‘Dangerous seclusions in Laclos’s Les Liaisons dangereuses’. British Society for Eighteenth Century Studies Annual Conference, Oxford

Activity: Talk or presentation typesPresentation


At first sight, the message of Les Liaisons dangereuses seems unambiguous. On the title page, below the stark warning about the danger of certain liaisons, a subtitle and an epigraph borrowed from Rousseau caution the reader against the ills of society. The essence of the intrigue itself—two rakish socialites’ seduction of a devout woman and a naïve young girl—corroborates the interpretation of the novel as an apology of isolation from what is perceived as the depraved worldliness of 18th-century Paris. However, a closer look at Laclos’s masterpiece reveals a far more complex understanding of the perils facing his characters and of the nature of isolation. As I will argue, danger for them looms not only in society, but also in their retreat from the world which constitutes yet another and perhaps even more profound threat to their virtue and happiness. Why can isolation be a danger according to Laclos? What is, then, his true message to the reader of Les Liaisons dangereuses? How does it fit within a century which saw both the rise of individualism or intimacy, and philosophical disputes about Man’s alleged sociability?
This paper will first present Les Liaisons dangereuses as a book not so much about liaisons as about isolation which, rather surprisingly, is often connoted negatively. The novel features retreats that can be spiritual (in nunneries and in the country), pastoral (in amorous reveries), libertine (in erotic tête-à-têtes), military (in the heroes’ tactics of seduction and resistance) or intimate (in boudoirs and behind lies). Deflating a tradition of virtuous seclusions from the world, Laclos shows that erotic desires saturate all these retreats.
I will then explore why these retreats are potentially dangerous, arguing that the emptiness surrounding Laclos’s recluses enhances the resonance of the slightest emotion. Solitude here renders audible all the fantasies and desires which the din of the ‘whirlwind of the world’ would cover. Chaste introspections become amorous reveries, before turning into full-fledged erotic obsessions. Laclos thus suggests that the danger might reside less in the outside world than inside the deepest recesses of the self to which retreat precariously gives a voice.
However, Laclos’s aim is not to reveal men and women as always already corrupted by lust. Rather, as he explains in his essays, the irrepressible desires that one encounters in the void of retreat are natural and therefore pure. Yet these drives did become dangerous for individuals the moment society put a ban on them. Thus, in Les Liaisons dangereuses, the seducers may actively lie and cheat but they also rely on their prey’s solitude to lay bare such longings. In the unwisely repressive society of 18th-century France, and until forthcoming revolutions transform the rules of the social game, the first dangerous liaison to avoid seems to be—tragically—the one with the self, born from prolonged tête-à-têtes with one’s own all too human instincts.
Period8 Jan 2015
Event title‘Dangerous seclusions in Laclos’s Les Liaisons dangereuses’. British Society for Eighteenth Century Studies Annual Conference, Oxford
Event typeOther