charming or shamelessly deceitful, remarkably persuasive or uselessly
verbose, everything one loves to hate — or hates to love —
about “French lovers” and their self-styled reputation
can be traced to eighteenth-century libertine novels. Obsessed with
strategies of seduction, endlessly speculating about the motives
and goals of lovers, the idle aristocrats who populate these novels
are exclusively preoccupied with their erotic lives. Deprived of
other battlefields in which to fulfill their thirst for glory, libertine
noblemen seek to conquer the women of their class without falling
into the trap of love, while their female prey attempt to enjoy
the pleasures of love without sacrificing their honor. Yet, in spite
of the licentious mores of the declining Old Regime, men and women
are still expected to pay lip service to an austere code of morals.
Asked to constantly denounce their own practices, they find that
their erotic war games are thus governed by a double constraint:
whatever they feel or intend, the heroes of libertine literature
can neither say what they mean nor mean what they say.
The Libertine Reader includes all the varieties of libertine
strategies: from the successful cunning of Mme de T-- in Denon’s
No Tomorrow to the ill-fated genius of Mme Merteuil in
Laclos’s Dangerous Liaisons; from the laborious sentimental
education of Meilcour in Crébillon fils’s Wayward
Head and Heart to the hazardous master plan of the French ambassador
in Prévost’s The Story of a Modern Greek Woman.
The discrepancies between the characters’ words and their
true intentions — the libertine double entendre — are
exposed through the speaking vaginas in Diderot’s Indiscreet
Jewels and the wandering soul of Amanzei in Crébillon
fils’s Sofa, while the contrasts between
natural and civilized — or degenerate — erotics are
the subjects of both Diderot’s Supplement to Bougainville’s
Voyage and Laclos’s On the Education of Women.
Finally, Sade’s Florville and Courval shows that
destiny itself is on the side of libertinism.
The Decadent Reader: Fiction, Fantasy, and Perversion from Fin-de-Siècle France