Ce n est pas ma faute: . The Strange Fortunes of Piety and Consciousness in Choderlos de Laclos s Les Liaisons dangereuses. Copyright 2002 Polly Detels.

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Cenestpasmafaute:TheStrange FortunesofPietyandConsciousnessinChoderlosdeLacloss Copyright 2002 Polly Detels Whenever a French and a German tale follow the same pattern, the German veers off in the direction of the mysterious, the supernatural, and the violent, while the French steers straight for the village where the hero can give full play to his talent for intrigue –Robert Darnton1 [1] If mans life is only a shadow and true reality lies elsewhere, in the inaccessible, in the inhuman or the suprahuman, then we suddenly enter the drama of theology. Indeed, Kafkas first commentators explained his novels as religious parables. . . . Such an 1 [1] Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (New York: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers, 1984), 55.

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interpretation seems to me wrong (becaus e it sees allegory when Kafka grasped concrete situations of human life) but also revealing: wherever power deifies itself, it automatically produces its ow n theology; wherever it beha ves like God, it awakens religious feelings toward self; such a wor ld can be described in theological terms. –Milan Kundera2 [2] Choderlos Laclos s Les Liaisons dangereuses (1782) is an epistolary novel of wicked reason and deformed consciousness, the latter a philosophical problem that appears throughout the work of Eric Voegelin. In volume V of Order and History Voegelin addressed the proble m of philosophy deprived of the erotic tension of the Divine beyond as a specific property of 18 th-19th-century deformation .3 [3] The libertines of Les Liaisons dangereuses banish the beyond and founder on deformative attempts nevertheless to preserve an erotic tension with the objects of their desires.4 2 [2] Milan Kundera, Somewhere Behind, in The Art of the Novel, transl. Linda Asher (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1988), 102. 3 [3] Eric Voegelin, In Search of Order(Baton Rouge: Louisian a State University Press, 1987), 54. 4 [4] See Voegelin s discussion of the contracted self in The Eclipse of Reality, in What is History and Other Late Unpublished Writings, edited by Thomas A. Hollweck and Paul Caringella (B aton Rouge: Louisian a State University Press, 1990), 111-114.

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[4] All the characters are seekers after kn owledge; most of them use it to direct the lives of others. Consciously abolishing love from the l ove of knowledge they assure themselves the ennui they seek to avoid, they abolish love from their lives, and, in some cases, they perish. In this novel, phil osophy is absent from the stage; even so, Les Liaisons dangereuses is a philosophical novel. Robert Darnton s remark above to the effect that the French will choose busy town over bewitched and bew itching tarn illuminates indir ectly much of the scholarly discussion of Laclos s splendid novel. Whether auth or Laclos is understood as disciple or debunker of Rousseau or Descar tes, an ironic proponent of the libertine code of ethics, or simply as the neutral observer disingenuously set forth by the novels borrowed epigraph Jai vu les moeurs de mon temps, et j ai publi ces Lettresthe focus of criticism is directed at analysis of the society in which the novel was set. It is, as Ronald Rosbottom has put it, a novel about connections, not about individuals.5 [5] Mondanit worldlinessis the touchstone even for critics whose discussions center on the eighteenth-century self.6 [6] 5 [5] This is even more striking, continues Rosbottom, when we realize that modern autobiography, evolving from its Lock ean origins, was born and developed in the eighteenth century. Ronald C. Rosbottom, Choderlos de Laclos (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978), 58. 6 [6] The classic study of this phenomenon as explored in Les Liaisons dangereuses is Peter Brooks, The Novel of Worldliness: Crbillon, Marivaux, Laclos, Stendhal (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1 969). Brooks defines worldliness as an ethos and personal manner which indicate that one attaches primary or even exclusive importance to ordered social existence, to life within a public sy stem of values and

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The Liaisons is such a complex and intricate work that studies frequently allude to the novel s resistance to interpretation.7 [7 ] One critic has suggested that whatever his intentions may have been, author Laclos systematically and loyally served the law that is superior to all others, because of the reversals it provokes, the law of the novel. 8 [8] The openness of the epistolary form powerfully influences audience as well as a uthor. Elizabeth MacArthur has suggested that epistolarity provokes a particular response from the scholarly reader: gestures to the social techni ques that further this life and one s position in it, and hence to knowledge about society and its forms of comportment (Brooks, 4). Novels of worldliness are generally novels of stasis: It is typical of all novels of mondanit , writes Susan Winnett, that society emerges unchanged from the plots for which it has served as a medium Susan Winnett, Terrible Sociability: The Text of Manners in Laclos, Goethe, and James (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), 17. 7 [7] It is usual to find the language of defiance and resistance to interpretation. Christine Roulston has (persuasively) compli cated the model by suggesting that even as the novel resists reading, the model of reading proposed by Laclos advocates a process of resistance rather than of identification, i.e., Laclos instructs the reader to resist the novel. Christine Roulston, Virtue, Gender, and the Authentic Self in Eighteenth-Century Fiction: Richardson, Rousseau, and Laclos (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1998), 146. 8 [8] Anne Deneys, The Political Economy of the Body in the Liaisons dangereuses of Choderlos Laclos, in Eroticism and the Body Politic, edited by Lynn Hunt (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Uni versity Press, 1991), 60.

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Critics tend to respond to such metonym ic texts by metaphorizing them. To impose metaphor on a metonymic text is to give it a message to make it didactic, in other words to force it to say what it ought to say. Editors and critics of epistolary narratives have almost universally adopted this moralizing stance. . . . If epistolary narratives refuse the stabilizing certitudes of more closural forms, challenging received values with their disruptive metonymic questio ning, it is not surprising that critics confronted with them attempt to reassert stable, meaningful order.9 [9] Among those caught up in the problem of tracking the pressure exerted by form on meaning 10 [10] some have declared that Les Liaisons can be metaphorically penetrated as a boulet creux (an artillery device invente d by the versatile Laclos), which draws its force from a hollow center.11 [11] Other metaphorizing interpretations have included Liaisons as stage (with Laclos cast as puppeteer or 9 [9] Elizabeth J. MacArthur, Extravagant Narratives: C losure and Dynamics in the Epistolary Form (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 274. 10 [10] Janet Gurkin Altman, Epistolarity, Approaches to a Form (Columbus: Ohio State University, 1982), 189. 11 [11] Joan DeJean presents an extended development of the strategic analogy, which has also been treated by Irving Wohlfarth and Georges Daniel. Joan DeJean, Literary Fortification: Rousseau, Laclos, Sade (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 252-3.

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ventriloquist), as a jeu de miroirs, and even as a harem looking inward upon itself. 12 [12] These interpretations are all s olidly rooted in the figurative language of the novel itself. Critics who have not focu sed on the nature of the epistolary form and its structure, or on some aspect of worldliness, have emphasized the Merteuil- Valmont correspondence and relationship, indi vidual psyches of Merteuil or Valmont, the novels intertextuality, or the novel s fictional and actual readers. The foregoing discussion shou ld offer some indication of the extent to which a storytellers consciousness stands to be swallowed up more by scholarly debate than by vivid characterizations and plot. Neverthe less, all these critical roads lead to the intentions, and m ind, of the novel s author. Given that the epistolary novel is the perfect medium to camouflage the existence and presence of the novelist, Laclos will not be easy to find.13 [13] Searching for the author, many critics fault Laclos for ending the novel weakly. Merteuil s disfiguration by smallpox, Valmont s death after a duel with one of his dupes, Tourvel s death in the convent of her youth (the latter deemed implausible by the fictive publisher in the novel s first preface) have struck readers as lame and lacking in subtlety. Vivienne Mylne, while applauding Merteuils silence at the end of the novel, takes issue with the smallpox that disfigures her because it invokes a punitive Providence which upsets the purely 12 [12] Suellen Diaconoff, Eros and Power in Les Liaisons dangereuses: A Study in Evil (Gnve: Librairie Droz, 1979), 56. 13 [13] Lloyd R. Free, ed., Critical Approaches to Le s Liaisons dangereuses (Madrid: Studia Humanitatis, 1978), 22.

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presence, via une manire peine, that stands more decidedly behind one character than another?17 [17] Eric Voegelin writes about the rela tionship between the storyteller s consciousness and a work of fiction in the Postscript to a letter to colleague Robert Heilman. The original letter was a 1947 response to Heilman s analysis of the Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw. The Postscript, written years later, focused on an effort to assess and amplify the validity of a principle that had driven Voegelins responsive analysis.18 [18] This principle was, to follow the pattern of symbols, and see what emerges by way of meaning (Voegelin on James, 134). The work of fiction was to be the primary tool of analysis. As Voegelin argued, under this rubric even an author s non-fiction commentary by which he himself has indicated a line of interpretation was secondary to the meaning offered by the 17 [17] Such critical pairings are not conf ined to main characters. One critic, for very good reasons, has identified Laclos s presence in the novel with a brief cameo by a shoemaker who appears in the first letter an d never again. See Susan K. Jackson, In Search of a Female Voice: Les Liaisons dangereuses, in Writing the Female Voice: Essays on Epistolary Literature, edited by Elizabeth C. Goldsmith (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1989), 161. 18 [18] As the initial analysis was part of a letter from one scholar to another, this later assessment took the form of an extended postscript and both were published in Southern Review, 1971. They subsequently were included in Volume 12 of the Complete Works. Eric Voegelin, On Henry James s Turn of the Screw , in Published Essays 1966-1985, edited by Ellis Sandoz (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990). Cited hereafter in the text as Voegelin on James.

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text (Voegelin on James, 135). Voegelin s original interpretation of James s novella as a story of a souls closure to God, and, in counterpoint, of its roots in a cosmic drama of good and evil as an incestuous affair in the divinity, was complicated by the fact that, but for the frame of a vague garden, specific religious symbols quite evident to Voegelin were more or less missing from the language of the novella itself. Voegelin s Postscript qualified the premise (following the symbols to meaning on the assumption that the author knew what he was doing) and worked through the difficulties arising from symbolic vagueness.19 [19] As I perceive Les Liaisons Dangereuses, it has remarkable resonance with Voegelin s understanding of The Turn of the Screw. Laclos s novel is undoubtedly a story of the soul s closure to God, and I will suggest parenthetically that the theme of incest is present as we ll. I will begin by foll owing symbols, as Voegelin has done in the analysis of James, and then proceed to Voegelin s Postscript as preface to discussion of the consciousness of the storyteller. Les Liaisons Dangereuses has three principal story lines hooked to one plot. Arguably the chief strand is the liaison of the Marquise de Merteuil, a widow whose virtuous public persona masks the motto Il faut vaincre ou p rir (letter 81), with the Vicomte de Valmont, a noted libertine. These characters seem on the point of renewing a former erotic relationship via letters concerning a joint project: the ruination of a convent girl (C cile de Volanges) before her marriage to a man they both have reason to loathe (G ercourt). The seduction of C cile is the second strand in the plot. Merteuils and Valmont s comparable gifts for calculation and 19 [19] This founding pr emise for criticism of a first-rate artist or philosopher appeared in one of Voegelin s letters to Robert Heilman: July 24, 1956 Eric Voegelin Papers, Hoover Institution Archives, box 17, folder 9.

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viciousness issue in an epistolary competiti on that sets them off from the rest of their society. Each contrives assiduously to be unique. I am tempted to think, writes the Vicomte to his partner, that in all the world it is only you and I who are worth anything/je suis tent de croire qu il ny a que vous et moi dans le monde qui valions quelque chose (letter 100). A less iro nized worthiness defines the third principal character, the Pr sidente de Tourvel. Like Merteuil, Tourvel has a reputation for virtue, but she is also kn own for her religious devotion and a happy marriage. That Tourvel deserves her reputatio n launches the third strand of the plot: Valmont plans to enhance his fame by seducing la c leste d vote (letter 44). Numerous symbolic complexes move through the rhetoric with which these and other correspondents fill their letters and advance their desires. The Merteuil and Valmont correspondence abounds in meta phors having to do with theater, myth, law, history, and, ultimately, war. C ciles seduction by both Valmont and Merteuil generally evokes the language of educati on. But for all their diverse and colliding aims, all the characters make use of religi ous language or symbols. This has been relatively neglected in the critical literature. Milan Kundera s measured caveat (of the epigraph) notwithstanding, I wish to pursue the strange fortunes of piety in Les Liaison dangereuses as a means to interrogate the storyteller s consciousness. In the Liaisons, religious symbols can be re asonably configured into two categories. There is a constellation of sy mbols that have to do with doctrine, rituals, institutions and offices: sin, contumacy, penitence, disgus t with the world; sacraments of marriage, penance, and extreme unction; convents, priests, and confessors. A second constellation includes symbolizatio ns of the Divine. There are two subcategories here. In one category are form ulations of God as an inscrutable, or at least remote, judge. In the other subcat egory belong formulati ons in which human beings substitute for, or in some way cl aim to possess, Divinity. I will examine

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several of these and some of their entanglements at length, with primary attention to utterances and activities of Me rteuil, Valmont, and Tourvel. Merteuils use of pious language has mai nly to do with the thr ee things she holds dear: knowledge, power, and pleasure. Her direction of the erotic education of Ccile affords her all three. When its advances precipitate a crisis, appeals come both from the pupil, who is titi llated by a flirtation with the Chevalier de Danceny, and from her mother Madame de Volanges whose de licate role it is to guard chastity while gathering Ccile into society s libertine orbit. Amused to find identical statements in their letters–it is to you alone that I can look for consolation /Cest de vous seule que jattends quelque consolation –Merteuil writes to Valmont, There I was, like God, acknowledging the conflicti ng claims of blind humanity, changing not a syllable of my inexorable decrees / Me voil comme la Divinit , reevant les voeux opposs des aveugles mortels, et ne changeant rien mes decrets immuables (letter 63). Later in the letter she informs Valmont that she has given up playing God and has assumed in its pla ce the role of consoling angel ( Jai quitt pourtant, ce r le august, pour prendre celui dAnge consolateur). Valmont s self-consciously amused mastery of a spiritual idiom, aimed chiefly at seduction of the devo ut Tourvel, flatters and e ntertains his confidante, the Marquise de Merteuil, as he keeps her in formed of his progress. Given her own zeal and fervor, writes Valmont, Merteuil has amassed far more conversions than he: if our God judges us by our deeds, you will one day be the patron saint of some great city, while I shall be, at most, a village saint / et si ce Dieu-la nous jugeait sur notres oeuvres, vous seri ez un jour la Patronne de quelque grande ville, tandis que votre ami serait au plus un Saint de village (letter 4). When addressing Merteuil, he can be as flippant about religion as she is , even as he touches the fine theological points of works and grace. But Valmont and, as we shall see later, Tourvel take their

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