chapter  1
27 Pages

Les Égarements du cœur et de l’esprit

My reading of this novel is divided into three main parts. The first of these examines the ‘on-off ’ progress of Meilcour’s affair with his first mistress, the Marquise de Lursay. As far as his feelings for the latter are concerned, the young Meilcour veers between contempt and esteem on the one hand, and between passion and indifference on the other. I will suggest that the key to these oscillations is the hero’s preference for a specific type of object: the ambiguous prude, who may emerge from his attempts at seduction as truly ‘virtuous’ (i.e. unobtainable), or ‘false’ (and therefore, as Meilcour secretly hopes, obtainable after all). The second part of the discussion focuses on the way in which the narrator, by now a former libertine, prides himself on having achieved the kind of worldly wisdom that allows him to ironize his younger self ’s predicament. In particular, he claims to have mastered a nuanced taxonomy of female types. By the same token, he insists that his youthful difficulties in dealing with the Marquise were rooted in a classificatory dilemma (was she true or false, a vertueuse or a prude?). Yet on close examination, it emerges that the narrator still hesitates between two views of his first mistress: a false prude, or (this time) one of the ‘virtuous-yielding’. And so the mature Meilcour, though he boasts post-libertine ‘wisdom’, still falls into égarements du cœur et de l’esprit. The third part of the discussion also focuses on the narrator, but examines the extent to which, in the act of writing his memoirs, he retrospectively identifies with his first mistress (and so ‘feminizes’ his own perspective). The three parts of the discussion, taken together, are designed to show that the ‘prudish’ Marquise is in fact a lost ideal object for the mature Meilcour: in the here and now of the narrative instance, she is available to him only in the compensatory mode of ‘being’ rather than ‘having’.