“…et je puis dire que je suis mon ouvrage.”
LETTRE LXXXI LA MARQUISE DE MERTEUIL AU VICOMTE DE VALMONT
Laclos. Les Liaisons dangereuses (1782). GF Flammarion, 2006. p. 263.
The English translation for the quoted line has sometimes been rendered as “I am a self-made woman,” but a better approximation is in the Penguin Classics from the late P.W.K. Stone as translator who provides: “I might say that I have created myself.”
Choderlos de Laclos (1741-1803) has his Merteuil, the master hedonist and strategist, choose more pointed words with ‘mon ouvrage’ or ‘my work of art,’ so I would’ve translated this line (justifiably) as: “I’m my own work of art.”
Is Liaisons a novel about female empowerment, a screed against the constraints of ancien régime French society, or a misogynistic cautionary morality lesson? No. While sex and seduction are at the surface, Liaisons is a highly analytical, systematically detailed and programmatic manual on how to destroy another human being. Destitute cynicism is entertainment along the way. The epistolary novel also presents a caustic assault on ‘love’ and ‘feelings.’ The clearest victim in the novel is Cécile, but inevitably our two Nietzschean figures, Merteuil and Valmont, are also destroyed by their own machinations.
Machination is, I think, the key word. Merteuil and Valmont are former lovers who set out on a game of seduction of numerous others with the intention of reuniting as lovers in her bed. Life, however, does not work out that way for them. Later in Letter 81, quoted above, Merteuil explains to Valmont that she, unlike other women, learned how to control her body. She explains how she became actress and mistress of her own body. The human body is a mere machine of stimuli and responses, muscles and nerves. Other women? She says of her gender in Letter 81:
“those giddy women who call themselves women of feeling, whose heated imaginations persuade them that nature has placed their senses in their heads; who…invariably confuse love with a lover…and, like all the superstitious, accord that faith and respect to the priest which is due to only the divinity.”
So women confuse men with love and with pleasure he gives her? Merteuil says any man can give a woman an orggasm. It would seem that Merteuil did not think that there was ever such a thing as a bad or inept lover. She equates sense and sensation with the erogenous zones. She views the majority of her gender as girls who think that they are women when they are actually nothing more than adolescent girls. Valmont, the grand seducer, reads her letters with pride because he sees himself as an astute reader of feminine body language.
Reading here is the complicit act. Letters are both artistic artifacts and weapons, revealing more than what they say between two people, recipient and author. In reality, what we have throughout Liaisons are two emotional and psychological predators at play. Intelligent predators.
Merteuil and Valmont will utilize a very scientific approach. They discuss ways in altering the variables in their experiments. “Experiment” is in English a scientific word but in French it means “experience.” They will consult and insult each other and encourage and berate each other while misleading everyone else. Sex is to them a game with distinct social consequences. Ah, “reputation” — and that makes Merteuil the more accomplished and deceitful seducer. Both characters, however, can not conceive of sex as intimacy. Sex is both recreation and reenactment of pleasure and nothing more. They live, after all, in the Age of Reason which suggested that the Heart is easy to deceive. The novel is a series of letters of “experiences” for the reader to take in like a Facebook page, where everything is laid out in the open, depending on your level of privilege, but the context for utterances is always evasive, always suspicious, and always receding with each update.
The appeal of Liaisons? Intelligence is the great seducer; and readers, time and time again, will cheer for a despicable character — while simultaneously fascinated and repelled — if that character has intelligence, even if he or she is morally bankrupt. Think of Jeff Lindsay‘s Dexter, Ann Rice‘s Lestat, Thomas Harris‘ Hannibal Lechter, Nurse Mildred Ratched in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, or for a Laclos contemporary, the Marquis de Sade in Doug Wright‘s Quills.
Are Merteuil and Valmont merely sociopaths? She dictates in Letter 141 a strategy to Valmont and offers for her defense the utterly cynical line: “On s’ennuie de tout, mon ange, c’est une loi de la nature” with a repeating refrain for several paragraphs, “ce n’est pas ma faute”
“One is very soon bored with everything, my angel; it is the law of nature”…”It is not my fault.” GF. p.445 and Penguin, p.335. The mind becomes bored with its prey. Less than a century later the Romantic poets like Rimbaud and Baudelaire would approach “ennui” from a completely different point of view. The French Revolution would literally exterminate the Valmonts and Merteuils and salon society.
Valmont does indeed love and Merteuil knows it is not her. Is she jealous? We never know. Valmont is capable of love even if his love is jaded. Valmont’s great epiphany arrives when he experiences mutual orgasm with a lover not Merteuil. He realizes that he is in love with another woman and Merteuil also realizes it and she is angry because what was sex and a game of pleasure has become love. It is like ‘friends with benefits’ until one of the two parties develops ‘feelings.’ For Merteuil the comrade-in-arms, the great seducer Valmont has fallen. He will die in a duel — suggestively suicidal since it is improbable that Chevalier Danceny has the combative skills to off the great Valmont. She will end up a social outcast, alone as she wished, disfigured by smallpox and unloved.