I have recently reread Dangerous Liaisons, a masterpiece of French literature that has had a profound impact on culture over the last 230 years. Les Liaisons dangereuses provoked the wrath of clerics and critics alike and fired up the imagination of a country on the cusp of revolution. Pierre Choderlos de Laclos did an exceptional job of unveiling the masks, powdered wigs and sordid underbelly of his peers. The narrative is driven by the cynical manipulations of its chief protagonists, the Marquise de Merteuil and the libertine Valmont. The diabolical duo plot and scheme to destroy their lovers, their tireless machinations played out like an intricate game of chess.
Her banishment is not punishment enough, she contracts smallpox and is severely disfigured. Clearly death is too light a sentence for whores
The military precision with which Laclos stages the pair’s exploitations is remarkable; every angle is disclosed to the reader, each sordid detail and evil trickery. Given Laclos’ military background it is hardly surprising that his novel is permeated with the imagery of war. An important component of the story is the tempestuous nature of Merteuil. While Valmont shares a starring credit in this literary romp, Merteuil is the dominant force of signification and it is she who is responsible for the plot’s twists and turns. Merteuil is at once independent and industrious and yet a slave to the patriarchal system of her day. Try as she may to acquire a measure of liberty from the ties that bind her, Merteuil remains constrained by the very instrument she uses to manipulate others, her womanhood. And alas, there is no redemption for the Marquise. Her banishment is not punishment enough, she contracts smallpox and is severely disfigured. Clearly death is too light a sentence for whores.
In spite of his harsh treatment of Merteuil, Laclos (below) was something of an early feminist revolutionary. His series of essays on the education of women (interestingly published after Dangerous Liaisons; an act of penance perhaps?) and his assertion that in denying women of education and the right to self-determination they will never be equal to men, Laclos exhibited an insightful understanding of the plight of women. The book’s enduring legacy may be due to the controversy it provoked in its day, but it is also a testament to Laclos’ irrefutable style and panache and his exploration of moral issues that are still very relevant to us today. While the ethical dilemmas and weaknesses he bequeaths to his characters inform us of the moral benchmark in Laclos’ world, they are easily transferable to the 21st century and perhaps here lies the strength of Dangerous Liaisons, and the secret to its immortality.
Is it only me or are there others for whom Merteuil represents the classic antiheroine? Her misfortune encapsulating the essence of fallen women everywhere until age, attrition and regret give way to the inevitable. It is a sexual inequity that was as relevant to Laclos as it is in today’s culture. A contemporary example is the portrayal of two biblical femme fatales in the new season of True Blood, Lilith and Salome; the former a blood-spattered psychopath, the latter a misguided weakling who gives head to get ahead. How avant-garde. I wonder how much they’re paying the writers for that sack of shit. And yet, it is a ruse perpetuated on our screens with trite civility and little consequence to how boorish it is. If anyone is hiring at HBO, I’m well on hand to render my gentle treatment of the next season.
And so this evening, when the sun descends in a tapestry of reds, blues and yellows, I will raise a glass of chartreuse to the Marquise; lost and condemned to the whiles of infamy, and yet vital and resplendent with all that is woman.