Read an Excerpt
From Alfred Mac Adam’s Introduction to Les Liaisons Dangereuses
The French of the eighteenth century took themselves to be the paragons of intellect, art, fashion, and manners. Their language was the equivalent of what English is today, a language spoken around the world. We see French pride in the novel when Valmont expresses contempt for his mistress Émilie’s newest lover, who speaks “the French of Holland.” In this sense, it is no wonder Merteuil and Valmont behave as they do: They could feel superior to anyone in the world.
But it is this belief in their superiority that precipitates their catastrophe in Les Liaisons Dangereuses. They misdirect their energies in order to gratify their egos: Instead of seeking glory on the battlefield or in politics, Valmont and Merteuil use their powers to turn sensuality into a game. And like all games, the sport of seduction as conceived by Valmont and Merteuil has its own rules, even its own playing fields. Laclos, not a sportsman, was a military man, so his use of military metaphors throughout his novel reflects his professional training. But even in this there is irony or at least ambiguity: Why would a serious soldier, the inventor of a hollow projectile for the cannon, the author of treatises on strategy and critiques of fortification systems, seemingly demean his calling by having his villains speak the language of military strategy? He seems to mock himself.
Perhaps the military man, who must play to win in order to survive, influenced the literary man coordinating his characters. That Laclos himself was something of an opportunist is also the case, so the moral ambiguity in his novel may also reflect his ability to see what was ethically “right” and realize at the same time that contingency might foist uncomfortable or morally compromising decisions on an individual at any given moment. For example, Laclos was a member of the lesser nobility (only nobles could be officers in the pre-revolutionary French army), but with the Revolution of 1789, he became secretary to the slippery Philippe Égalité (1747–1793), who sided with the revolutionaries while apparently scheming to have himself named constitutional monarch. Philippe Ègalité was guillotined during the Reign of Terror, but by then Laclos had already established ties with the Jacobin Club, the most radical revolutionaries. He somehow survived the Reign of Terror to become an important supporter of Napoléon’s coup against the Directory on 18 Brumaire (November 9, 1799). Napoléon rewarded him with a generalship in 1800. Laclos survived the Revolution and the Terror, and triumphed with the rise of Napoléon. But what was the moral cost?
Valmont and Merteuil do not have to suffer Laclos’s many political shifts; indeed, they are remarkably consistent in their erotic politics. But we should not assume that, because they engage in conquest and seduction, they are any less professional in their strategy than Laclos was when, in 1792, he participated as an artillery officer in the battle of Valmy, the first defensive victory of Revolutionary France against monarchic Prussian invaders. Far less glorious, attacking an enemy unaware that it is at war, Valmont and Merteuil move forward on several fronts simultaneously.
The pretext for this war is revenge: The Marquise de Merteuil has been abandoned by a former lover, the Comte de Gercourt. (Gercourt then steals a former lover of the Vicomte de Valmont, a lady referred to as the Intendante—that is, the wife of an important officer in the royal quartermaster corps. Merteuil learns that the mother of Cécile Volanges, a sixteen-year-old girl who has just left her convent school, has arranged for her daughter to be married to Gercourt. Merteuil, taking the role of field marshal, recruits Valmont: He will seduce Cécile Volanges and make Gercourt into “the joke of all Paris.”) Valmont’s credentials as a seducer are impeccable, and the list of his conquests long, so the project is child’s play for him, as he himself says:
To seduce a young girl, who has seen nothing, knows nothing, who would be, so to speak, delivered defenseless into my hands, whom a first compliment would not fail to intoxicate, and whom curiosity will perhaps more readily entice than love. Twenty others can succeed and these as well as I.
Merteuil must use every possible argument—Valmont’s getting even with Gercourt, Valmont’s reputation as a Don Juan, even a renewal of her sexual liaison with Valmont—to convince her hesitant ally.
In essence, Valmont is a mercenary soldier in the pay of Merteuil. He will carry out her orders even though he has other, more pressing interests—the seduction of the notoriously prudish and faithful Présidente de Tourvel. What he cannot realize is that Merteuil is governed by jealousy and will tolerate no rivals. If Gercourt left her for another woman, then Gercourt must be punished, even if that means destroying a girl’s life. If Valmont falls in love with Tourvel, he must be punished as well, by being commanded to abandon her after seducing her. Merteuil, meanwhile, will proffer examples of her own amorous adventures in order to titillate Valmont and make him jealous. What she does consciously, he does unconsciously by boasting; each succeeds, and disaster ensues. Or, as Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867) puts it in notes for an unpublished article on Les Liaisons Dangereuses: L’amour de la guerre et la guerre de l’amour (“the love of war and the war of love”).