The Legacy of the Libertine

The Legacy of the Libertine

The libertine is that historical figure who takes to an absolute, altogether ridiculous extreme the pursuit of pleasure. Although the term was coined by Calvin to ridicule those who resisted his religious strictures, it is in the 18th century – what Phillip Soller’s has referred to as the “Golden age” of Libertinage – that it becomes associated with an ethos, a practice and a project that aims at “the natural liberation of desire.” Whereas in the 16th century the terms designate an “atheist” by the 18th century it names a debauchee, a sensualist who in theory or practice advocates a form of sexual freedom, a general liberation of the senses, and who leads a dissolute life. The figures most often associated with Libertinage are Diderot, Fragonard, Watteau, Laclos, Mirabeau, and of course, most infamously, Donatien-Alfonse-François de Sade. Often aligned with the materialist philosophies of the radical Enlightenment (such as La Mettrie), Libertinage insists on the link between the free pursuit of knowledge and the cultivation of sensation, sex beings its most intense variant, and it is the libertine’s commitment to pleasure freed from moral constraint that pits libertinage against God and the effort to ground morality in a notion of a Sovereign Good.

In Seminar VII, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959-1960, Jacques Lacan situates psychoanalysis, that is, “the Freudian enterprise,” and the problem that it poses as and for ethics, in terms of its relation to its “closest relative”: the 18th century school of Libertinage and the prodigious and daunting work of the Marquis de Sade in particular. Freud inherits from the libertine experiment a concern with the body’s relation to language, the passions’ relation to law, and sexuality’s relation to thought. However, as a project that seeks the “natural liberation of desire” and as a correlate, the mitigation of “the conflictual character of moral experience,” Lacan states in no uncertain terms, it has failed: “We do not find ourselves in the presence of a man less weighed down with laws and duties than before the great critical experience of so-called libertine thought.” Freud’s thought, for Lacan, has to be situated in terms of this historical failure and as an effort to understand it. According to Lacan, psychoanalysis is, on the one hand, an effort to renew the radicality of the libertine’s investigation into the body as governed by pleasure and driven by a quest for enjoyment (jouissance); and, on the other hand, an effort to demystify this quest by showing how this “principle,” as Freud calls it, far from paving the road to happiness leads to misery, discontent, disaster. The ethics of psychoanalysis concerns negotiating the ways in which the very thing (das Ding) desired by the subject is ruinous, making the human drama an quintessentially tragi-comic affair.

The class will consist of a close reading of Lacan’s Seminar, The Ethics of Psychanalysis. In addition to following the course of the seminar, we shall also have occasion to discuss such additional figures as Sophocles, Aristotle, Sade, Kant, Hegel, Freud, Heidegger, Blanchot, Klossowski, Deleuze, Cixious, Butler, and Zupancic. The aim of the course will be to become acquainted with key concepts such as the symbolic, the imaginary, and the real; desire and jouissance; the subject of the unconscious and the thing (das Ding); sublimation and the death drive.