Siegel Response


Les Liaisons Dangereuses

Look at L32, where Mme de Volanges "places" Merteuil and Valmont. As a group, we have been hostile to Mme Volanges. I'm curious why; how, for instance, is she a hypocrite, and how could she better 'protect' Cecile? More importantly, think about L81. Professor Spacks said that individuals, not societies, have psychologies. After L81 I'm not sure. I feel like Mme Merteuil's is a social psychology. Might this story be a social psychomachia?

I've extracted some important passages, some of them accompanied by my unimportant comments:

(6 V-M) If you could see, especially at the slightest word of praise or flattery, how her divine features colour with that touching embarrassment which springs from an entirely artless modesty! . . . She is chaste and devout; you therefore judge her cold and lifeless. I think very differently. What an astonishing sensibility she must have, if her feelings extend even to her husband, if she can continue to love a man she never sees!

--In _Werther_, Lotte's sensibility both cements and threatens her marriage, and it seems that Valmont sees a similar situation here, where he might cry Klopstock and have his way with Mme Tourvel the faithful wife. Here, chastity and devotion are lined up next to colour and embarassment, yet the last thing this novel wants to do is to sanctify sensible responses the way that Sterne does. These responses take place at a second order--Merteuil fakes them, Cecile produces them mechanically, and Tourvel draws them from her soul. They are all motivated, cannot be sanctified.

(9 MVol-MTour) So, were Valmont the victim of impetuous passions, if, like so many thousand others, he had been led astray by the errors of the time, then, while I should still not approve his conduct, I should pity him, waiting in silence for a time when some happy change of heart would recover him the esteem of decent people. But Valmont is not a man of that sort: his conduct is the outcome of his principles.

(14 C-S) What is more [the Marquise] gives me her word that the Chevalier Danceny thinks I am prettier than she. How kind of her to tell me! She seems even to be pleased about it. I really cannot conceive why. --Why, exactly? Merteuil officiously holds court with Cecile and Danceny; in L20, Merteuil dotes on Cecile, and turns a deaf ear on Danceny, who both have "rapt admiration" for Merteuil (see L54, L109). It's a mistake to be taken in by Valmont's ostensible relegation of Cecile to non-importance. Proposition: he has gone back to the chateau to be with Cecile; he arranges for Tourvel to be driven away; he enforces the making of the key; the moment it is made, he assaults Cecile. Merteuil's Chevalier, Mme Tourvel, and Prevan are nominally significant to M and V; but there is something about these CHILDREN . . .

(22 MTour-MVol) Would God allow a virtuous family to receive help at the hands of a rascal; help for which they will return thanks to Divine Providence?

(33 M-V) Your real mistake is in allowing yourself to enter into a correspondence. I defy you now to foresee where this will lead you. Are you, by any chance, hoping to prove to this woman by logical demonstration that she is bound to give herself to you? It seems to me that a truth such as this is better grasped by the feelings than by the understanding; and that to persuade her of it you will have to appeal to her heart rather than to her head.

(38 M-V) [Cecile] is truly delicious! She has neither character nor principles: imagine how easy and agreeable her company will one day be. I don't think she will ever be conspicuous for her sentiments: but everything about her speaks of the most lively sensations. She has neither wit nor guile, but a certain natural duplicity--if I may use such a phrase--at which even I am sometimes astonished, and which will succeed so much the better because her face is the very image of candour and ingenuousness.

--Against every epistolary thing we've seen so far in this course, we must admit that Cecile's letters illustrate her "face," not her character. This myth of "natural duplicity" runs deep in the novel, and it should always be brought to bear in our judgments. It implies of course, that duplicity is as fundamental as any other way of being, and that the social world has no special claim on hypocrisy.

(55 C-S) It seems to me that I love (Merteuil) more as I love Danceny than as I love you.

--There is boundless love in this book, as there is boundless sin in _Clarissa_. Meaning, that for most characters here (Cecile, Merteuil, Valmont, Danceny, Mme de Rosemonde), love is an atmospheric condition, not particular. These characters aren't so much concerned(/troubled) by their relations to particular lovers as by their relationships to Love, as in the "Rocky Horror Picture Show." This is obviously not the case with Tourvel. Like Clarissa isolates and battles her own conscience(/consciousness of sin) by herself, Tourvel keeps her love apart.

(98 MVol-M) What course shall I take, however, if this continues? Shall I make my daughter unhappy? Shall I turn to her disadvantage the very qualities of mind and heart in her that are most to be valued, her sensibility and her constancy? Is it for that I am her mother? And were I to stifle the natural feeling that makes us all want the happiness of our children; were I to look upon that as a weakness, which, on the contrary, I believe to be the first and most sacred of our duties; if I force her choice, shall I not be answerable for the dreadful consequences that ensue? --Why isn't this a feeling, sensible plea? It is.

(102 MTour-MRos) Intoxicated by the pleasure of seeing him, of hearing him speak, by the sweet awareness of his presence near me, by the even greater happiness of being able to make him happy, I lost all strength of mind and will; I had scarcely enough left to struggle, I had none to resist; I trembled with a sense of my danger without being able to escape it. Well then! He saw my distress, and took pity on me. How should I not love him for that? I owe him more than life itself.--This passage is at fir st completely palatable to me; seeing this, I draw back into skepticism: How can I sanction the valorization of Mme Tourvel's desire, when it has been extracted by Valmont for the purposes of this fake tolerance? It is as if the problem that was so important in _Clarissa_, of the intersection of Clarissa's real feelings for Lovelace with Lovelace's designs on her feelings, was not a problem at all, but a circumstance of Lovelace's devising. Yet (back to _Les Liaisons_) I soon regret my drawing-back: if I have assumed that this desire was never properly Tourvel's own, it is only because Valmont has said as much. I think it is in eliciting this drawing-back-into-skepticism that this novel does its affective work (damage).

(133 V-M) For my experiment, therefore, I needed a delicate and sensitive woman who made love her only concern and who, even in love, saw no further than her lover; whose emotions, far from following the usual course, reached her senses through her heart; whom I have, for example, seen (and I don't refer to the first occasion) emerge from pleasure dissolved in tears, yet find it again in the first word that touched her sympathies.

--I have, certainly by this point but maybe throughout the novel, come to find Valmont's (elegiac) depictions of Mme Tourvel more compelling than Tourvel's own expressions of love. I'm not at all sure that this response is general to the class. Anyway, it speaks well to the issue of drawing-back which I explained above; from a skeptical position of reading, I take my cues from Valmont rather than Tourvel.

(163 M. Bertrand-MRos) I am entirely ignorant of the subject of the quarrel, but it appears, from the note I found in Monsieur the Vicomte's pocket the note which I have the honour to send you herewith, it appears, I say, that he was not the aggressor.

--Not the aggressor: Anna says as much about Lovelace in her first letter to Clarissa ("the sufferer (James) was the aggressor"). _Les Liaisons_ e nds in the confusion in which _Clarissa_ begins. Not that the social world is reformed in _Clarissa_; rather, the reader is granted the tools with which to reorganize his/her sentiment so as to apprehend the novel's social milieu more responsibly. This mature apprehension, trained in _Clarissa_, is presumed in _Les Liaisons_--the book speaks all along to the worldly reader. And if we don't like it? One could preempt one's cynical complicity with this world by uneducating his/her sentiment. But who would do this?