- “Ce lieu de délices”: Art and Imitation in the French Libertine Cabinet
By 1777, when Damon, the young protagonist of Vivant Denon’s Point de lendemain, admits: “j’avais beaucoup de curiosité; ce n’était plus Mme de T... que je désirais; c’était [son] cabinet,” architecture had become an important motif in eighteenth-century French literature, and space, as Denon’s tale demonstrates, was often pressed into the service of eroticism.1 Nowhere was architecture’s erotic potential more widely explored than in the number of libertine writings that appeared during the last century of the ancien régime, and throughout the century, the libertine text provided an arena in which authors reflected upon the changes that architecture underwent in France as early as the latter part of the seventeenth century. As architects moved to incorporate “commodité” into their plans for living spaces, creating smaller and more intimate rooms that contrasted with the larger, more formal spaces of the previous century, libertine writers put these spaces into play, mining them for their erotic potential, and making the niche, the alcôve, the boudoir, and the cabinet, which were central to eighteenth-century French notions of architecture, mainstays of the libertine text.2 [End Page 335]
I will examine the role of the cabinet (a space akin to the boudoir) in eighteenth-century French architecture, as it is presented in the period’s architectural treatises, as well as in three widely read libertine texts: Godard d’Aucour’s Thémidore (1744), La Morlière’s Angola (1746), and Vivant Denon’s Point de lendemain (1777, 1812).3 An analysis of the role that this “lieu de délices” plays in the libertine tale may provide a more significant understanding of the nature of libertine eroticism, as this space underscores the complex relationship between art, imitation, and desire as it is expressed in ancien régime literature.4 The cabinet’s function as a “supplement” to pleasure highlights the importance that eighteenth-century writers accorded to taste, luxury, and even décor as essential for creating or maintaining pleasure. However, as Derrida has noted, every supplement carries with it the potential not only to enhance, but also to supplant.5 The cabinet’s role as supplement—a seemingly necessary addition to the body’s experience of pleasure—demonstrates the complex and tenuous role of the body in libertine eroticism, and suggests that art, in the libertine text, may serve to mask or compensate for the body’s insufficiencies.
The word “cabinet” served two disparate functions in eighteenth-century French, referring alternately to spaces that were coded as public (or “social”), and others that clearly belonged to the realm of the private. This ambiguity is evident in the architectural treatises from the period as well as in literary texts. In his 1738 re-edition of Daviler’s Cours d’Architecture, Jean Mariette describes this former meaning of the word “cabinet,” specifying for his readers that “Le Grand Cabinet est le lieu où l’on reçoit les personnes avec lesquelles on a à traiter d’affaires; on les dispose de manière qu’il y ait une petite Anti-Chambre pour y entrer, sans passer par l’enfilade des autres pièces. C’est dans le second Cabinet [End Page 336] où l’on doit travailler et où doit être le Bureau.”6 This sense of cabinet as a work space, or as a formal room in which one receives persons of distinction, echoes the remarks in Jacques-François Blondel’s De la distribution des maisons de plaisance (1737).7 In his plans for a large “chambre de parade,” he notes that, adjoining this room, he has added “un Cabinet pour donner quelque audience particulière” (26). For Nicolas Le Camus de Mézières, whose widely cited work Le Génie de l’architecture appeared in 1780, “cabinet” retains a hint of its polysemy, and is used to name intimate, private spaces, as well as larger, public rooms.8 Thus, he uses the word “cabinet” in his description of the proportions and decoration of an ideal “Cabinet de toilette” (a sort of dressing room...