Saturday, May 1, 2021

Libertinage and Revolution

 From The London Review of Books:

The revolution,’ Baudelaire wrote in his notes on Les Liaisons dangereuses, ‘was made by voluptuaries.’ He was drawing attention to two paradoxes. One was the role that France’s free-thinking, pleasure-loving aristocrats – the real-life versions of Laclos’s characters – played in instigating this upheaval, undermining the system that upheld their privilege. As Louis-Philippe, Comte de Ségur, observed: ‘Without regret for the past, without anxiety for the future, we walked gaily across a carpet of flowers which concealed the abyss beneath.’ After Louis XVI’s execution in January 1793, Robespierre enjoined citizens of the new order to sacrifice their personal interests on the altar of the public good. He was particularly keen that the grandees of the Ancien Régime be punished for indulging their own desires at the expense of the people. He also banned women from politics, on the grounds that royal ‘favourites’ had corrupted the government with their sensual wiles. This is Baudelaire’s second paradox. As Philippe Sollers put it: ‘Are we to understand that [the revolution] was punished ... by puritans? All indications show that it was.’

Laclos was imprisoned for most of 1794 at the Maison Coignard, a former convent in Picpus in eastern Paris, where Donatien-Alphonse-François, ci-devant marquis de Sade, was also being held. Despite their noble backgrounds and royal connections, both men had supported the revolution from the start. They had both served the republic – Sade in the municipal government of his Paris neighbourhood (ominously rebranded the Pikes Section), and Laclos, a career military officer, as a commissar in the Ministry of War. Despite this, they had been jailed during the Terror and condemned to death. They only survived because Robespierre was sent to the guillotine before their sentences could be carried out.

Patrician libertinage co-existed uneasily with revolutionary liberté. A similar tension runs through Benedetta Craveri’s The Last Libertines, a group portrait of seven French aristocrats, contemporaries of Laclos and Sade. Craveri notes in the preface that her title refers to ‘libertinism in its broadest sense’, by which she apparently means the ‘sexual freedom [that] had become customary among the nobility, both male and female’, in the pre-revolutionary period. But the word also means something specific in French literary and philosophical culture, as Craveri’s frequent recourse to it implies. Heirs ‘to a century of libertinism’, her protagonists aren’t merely ‘fashionable libertines’; they are steeped in ‘classical libertinism’ and embrace ‘libertinism as an ideal of life’, performing exploits that recall ‘the best of the libertine novels’. Although she identifies a ‘libertine’ in passing as a ‘systematic seducer, driven by a blind will to dominate’, and mentions ‘a logic of a libertinism that turns desire to entirely foreign ends’, she doesn’t otherwise do much to define her central term.

According to Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie, the word ‘libertine’ originally designated a 16th-century Dutch sect who maintained that ‘there is no such thing as sin...that heaven is an illusion and hell a phantom invented by theologians; that political leaders created religion to enforce obedience to their laws’. In the 17th century, Cyrano de Bergerac described similar precepts in a pair of satirical novels set in outer space. Their defiance of Church doctrine qualified these books as products of a ‘libertine’ imagination, and marked the emergence of a new genre. Over the course of the 18th century, libertinism retained its anticlerical spirit while becoming more closely linked with the pleasures of the flesh. Towards the middle of the century – when Laclos, Sade and most of Craveri’s subjects were born – the ascendance of the philosophes brought bracing Enlightenment challenges to established mores and institutions. In certain worldly circles, the restrictions that Church doctrine and social custom imposed on sexuality drew especially vigorous criticism. Self-proclaimed libertines rejected constraints on premarital virginity and conjugal fidelity, heterosexuality and monogamy, chastity in women and chivalry in men. Evolving from the mid-century contributions of Diderot and Crébillon fils, libertine fiction reached its artistic highpoint in Laclos’s first and only novel, published seven years before the fall of the Bastille, and its philosophical endpoint in Sade’s prolific writings, produced between 1782 and 1801. (Read more.)

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