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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 aesthetic disregard.

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.

Originally published in the April/ May 1998 issue of Boston Review

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