Vol. 43 No. 9 · 6 May 2021

I shall be the God whom she will have preferred

Caroline Weber

2491 words
The Last Libertines 
by Benedetta Craveri, translated by Aaron Kerner.
NYRB, 620 pp., £32, October 2020, 978 1 68137 340 9
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‘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.

Sade spent more years (32) in prison, under more successive regimes (five), than any other writer in French history. His legal troubles often arose from his erotic escapades: sodomy with male and female prostitutes, elopement with a cloistered nun (his wife’s sister, for added incest), the kidnap and ritual torture of a beggar (using a communion wafer as a sex toy), and the staging of orgies whose attendees he poisoned with Spanish fly. No such salacious details are known of Laclos’s private life. But his presumed wickedness intrigued his contemporaries, and the revolutionary historian Jules Michelet described him as ‘vice incarnate’.

The works of the pair display similarities which, taken together, give us a definition of libertinage. In La Philosophie dans le boudoir, completed shortly after his release from Picpus, Sade gleefully invokes and perverts Robespierre’s language of virtue. Like Dangerous Liaisons, Philosophy in the Bedroom conceives of libertinism as principled decadence, founded on rational humanist inquiry. To stress the point, both writers portray a pair of adult libertines – one male, one female – undertaking the systematic corruption of a young virgin just out of convent school. In Philosophy in the Bedroom, which is structured as a series of Socratic dialogues, the ‘immoral instructors’ introduce their pupil, Eugénie, to a range of Enlightenment precepts – the primacy of nature, the autonomy of reason, the innateness of liberty, the utility of empiricism, the arbitrariness of social conventions, the falsity of religious dogmas and morals – and use each in turn to justify an ethos of unfettered carnal gratification. Supplementing their discourses with titillating erotic play, they show Eugénie how to embrace ‘pleasure as the sole god of existence’ and adopt ‘the principles of the most untrammelled libertinage’. Cécile, Eugénie’s counterpart in Dangerous Liaisons, undergoes a similar conversion.

The gender of the young initiate in both novels indicates the emancipatory ideal of libertinage, which rejected notions of ‘feminine virtue’ and held that women as well as men had a right to sexual pleasure. Cécile’s mentor, the Marquise de Merteuil, describes this in a letter to her male co-instructor and confidant, the Vicomte de Valmont. Growing up, she tells him, she noticed how society condemned promiscuity in women while accepting it in men. To find a way around this double standard, she embarked on a rigorous study of human morals: ‘My mind alone was in a lather. I wasn’t concerned with orgasms; I wanted knowledge.’ Her discoveries led her to develop an ingenious code of conduct, which enabled her to carry out countless assignations with impunity:

I speak of my ‘principles’ deliberately, because they are not, like other women’s, given by chance, received without question, and followed by habit; they are the fruit of my profound reflections, and I can truly say that I am my own creation.

Expressed in this way, Merteuil’s self-actualisation through the use of reason conspicuously echoes the Encyclopédie’s metaphor of the philosophe as ‘a self-winding clock’ – regulated by his own rational faculties rather than by the proverbial ‘clockmaker-God’ who set the universe in motion. The libertines in Dangerous Liaisons and Philosophy in the Bedroom construe their salacious feats as death blows to divinity. Valmont, scheming to seduce a woman of deep faith, predicts: ‘Verily I shall be the God whom she will have preferred.’ Dolmancé, the male libertine in Sade’s novel, declares that ‘one of my greatest delights is to curse God when I get hard; then my mind, growing a thousand times more exalted, loathes and despises that disgusting chimaera all the more.’

The triumph over divine authority also implies the libertine’s sovereignty over the rest of mankind. Describing a devious plot to humiliate a lover, Merteuil tells Valmont: ‘Here I am like the Divinity, fielding the conflicting prayers of blind mortals, and not changing in the slightest my immutable decrees.’ Elsewhere she asks him: ‘Have you not seen me, disposing of opinions and events, making formidable men the toys of my fantasy and my caprice?’ Dolmancé, too, sees humanity as material for the libertine’s desires, even – or perhaps especially – when they bring harm to their objects. Cruelty towards one’s lovers, he declares, is ‘a virtue and not a vice’, because it provides an outlet for the libertine’s superior mental and physical energies.

Here again the works of Sade and Laclos converge: love, like God, is dismissed in both as a ‘disgusting chimaera’, a mawkish delusion. For Dolmancé, it poses a particular threat to women’s sexual freedom:

What is love? What is the basis for this feeling? Madness … Not a single instance of ‘love’ can withstand rational reflection … O, lubricious women! Fuck around, enjoy yourselves, but take care to avoid love … and above all do not let … any one person captivate you, for the aim of this constant love would be, in binding you to himself, to prevent you from giving yourself to another: utter selfishness that would soon be fatal to your pleasures!

This attitude accounts for the fierce derision with which the libertines in Philosophy in the Bedroom and Dangerous Liaisons greet any hint of sentimentality, embodied by a secondary character, a chevalier – the stereotype of selfless, chivalric passion. Laclos’s and Sade’s roués, deft manipulators of their lovers’ emotions, tolerate no such weaknesses in themselves. When Merteuil finds Valmont treating a prospective conquest with some delicacy of feeling, she taunts him for showing ‘restraint worthy of the good old days of chivalry’. One of Sade’s characters puts it more bluntly: ‘Love is a chivalrous feeling sovereignly despised by me.’

Craveri’s book tells the stories of ‘seven aristocrats whose youth coincided with the French monarchy’s final moment of grace – a moment when it seemed to the nation’s elite that a style of life based on privilege and the spirit of caste might acknowledge the widespread need for change’. They are selected both for ‘the romantic character of their … amours’ and for ‘the keenness with which they experienced this crisis in the civilisation’. Only two of the seven – the Comte de Narbonne and Comte de Ségur, born in 1755 and 1753 – were still young as the Ancien Régime neared its end. But Craveri’s condensed biographies of these grands seigneurs combine to present a panorama of a society caught between the imperatives of the future and the traditions of the past.

Her septet doesn’t include any women, although two of the minor female characters are possible models for Laclos’s Marquise de Merteuil. Laclos himself makes several cameos in the book, usually in the company of Joseph-Alexandre, vicomte de Ségur, his patron and an ambitious author in his own right. (Sade, by contrast, is strangely absent from Craveri’s account, even though his arrest during the Terror was triggered by his request for a commission from another of her protagonists, the Duc de Brissac.) The Vicomte de Ségur – not to be confused with his half-brother, the Comte de Ségur – probably came the closest of all the ‘last libertines’ to living up to that name. ‘An unrepentant seducer,’ Craveri writes, ‘he never ceased collecting trophies and sought … to prove the infallibility of his methods on the greatest possible number of people.’

True to form, the vicomte toyed with the women he seduced, degrading one conquest so brutally that she attempted suicide, and waiting until another mistress became pregnant with his child to announce ‘that he had never cared for her at all’ and had slept with her to settle a score with her husband. As the historian Gabriel de Broglie wrote: ‘If [Ségur] resembles the Vicomte de Valmont, and surpasses him in deviousness, it is that he epitomised the type of man that Laclos wanted to represent.’ When friends balked at his behaviour, Ségur replied with a parodic ode to Enlightenment rationality and intellectual freedom. Like Laclos and Sade, he was jailed by Robespierre but avoided the scaffold. Once Napoleon, whose ascent he supported, was in power, Ségur ‘felt the need to bear witness to the moeurs of a vanished France’, and did so by writing a recondite study of women’s ‘condition and influence’ in pre-revolutionary society. Merteuil and Dolmancé would have approved.

At the opposite end of the libertine spectrum is the romantic figure of Louis-Hercule-Timoléon de Cossé, Duc de Brissac. His interest in Enlightenment thought was more earnest and less self-serving than Ségur’s, and his sexual mores quaint in comparison. While introducing Brissac as ‘an impenitent Don Juan [whose] gaze lingered on the members of the fair sex even at his father’s funeral’, Craveri tells us in the same paragraph that he was for many years a loving husband. When he did stray from his wife, it was for the sake of one woman: Jeanne du Barry, the favourite of the late Louis XV. Du Barry had been expelled from court after the king’s death in 1774 and her difficulties grew once the Jacobins, with their hatred of royal mistresses, came to power. Brissac served her devotedly, placing his resources at her disposal in times of crisis (as when thieves made off with her jewellery collection in 1791), and providing a ‘sounding board for her ideas, feelings and habits’. He also kept up an impassioned correspondence – ‘yes dear heart, the violent desire to be with you, not in spirit, for I am always there, but in the flesh, is unflagging’ – and commissioned two superb portraits of her from Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun.

Brissac’s ‘accustomed chivalrousness’ also informed his political choices, which in their gallantry were antithetical to the libertine code of radical self-interest (but conformed to the ideal of chivalric fealty). Despite his sympathy for the revolution’s reformist aims, he did not waver in his support for the monarchy. He even agreed to command Louis XVI’s bodyguard, knowing full well what dangers the position entailed. Brissac explained his decision by invoking a dictum that he ascribed to Marie Antoinette: ‘A gentlemen is always in his proper place when he stands by his king.’

In the summer of 1792, as Paris seethed with anti-monarchist rage, Brissac was arrested and jailed. On 10 August, a mob stormed the Tuileries Palace, effectively turning the royal family into prisoners of the state. Less than a month later, another mob attacked the cart in which Brissac was being transferred to a different prison. His assailants stabbed and beat him; when he was dead, they cut out his heart. According to some accounts, they also cut off his head, and tossed it over the wall into du Barry’s garden. In his last letter to her, a few weeks earlier, he had written: ‘My final thought will be of you.’ Merteuil and Dolmancé would not have approved.

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Vol. 43 No. 10 · 20 May 2021

Readers scratching their heads over the Marquis de Sade’s use of a communion wafer as a sex toy in Caroline Weber’s piece should consult their copies of Justine et autres romans (LRB, 6 May). Not only does the heroine suffer this practice at the hands of the monk Sévérino (‘il l’enfonce au local obscène de ses sodomites jouissances’) but the same is meted out to a swan.

Stephanie Poole

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