Libertine Fiction (6370 words)

Literary/ Cultural Context Essay

Nuit de Baudouin
board, 25.9 x 20 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

A little painting from the end of the Old Regime perfectly captures the essence of libertine literature. In Pierre-Antoine Baudouin’s La Nuit [The Night] (ca. 1778) as in the masterpieces of eighteenth-century French erotic fiction such as Crébillon’s Les Egarements du cœur et de l’esprit [The Wayward Heart and Mind] (1735-1738), Denon’s Point de lendemain [No Tomorrow] (1777) or Laclos’ Les Liaisons dangereuses [Dangerous Liaisons] (1782), pleasure is represented in a state of permanent suspension between the grace of a pas de deux and the violence of an assault. The scene is bathed in a titillating demi-jour redolent of the ambiguity that clouds the characters’ and artist’s intention and blurs the aftermath of this fall: is it an accident? Is the lady forced? What happens next? Baudouin paints libertinage as something playful yet perilous, something elegant yet wild, transgressive yet restrained. For lovers and their audience (readers or viewers) likewise, libertinage seems as enlightening as it is mysterious. Therefore, Baudouin’s La Nuit is not just an eloquent illustration of eighteenth-century libertine mores. It is also an image of libertine novels themselves. It mirrors back these narratives’ daring subjects, their emancipated ideas and even their flirtatious aesthetics.

This painting epitomises libertinage and its fiction so accurately in great part due to its nocturnal setting. As this article shows, setting sex-scenes at night first allows the artist to stress the necessarily clandestine nature of erotic encounters in the eighteenth century. Carefree as it may seem, libertinage is, in fact, the reward of a difficult emancipation. Secondly, the night scene also evokes the need for elegant lovers to clad erotic desires in obscurity. By shading the raw reality of lust, the nocturnal setting supports a representation and experience of libertinage as an art of love rather than as debauchery. Finally, the nocturnal dimension of such love-scenes is a sign of the gradual reconfiguration of sex as belonging to a “shadow existence” (Foucault 35): whilst as a topic it is the object of fascinated dissertations, as an act it must be concealed. The libertine phenomenon indeed corresponds to the moment when the Western world started to see the body as the receptacle of the self’s deepest secrets, and night as the space-time when such secrets would reveal themselves. Hence the ubiquity of night and darkness in libertine literature: they are needed as realistic backgrounds to forbidden liaisons, as essential elements of an elegant art of love relying on literal and metaphorical obscurity, and even as symbols for a new understanding of human nature in the Age of Enlightenment.

This is why in order to (re)define eighteenth-century French libertine fiction and to explain why it matters in the history of literature and in the history of sexuality, I propose to delve into this fiction’s nights and examine its nocturnes, ranging from the subtle La Nuit et le moment [The Night and the Moment] (1755) all the way to the pornographic La Nuit merveilleuse [The Wonderful Night] (ca.1790), from the dream of Le Sylphe [The Sylph] (1730) to the nightmare of Sade’s 120 “nights” of Sodom (The 120 Days of Sodom, writ. 1785). This nocturnal perspective highlights the extent to which eighteenth-century sexuality and its representations were bound to be caught in a dynamic of repression and emancipation, of dissimulation and revelation. The night-time setting encapsulates such clair-obscur whilst also stressing the impenetrability of certain mysteries even for the most intrusive and curious minds. Thus, we shall see that if these libertine nights are indeed ““merveilleuses”, “wonderful”, it is not solely because they delight the senses and imagination; it is also (and perhaps, principally) because they partake in the re-conceptualisation of human desires as the subject of a never-ending wonder.

Libertinage, or freedom under cover of darkness

Libertine literature can be broadly defined as the erotic fiction penned during the long eighteenth century, the period that witnessed both the Enlightenment and the rise of the novel. The “libertine” brand includes gaudy tales such as La Fontaine’s (see for instance “Comment l’esprit vient aux filles” [How wit comes to girls], 1678), elegantly sarcastic narratives about worldly liaisons such as Crébillon’s or Duclos’, voluptuous stories such as Nerciat’s Félicia (1775) or Denon’s Point de lendemain, and philosophico-pornographic texts such as the bestselling Dom Bougre, portier des Chartreux [Dom Bougre, The Porter of the Charterhouse] (1741), the French Fanny Hill also known as Margot la ravaudeuse [Margot the Sock-Mender] (1748) or Thérèse philosophe [Thérèse the philosopher] (1748). The all-encompassing definition of libertine fiction has the merit of stressing the rich variety of this literature, its refusal of boundaries (even generic ones), and the wide reach of the libertine phenomenon in eighteenth-century France. At the time, indeed, members of all social strata, be they marchionesses and princes or lascivious monks and lowly prostitutes, were equally giving in to the wind of change that was blowing over the nation and exalting the search for pleasure in all its forms.

The pursuit of happiness in the here-and-now was fast supplanting the quest for bliss in the hereafter. Eighteenth-century minds and customs were evolving under the impetus of a modern way of thinking (prompted by emancipated intellectuals known as modernes in the age of the Sun King and as philosophes in the next) and of a hedonist way of living (sparked by the hedonist Regent Philippe d’Orléans and his clique at the death of the devout Louis XIV in 1715). After decades of repression, Frenchmen and women were eager to embrace fun wherever and whenever they could find it. Lively and lovely rococo interiors replaced the awe-inspiring grandeur of the baroque; theatres re-opened, productions boomed and so did fiction; in arts, Watteau’s fêtes galantes were ousting historical paintings; Paris became alive again with balls and promenades, parties and fairs. By a fortunate coincidence, the great thinkers of the Enlightenment were legitimising such hedonism, with philosophes like Montesquieu or Voltaire challenging the Christian orthodoxy that, for centuries, had promoted austerity and abnegation.

Nevertheless, although Enlightened ideas were spreading, they encountered staunch resistance from official authorities which the Church partly controlled. Repression still prevailed whenever fornication (that is, sex outside the holy bonds of matrimony) was concerned. Homosexuals could still be burnt at the stake. Wayward wives and daughters could still be locked away in nunneries to expiate some all-too-natural weakness. Lives were ruined with reputations in an epoch when a woman’s status in society rested on her virtue. Such concrete threats to libertinage are reflected in the fate awaiting the heroines of Les Liaisons dangereuses: all three end their journeys having to hide their shame away in a convent, in exile or in death. Furthermore, in parallel to the endurance of Church-led sexual repression, the eighteenth century also witnessed the rise of two concepts: privacy and modesty (see Ariès and Duby). Modesty was stressing the need to hide bodily functions (see Bologne), while privacy was devising a sphere apart from public scrutiny where one could behave freely and hide what modesty repressed. The development of these twin concepts explains why the eighteenth century became the age of the boudoir, of the alcove, the age also of double-entendre in polite conversation and literature. Erotic pleasure, though in theory defended by free thinking, was in practice increasingly relegated to the hidden recesses of the private sphere. Libertinage was on the rise, but it was also fated to lead a nocturnal existence.

No other art form probes the paradox affecting sex in the eighteenth century better than libertine literature. Its stories stage the contemporary leniency towards libertinage on the one hand and, on the other, the increasing need either to hide or to sublimate the flesh’s animal drives in the name of civilisation (Starobinski 7). In libertine fiction, pleasure is indeed omnipresent, yet it invariably occurs behind closed doors, after sunset, when others sleep. The nocturnal dimension of sexuality in the Age of Enlightenment according to these representations serves as a reminder that ideas on sex were still very much in need of a revolution. Those who dared abandon their bodies to lust first had to emancipate their minds, hence, also, the fact that “the novel of education is the form of the libertine novel” (Nagy 91). A libertine in Ancient Rome had broken free from the shackles of slavery; a libertine in eighteenth-century France had broken free first from prejudices against fleshly pleasures, and second from the control of the public sphere. Like enlightened philosophy, libertinage consisted in a rejection of Man-made rules deemed arbitrary and unnatural. However, such rejection did not demand publicity. It belonged to the intimacy of individuals who knew to conceal their audacious ideas and behaviours. Intus ut libet, foris ut moris est (“inside, do according to your desires; outside, do according to the customs”) – originally the motto of “libertins érudits” (the “erudite libertines” that is, the Free Thinkers of the Grand Siècle) – quickly became the central axiom of eighteenth-century libertinage and its fiction. It illustrates the principle that, behind closed doors as behind a mask, one is free to do as one pleases. That this wisdom should be preached by fictional nuns and monks (as in Vénus dans le cloître [Venus in the Cloister], 1683) is significant. Living within the most oppressive order of the convent, these characters are theoretically deprived of any liberty, be it physical or intellectual. Yet, by concealing their thoughts and deeds from those who seek to check them, they manage to be free. Published two years before Louis XIV revived religious persecution by revoking the Edit de Nantes, their stories must be read as hymns to the individual’s power to subtract him- or herself from coercion quite simply by exploiting the freedom available in the private sphere.

One of the most fascinating features of libertine literature is its treatment of dissimulation not as something evil per se. Rather, mendacity is represented as the only way to escape from distressing rules. The real culprit in the libertines’ misfortunes, according to authors, is the repressive element forcing them to resort to clandestine ways. The relative yet still enduring sexual repression explains why, in libertine fiction, erotic scenes alternate with intellectual dissertations on good and evil, nature and civilisation, society and the self, gods and men, and, always, on the necessity to dissimulate one’s libertine ways and ideas. This pattern can be observed across the whole spectrum of eighteenth-century erotic literature: the petit-maître [fop] Versac enlightens a candid Meilcour about the need to conceal a cunning mind under a mask of frivolity in Les Egarements du cœur et de l’esprit; Nerciat’s Félicia is taught that erotic freedom relies on secret societies; and in the two pornographic bestsellers of the times, a Charterhouse’s porter discovers that orgies must wait until nightfall while a philosophical Thérèse learns that pleasure is best kept away from prying eyes.

Night comes into play in libertine narratives as the space-time related to intimacy and, therefore, to liberty. “Je me regardai dès lors comme libre” [from then on I came to consider myself to be free], writes another nun who has learnt to regard nightfall as a shelter where desires and ideas can be expressed freely (Latouche, Le Portier des Chartreux 362). The dark hours offer an alternative to the daily order subjected to publicity and control. There is irony, of course, in all these fictional nuns and monks’ worship of night-time and darkness, captive as they are in the house of the Light of the World, as a libertine nun recalls in Mémoires de Suzon [Suzon’s Memoirs] (1778): “C’est aux nuits charmantes qu’elle me fit passer dans ses bras, que je suis redevable du goût que je pris pour le couvent” [It is to the lovely nights she made me spend in her arms that I owe my taste for the convent] (909). The Johannic Manicheism of the religious discourse is turned upside down in libertine fiction: its hedonist characters embrace shadows rather than God’s Light, both metaphorically and literally. A defiant spirit is at work everywhere in libertine novels, if only because their stories of nocturnal pleasures demonstrate how powerless State and Church are to curb human desires and their satisfaction.

Like their pornographic counterparts, the protagonists of the graceful prose of Crébillon, Duclos, Denon or Dorat know, too, that their liberty depends on nightfall and closed doors. Bastide’s La Petite maison [The Little House] (1753) can be read as an architectural visit, but it must also be understood as an illustration of how desires become less controllable the more intimacy increases through the gradual darkening and shrinking of spaces around the reluctant yet definitely tempted Mélite. The same phenomenon can be observed in Denon’s Point de lendemain and its pornographic rewriting La Nuit merveilleuse: the darker and smaller the shelters, the freer the couple’s abandonment to lust. Closed doors, drawn curtains, late hours are preconditions to a lady’s abandonment to her seducer in Confessions du comte de *** [Confessions of the Comte de ***] (1741) as in Angola (1746). Baudouin’s couple in his painting La Nuit seizes the opportunity of a dark grove after sunset while Fragonard’s Le Verrou [The Bolt] (ca. 1777) sums up the situation by making the locking of a bolt the crux of an amorous embrace. By associating their characters’ sex lives with the alternative, clandestine order of the night, libertine fiction in all its variety conceptualises libertinage as a twofold emancipation: both from the shackles of public scrutiny and also from the public’s orthodoxy. Even the most pornographic text is essentially philosophical; and even the most foppish petit maître or the most featherbrained coquette is, somehow, a free thinker refusing to have his or her desire for happiness curbed by arbitrary laws.

The nocturnal metamorphosis of libertinage into an art of love

Whilst certain libertine texts predominantly consist of a philosophical apology for erotic freedom, others prefer to focus on a demonstration of how eighteenth-century France was metamorphosing the satisfaction of an appetite into an elaborate ritual. Libertine literature can indeed often be read as an enlightened hedonist manifesto as well as an ars amatoria directly inspired by the lessons of Ovid. In those voluptuous texts, libertinage is not represented as a simple surrender to animal drives; it appears rather as a temporary taming of these instincts –in the name less of civilisation than of a greater pleasure. Libertine fiction tells us that, for expert lovers, seduction and love-making depend on techniques such as the orchestrated frustrations of “gradations” (Delon 81 et seq.), semi-chaste clairs obscurs and double-entendre, fake resistances and professions of amorous passion. When looking at that art of love closely, a pattern emerges: the tacit function of such refinement is to rid desire of the tarnish of guilt. Here again one can observe the libertine wish to emancipate pleasure from whatever may limit it. To be fully enjoyed, erotic abandons must be free from shame or guilt. The libertine art of love is therefore in fact a ritual aiming at liberating sexual surrenders – if only on the surface – from the idea that sex is wrong. Hence libertine pleasures having to resemble accidents for the most refined lovers. Seductions and surrenders have to look like natural and non-premeditated impulses spurred by the “moment”, that surprise of the senses one must seize before it is too late (Crébillon, La Nuit et le moment 833). By manipulating appearances, connoisseurs in voluptuousness transform a capital sin into an amazing grace.

Male and female lovers each have a specific part to play in that mating ritual or sensual pas de deux. A dignified lady must rebuff her seducer’s invitations and make a show of her virtue, whilst her seducer must decipher her tacit signals and, when the right time comes, defeat her, thereby sparing her the shame of having given in. Brilliant as it was in other respects, the eighteenth century hardly believed in rape (see Vigarello) and regarded the use of physical strength to subdue a woman as a chance for her to enjoy both “the glory of defence and the pleasure of defeat” (Laclos 28). Due attention has been paid to this feminine trick which exempts coquettish ladies from vulgarity. However, their male lovers were subjected to similar rules. The worldly libertine knows to parade his nonchalance and to blame his inconstancy on a power beyond his will. The seducer must look as flimsy as Chérubin from Le Mariage de Figaro [The Marriage of Figaro] (1784), sensitive to the lightest wind or odor di femmina like Don Giovanni (Mozart and Da Ponte, 1787, Act 1 Scene 4). Over a millennial ago, Ovid had already taught men to conceal their seductive tactics under the appearance of “hasards heureux” [happy accidents]: at the circus, it is the crowd which is forcing your thigh to touch hers; at a dinner, pretend to be under the spell of Bacchus to declare your flame. And yet, Ovid’s Art of love demonstrates that there is, in fact, nothing artless in these seductions. The real scandal of libertine fiction is to unveil (or even to suggest) the plot behind the moment, the composition behind the impromptu, the strategy behind the surprise. Chance encounters may have been planned like war tactics but, always, sprezzatura must mask machiavellism. The illusion of accident between libertines must therefore be understood as a ploy that permits them to wrap their sexual appetites in gracefulness by transferring the responsibility of their fault to circumstances beyond their control.

With its darkness, its isolation, its supposed aphrodisiac effects and even its wildness, night is an elegant libertine’s best accomplice in this cleansing of sex from the tarnish of a fault. Indeed at night, as illustrated by Baudouin’s painting La Nuit, the lovers’ fall can look like the result of an involuntary push coming not from the lovers but from the nocturnal element (here from the moon itself). Crébillon’s La Nuit et le moment likewise shows how a couple of libertines can gracefully play the part of accidental lovers pushed in each other’s arms by the joined charms of the night and the moment. Night-time helps elegant libertines pretend that “falling” is beyond their control: the intimacy promoted by night emancipates lovers from their inhibitions, as we have seen. Night also preserves modesty (and arouses desire) by keeping naked flesh decently in the dark (see Ganofsky, 2014). Yet, crucially, in the eighteenth century, night-time, in and of itself, was believed to imperil virtue.

First, the isolation and darkness of night would automatically turn a woman into a damsel in distress at the mercy of a bold seducer. The Marquise de Merteuil takes advantage of this received wisdom: one night, having just enjoyed a tête-à-tête with a man she invited in her bedroom, she rings her service bell crying for help and claims that he attempted to rape her. Night-time has truly given the Marquise the pleasures of vice and the honour of virtue. She indulged herself yet her reputation is saved by the appearances conferred to that encounter by the late hour. Furthermore, in the eighteenth century, night represented an exculpating factor for adultery which could be committed by mistake in the dark, according to a legal document from 1778: Fournel’s Traité de l’adultère [Treatise on Adultery]. Fornicators could plead not guilty in this pre-electric age of pitch-black nights. Finally, the function of night in libertine plots exemplifies the idea that night can disculpate lovers through the erotic influence it has over them. Descriptions of night’s “demi-jour voluptueux” [voluptuous demi-jour] (Denon, Point de lendemain 76) often immediately precede erotic favours. Night is virtually the third main character of the beautiful nocturne Point de lendemain. Its part is that of the match-maker, protecting the pair of lovers and encouraging them to give in to the temptation it creates. The nocturnal setting naturally acts as an influencing element in a literature bathed in the sensualist and materialist theories of the day. As one learns from essays such as Le Camus de Mézières’s Le Génie de l’architecture, ou Analogie de cet art avec nos sensations [The Genie of Architecture; or, Analogy of this Art with our Sensations] (1780) or from stories such as Crébillon’s Tanzaï et Néadarné (1734) or Bastide’s La Petite maison, space and decor in the eighteenth century were considered to have the power of creating specific sensations that would trigger particular ideas that would, in turn, induce certain behaviours. That mechanism operates beyond the control of virtue and reason. Men and women are sensory harpsichords whose passions are the effects of external stimulations. At least, this is a conveniently exculpating theory for elegant lovers. It contributes to the conceptualisation of night, in libertine narratives, as a phenomenon which absorbs the responsibility for any temptation and any subsequent surrender. Thus, if night is a libertine’s greatest accomplice, it is not only because it leaves lovers free to meet, but also because it leaves them free from shame.

Libertine fiction and libertine nights: mirroring the shadow of the self

Although night-time is summoned up in libertine literature as a setting favouring the lovers’ pretences, it also functions as an element prompting revelations about what it conceals. It operates in the plots like a mask or disguise. Since night conceals the characters’ responsibility in their surrender, it also disinhibits them. It becomes not just an accomplice to the pleasures it fosters, but also a mirror-image of the desires it emancipates. The night-lust analogy that emerges from the pages of libertine fiction must be analysed against the paradigmatic shift affecting erotic desire in the eighteenth century. In History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault explained that during the Age of Enlightenment, sex came to be regarded as the holder of the greatest secrets about individuals. As a consequence, thinkers and artists would from that point on seek to explore these secrets, that is, to make bodies speak even though sex was becoming increasingly taboo. This explains why libertine fiction is an eighteenth-century phenomenon: it is the by-product of the period that sought to investigate the secret workings of Man-as-machine and would eventually locate this secret in the individual’s flesh. Libertine literature is thus part ars amatorial (as we have seen) and part scientia sexualis too. However, in the process of its quasi-scientific investigations about desires, sex, fantasies etc., libertine literature was making distressing discoveries heralding those of Freud about the Unconscious or of Carl Gustav Jung about the aptly named “Shadow” of the self. Indeed, as they dared peruse the secrets of a character’s heart and mind without being held back by decency, libertine authors intuited that these secrets plunged dark and deep. This intuition can be traced back to Crébillon’s Le Sylphe, a short tale that reveals a lady’s sexual longing for a most “palpable” seducer (37); it culminated with Sade’s 120 journées de Sodome, where the subterranean torture caves of the Castle of Silling are but an image of the bottomless pits of lust and violence to be found in individuals, according to a Sadean conception of humanity. In between, there had been libertine stories about tell-tale body parts, uncontrollably talkative as in Diderot’s Bijoux indiscrets [The Indiscrete Jewels] (1748), Guillard de Servigné’s Les Sonnettes [The Bells] (1749) or Baret’s Le Grelot [The Bell] (1754). There had also been countless tales of virtue crushed by desire, as embodied by Mme de Tourvel in Les Liaisons dangereuses, Mme de Syrcé in Dorat’s Les Malheurs de l”inconstance [The Fatal Effects of Inconstancy] (1772) and even by Rousseau’s Julie (1761): all bear witness to the idea that individuals harbour desires which they can neither control nor fathom.

Once again, the use of a nocturnal setting as a background and—importantly—as a trigger to love scenes is essential to the libertine discourse on desire. This time, it is on the symbolical level that night plays a part in the libertine narratives. Experienced and conceptualised as a space-time free from diurnal constraints in the eighteenth century, night implicitly sets the pleasure it harbours under the aegis of natural forces, far away from society and its laws. These erotic and literary nocturnes belong to an old tradition of representations of the night. As we can see in the meditative paintings of Georges de La Tour for instance, night is conceptualised as permitting the return of the depths of the self far from the daily din of the profane crowd. At the other end of the Age of Enlightenment, Goya (with his engraving The Sleep of reason produces monsters, 1797-1799) and Füssli (with his Nightmare, 1781) also illustrate an idea of night as lulling diurnal reason to sleep the better to release one’s intimate psyche. Mozart’s Magic Flute (1791) exemplifies the same idea with his Queen of the Night who reigns over disorder, instinct and the dark side of the self against the solar, rational order of Sarastro (Bronfen 15). This vision of an untameable nature released by night also features in Vernet’s seascapes where the infinite dark forces of night seem to crush human constructions (see for instance La Nuit: un port de mer au clair de lune [Night: Seaport by Moonlight], 1771). The tiny boats of men are nothing in front of the night sky in Friedrich’s Seascape in the Moonlight, ca. 1835), just like the spires and rooftops swallowed by Van Gogh’s Nuit étoilée [Starry Night] (1889) one century later (see Saint Girons, 2006). Closer to use, serving as the realm of the femme fatale in films noirs, night remained associated with the irrepressible and dangerous temptations it foments.

Situating libertine nocturnes within this tradition of night representations reveals the darker undertones of a literature more commonly described as “couleur de rose” [rose-coloured]. Below the surface of its frivolity and underneath the impression that a hedonist philosophy can rationalise pleasure, libertine fiction does disclose worrying truths about human nature. Desire may have given rise to a very controlled, well-ordered art of love; however, libertine literature hints that desire is essentially a principle of disorder. Its authors endeavour to explore how far it goes. Sade, most famously, takes his readers with his heroes’ victims down a maelstrom of excesses where pleasure rapidly reveals its true identity as cruelty; yet, well before Sade, countless sentimental protagonists had already discovered that the ideal of love was not as powerful as the appeal of lust (this is the experience of Duclos’s Comte de ***, Crébillon’s Meilcour, or Laclos’s Danceny), just like many religious heroines had learnt more or less happily that the flesh had insatiable cravings too. Yet, most disturbingly perhaps, many are those characters who come to realise that erotic pleasure eventually fails to fill existential voids. La Morlière’s Angola is a merry libertine novel in appearance only. Under the brilliant varnish of an oriental fairy tale, it tells the story of a man discovering that human desire is insatiable and unfathomable.

The association of lust with nocturnal forces (that omnipresent feature of libertine fiction) is symptomatic of the eighteenth century’s new outlook on desire itself. While the Western world was being “enlightened”, the temptation paradigm too was secularized: it was once believed to come from external forces, from Satan himself; now, that dark urge to err was internalised (Salas 41). It came from none other than the self, a self that night would set free. This is the most important indiscretion of libertine literature. By looking at what happens behind closed doors or when reason and virtue are asleep, by focusing on the stuff of nightmares and fantasies, the libertine authors of the French eighteenth century were realising the ambitions of their day and age to understand the mystery that is humanity. Their prose combines the curiosity of the philosophes of the Enlightenment for all things obscure, with the methods devised by writers during the “rise of the novel”. Looking at experiences, emotions without filter (or with lesser of those), they heralded one of the greatest epiphanies of the modern age: that the self is still widely undiscovered territory, as infinite and inscrutable as the night sky.


Baudouin’s painting La Nuit is therefore an apt image for libertine literature and all the issues it seeks to address through the erotic experiences of its characters. La Nuit adequately reprises a literary genre and an Old Regime way of life oscillating between civilised refinement and animal appetites. This has often been noted about libertinage and its literature, rightfully so. Yet, it ought to be emphasised that the real oscillation evoked by the nights of libertine fiction reflects rather the period’s insight that sex is caught somewhere between what we know and what we still ignore, between what we hope is graceful and what we fear is brutal, between the expectation that desire can be satiated and the suspicion that we carry a void which shall never be fulfilled. This worrying intuition about the infinite depth of desire looms in all libertine fiction, from Dom Bougre to Point de lendemain, from La Nuit et le moment to Le Diable au corps [The Devil in the Flesh] (1803). The ambition to reveal this unsuspected truth about men and women drove libertine authors as it was driving philosophers and novelists alike in that Age of Enlightenment. What sets libertine fiction apart, however, is the liberty with which it operates, by daring to scrutinise human psyche through the gateway of the flesh, observing it when it is set free from all instance of controls, a bit like Diderot did in Le Rêve de d’Alembert [D’Alembert’s Dream] (writ. 1769). Hence the pervasive representation of libertinage as a liberation: liberation of the mind from the prejudices of traditional orthodoxy, liberation of the individual from the control of the public sphere, liberation of pleasure from the burden of shame, and, even, liberation of one’s inner impulses beyond the individual’s control (scary as this might turn out to be). Thus, if libertine fiction invariably sets these liberations in a nocturnal setting, it might not be solely on account of the protection that night affords them. The libertine authors’ decision to set pleasures under cover of shadows might also be connected to a perception that whatever night releases is rather dark indeed.


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Citation: Ganofsky, Marine. "Libertine Fiction". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 03 September 2019 [, accessed 26 January 2022.]

19554 Libertine Fiction 2 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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