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Eighteenth-Century Studies 33.4 (2000) 505-521

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The Libertine's Bluff: Cards and Culture in Eighteenth-Century France

Thomas Kavanagh

If any one period stands as the heyday of gambling in France, it is the three-quarters of a century separating the death of Louis XIV from the storming of the Bastille and the coming of the Revolution. The years between 1715 and 1789, beginning with the Regency of Philippe d'Orléans and continuing through the reigns of Louis XV and Louis XVI, represent an interlude, a proliferation of brave new ideas that involved a systematic rethinking of the notions of worldly happiness and individual freedom, coupled with what was nothing less than a national obsession with chance and gambling in all its forms. As such, this period was distinctly different from both the austere religiosity marking the last years of Louis XIV and the progressively more belligerent civic moralism of the Revolution and its bloody aftermath. As a way of better understanding the distinctive tenor of those times, I will examine the startling homology between two aspects of that culture which are rarely brought together: the period's signature rethinking of relations between the sexes known as libertinage and the widespread practice of gambling as a favored form of aristocratic sociability. Bringing gambling and libertinage together, looking at each from the perspective of the other, will allow us to understand two things better: how the ancien régime's fascination with gambling became the hallmark of a new form of conviviality redefining the interplay of individual and group; and how, thanks to a conspicuous shift in the metaphorics of gambling, that social practice became, by the late 1760s, the elected scapegoat of an emerging bourgeois ideology preaching the sanctity of money. Understanding the role of gambling within culture necessarily involves, as [End Page 505] Robert Mauzi has put it, a reflection "situated at the intersection of individual and social morality." 1


Anthropologists have used the term "insistence" to describe certain objects and practices which they see as epitomizing the distinctive assumptions and aspirations of a civilization. The pre-Columbian anthropologists Martha and Robert Ascher have, for instance, argued that the Incan quipus, the complex meshes of knotted cords used to inventory the possessions of every village as annual reports to the emperor, are objects which capture in miniature the very essence of that culture. 2 Those elaborate braids used to inform the central authority of the exact number of households, children, slaves, grain holdings, animals, trees, and countless other objects in each village represent the "insistence" of Incan civilization because they were the crucial instruments of an obsessive counting and centralized control of people and goods which approached a level we would today associate with the most delirious ambitions of Weberian bureaucracy. In much the same way, I would argue, gambling, with its proliferation of cards, dice, and games structuring their use, can be seen as an "insistence" of French aristocratic culture during the last seventy-five years of its ascendance.

Few authors provide a better insight into the homologies between sexuality and gambling than Claude Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon. Crébillon fils, the son of the best known tragic playwright of the first half of the century, was born in 1707 and lived until 1777. From the age of twenty-five until well into his sixties, he wrote a series of novels and short prose works that capture perfectly the eighteenth-century science of seduction and domination known as libertinage. The intense yet uneasy relations that characterized the sexual entanglements of the ancien régime aristocracy, are the constant theme of his works. His La Nuit et le moment, for instance, describes the complex chain of events set in motion when the beautiful Cidalise decides to invite to her chateau for the weekend not only the man she hopes to seduce but four of his former mistresses. His Le Hasard du coin du feu takes the form of infinitely nuanced conversations analyzing the psychological consequences of Clerval's reluctance to use the...


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