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The Libertine Reader: Eroticism and Enlightenment in Eighteenth-Century France.

Anthologically speaking, this is the finest collection of libertine fiction (narratives concerning games of erotic conquest played by an aristocracy no longer able to display its potency in military combat; seduction as a system of psychological control of others, and thus as social power) in print in English, and indeed the most perspicuous choice of such works that I know of in any language. Though as far as I can determine, only five of the translations were made for this volume, all are of authentic literary quality; they remind us that French libertine prose - poetry is another matter - would have been impossible without Richardson (whom Prevost himself translated), Sterne and Swift; translators into English of ensuing French works have a certain advantage therefore, a certain instance on which to model their operations.

Nine works are included, partitioned by the ingenious editor into three necessarily overlapping compartments. In the first, "Natural Utopias," we are offered visions of the natural state on which libertine authors base their theories of desire (and hence their critiques of the social condition). These include Diderot's 1772 Supplement to Bougainville's Voyage (published posthumously in 1796), a deliberation on the the relativity of custom and above all on the great freedom in Tahitian practices of love (as one might say, I travel, therefore I doubt); and a crucial Laclos essay On the Education of Women (1783), largely devoted to the description of the "natural woman" and to the story of her enslavement by men.

The second compartment, "Oriental Dreams," offers "a moral tale," The Sofa by Crebillon fils (1742), the mere mention of which I remember being tantalized by in Aldous Huxley's Crome Yellow when I was in junior high, on account of its wicked premise - tales told to the Sultan, Scheherezade's grandson, by a young courtier whose soul in a previous life was condemned to travel from sofa to sofa as a sofa in search of true love and not to be reincarnated in a human body until a man and a woman sincerely in love with each other had consummated their passion on "his" sofa. Also included is Diderot's famous Indiscreet Jewels (1748), another Arabian Nights variation in which the Sultan seeks the help of a Genie who offers him a magic ring - if turned toward a woman, this ring has the power of making the woman's vagina (her "jewel") speak out loud; and the (new to me) Story of a Modern Greek Woman (1740) by Prevost, the author of Manon Lescaut, his memoir-novel being a libertine precursor of M. Butterfly (about a French ambassador to Turkey obsessed with a young Greek courtesan), which offers a strikingly ironic perspective on the alleged moral superiority of Western civilization.

The final part of this reader, "Ways of the World," gathers four fictions which take place in eighteenth-century France; The Wayward Head and Heart (1738) by Crebillon fils again, which the editor calls the ultimate libertine bildungsroman; and Laclos' now-familiar but long-underground Dangerous Liaisons (1782), that "masterpiece and swan-song of libertine literature"; as well as two tales:

No Tomorrow (1777), a triumph of libertine duplicity and the sole work of fiction by the obscure Vivant Denon (1747-1825), whom Philippe Sollers in a brilliant biography two years back called le Cavalier du Louvre - he founded the Museum of the Louvre, lived through the regimes of Louis XV, Louis XVI, the Revolution, the Terror, the Directory, the Consulate, the Empire and the Restoration, and never lost his head in any sense; and lastly one of Sade's "heroic and tragic tales" gathered in the collection entitled The Crimes of Love (1800) and here chosen to illustrate the Divine Marquis' pervasive message, that true naturalists are rewarded with a charmed life while nature shows no mercy for the so-called virtuous who systematically oppose its designs (this is one of the very few books Sade did not publish anonymously, though it does not spare the reader the spectacle of an "Oedipal" heroine who unwittingly brings about the death of her mother, her son, and herself).

Not only is this splendid array of fictions and discourses beautifully balanced to illustrate the range, if one may call it such, of the libertine (always, after all, a diminutive), but it is wonderfully presented by brilliant scholars and critics; Michel Feher has a forty-page introduction speculating on the strikingly contrasting sensibilities of these authors, who nonetheless all speculate on the possibility of overcoming the inconstancy of natural appetites and the hypocrisy of social convention, in order to experience a sentiment of love that would be constant without being artificial.

Each of the libertine works is presented by a specialist in these matters and manners; though only Joan DeJean and Chantal Thomas are known to me as authors of many studies of eighteenth-century subjects, the other three presenters, Catherine Cusser, Marcel Henaff, and Jean Sgard, are remarkably equipped, according to their professorships and previous publications, to suit or dress the reader to these elegant and somewhat tedious works. With the help of brief biographies of the libertine authors, of a superb and imaginative chronology of eighteenth-century France (1697, birth of Prevost, to 1825, death of Denon), and of extremely informative notes (the books one is referred to constitute a veritable library of eighteenth-century studies), even the most languid reader is inveigled to understand, hence to enjoy, the parade of somewhat decrepit shockers which used to be kept behind glass doors in our wicked uncles' dens (surely the right word). These days I would make a rather deviant [sic] claim for the Libertine Reader: I'd say that unless you can respond to such works as those in this volume, you will probably fail to understand and enjoy the Da Ponte operas of Mozart, the paintings of Fragonard and Watteau, and ultimately the novels of Stendhal. Michel Feher and his team of knowledgeable critics have given us a shapely leg up, as it were.

Richard Howard is a poet and translator; he teaches in the Writing Division of the School of the Arts at Columbia University.
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Author:Howard, Richard
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1998
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