‘Gods and Libertines : Religion in Libertine Literature’, Conference Alternative Enlightenment, Centre for Studies in the Long Eighteenth Century, Reid Hall, Paris (France)

Activity: Talk or presentation typesPresentation


In one of the most memorable scenes of libertine literature, Valmont, the hero of Les Liaisons dangereuses (1782) writes a love letter on the bare flesh of a courtesan. In a typically libertine fashion, her body becomes a ‘sacred altar’, whilst the rake’s lust is combined and expressed with religious imagery and phraseology. In libertine arts, religion is transported out of the limits of the Church and into the boudoir. Through this paper, I want to study such representations, and explore the deep reasons behind this blending of sacred and profane in libertine texts, from Crébillon to the Marquis de Sade. My research will address the following questions:
• How is religion represented in libertine literature? Surprisingly enough, close examination reveals that the notion is not treated solely in an abusive manner. Liberty, Nature, Pleasure or Reason might have dethroned the traditional Christian God, but only to be venerated in His stead. I argue that the libertines’ intellectual independence enabled them to redefine—rather than altogether reject—religion (that is, a divinity and a cult), hence their intimate relationship with the concept and their toying freely with it.
• Why should gods and cults occupy such a prime position in texts famed for their impiety? From provocative blasphemy to sincere reverence through rococo (and neoclassical) paganism as well as debates on ‘natural’ versus ‘revealed’ religions, my project aims to investigate the wide range of reasons underlying the libertine authors’ different treatments of religion. My presentation thus aims to reveal the full philosophical and theological program which underlies the allegedly most frivolous and godless texts of the Old Regime.
• What does our new understanding of libertine prose say about religion in the Age of Enlightenment? As Northop Frye explained, the Bible’s influence can be felt in the midst of profane literature, thus highlighting the fact that even enlightened and libertine literature might not be totally secularised. In fact, whilst libertines invariably condemned the Church and sometimes also the very notion of God (as did Sade), their writings are a potent (if unexpected) proof that, in the Age of Enlightenment, the religious imagery and phraseology were nevertheless still deemed able to express the unfathomable and the infinite to which libertine desires aspire. Indeed, the vocabulary of the erotic Sublime still borrows from the religious sphere, in a reversed (and sometimes mocking) echo of Catholicism’s reliance on erotic analogies to describe Man’s relation to God.
Thus, read from this perspective, libertine literature may suggest an almost mystical alternative to an allegedly purely rational Enlightenment. For libertines—as perhaps for man other Enlightened men and women of their century, God may be dead, but not the enchantment of the religious.
Period7 Mar 20148 Mar 2014
Event title‘Gods and Libertines : Religion in Libertine Literature’, Conference Alternative Enlightenment, Centre for Studies in the Long Eighteenth Century, Reid Hall, Paris (France)
Event typeOther