Jean Honoré Fragonard. 1732-1806. Paris. Le Verrou. vers 1777. Paris. Louvre. Photo: Flickr user jean louis mazieres.
De plus, une remarque que je m’étonne que vous n’ayez pas faite, c’est qu’il n’y a rien de si difficile en amour, que d’écrire ce qu’on ne sent pas. Je dis encore d’une façon vraisemblable : ce n’est pas qu’on ne se serve des mêmes mots, mais on ne les arrange pas de même, ou plutôt on les arrange, et cela suffit.
So writes the Marquise de Merteuil to her rival the Vicomte de Valmont on the art of seduction in Pierre Choderos de Laclos’ libertine classic Liaisons Dangereuses. She is giving him a lecture on the composition of an effective love letter; one must let the disorder of passion colour the words on the page, a language which she poetically names l’éloquence de l’amour.
Published in 1782 this work dates from before the French Revolution, and it depicts an era when the aristocracy of the Saint-Germain des Près still tumbled around in bed blissfully unaware that their heads would roll only a decade later; silk was ripped and corsets snapped in candlelight as young ladies lost their honour to hungry gentlemen behind closed curtains in loves nests know as petites maisons.
Now this quote is a fitting entry point for two reasons; firstly because it is representative of the époque in which the myth of French seduction was codified, and secondly because it highlights the performativity of persuasion.
During the ancien régime a set of etiquette rules that set the standard for love courting between men and women developed; this was an aristocratic ideal known as la galanterie. It builds on the medieval paradigm of courtly love in which the patriarchal roles are reversed; the lover needs to submit to his lady’s desires, however capricious they may be. In practice this meant a conversational game of eloquent coquetterie, of insistence and decline, where true emotions and intentions were hidden behind an elegant façade of linguistic mastery.
Even though la galanterie was criticised by leading enlightenment philosophers, notably Rousseau who claimed it decadent and deceitful in Émile ou l’éducation, in reality it was praxis especially among the fashionable literary salons in Paris. As these salons were held by women it was crucial for aspiring writers to master the art of seduction in order to secure a prosperous career. Rousseau himself, despite his misogynistic writings, was in fact quite the ladies-man, which is one reason for his success. Another notorious galant was Diderot, who on the subject of women wrote:
Quand on écrit des femmes, il faut tremper sa plume dans l’arc-en-ciel et jeter sur sa ligne la poussière des ailes du papillon ; comme le petit chien du pèlerin, à chaque fois qu’on secoue la patte, il faut qu’il en tombe des perles.
Viewing women as souls of delight and imagination Diderot adheres that one must speak not only to them, but also about them accordingly. Overtly sexist to a contemporary reader, but perhaps not yet dismissible in a time where sexting and nudes have replaced vernacular foreplay. It must also be noted that la galanterie is a model that due to its artistic prevalence has become part of the French cultural identity, and thus its traces can still be observed today.
Petty examples include holding doors open and pulling out chairs. But on a more serious note the history of French seduction is one reason why the #metoo-movement has met greater opposition in France over anywhere else. Seduction in the framework of galanterie is a performance in which a “no” is often employed, or perceived, as a rhetorical device. Taking this into consideration it is easy to see that consent easily becomes ambiguous.
Applying literary models to real life is therefore not advisable. To cite another example, consider poor Emma in Madame Bovary who commits suicide as a result of this sense of loss tied up with seduction. Nevertheless, is there anything harder than resisting temptation? The French model of seduction as outlined in the 18th century is extremely problematic for various reasons, yet it still constitutes an ideal not only in France but elsewhere too. Or if not wholly an ideal, the seductive myth at least prevails. Frightening and appealing at the same time, gallantry can’t seem to leave our collective fantasy.
Perhaps I’m just too much of a femme facile, but being flattered in French has far more devastating consequences than English wit ever will- n’est-ce pas?
By Victor Schagerlund