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Eighteenth-Century Studies 37.2 (2004) 319-325
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Beyond Laclos and Sade:
Constructing Eighteenth-Century Libertinage
Purdue University, Calumet
Michel Delon. Le Savoir-vivre libertin (Paris: Hachette Littératures, 2000). Pp. 347. 139.00 paper.
Marc André Bernier. Libertinage et figure du savoir: Rhétorique et roman libertin dans la France des Lumières (1734-1751) (Québec and Paris: Les Presses de l'Université Laval/L'Harmattan, 2001). Pp. 273. $28.00 Canadian paper.
Decades after Barry Ivker lamented in 1970 the lack of systematic study of eighteenth-century libertinism matching René Pintard's work on the first half of the seventeenth century (Towards a Definition of Libertinism, Institut et Musée Voltaire), many serious attempts have been made to fill the gap. Almost all of the studies begin by tracing the evolution of the term libertin from its Latin etymology to its seventeenth-century meanings in French. The Latin adjective, libertinus, of a freed man, combines both the idea of liberation and that of a degraded social situation. In French, the word libertin, from its earliest appearances in the fifteenth and the sixteenth centuries, implies both free-thinking as well as moral dissolution and sexual debauchery. During the following centuries, its definitions shift according to which aspect of the two meanings is accentuated, but it is generally believed that impiety would necessarily cause moral depravity, and vice versa. At the end of seventeenth century, Pierre Bayle attempted to establish the separation between religious belief and moral uprightness and prove the existence of virtuous atheists. The term libertinage continues to evolve during the course of the eighteenth century, from the last years of the reign of Louis XIV to [End Page 319] the Regency, from the reign of Louis XV and that of Louis XVI to the Revolution. The complexity of the concept of libertinage, with its multiple dimensions as a philosophical movement, a way of living and a literary trend (many critics in recent years have chosen to retain the word libertinage, which better renders these dimensions, instead of translating it as libertinism) is evident from a review of literature devoted to it. Tension exists between those who seek in libertinage a timeless idea and those who view it as a movement from a particular historical period. On the other hand, it is difficult to find unity among diverse writers who have been associated with libertinage: the conclusions one draws from certain libertine texts often cannot be applied to others. For example, those who base their conclusion mainly on Laclos' Liaisons dangereuses, view libertinage primarily as a game of seduction for which men are seducers and women victims, leaving out many other libertine novels, in which women, instead of being victims of male desire, participate fully in the celebration of lust: Thérèse, Félicia, or the very proper Mme de T . . . among others. The distinctions between libertine, licentious, erotic, or even pornographic or obscene can be quite blurred. While certainly not interchangeable, they can be overlapping and efforts to clearly distinguish them, according to author's intention, reader's reaction, and difference of styles or narrative techniques, have been unsatisfactory. Among the works that Lynn Hunt classifies as pornography (The Invention of Pornography, 1993), Thérèse Philosophe is recognized by many to be a libertine text, included in Raymond Trousson's anthology, and Le Sopha was included in Michel Feher's Libertine Reader.
Two recent books, Le savoir-vivre libertin by Michel Delon and Libertinage et figures du savoir by Marc André Bernier have made significant contributions to the problem of libertinage and each of them offers his own solution for treating libertinage in its diversity and richness, and understanding its historical situation while grasping its currency. Contrary to those who consider libertinage under the Regency and thereafter as pertaining almost exclusively to moral and sexual licentiousness, they both emphasize the unity between erudite and moral libertinage, free-thinking, and free-living.
Rather than giving libertinage a fixed definition, Michel Delon grasps it in the wide range of its meanings between decent pleasures and...