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ONE MEDICINE AND MIMESIS T H E C O N T O U R S O F A C O N F I G U R A T I O N L ES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES (1782) ends with a cascade of calamities : the deaths of the libertine Valmont and his virtuous victim, Mme. de Tourvel; Chevalier Danceny’s withdrawal into celibacy as a Knight of Malta; and Mlle. de Volanges’s incarceration in a convent. Crowning these disasters is the fate of the villainous Mme. de Merteuil, recounted byMme. de Volanges inthelast letter of Laclos’s novel: Mme. de Merteuil’s destiny seems at last accomplished, my dear and excellent friend; and it is such that her worst enemies are divided between the indignationshe merits and the pity she inspires. I was indeedright to saythat it would perhaps be fortunate for her if she died of her smallpox. She has recovered, it is true, but horribly disfigured; and particularly by the loss ofone eye. Youmay easily imagine that I have notseen her again; but I am told she is positively hideous. The Marquis de . . . , who never misses the opportunity of saying a spitefulthing,speakingofheryesterday,said thatherdiseasehadturned her round and that now her soul is in her face. Unhappily, everyone thought the expression a very true one.1 AsthecommentsofMme. deVolangesandtheanonymousMarquis indicate, Merteuil’s sudden illness serves a quite restricted literary purpose. Indisfiguring her,thesmallpox offers Laclos’s readers a legible figure of moral, social, and narrative closure, a “very true” representation of Merteuil’s evil character that Laclos’s narrative from its inception has promised but deferred. One might say,then, that at the moment when illness attaches itself to character, what Barthes has referred to as the “hermeneutic code” of Les Liaisons is laid bare. No more meaning remains hidden. The game of plotting and interpreting has come to an end, and the quest for the truth about Merteuil’s character is complete, both for the “everyone” referred to by the Marquis and for Laclos’s readers. As for the smallpox itself, considered as a disease with symptoms and stages, causes and consequences, it interests Laclos not at all as a possibleoccasionforinterpretationorfurther narration.Onthe con- 4 ONE trary, in supplying an unequivocal truth, the smallpox puts an end to interpreting.Astheoutsideofthehermeneuticdimension,Merteuil’s illnessalsoliesbeyondthedimensionofsecular,experientialtimeprojected in and through the novel.2 Disfiguration, the manifestation of that illness, lacks any temporal compass and can thus punctuate but notparticipateinthedynamicofseduction,liaison,manipulation,and betrayalthroughwhichLaclos’scharactersbecomerealizedforthemselves and for the novel’s readers. In subordinating illness to his narrative requirements as he does, Laclosisfarfromuniqueamongseventeenth-andeighteenth-century novelists. The tendency to disjoin illness from the life of character is in fact a prevalent one during the period. This is not to say that early novelistsintroduceillness intotheirnarratives only tomarkthe end of a character’s development in a moment of blinding, quasi-Oedipal realization. On the contrary, the age swarms with characters—from Sterne’s Uncle Toby to Diderot’s Rameau’s nephew to Goethe’s Werther —for whom illness, far from appearing as a sudden stroke of fate, constitutesan abidingstate ofbeing, eventothe extentthattheir sicknessconfersuponthemanongoing ,oftenrathercomfortableidentity as eccentrics.3 One might even go so far as to argue that this second literaryuseofillnessismorefundamental,oratleastmoretraditional, in the early novel. After all, the archetypal novelistic hero, Don Quixote , qualifies as such in large part because he suffers from what René Girard calls “ontological sickness.”4 Such variation in the status of illness in fiction, taken together with the fact that so many writers during this period either actually practiced medicine (like Goldsmith) or were intensely and demonstrably interestedinexploringmedicalissuesintheirliterarywork(likeDiderot and Goethe), should make one wary of generalizing about the historical relation between medicine and the novel. And yet, just as a general distinction is often made between the representational practices of realism in eighteenth-century versus nineteenth-century novels ,soonecanalsoprofitablydistinguishbetweentheliterarystatusof illness in these two kinds of realistic fiction. Although qualifications andallowancesforexceptionsmustofcoursebemade,itseemsgenerallyaccuratetosaythat early realistsdo notgo beyond thetwoalternatives sketched above. In their fiction, illness tends to appear as either afundamentalontologicalpredicamentorapunctualsignalofinnate moral inadeqacy. In neither case do novelists adopt what might be called a consistent medical view of their characters—that is, a view in whichillnesswouldbearticulatedalongwith,andasameansofilluminating ,thedevelopinglifeofanembodiedself.Illnesscanregisterthe essential truth about a character in early realism, but that truth does M EDICINE AND M IM ESIS 5 not emerge or evolve as an integrated aspect of narrative temporality. Characters in such novels are sick, but do not become sick over the time that the novel shapes. If a medical view of character...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9781400820689
Related ISBN
9780691029542
MARC Record
OCLC
179077097
Pages
252
Launched on MUSE
2015-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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