I’ve been away from this blog for a number of months, teaching, travelling, and like many of you, agitating. I didn’t get as far as I wanted to in talking with you about the Enlightenment, and I’d like to continue in that vein.
But… how to write about it this year?
Then an idea came to me as I watched the season 1 finale of the tv show THE GOOD PLACE.
The Good Place tells the story of a mediocre, semi-not-so nice person who — mistakenly — ends up in Heaven. Because of this mistake, things in Heaven immediately go “wrong.” Giant shrimp fly through the air, garbage rains down from the sky, and everyone suddenly starts wearing wiggly striped clothing, while a giant sinkhole appears in 4 star heavenly restaurant. People’s post-death soul mates somehow don’t connect as they should. The sinkhole grows and grows. Finally, it emerges that the Good Place is actually the Bad Place. That Hell has been masquerading as Heaven all this time. Hell — surprise! — turns out to be a place with gilt French furniture and endless yogurt shops.
Apparent angel Ted Danson laughs evilly when the ruse is discovered.
This sort of secretive nastiness, that delights in masquerade only to hurt and destroy…. That reminds me of the literature of the late 18th Century.
This previous year I’ve talked about all the ways in which 18th Century European literature does progressive, important work in stating what is wrong with the world and in imagining what could go right.
But there’s a dark side to the European Enlightenment.
As the year begins let’s talk for a brief moment about Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses. In this epistolary novel — long but one of the most fascinating, charming, chilling, and terrible books you’ll ever experience — two aristocrats of limitless means plot the destruction of people who cross their path. They are rich, attractive, sexual, and powerful. Utterly corrupt, they shamelessly enact the thinnest veneer of morality only to seduce and betray behind closed doors. They live to destroy.
Here are my favorite actors playing these parts in the Stephen Frears adaptation of the novel:
Arguably Mme de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont have more class than Madame and Monsieur Mnuchin. The former wear their wealth rather than displaying the coin in the place it was actually fabricated.
But the combination of smugness, shamelessness and luxury are certainly recognizable.
And so, with that comparison, I welcome you to the cruel 18th Century.
Stay tuned for a fuller discussion of Laclos’ novel and the play and movies on which they are based.
Fasten your seat belts. Happy New Year.