rests comfortably on the downslope
somewhere between Aleister Crowley and David Berkowitz. His extraordinarily
voluminous and uniform output of writings is distinguished largely by its
peculiar capacity to bore to numbness even as it repulses. His oeuvre-one
continuous work really, which we can imagine "the divine marquis,"
as he is commonly referred to with appropriate perversity, composing at a
single Benzedrine-inspired sitting, like some proto-Kerouac in a powdered
wig-displays the philosophical acumen of the ordinary pornographer alongside
all the erotic magnetism generally associated with the pedant.
And yet, and this is the mystery, Sade towers above the other French writers
of the pre- and post-revolutionary period, covering all in a shadow so large
that some of the very best of them are lost in it and have disappeared from
sight. The present collection of libertine literature, erratically edited
and compiled by Michel Feher, goes some way towards restoring a few of these
writers to public view, a necessary and valuable undertaking for which many
will be grateful. Given the size of Sade's reputation, the genuine eminence
of many of his defenders, and his identification in the popular mind with
the very idea of libertinage, it would have been too much to hope for to have
seen him wholly excluded from this volume. What we are given, rather than
any of Sade's determinedly obscene works, is instead a "moral tale,"
Florville and Courval, a mechanized exercise in fait accompli
which shares a plot with the folk song "I'm My Own Grandma." We
can be grateful for the brevity of this piece, but the editorial decision
to place Sade at the volume's close is an unfortunate one, designed as it
is to reinforce the idea of his writings as a culmination or a terminus, a
commodious sewer into which more pallid talents have properly been flushed.
There is no denying Sade's largeness, his supra-literary prominence and
pervasiveness, his iconic stature. Kafka once caustically referred to him
as the true patron of our age. Since Sade's actual writings, though, possess
so little to recommend in themselves, it seems best to avoid his literary
aspect altogether and consider him, rather, in the company of such other primarily
emblematic figures as Joan of Arc, Davy Crockett, Marilyn Monroe, or Rasputin.
Aloft in that empyrean he need no longer obscure his betters.
Apart from Sade, The Libertine Reader contains five novels, one short
story, one essay, and one philosophical dialogue chosen from the writings
of Diderot, Choderlos de Laclos, Crebillon fils, Vivant Denon, and
Abbe Prevost, along with 160 pages of largely worthless introductory essays
by Catherine Cusset, Joan DeJean, Marcel Henaff, Jean Sgard, and Chantal Thomas.
Many of the translations are new; others are reprintings of recent or outdated
versions; none of the decisions involved in selecting or commissioning translations
are properly explained; translators are not included in the contributors'
listing at the back of the book. Like many books, The Libertine Reader
is worth owning for its cover alone. Designed by Bruce Mau, it is a narcotically
entrancing mutation of two paintings by Fragonard, The Furtive Kiss
and The Bolt, in which the images, fixed under a kind of inverse pinhole
grid, overexposed in positive and negative, cracks in the paint visible, are
left subject to our corrosive gaze.
The works themselves: Diderot, represented here by The Indiscreet Jewels
and the "Supplement to Bougainville's Voyage," is always a delight
to encounter but he is, as the editors admit, no libertine and his inclusion
is a puzzlement, given the extent of pertinent writings unavailable in English
which might have been given his place. Prevost's The Story of a Modern
Greek Woman is a moderately engaging but inconsiderable exercise in the
prolonged delay of gratification, both sexual and narrative, a delay so prolonged,
in fact, that it extends beyond the novel's limp conclusion. Crebillon's The
Sofa is given in an antiquated translation by Bonamy Dobree, but it is
good to have regardless, as much as one might have preferred to see his Les
Heureux Orphelins, his Athenian Letters, or his Letters of the
Duchesse of *** to the Duke of ***.
Which leaves us with what? A great deal, actually: Laclos's Dangerous
Liaisons, Denon's No Tomorrow, and Crebillon's The Wayward Head
and Heart, all of which are grouped by the editor under the heading "Ways
of the World." These are among the works of genuine literary artistry
overshadowed by Sade; they form the heart of this collection and are what
make it an exceedingly desirable book, regardless of its many failings. The
translation of Laclos, by P.W.K. Stone, and of Denon, by Lydia Davis, are
serviceable and convey the sharpshot and unpitying brilliance of the one work
and the lambent mystery of the other; Barbara Bray's 1963 translation of Crebillon's
masterpiece is itself masterful, and the restoration of this work to print
is the present volume's single finest accomplishment.
The desire to anatomize desire, to fix it under a lens and peel back petal
after petal until the heart of it, absent of course, is exposed: this is what
galvanizes these works, this is the chimera these writers pursue through thickets
of nuance. Precious and ubiquitous as it is, desire is also, of necessity
lest it go free, rigidly codified by the social world in which it is enacted,
so that any anatomy of desire becomes an anatomy of worldliness, the study
of how to come by that which we desire, how to maintain it, how to drain it
of value so that its inevitable loss might seem the loss of nothing. The desolation
latent at the core of such investigations is best expressed by the Marquise
de Merteuil in Dangerous Liaisons: "Let us not deceive ourselves,
the charm we think we find in others exists only in ourselves, and it is love
alone that confers beauty on the beloved."
Laclos's epistolary novel presents a kind of social apocalypse, in which
the maleficence of the central characters is so potent it destroys more than
it perverts. No Tomorrow, a story in the form of a fragment, relates
an elaborately staged one-night stand and is concerned to question the degree
to which pleasures unacknowledged by society, free of all contingency, can
be said to exist at all. The Wayward Head and Heart traces the absorption
of its narrator into society, his passage from a youth "whose powers
of discernment were virtually nonexistent" to a successful libertine
aware that "what is called knowledge of the world only makes us wiser
insomuch as it makes us more corrupt."
Left deliberately unfinished by Crebillon, this novel is told from a vantage
above the society it depicts and it makes skilled use of adumbration or foretelling,
beautifully achieving a double register by means of which we are given the
narrator's naiveté along with his later wisdom. It is a work of art
and reading it one immediately begins to see it in conversation with other
such works. Its influence can be detected rippling outwards through the great
neglected writers of French Romanticism-Chateaubriand, Senancour, Constant,
Ramond de Carbonnieres-out through Stendahl, Flaubert, and Baudelaire to reach
its greatest effect in Proust and beyond him in the writings of Raymond Radiguet,
Julien Gracq, Michel Leiris, Pascal Quignard.
Outside of French literature one might draw a line from Crebillon to Sappho
and the poets of the Greek Anthology; to the Roman erotic elegists; to the
troubador poets, Cavalcanti, Petrarch; to Pushkin's Eugene Onegin,
Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, Nabokov's Lolita and Ada; to
Congreve, Byron, Henry Green and Ivy Compton-Burnett; to Edith Wharton and
Henry James and Scott Fitzgerald; to such contemporary works as Harry Mathews'
Cigarettes, or Edmund White's Caracole, or Alan Hollinghurst's
The Folding Star, or James Merrill's chronicles of love and loss. This
is how one reads, I take it, accretively, moving outward from the known to
the undiscovered, ply over ply in Pound's phrase, letting each gathered work
light the way to the next. The pattern of branching affinity established in
this way-rather than the distractions of sociology, rather than the anxieties
attendant upon any supposedly impeding influence or other-would seem to be
what lies at the heart of the literary endeavor, for both readers and writers
alike, forgotten by many as this may be in the current academic climate of
One such radiating line is of particular interest, given the odd coincidence
of its fruition. During the period of the early 1960s when Barbara Bray was
translating The Wayward Head and Heart, her lover, Samuel Beckett,
was writing Play, a work which draws some of its desiccated energies
from the misfortunate entanglements of his dual affections for Bray and for
his longtime companion, recently his wife, Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil. At
first glance, nothing could be more distant from the polished monde
of Crebillon's novel than Play, with its atmosphere of low-rent eschatological
shrewery and vindictiveness:
M: At home all heart to heart, new leaf and bygones bygones. I ran
into your ex-doxy, she said one night, on the pillow, you're well out of that.
Rather uncalled for, I thought. I am indeed, sweetheart, I said, I am indeed.
God what vermin women. Thanks to you, angel, I said.
And yet both works posit a man fallen hopelessly amongst women, both are
written out of a disabused retrospect, both partake of a particular jaundiced
nostalgia. Did Beckett read Bray's translation as it was written? Did he read
Crebillon's novel? Did he find in it something that he thought worthwhile
to play with? The correspondence between Bray and Beckett is now in the library
of Trinity College, Dublin, and someday we may read it with the same astonishment
with which we still read the correspondence between the Vicomte de Valmont
and the Marquise de Merteuil.