Excerpt from The Libertine
“That which both sexes then called “love” was a kind of commerce that they entered into, often without inclination, where convenience was always preferred to sympathy, interest to pleasure, and vice to feeling.” In the sentence the French novelist Claude de Crébillon captured the spirit of an era. Such was the eighteenth century in all its brazenness, as reflected in its literature and painting. Libertine: this one word sums up the attitude of the privileged elite of the period, who filled their idle hours by playing at love. As the novelist and dramatist Pierre de Marivaux header marked, a few years before Crébillon: “There was no longer any lovers, there were only libertines who made it their business to make more libertines. One still said to a woman: ‘I love you,’ but this was a polite way of saying: ‘I desire you.’” The word libertine is ambiguous, encompassing a broad range of realities. Today it evokes a more or less sordid trafficking, a commerce of bodies and hearts, a manipulation of needs and consciences, but we mustn't forget that two centuries ago it was all also used to characterize novels by Crébillon and Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, paintings by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, and operas by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It suggested and elegance made manifest in words, shapes, and colors in notes and harmonies. It was associated with refinement and delicacy. It was an art of living in which nuance was favored over forthright assertion. It was a taste for the startling turn of phrase, the persuasive painterly touch, the affecting melody. It was also the decoration of a boudoir and, out of doors, the design of garden bosquets in which details prevailed over the perspective view. New attention was paid to the summarily sketched gesture, the partially glimpsed body, the deliberately ambiguous sign. Libertinage occupied a space between reality and desire, the possible and the imaginary. The eighteenth century was not without violence and the sordid, but in the social and artistic realms its range was considerable, encompassing many tones and registers and running the gamut from subtlety to boorishness. The art in question was not limited to great works of literature and painting, to monuments and operas; it was also secreted in improvised quips, and rapidly executed sketches, in an erotic liberty fostered by twilight, in nice points of dress and decor. As Crébillon said, it was “a kind of commerce,” a word that was then used to designate social relations, worldly connections, and polite conversation, but also economic transactions and a trafficking in bodies and benefits. It took in a broad array of sensual shadings, a complete color chart of possibilities, from jubilant liberty to the most cynical forms of prostitution. The century extends from Crébillon to the Marquis de Sade, from playful banter in which no word violates the protocols of courtesy to a lexicon of a coarseness intended to shock.
According to French dictionaries of the time, a libertin is someone who tends to “follow his natural inclinations without deviating from what is decent,” one who indulges “caprices that are in no way blameworthy,” but laying claim to personal freedom can slip toward license and excess. Etymologically the word derives from the Latin for “freed slave” (libertinus). The term entered French currency during the religious debates of the sixteenth century. Calvin, joined by Catholic apologists, railed against the heterodox sects that had broken away from the established church. To further their polemical agenda, theologians conflated independence from church dogma with atheism, moral license, and sexual excess. Libertinage encompassed anyone acting contrary to the dominant order, from scholars and thinkers who had freed themselves from the lessons of Aristotle to poets who penned erotic rhymed couplets and nobles in good standing at court who practiced the sacrilege of sodomy. All such individuals granted themselves a liberty of opinion or conduct that they did not to commoners. A Latin saying sums up their attitude: intus ut libet, foris ut moris est (“inside, as you like; outside, according to custom”). The heroine of freethinking Dialogues, publishedprudently, under cover of anonymityby Nicolas Chorier around 1659, glosses the phrase like this: “In public, live for everyone; in secret and in private, live for yourself, [but] cover your life with a veil of decency
Clad yourself in respectability, but such that you can easily throw it off when the need arises.” Only persons of elevated standing could allow themselves to risk a degree of public scandal. Accordingly, libertinage was the privilege of an elite that considered itself to be above ordinary rules, whether moral or religious, and had freed itself from obedience to authority.
The horrors of the sixteenth-century Wars of Religion encouraged acceptance of the idea of tolerance. The notion of a society in which disparate opinions could coexist was becoming widespread. Increasingly, a virtuous atheist was not regarded as a contradiction in terms. The eighteenth century blossomed in the space opened up by these developments. A new degree of confidence was accorded nature, imminent providence, and humankind, now deemed capable of perfecting itself. History was no longer condemned to repeat itself. Could it be progress? Should liberty then no longer be confined to an elite? In this era of the féte galante, aristocrats dressed up as shepherds, while boys and girls of the common people dreamed of being aristocrats. Ethics became a secular matter, something that transcended the boundaries of religions. Happiness replaced salvation as the supreme value. The old ideals of virginity and sexual abstinence themselves grew suspect to the followers of healthy management of the organs. In short, the body was getting its revenge. Doctors did not give the same advice as confessors to youngsters, especially young girls, whose senses were calling out to them. Churches warned of the dangers of libertinism; even some voices of the Enlightenment, heir to the free thinking of the previous century, grew suspicious of a libertinage that they deemed tantamount to sterile expenditure, in both economic and sexual terms. On the other hand, pleasure was legitimized on the same grounds as profit. Literature and painting staged amorous frolics in a mixture of complicity and critique. There was both admiration for and disparagement of the great lords who claimed the droit de seigneur, a mythical right to sleep with all the newly married girls in their territories. There was much dreaming about their escapades, which both nourished the literary imagination and became rationales for political reform.
The end of the reign of Louis XIV was darkened by war, fiscal difficulties, and clerical austerity. Scarcely had the old king died in 1715 before the Parlement voided his will and conferred power on Philippe d’Orléans, who made no secret of either his religious skepticism or his taste for orgiastic pleasure parties. The Regency was characterized by sudden slackening of morals, a development that brought with it a proliferation of sexual liaisons and a frantic pursuit of pleasure. The debaucheries of the Regent and his old tutor, the Abbé Dubois, who was made a government minister and later was named a cardinal, occasioned the coinage of a new term: roué, which designated someone worthy of the wheel (la roue), the worst form of capital punishment sanctioned by the old regime. Aristocrats, emboldened by their impunity, degraded themselves by committing infamous acts that would have brought anyone else to the Place de Grève (the site of judicial executions in Paris). The duc de Fronsac, newly become the duc de Richelieu and thus heir to a prestigious name, did not hesitate to demean himself in this way. He became one of the instructors in libertinage to Louis XV, whose personal reign began in 1723. The new sovereign had the court acknowledge his official mistresses and maintained a veritable seraglio at the Parc-aux-Cerfs, a domain scarcely more than a stone’s throw from Versailles. Madame de Pompadour, one such royal mistress, was actively involved in both politics and the arts; Madame du Berry, by contrast, was of very low birth and possessed neither culture nor intelligence. The master set an example that both the aristocracy and the middle class rushed to follow. The common people in small towns and rural areas participated in this dynamic by taking up the fashionable chansons and quips, and by asserting their own right to the pleasures they referenced. On the death of his grandfather in 1774, Louis XVI tried to reimpose moral order, but Marie-Antoinette and the princes of the blood continue to indulge in the pursuit of unprecedented pleasures. The Revolution swept away this brilliant but corrupted world.
Henceforth libertinage would be identified, with greater or lesser degrees of nostalgia, with an Ancien Régime that was lost forever. Was the “sweet life” of those days merely an illusion? It was the expression of a pervasive sense that society, having lost faith in both its rituals and its guiding principles, had come untethered. The Marriage of Figaro is the story of a “crazy day,” one of those on which he can turn into stormy weather. The count tries to seduce the fiancée of his manservant; the page is no longer sure whether he is in love with a girl his own age, with the soubrette, or with the countess, his beautiful godmother. Things could turn out very badly but once again find resolution in song. Cosi fan tutte: to amuse themselves, a cynical old libertine and a chambermaid with a sparkle in her eye distress the hearts of some virtuous young people by convincing the two affianced men to disguise themselves and swap their partners. Mozart's music makes us understand the nature of infidelity; it renders sensible the rarefied pleasures of inconstancy and everything remains a game.
Such is the eighteenth century that we invite you to visit, not just read texts that have traditionally been labeled libertine but to explore more widelyalthough we make no claim to being exhaustivethe diverse productions of an epoch that dreamt of love and questioned that nature of feeling. It can resemble a ball attended by seducers and seductresses from all levels of society (chapter 1). Sometimes it projects desires unrealizable in the here and now onto distant lands, for example, a Near East of predatory despots and oceanic islands where nature remains uncorrupted (chapter 2). It can delight in the material luxuries available to lovers in this period, and all the refinements that Western civilization then had to offer (chapter 3). It can cast a tender gaze on the freshness and awkwardness of adolescents just discovering themselves (chapter 4). It can reflect on the workings of desire and on the limits of freedom (chapter 5). Individuals developed the habit of putting down on paper, in their letters and journals, things that previously had only been whispered inside the confessional (chapter 6). They found in rhymed verse a way of making light of their pains and of playing with their desires (chapter 7). They relegated to the back shelves of libraries and to the secret cabinets of museums priapic texts and artifacts that had been deemed excessively cynical and outside the bounds of propriety, manifestations of desire turned unapologetically brutal (chapter 8).
Such wandering among literary and artistic works seems well suited to the tone of a century that, to quote a celebrated formulation by Jean Starobinski, invented liberty. The paintings, drawings, prints, and objects that accompany the texts are almost never literal illustrations; instead, they echo and accompany them. The period loved Illustrated books; its greatest artists happily left their brushes, charcoal, and a burin to the depiction of the characters invented by their authors, whether contemporary or canonical. But beyond this marriage of literature and the arts, we have tried to juxtapose works that were mutually enriching. The portraits give a face to characters that exist on paper; the mythological subjects provide bodiesespecially nude onesfor eighteenth-century realities; the fabrics, faiences, and printed wallpapers add sensual truth to the textual evocations. It remains for the reader to add to these words, forms, and colors the concert of contemporary voices and instruments heard during these years, when the fortepiano began to replace the harpsichord, and women began to play the harp, sharing with men its laughter and its sighs.