Sacred or profane pleasures? Erotic ceremonies in eighteenth-century French libertine fiction

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In France, the Age of Enlightenment was also an age of literary levity that saw a proliferation of erotic and pornographic narratives, where philosophy often fuses with sexual gratification. The famous Choderlos de Laclos with his Liaisons dangereuses (1782) and the infamous Marquis de Sade, along with authors such as Crébillon or Vivant Denon, epitomize this moment in French literary history, when erotic freedom paired with intellectual liberty. This “libertine” literature, as it is known, is characterized by its focus on fleshly desires and/or pleasures. The subject matter of libertine novels, short-stories, poems or paintings is the rendezvous which bring together the characters for an initiation into, or a celebration of, erotic delights. Indeed, love-making is often described as a religious ceremony. Why is this so? Why should lust be narrated with a religious lexicon? Why should lovers express rapture through an imagery normally associated with the Church? Why should fornication be orchestrated as a ritual?
Behind the libertine representation of love-making as a religious ceremony is the unifying principle of the characters’ desire to transcend all limits. Through their blasphemy, they place themselves beyond society’s laws, beyond the word of God and beyond the limits normally prescribed to mortals. Their jouissance is described as an experience of infinity. On the one hand, one could argue that this effort to replace a form of worship (the Christian) with another, is but a sign of their eagerness to fill in the void left by the “disenchantment of the world”, as if the secularisation of the Enlightenment had left behind it an existential despair and a longing for new deities to worship, whether these be Reason, Nature or Pleasure. On the other hand, one could argue that through their blasphemous parodies of ceremonies, these libertine writers have seconded the Enlightenment’s enterprise of debunking the vacuity of religious discourses and practices. As ever with libertine literature and libertinism, the answer must be sought between, in their carelessness or, as Catherine Cusset would phrase it, in “la conscience ironique de ce rien” [the ironical consciousness of this nothingness]. If there is no God, then metaphysics is a blank page ready to be filled, just for pleasure’s sake, with an abundance of fabulous references ranging from Masonry through the parodied Christianity to Bacchanalia. For libertines, God may be dead, but not the enchantment of the religious.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)231-258
JournalReligion in the Age of Enlightenment
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2015


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