Les Liaisons Dangereuses
Before I go further, let me name the other margin-haunters of this report: Freud and Foucault. I propose to initiate a discussion about seduction, one in which we examine the role or position or location of the reader in the processes of seduction-- seductions by the characters, by the "editor," by Laclos, by the narrative structure and strategy itself. I'm interested in the insights of Barthes, Freud, and Foucault in this case not because they necessarily reveal something about this novel, but because this novel may complicate some of the things these thinkers have to say about the workings of sexuality, knowledge, privacy, repression, and identity/ individuality-- especially with relation to novelistic narrative. As we were discussing last night, the rise of the novel in the 18th century parallels (or informs, or is informed by) developments in the notions of the individual, but also in those of privacy. Freud opens the way for us to talk about texts as seduction and as pleasure; he links the desire for knowledge to sexuality and, specifically to desire for women's bodies, so that we can, with Barthes, talk about narrative in erotic terms, as a strip-tease: "Narrative is invested not only in points of arrival, but also in all the dilatory moments along the way: suspension or turning back, the perversions of temporality (as of desire) that allow us to take pleasure and to grasp meaning in passing time... Narrative desire simultaneously seeks and puts off the erotic denoument that signifies both its fulfillment and its end: the death of desiring, the silence of the text" (Brooks 19-20). Foucault, then, interrogates how these discourses of desire, sexuality, repression, revealing, and confession become institutionalized through convention; as he has argues, "modern socities have created a massive discourse of sexuality that produces sexuality as that which is hidden, secret, and hterefore most desirable to know" (Brooks 15).
So what does all of this have to do with _Les Liaisons Dangereuses_? These are just a few things I want to keep in the back of my mind as I make a brief attempt to explore some of the workings of this novel and the issues that arise out of it having to do with seduction, writing, sexuality, knowledge, and education.
But first, two digressions/epigraphs:
-- The first from _The Monk_, in which the Novice Rosario gushes/confesses to Ambrosio, "'Sufferings, which if known to you, would equally raise your anger and compassion! *Sufferings, which form at once the torment and pleasure of my existence!*'" (44 of Oxford edition). This exclamation seems to speak to some of the issues we discussed with relation to our (complicated, guilty) pleasure(s) as readers who encounter/witness the pain of characters (in _Sidney Bidulph-, _LD_, and _Clarissa_).
-- The second from Letter 10 of _LD_ (41), in which Merteuil describes her most elegant negligee to Valmont as "a delicious one of my own creation. It reveals ntohing and suggests everything." This passage seemed relevant to me as I was trying to determine how the novel functions-- is it, like the negligee, something that ultimately refuses to reveal what it promises (that is, a tease with no naked body at the end), or is it, as the editor's promises of authenticity imply, a strip without any teasing?
Many critics have written about seduction and _LD_. Some talk about how the readers are seduced, by the charms and confidences of Valmont and Merteuil, into abandoning the beliefs and values we cherish and that, as the narrative progresses, we fall into complicity with Valmont especially, becoming infatuated with him, laughing at his exploits, and glorying in his triumphs. Letters 47 and 48 (108-112) are especially relevant here, as they are the most explicit instance of the reader's participation in Valmont's wit and duplicity (we are complicit, perhaps, not so much because we laugh at Valmont's jokes, but because we understand them-- are forced to understand them-- in the first place). The scene with Valmont and Emilie-as-desk, in which Valmont alternates between writing and fucking (excuse me), and the subsequent letter full of (seemingly) hilarious double entendres, is that in/by which the reader potentially feels most titillated and most compromised. Many critics go on to map the humiliation and subsequent education of the reader, who has the moral truth revealed to him/her as the conventional values are exposed and shattered and Valmont's and Merteuil's alternate ideals of detachment, intelligence, and sophistictaed skepticism prove to have disasterous consequences. We are lectured for having been intrigued by the wrong sort of people. I guess I would want to ask these critics if the process of our seduction/implication in the novel's workings is really so simple. How far do our identifications with the seducers go? Where are the readerly sympathies located in this novel? [What makes Valmont sentimentally appealing where Merteuil is not? Is it our sense that he is possibly recoverable as a functioning member of conventional society-- i.e., that he may be reformed, regenerated by the (discovery of the) power of true love-- whereas Merteuil is in every way an anomaly in her time-- that is, that it is impossible for a woman to be author of her own truly original and unconventional text/fiction/life at this moment in history?] Do we really laugh at Letter 48-- and, if so, can we please interrogate our laughter? Valerie Minogue explains away our fascination with Valmont's and Merteuil's shamelessness when she asks, "Who cannot recognize the delights of emotional tyranny?" (778). It doesn't take a Nietzsche to confess that there is some degree of entertainment involved in witnessing the despair and misfortune of others, but, again, I am tempted to ask, why are our response to _LD_ so different from those to _Sidney Bidulph_? (I know there are many obvious answers to this question, but aren't there some less obvious ones as well?).
So, seduction. Where are we-- the readers-- in this text? Are we invited, by the "editor's" preface, to respond to the narrative and the characters with intellect or with feeling (or both)? Are we charmed into complicity by the flattery of the privileged viewpoint offered to us not just in the letters of Valmont and Merteuil, but in the whole novel? Who is wooing whom in this novel? We are singled out as somebody's ally-- but whose? Valmont and Merteuil are a select society, each flattering the other and singling the other out from the "common herd" by including him/her in his/her confidences (Minogue 780). Who is flattering us-- the "editor"? Laclos? In fact, the preface warns us against identifying with Valmont (or with an author preoccupied with mastery and control of the text)-- but isn't this just another flirtatious move, a secret revealed to us, a tactic by which the editor makes alliances with the reader? Are we just versions of Mme. de Volanges, consenting to let and unprincipled man (the editor) into our circle of friends-- that is, are we, must we end as, victims of this text? With reference to the changes/corrections he would have liked to make in the letters' styles, the editor sighs, "...but the final say was not mine and I submitted" (20); to me this sounds suspiciously like a ploy-- like Merteuil's described "surrenders" that are actually power-plays [Letter 10 (40)]. What's a discerning reader to do?
In Letter 121 (287), Merteuil writes to Danceny: "...every sentiment has the language proper to it: to make use of the wrong one is to disguise the thought one wishes to express." What is the thought behind the epistolary form of _LD_? What is the relation between the aesthetic form (and literary convention) and the moral intentions of the author? If we are seduced by the novel, does it lead us astray, or is the seduction an effective mode of educating us? What is the relation between sexuality and education, seduction and morality? [I'm starting this frantic list of questions because I'm about to be kicked out of here at any moment] Merteuil clearly sees sexual knowledge as a (or the) prerequisite of other kinds of knowledge-- and the education of Cecile involves both theory and practice in sexual skills and terminology, points of composition and style, and duplicity. On critic comments that a "meaningful education must issue from equality and reciprocity and not from servitude or power" (Dunn 134)-- what does this say of our education at the hands of the "editor" or Laclos? Is seduction an attempt to achieve equality-- "Th ideal of equality defines a desire for a union with another who is, in each case, understood to be the location of the seducer's true self, his cmpleted meaning" (Roussel 735, with reference to both Valmont's seduction of Mme. de Tourvel and Merteuil's of Valmont)-- or is it, as the Latin root indicates, an attempt to separate, to distance? Does the reader achieve any degree of equality with the author/editor (and can we talk about the differences between these 2 figures?)? Or, if we fall prey to the most basic level of seduction (that is, being captivated by Valmont and Merteuil), are we sacrificed in order to certify the author's power (as Tourvel can be said to be sacrificed to certify Valmont's/male power-- or is it Merteuil's power...?) What is the editor's power in this case anyway-- moral rightness? Knowledge? Perhaps we should look at the final footnote, which hints at more but refuses to tell.
So, again, where are we, the readers, in this text? Complicit? Victims? Whores? Equals? The seduced? Masters? Pupils? Are female and male readers in the same place? Is refusing to laugh while reading an act of rebellion? One critic comments that "Valmont possesses a peculiar quality: he is both adored and detested at the same time by the same community" (Saint-Amand 105)-- can the same be said of the novel itself? Saint-Amand calls it the seducers' main preoccupation to "envy divinity" (112); in terms of appropriating "the divine privilege" (109) of reading the hearts and minds of others, who is most guilty-- Merteuil and Valmont, the editor, us?