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Libertinism in Dangerous Liaisons

Letter 113 of Les liaisons dangereuses as a representation of libertinism and Enlightenment mores.

The epistolary novel provides the reader with unique insights into the motivations of its characters by presenting what Dorothy Thelander called a ?dual abstraction from reality? ? each letter reveals the personality not only of the writer but also of the recipient. In Choderlos de Laclos? eighteenth century novel Les liaisons dangereuses, the nature of the libertinism practiced by the central characters Merteuil and Valmont is exposed by their communication with each other. Letter 113 provides a paradigm for understanding the nature of the libertine; Laclos? use of images and contrasts through the character Merteuil focuses the reader?s attention on the freedoms enjoyed by the libertine, and is juxtaposed with the d?nouement of the novel, where these freedoms are revealed to be dangerous and destructive. By the end of the novel, the reader is left with the impression that man?s capacity to define himself, as evidenced by the libertine, will lead inevitably to despair; that there are transcendent truths which cannot be controlled by rationality. In this respect Letter 113 is crucial to the overall design of the novel, amplifying some of its most important motifs and providing a contrast with the events to come.

The tone Merteuil uses in Letter 113 is unashamedly a persuasive one. She begins the letter ? like many of her others ? with a rebuke, giving the impression that she is writing for the sole purpose of protecting Valmont?s interests, as though it is her duty to let Valmont know that his reputation is being threatened and as if frankness and altruism are indisguisable parts of her character. In the first few paragraphs, Merteuil uses a number of rhetorical devices to strengthen her argument that Valmont should return to Paris. She attempts to create the impression of absolute certainty, claiming that she knows for a ?positive fact? that Valmont?s reputation is about to suffer severe damage, and she uses hyperbole very effectively by exaggerating the size of the party and generalizing the effect that Valmont?s absence will have on people in the city. Laclos also has Merteuil enlist the support of a metaphor which attempts to use the image of breadcrumbs to convince Valmont that the longer he stays away from Tourvel, the less she will fancy him. Here Merteuil is as much playing on Valmont?s fears about his mishandling of his ?pious prude? as she is writing what she believes to be true. This provides us with an excellent example of how reality in the novel is filtered through the consciousness of both the writer and the recipient.

Merteuil provides a concise summary of all the essential values of the libertine in the paragraph in which she complains about Valmont?s lack of imagination in using a ?bogus illness?. Firstly, the Marquise confirms the fiercely competitive nature of the game ? she writes that she must try for another success to gain the admiration of her compatriot and rival. Secondly, she tells us that her behaviour is a direct response to boredom, supposedly characteristic of the aristocracy of the time . And finally, we learn that libertinism is an art, where every ?amorous venture? is performed with an ?originality in the details?. A libertine?s dream is success, but every waking moment must be spent ensuring that each manoeuvre is carried out precisely in accordance with his plans and every success communicated to his audience. It is not surprising to the reader, then, that in the reply to this letter , Valmont describes without any misgivings and with an undeniable smugness that he has managed

?in the space of an evening to take a girl away from the man she loves; next, to do with her what I liked, for my own ends, like a piece of my own property? to get her to do things that you wouldn?t dare to demand from professionals.?

If in Letter 113 Merteuil establishes a benchmark against which the libertine can be judged, in his reply Valmont tries to exceed all her expectations. Throughout the first three parts of the novel we are drawn to these excesses and freedoms enjoyed by the two central characters, and smile grimly as we read their latest exploits; towards the end of the novel, however, we discover that ironically it is these freedoms which cause of the downfall of both characters.

In Merteuil?s declaration that ?hatred is more ingenious and clear-sighted than friendship? we find evidence of one of the most characteristic traits of the libertine - the constant subjugation of emotion to rationality. This attitude increasingly became part of European consciousness during the Enlightenment; it is evident in the work of many of Laclos? contemporaries, including the Marquis de Sade. It becomes a central concern of Les liaisons dangereuses, and is developed further in Letter 113 when Merteuil writes that she will attempt to bring an end to her relationship with Belleroche not by admitting to him that ?it?s time for a break?, but rather by being excessively affectionate. She takes great pride in boasting to Valmont about the originality of this scheme. Her decision to go after Danceny should also be read in this light. It has been said that she decides on Danceny to make her rival jealous, and while this is certainly true, it is equally because she wants to appear enigmatic in his eyes. Regardless of the reason, however, there is little evidence to suggest that she is in love with Danceny ? she seems more concerned with the practicality of the relationship, praising his ?discreet behaviour?, and her tone is no less apathetic than usual. There is considerable evidence, however, to suggest that she is in love with Valmont, but she never communicates this to him. As is usual in Les liaisons dangereuses, expressing truth is contingent on doing so being part of the writer?s plan.

Letter 113 is crucial in the development of the juxtaposition between the bulk of the novel, where rationality and freedom are the dominant discourses, and its d?nouement, where the values of the libertine capitulate and unrestrained passion takes over. The technical devices used by Laclos foreground this contrast by highlighting the extent to which Valmont and Merteuil will suppress their emotions and the truth in order to conduct their plans in a rational manner. A modern comparison may be made between the failure of the characters to define themselves and the philosophy of existentialism, captured by Albert Camus when he wrote, ?man is the only creature who refuses to be what he is.?

1. D. R. Thelander, Laclos and the Epistolary Novel, Geneva: Librairie Drot, 1963
2. Letter 115
3. See, for example, R. Runte, ?Authors and Actors: The Characters in Les liaisons dangereuses?, in Critical Approaches to Les liaisons dangereuses ed. L. R. Free.
4. A. Camus, The Rebel, Introduction, 1951

A. Camus, The Rebel, Introduction, 1951
Critical Approaches to Les liaisons dangereuses ed. L. R. Free.
D. Parmee, Les liaisons dangereuses, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995
D. R. Thelander, Laclos and the Epistolary Novel, Geneva, Librairie Drot, 1963

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