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  • Sociability, Cartesianism, and Nostalgia in Libertine Discourse
  • Elena Russo (bio)

The libertine is usually represented as someone intent to shake off all restraints, reverse all cults, break with past prejudices, and thrust forward in a search for new limits and boundaries to overthrow. Yet, his theatrically displayed effort to break with the past hides a persistent sense of loss and is in reality an effort to deny the value of that which he would like to recover, but is unable to. The libertine vehemently rejects the past because he feels he has been cast away from it. Such a predicament becomes apparent when we confront the libertine with the tradition he is so keen to undermine. I will attempt to show the libertine in a new light by uncovering not only the discontinuity, but also the continuity between the discourse of the seventeenth-century honnête homme and that of the eighteenth-century libertin galant in relation to their representation of sociability. Both emphasize the separation between private self and public persona; but while the honnête homme aims at reconciling the two, the libertin galant draws between them an unbridgeable gap. The discourse of honnêteté shows that the self becomes fully formed only through social interaction, while the libertin galant is an essentialist who believes in the autonomy of a pre-social, Hobbesian individual, animated by boundless and selfish passions. Libertinage galant is thus a discourse of reaction and nostalgia, intent to deny the rationalization and the reconciliation of the social space that the Enlightenment had so persistently advocated. Rather than joining the chorus praising the Enlightenment, as has often been said, the libertine raises his voice to debunk it. [End Page 383]

Who is the libertine? There is no simple answer to that question. From the seventeenth-century erudite libertine to the eighteenth-century petit-maître, libertinage covers a field of intellectual activities and social practices that seems too vast and diverse to be included under a single label. Yet, libertinage is not merely a monstrous creature of intellectual history. If the naturalist writer Cyrano de Bergerac, the Epicurean philosopher Gassendi (precursor of Empiricism), the skeptical La Mothe Le Vayer, the devout Mersenne (whose scientific activity never led him to question the Catholic faith), honnêtes hommes such as Saint-Evremond and the Chevalier de Méré, and the rebel marquis de Sade have all been classified, in their own time, as libertines, it is because something united such a diverse crowd in the eyes of their contemporaries. Traditionally, all of them have been accused of (or praised for) seeking the emancipation of reason and the passions from established authority (be that the Aristotelian method or the Church doctrine), for fighting dogmatism in the sciences, morality and religion, and sometimes for living their life up to their subversive principles—even though most of the early libertines led very quiet lives, hiding their passions and convictions behind a mask of conformism, following the Cartesian motto “larvatus prodeo.” 1 Péter Nagy, Claude Reichler and Jean Starobinski, have all confirmed that image, stressing libertinage’s aspiration to freedom and individual happiness. For Starobinski, libertinage embodies “one of the possible experiences of freedom, resulting from a parti-pris of insubordination . . . Freedom to seek pleasure but also freedom of thought. Libertines and libertarians.” 2 Similarly, Nagy detects among the eighteenth-century pleasure-seeking libertines an affinity with earlier forms of libertinism and with the critical rationalism of the philosophes: “Following a different path, they pursue the same goal: the establishment of a natural morality founded on the expansion of man’s vital instincts and not on their oppression.” 3

Yet, their search for emancipation has very precise limits. The libertines are generally not system builders but rather skeptics undermining all systems. Like his predecessor, the honnête homme, the libertin galant wears a mask, he never engages in open criticism, but seeks freedom in simulation only, mimicking, by a self-imposed discipline, the codes and the forms that common people passively live by. Unlike his predecessor, however, his secretly subversive enterprise often hides a nostalgic side, which readers rarely recognize. The libertin galant looks to the feudal past, raises it...

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pp. 383-400
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