In Helen Constantine‘s introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Laclos‘ most notorious and celebrated work, she touches on the aristocratic social pressures felt by Valmonte and Merteuil that prevent them from succombing to any ‘real’ emotion throughout the entirety of the novel. She summarises thus:
In that debased society love is viewed as a failing, a weakness, and something to be avoided at all costs.
Valmonte’s connection with Tourvel is the closest we get to raw emotion (for the pop culture translation, that would be the Sebastian/Annette, Ryan/Reese pairing in the Cruel Intentions adaptation), but he is forced to deny himself even that due to the restrictions imposed upon him by his upbringing and continued engagement with polite society.
In fact, this was possibly the greatest moment in the 1999 remake – the emtionally charged raw battle between Sebastian and Annette in her bedroom when he tears himself away, all the while belying his true feeling for her by the fact he can hardly stand the deception any longer.
What did this remind me of? A couple of weeks ago I picked out a few of Coupland’s glossary definitions that he used to define his era of a nihilistic void to share on this very blog. And two of these, when combined together, exactly mirror Valmonte’s struggle, providing a deeper exploration of Constantine’s statement above:
1) Derision Preemption: a life-style tactic; the refusal to go out on any sort of emotional limb so as to avoid mockery from peers
2) The Cult of Aloneness: the need for autonomy at all costs, usually at the expense of long-term relationships, often brought about by overly high expectations of others
The former, when applied to Valmonte’s eighteenth century aristocratic setting, makes perfect sense – he is physcially unable to admit any form of emotional attachment for fear of derision from his peers, largely fearing Merteuil’s reaction (which is indeed mockery combined with a healthy dose of jealousy).
Valmonte’s expendable is his relationship (or potential relationship) with Tourvel, additionally fuelled by unrealistic expectations of her heralded by his previous relations with Merteuil. For Valmonte, no one will ever match up to Merteuil (he holds her somewhat on a pedastal), and in any case, his desperate need for complete independence from any form of attachment prevents him from committing to any kind of meaningful relationship with Tourvel regardless.
So what can we draw from this parallel? Was Laclos simply miles ahead of his time in his awareness of basic human emotion? Or has it taken 200 years for the inclinations and emotional withdrawal of eighteenth century French aristocracy to filter down to mass society? Or, and this is the one that I like the most, were both writers simply finely tuned to a fundamental of human nature?
Modern pop-psychology and relationship advisers, the likes of Greg Behrendt et al, would have us believe that the non-committal emotional ‘retardedness’ that both Coupland and Laclos touch on here is almost exclusively (or at least primarily) a male outlook. But surely the Marquise de Merteuil puts forward just as strong an example as Valmonte? Coupland’s definitions were not solely ascribed to Andy – would Claire have not sympathised in the same way? In other words, the girls can be just as bad as the boys – throw in a manipulative streak and possibly even worse.
If such principles can cross centuries, cultures and oceans, permeating time and history just as fervently as the pop culture consciousness, then surely there must be something in it?