But first, a fairy tale :
A long, long time ago, there were three sisters who lived together in a magnificent castle. Each morning Truth, Goodness and Beauty would ascend the stairs of the castle’s highest tower in order to do their work, away from the noisy bustle of the cooks and maids or the clamour of the townsfolk below. Ensconced in their favourite chairs in one corner of the room were Truth and Goodness, who loved nothing better than writing books, reading them or arguing about them. Sometimes Beauty would attempt to contribute a little something to the discussion, but mostly she sat by herself, delicately illuminating capitals or embroidering the book cover for a finished work. After a number of years spent in this way, she came to regard this division of labour as grossly unfair and very tedious indeed.
One morning, as the sisters climbed up the stairs, heavy manuscripts tucked under their arms, Beauty lagged behind the rest. Since, for some time now, their communal work held little interest for her, she had started to allow herself some delay on the steps so as to recoup some of the enjoyment that would be denied her later. She took great pleasure in the clear ring of her well-made shoes on the stonework, or feeling a kiss of sunlight upon her cheek coming in from the tower windows. And even though her heart was starved for admiration, it was generous enough nonetheless to marvel at the sparkle and dance of dust motes in the air.
It happened one day, while Beauty was caught in a reverie such as this, that she heard a great commotion outside. Taking a peek, she saw a splendid devil riding into town. He was dressed in black, which seemed severe, but around his cloak and boots were such exquisite detail as made him seem quite irresistibly mysterious. His noble features and straight carriage broadcast an allure only enhanced by its aloofness. The townspeople, awestruck at this apparition in their midst, cried and shouted, wailed and shrieked to capture his attention. Beauty, too, was quite enchanted. She dashed out into the street without a thought for her sisters. The crowd made way for her, subdued in an instant by her, a rival for their adoration. Young maidens, idlers, nursemaids, rugged young men, olds maids, the spindly widower and the town shrew all fell silent, watching with bated breath to see what would occur between Beauty and the devil. He, who knows how to seize a prize when he sees one, held out his hand for her. And she, feeling curiously as though she were doing him both a great favour and causing tremendous inconvenience – so tender was his concern and so perfect his solicitude- settled in behind him on his steed. Then they took off in great haste. Some say that the devil’s mount and that of his entourage grew wings and flew up to the sun. All that is certain is that Beauty was never seen in that realm again. Nor has she made any very great effort to remain in touch with her sisters. Sometimes her brief notes to them are scribbled on the devil’s private correspondence. At other times, consorting with one of his minions perhaps, she sends a post card instead. A long silence typically follows, but another letter arrives as soon after a reconciliation has been effected . It’s true, she can last for only so long without his wit and charm, qualities he possesses in such measure as she has been unable to find in anyone else. For their part, Truth and Goodness have over the years compiled a three volume response to their sister’s antics, but the tome continues to languish in a post office, unclaimed.
On a Saturday Tau asks me whether we can bake cookies for Sigma, whose feelings were hurt in a game she lost. If this were any other kid but the tender-hearted Tau making this request, I would see it simply as a poor ruse to score some sweet stuff. We bake the cookies, and to the children’s immense delight, it turns out that the recipe on the back of the chocolate chip packet produces an unusually high yield. At some point, against well-established protocol, Sigma sneaks more than her fair share of the first batch to emerge from the oven. Further temptation is swiftly expelled from our house as we give all but twelve of the remaining cookies away to the neighbours. Sigma will get nothing, but her siblings Ro and Tau, innocent of all wrongdoing, will each receive two cookies for dessert in the evening. Two cookies per kid per day says that this whole debacle will be over in thee days. Not so: On day 2 there is only half a cookie left in the cupboard. The investigation that follows produces depressing results: Ro, as is her way, attempts to convince me of her innocence by assuming an arch tone intended which alone is supposed to brook any disagreement. Unfortunately, her plan is flawed, because she practices, out loud, in front of all us, where to place the stress so as to hit open the most superior-sounding rendition : “ I swear I didn’t take any (ad personam ). I swear I didn’t take any (ad juram). No, I swear I didn’t take any (ad minisculam)“. Tau has nothing to declare, except the holy truth: No, she did not take any cookies. As for Sigma, let the effort to talk a triangle into a square begin: all you have to do is believe ! Her feints may not always adept, but they are delivered swiftly, like a street fighter with his back to the wall. Even as Ro and Sigma continue to irritate me with their fibbing, I find myself admiring, delighting even, in their ingenuity.
I am defending truth, they untruth, yet my stance is less adversarial than competitive. I want to prove to these kids that confessing the truth is better and more pleasing than lying. This takes a great deal of time and craft.
And Tau ? Her “yes” is her “yes” : she has neither stolen the cookies nor lied to me about stealing them. Although she is the only one to have behaved well, Tau is the one who goes to bed without dessert and with only a fraction of the attention that was paid to her sisters.
While it is perfectly possible to love all three kids equally, I am uncertain as to whether I can be equally just in my love for each of them.
Laclos’ Dangerous Liasons is also concerned with the unjust reward of innocent goodness. The brilliant and redoubtable Marquise de Merteuil immediately intrigues. A femme fatale in every sense, she is as dazzling as she is wicked, as wise as she is cruel and simply fascinating to watch. Her letters, and that of her equally depraved and masterful accomplice, the Vicomte de Valmont, are by far the most compelling. And their victim, the pure and virtuous Présidente de Tourvel? Valmont seduces her after an arduous campaign on his part. She loses her mind and dies shortly after in a cloister. Her writing is in no way memorable, except in the most annoying way, that of interrupting our reading about the adventures of Merteuil and Valmont.
However, a recent re-reading has made me reevaluate my stance towards the Présidente. I have been uncharitable: her beauty, that of a pure conscience and a virtuous heart, is subdued and cannot, by nature of its very consistency, appeal in the same way as the restless, spectacular machinations of the Marquise.
The truth of a matter (someone dumped me) might be of great interest (because they found someone else) and might even set me free, as the saying goes (I can pursue a new relationship), but this is not to say that it is interesting (this scenario is common enough), or that this knowledge gives any guarantee of my happiness (unless I find someone better than my ex).
As someone who lives for stories, I am naturally allied with artifice. Parables, metaphors, analogies, grey areas, wiggle room, white lies and tales of every kind are needed to filter the Truth so that we can approach it, be puzzled, think about it some more and learn. My complaint against Truth is only this: that is too great. As an absolute, it cannot temper its harsh light, but shines regardless of whether it shrivels us in its glare.
Virtue has exactly the opposite problem: it is far too dull. All great art as well as the arc of science depends on the tension between what we ought to do and what we want to do, what we can do and what cannot do. Who can resist entering the fray and being crowned with glory? Who prefers to languish by the nearer shore, just to be called “good”?
Beauty of course is not painful to look at, nor is it boring. Instead, we want to feast our eyes on what is beautiful. Too often, Beauty is accused of being empty, pretty on the outside but mindless otherwise. The accusation is unfair : Beauty provides the mind with a necessary rest, burdens the heart with nothing else except to enjoy itself while it renews our senses.
Truth is harsh and Virtue is monotonous. If this is the case, it hardly seems possible for them to be beautiful. Yet, as is the case in affirming the basic goodness of Man (despite much evidence to the contrary), I would rather first concede, because it is better for my soul to do so, that my palate is blunted by the taste for only one kind of beauty, which makes Truth and Virtue, by comparison, seem not nearly as attractive to me.
I ought to value Tau’s honesty far more greatly than the cleverness of her sisters. I had taken it for granted precisely because I can count on it. A comfort and an obedient child who makes life easier, she is overlooked. Her sisters, by contrast, are impossible to ignore: their blithe cunning is forever keeping me on my toes.
Dangerous Liaisons is a good book about bad people. What makes it a work of genius is the fact that evil (the Marquise, Valmont) is portrayed with such dazzling beauty, charm and a great wisdom of its own. The gentle and true-hearted Mme de Tourvel cannot impress us in the same way. She falls victim to Merteuil and the Vicomte’s vicious designs, and Laclos the author sacrifices her as well in service of the plot. A lamb and a dupe, naïve in the best possible way, the Présidente is at the subtle center of an immensely sophisticated work.
A certain brash sort of Beauty is abroad in the world, splashed across magazine covers, movie screens and television sets. She is immediately pleasing, sinking her hooks into me with simple but catchy songs, or the attraction of a witty person at the table and the lure of more pleasures to follow.
Did Beauty thus leave her sisters behind to whore with the devil? Do they still sit in their tower, with no beauty of their own, except one as stern and plain as they are? Or do they think of their sister, but for all their work, cannot discover how to dazzle as she does? Or has Beauty never absconded, but rather, because she likes nothing better than to delight, will sometimes steal out of the castle by night, to grace a good woman, or a plain-spoken man?