I have spent a lot of time with Voltaire and Sade recently, editing La Prude for the Complete Works and translating The 120 Days of Sodom for Penguin Classics (this was a collaboration with Will McMorran, and our blog is here). The two works could not be more different.
Voltaire began work on his comedy in a writing frenzy in winter 1739-40 (‘Je n’ai jamais été si inspiré de mes dieux, ou si possédé de mes démons’, January 1740) but then tinkered with it for seven and a half years; Sade, on the contrary, carefully planned his novel for two and a half years, before writing it up in thirty-seven days in late 1785. Voltaire struggled to bring his comedy, which is based on William Wycherley’s often obscene The Plain Dealer (1676), into line with French taste and decorum, whereas Sade brazenly increases the abject sexual violence from page to page, even throwing in a couple of ‘supplices en supplément’ for good measure. A sense as to how these works differ might be gleaned from looking at a point of overlap, namely the presence of cross-dressing characters. And if Adam Phillips is right to suggest that ‘Two’s company, but three’s a couple’, then let’s bring in Casanova who joins our two friends in being recognized as an Enlightenment philosopher.
There is plenty of pleasure in La Prude – unfortunately most of it happens off stage. The epicurean Madame Burlet is forever zipping from dinners to plays, eating, drinking and singing, and she appears to be a shopaholic (‘Amas nouveaux de boîtes, de rubans, / Magots de Saxe, et riches bagatelles’), but we never see any of this. The on-stage presence of Adine, dressed as Greek boy – apparently it’s the best way to keep lecherous Turkish pashas and sailors at bay – does stimulate desire in the eponymous prude Dorfise, but that desire is portrayed as ridiculous. Adine is a non-threatening, rather wimpy ephebe, and Dorfise is not only mocked for falling for her, but is also dehumanised in her final utterance, the nonsensical cry ‘Ah!’ Part of the audience’s satisfaction derives from seeing a character humiliated when the transvestite’s true identity is exposed.
Not so with Sade. On day 18 of the 120 Days, Madame Duclos tells of a man who ‘ne voulait du féminin que l’habit, mais, dans le fait, il fallait que ce fût un homme, et, pour m’expliquer mieux, c’était par un homme habillé en femme que le paillard voulait être fessé.’ There is no doubt as to the youth’s real identity, and his obvious drag is central to the scenario: it’s precisely in the old lecher’s transgression of having sex with this ‘masculine fouetteuse’, and in exposing that transgression to the employees of the brothel, that he finds his pleasure. The reader’s satisfaction comes from the narrator keeping both masculine and feminine elements of the youth’s persona visible, and with the older man shrugging off all judgment of his idiosyncratic behaviour: ‘Je voulus travailler à sa conversion, je l’assurai que j’avais des filles charmantes qui le fouetteraient tout aussi bien: il ne voulut seulement pas les regarder.’
Casanova tells of an encounter in an auberge in Cesena. Disturbed by a ruckus, he goes to the adjoining room where he sees poking out from under the bedclothes ‘une tête échevelée riante, fraîche, et séduisante qui ne me laisse pas douter de son sexe, malgré que sa coiffure fût d’homme’. This is Henriette, and the adventurer mentions no frisson deriving from her cross-dressing – his desire is provoked solely by the girl’s femininity. Her drag does, however, stimulate pleasure of another kind: ‘Cette fille n’avait que l’habit d’homme qui la couvrait, pas la moindre nippe de femme; pas seulement une chemise. Elle en changeait avec celles qui appartenaient à son ami. Cela me semblait nouveau et énigmatique.’ If exposure is central to cross-dressing in Voltaire and Sade, in Casanova the initial exposure gives way to mystery and reflection. Voltaire and Sade want to solve problems, Casanova revels in them.
– Thomas Wynn, Durham University