The Moment


Along with a very sweet tooth I share with the Marquis De Sade a quasi-mystical obsession with numbers. Certain numbers that have cropped up recently suggested a piece on the 18th century libertine tradition in French which the Divine Marquis radically re-envisioned at its culmination.

Originally the term libertine was used to describe political opponents of Calvin in Geneva, and went on to develop connotations of atheism and dangerous free-thinking. However by the 18th century the definition had narrowed to describe someone who was a sexual adventurer and debauchee. In the narrow homogeneous confines of French aristocratic circles in the Ancien Regime there flourished a literature which was entirely dedicated to examining the erotic manoeuvres and cynical mores of a fashionable society that pursued pleasure at all costs yet had to hypocritically maintain face .

Several novels including Diderot’s Les bijoux indiscrets (The Indiscreet Jewels) and Crebillon fils La Sopha (The Sofa) transposed the setting to Oriental locations to disguise the political satire of the court of Louis XV. Others were less cautious and set their novels in a contemporary setting with thinly veiled portraits of famous influential figures; the resulting scandals ruined careers and damaged reputations. Laclos the author of the masterpiece of libertine fiction and to my mind the greatest novel ever written, Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Dangerous Liasions) never escaped the notoriety that the book brought him; he unjustly became the byword for cynicism and Machiavellian scheming.

One of the central features of the libertine novel is the conflict between sense and sentiment that readers of Jane Austen will be familiar with. However unlike Austen they resolve themselves as an unsentimental education where the hero or heroine is taught the ways of the world and learns how to exploit others for their sensual gratification. As the prophet of the enlightenment Voltaire noted ‘Pleasure is the object, duty and the goal of all rational creatures’, and the aristocrats portrayed are above all rational creatures.

During their education, which always involves seduction and a subtle corruption the characters are taught about the moment. The moment is a key concept in libertine philosophy, it is when the object of desire is most susceptible to seduction. The newly minted libertines are made aware of when the moment is approaching, how to take full advantage of the moment and even how to manufacture the moment in someone who is inimical to seduction. The classic novels of sexual education are Crebillon fils  Les Égarements du cœur et de l’esprit ou Mémoires de M. de Meilcour (The Wayward Heart and Head or the Memoirs of M. de Meilcour) and the Marquis De Sade’s La Philosophie dans le boudoir ou Les instituteurs immoraux (Philosophy in the Boudoir or The Immoral Teachers). De Sade of course is notably more extreme than his predecessors and combines elements of the Gothic and Baroque while pointing forward to Romanticism and Decadence.

113 thoughts on “The Moment

  1. Interesting– I hadn’t heard of this subgenre (but I was never a lit major due to all of the essays and criticism, which is why I majored in theater). How about Portrait of a Lady? Does that fit the bill? As for DH Lawrence, I’ve only read Sons and Lovers and part of the Rainbow and it’s been a long time. Do these? I remember loving Sons and Lovers due to the Expressionistic writing.

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    1. usually it is confined to French novels in the 18th century with the terminus being the French Revolution and the work of De Sade who took it to the absolute limit…it’s French so it heavy on both the erotic content and philosophical discourse…Lord Rochester in England in the late 17th century is sometimes included, especially the filthiest play ever written Sodom which also has the maddest and most impossible stage directions


  2. Wonderful post. And the art is a mind twist, still trying to sort out whose limbs belong to whom and how many women there are. Almost Escher-esque. Great run down on some literature that I think I need to put on my reading list. And “the moment”…immediately got me thinking of times I’ve been seduced and yes indeed, there is a moment, isn’t there? 😊

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    1. Only the French could build a whole philosophy ‘on the moment’. Definitely recommend The Wayward Heart and Head and Dangerous Liaisons of course. The cynicism of libertine fiction is appalling but makes for great literature. I am glad that you enjoyed and thank you for your comments.

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  3. Now a proper comment. Still awake? Is a sweet tooth and an obsession with numbers the only thing you share with with De Sade? (Smiling)

    The painting. It forces you to examine it, right? And I think it seduces a little all on its own. As for the moment, what a manipulative idea/practice. Yet I wonder if to a certain extent that isn’t part of all social interactions. Seduced into sex? Yes. Love. Maybe. Friendship. Also, maybe. There’s a tipping point. And you recognize it (as a seducer) and you make your move. It’s the make or break moment. then the reaction. I reject your love. I reject your friendship (a gesture to get closer) I spurn your advances for sex. Or… I yield, acquiesce, give myself over willingly. That is the moment. No?

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    1. The libertines didn’t have much time for love, in The Sofa a man is transformed into a sofa and the only way the spell can be broken is when he witnesses true love, he remains a sofa for a long long time. The libertines were convinced that the moment could be manufactured with anyone as everyone really secretly want pleasure, but pleasure is always political. I am glad that the post provokes thought. The painting is risqué but it is fascinating. As for De Sade I am fascinated by his life but his vision is horrifying, but I admire that he followed his arguments to their logical limits.

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      1. Well the libertines were all male. However Laclos wrote an essay on the necessity of education for women and while De Sade Justine is accursed of misogyny his Juliette is also a liberated woman (though a rather gruesome one). As for myself I am not nearly as cynical as the libertines

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    1. Not specifically on numbers but they play a large part in what I post and how, the length etc. I see you have read some of my De Sade posts, I will send you others and a piece of fiction that has a lot of number mysticism. And nonsense Ms Dawn, you can certainly come up with me.

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  4. A wonderful text, I love the subject and the comments are most entertaining too. I find the painting interesting but not really sensual, a matter of taste. Dangerous Liaisons is one of the most captivating novels I have read, I found it very enticing and sensual. Later the movie with Malkovich was a fabulous libertine and the film was not a disappointment like so many films based on novels. Thank you for the fabulous post Mr. Cake, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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    1. I love Dangerous Liaisons, obviously, an astonishing novel. The Wayward Heart and Head is brilliant as well, masterful irony and ambiguity. No Tomorrow by Vivant Denon is a sparkling diamond of a tale (not sure if I mentioned this but it definitely libertine). I enjoyed the movie as well, even Cruel Intentions is a good riff on the book. As for De Sade, well you know how extensively I have written about him.

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      1. I never tire of Liaisons, it is brilliantly clever and shockingly deceitful. I have seen Intentions as well. These novels can be read at Project Gutenberg, a site where one can access books free of charge, I hope to go there and read the two books you reference. As for the Marquis, I recently watched a movie/docu supposedly based on his time in prison that was rather sympathetic to his plight. Prior to your post I had little if any knowledge of his story.

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      2. I would not know about this genus of literature were it not for your reviews and recommendations. Generally, my reading is confined to the well known classics. So, I thank you for opening up the door to diversity. Have a wonderful day, you should feel proud.

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      3. Thank you Miss Heart… there is a counter tradition, most of its work are minor but no less worthy, and I like to do my bit. I am feeling proud because of your lovely comments 😘

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