Remarkable Prose: An Amoral Woman’s “Dangerous Liasons”

October 24, 2010 § Leave a comment

photo by johnathan229

Marie Antoinette had an umarked copy in her collection, discovered after her execution.

French society was horrified at its publication. It was declared by the cour de Royale in 1824 as ‘dangerous’

Baudelaire applauded the piece of work.

Some however, have decided it as an ideal wedding gift to the bride on her wedding night.

Choderlos Laclos’ Les Liasons Dangereuses , or Dangerous Liasons, was an extremely controversial novel published in its time.

“I resolved to write a book which would create some stir in the world and continue to do so after I had gone from it”.
-Pierre Choderlos Laclos

Its two main protagonists, the ex-lovers Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, see seduction as a game which they play on their preys.

There were times I did find much of it both intriguing and disturbing: the depths and complexities of human psychology, as revealed by Valmont and Merteuil, even if these so called letters are largely fictional creations by Laclos himself. A reading of the novel will make you realize that the existence of modern day Merteuils and Valmonts isn’t too unimaginable.

The main question the book seems to be throwing, at least at me, is

“Is virtue alone a guarantee for a man, or woman to have a successful and happy life?”

Here is an excerpt of a letter written by the Marquise de Merteuil in reply to Vicomte de Valmont, after he had warned him of a notorious rake’s intentions to seduce her for the sake of ruining her character. The Marquise chides Valmont by reminding him of her vast experience in these cruel games, and how she can have any man she wants.

I have chosen this passage for Laclos’ remarkable description of the inner beliefs of a woman such as the Marquise de Merteuil. Please be reminded again this is a work of fiction, and there are consequences, should one decide to adopt the beliefs and attitudes of the character!

Excerpt from Letter  81, The Marquise Merteuil to the Vicomte de Valmont, from Les  Liasons Dangereuses

“Believe me, Vicomte, unnecessary virtues are rarely acquired. Since you risk nothing in your battles, you take no precautions. For you men, defeat means only one victory the less. In this unequal contest we are lucky not to lose, you unlucky when you do not win. Were I to grant you as many talents as we possess, how far we should still surpass you in the exercise by reason of the continual necessity we are under of putting them to use!

I am willing to suppose that you employ as much skill in conquest as we do in defence or surrender, but you will at least agree that, once you have achieved success, skill is immaterial to you. Entirely absorbed in your new pleasure, you give yourself up to it without constraint or reserve: it is of no importance to you how long it lasts.

After all, to talk the jargon of love, promises reciprocally given and received can be made and broken at will by you alone: we are lucky if upon an impulse you prefer secrecy to scandal, if, content with a humiliating submission, you stop short of making yesterday’s idol the victim of tomorrow’s sacrifice.

But when it is the unfortunate woman who first feels the weight of the chain, what risks she has to run if she tries to escape from it, or even to lighten it! Only in fear and trembling can she attempt to be rid of the man her heart so violently rejects. If he is determined to remain, that which once she granted to love must be given up to fear.

“Her arms are open still although her heart refuse.”

Her prudence must be skillfully employed in undoing the same bonds which you would simply have broken. At the mercy of her enemy, she is without resource if he is without generosity; and how can generosity be expected of him when, although men are sometimes commended for showing it, they are, notwithstanding, never thought the less of for lacking it?
You will not of course deny truths which are so evident as to be trivial. Since, then, you have seen me controlling events and opinions; turning the formidable male into the plaything of my whims and fancies; depriving some of the will, others of the power to hurt me; since I have been capable, according to the impulse of the moment, of attaching to or banishing from my train

“These tyrants that I have unseated and enslaved”

since amidst a great many vicissitudes, I have kept my reputation untarnished; should you not therefore have concluded that I, who was born to revenge my sex and master yours, have been able to discover the methods of doing so unknown even to myself?

Oh, keep your warnings and your fears for those giddy women who call themselves women of feeling, whose heated imaginations persuade them that nature has placed their senses in their heads; who; having never thought about it, invariably confuse love with a lover who, with their stupid delusions, imagine that the man with whom they have found pleasure is pleasure’s only source; and, like all the superstitious, accord that faith and respect to the priest which is due to only the divinity.

Keep your fears, too, for those who are more vain than prudent and cannot, when the time comes, bear to consider being abandoned.

Tremble above all for those women whose minds are active while their bodies are idle, whom you call sensitive; who are always so easily and so powerfully moved to love; who feel they must think about it even though they don’t enjoy it; who, surrendering themselves completely to the fermentation in their minds, give birth as a result to letters full of tenderness but fraught with danger; and who are not afraid to confide these proofs of their weakness to the person responsible for them: imprudent creatures, who cannot see in the lover of today the enemy of tomorrow.

But I, what have I in common with these empty-headed women? When have you known me break the rules I have laid down for myself or betray my principles? I say ‘my principles’ intentionally. They are not, like those of other women, found by chance, accepted unthinkingly, and followed out of habit. They are the fruit of profound reflection. I have created them: I might say I have created myself.

At my entrance into society I was still a girl, condemned by my status to silence and inaction, and I made the most of my opportunities to observe and reflect. I was thought scatter-brained and absent-minded: I paid little attention, inf act, to what everyone was anxious to tell me, but was careful to ponder what they attempted to hide. This useful curiosity, while it increased my knowledge, taught me to dissemble. Since I was often obliged to conceal the objects of my attention from the eyes of those around me, I tried to be able to turn my own wherever I pleased; from that time I have been able at will to assume the air of detachment you have so often admired.

Encouraged by my first success, I tried in the same way to control the different expressions on my face. When I felt annoyed I practised looking serene, even cheerful; in my enthusiasm, I went so far as to suffer pain voluntarily so as to achieve a simultaneous expression of pleasure. I laboured with the same care, and even more difficulty, to repress symptoms of unexpected joy. In this way I was able to acquire the power over my features at which I have sometimes seen you so astonished.

My studies soon became a delight. But, faithful to my principles and aware, perhaps by instinct, that no one should be further from my confidence than my husband, I decided, for the very reason that I had become susceptible to pleasure, to appear in his eyes as impassive. This apparent frigidity proved later to be the unshakable foundation of his blind trust in me. I decided in addition, after careful thought, to indulge the giddy airs my age permitted me: never did he think me more than a child than when I was most flagrantly deceiving him.


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