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Jack’s Naughty Bits: Choderlos de Laclos, Les Liaisons Dangereuses

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Jack's Naughty Bits

Most of you will have seen a film adaptation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, either Steven Frears’ fantastically compelling Dangerous Liaisons, or Milos Forman’s rather less gripping Valmont, or perhaps the recent teeny-bopper adaptation starring that young woman who plays Buffy, about which, however, I do not have nor will ever have any further information. Having but seen John Malkovich sneer or Glenn Close rend her makeup, you know what it means to have a great work of literature convert beautifully to the screen. The story, of course, is of two masters of seduction, Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil, and their attempts to outdo each other with more and more daring, difficult gettings-to-yes. It is literature’s foremost document of seduction addiction, and a prolonged study of the seducer’s mind. Or, better said, minds, for we eventually discover in both book and film that the motives that drive Valmont and Merteuil’s respective exploits differ dramatically. I don’t want to give the end away, but I can say that, of the two, only Valmont is the true seduction addict. Certain elements of his character make it clear that at some point sex for him moved from being an emotional to an entirely symbolic thing: that, to me, signals the point of addiction.

    
I would say that for all of us sex, like most things in life, contains some measure of both the emotional and the symbolic, and that the challenge is to shift the emphasis from the latter to the former. As a man — or a boy, rather — much of the joy of your first experiences of sex is just having had it, of notching the belt, of running the bases and doing the various things you’d heard other boys bragging about. I suspect that, for a lot of men, the emotional side of sex takes a backseat to its symbolic import for a considerable chunk of their sexual lives, perhaps forever. In a certain sense, this could be why husbands are so notorious for losing their interest in sex: for them, the act has lost its symbolic element, and they never learned to access any deeper meaning. Sex had always been about numbers, and when the counting stops, it loses its allure. This is certainly not true of all men all the time, but I fear it affects us more than we would like to admit.

    
In Valmont’s case, his lifelong shenanigans have left him interested only in belt-notching, and the degree of difficulty is his sole index of pleasure. In the excerpt below, he recounts to Merteuil his first encounters with their young pawn Cecile (the Uma Thurman character in the Frears version), whose staggering physical charms are almost entirely lost on him (as is the chance for any deeper connection). The joy of their encounter for him lies only in the machination behind it. And thus one possible fate of the sex addict: pay special attention to the excerpt’s last line, and you will see the result under a microscope.

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From Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos

Translated by P. W. K. Stone

Since I never lose sight of either your plans or mine, I decided to make the most of the opportunity both to gauge the true potentialities of this child, and to hasten her education . . . The little creature laughs a great deal: and, to encourage her merriment, I had the idea of relating, during our entr’actes, all the scandalous stories that came into my head. To give them an added spice, and to make them more interesting, I ascribed them all to her mamma; whom it amused me to bedeck with such vices and follies.

    
It was not by accident that I hit upon the idea. It encouraged our timid schoolgirl more than anything else could have done, and at the same time inspired her with the profoundest contempt for her mother. I observed long ago that if it is not always necessary to employ this method in seducing a young girl, it is the indispensable and often the most effective course when one wants to corrupt her . . .

    
I have received her twice already, and in this short space of time the schoolgirl has learnt nearly as much as her master knows. Yes, I have taught her everything, down to the minor complaisances! I have omitted only the art of taking precautions . . .

    
I spend my leisure . . . composing a sort of debauchee’s catechism for the use of my pupil. There is nothing in it that is not called by its technical name, and I am already laughing at the interesting conversation this will afford her and Gercourt on the first night of their marriage. Nothing is more amusing than her ingenuousness in using what little she already knows of the jargon! She has no idea there is any other way of referring to the same things. The child really is enchanting! The contrast between her naive candor and the language of insult could not, of course, fail to be striking, and, I don’t know why, it is only the unusual that pleases me now.