Reception Theory and Les Liaisons Dangereuses

Of all the literary critical theories yet discussed, I find reception theory by far the most intelligent and rewarding. After all, where does literature become literature, where does it "happen" so to speak, if not in the mind of the reader? Without the reader, literature is inky blobs on paper. This correlates to Berkeley's solipsistic analogy of a tree falling in the woods. Without a listener does it make a sound? Well, technically, it emanates vibrations, but only an ear will interpret those vibrations as sound. Thus with literature. The mind of the reader, operating on the text with it's various literary and extra-textual codes, makes it literature.

In the case of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, reception theory is not only helpful, it is positively essential to any sort of literary discussion of the novel. Considerations of authorial intent are clearly to no avail, in that, due to the epistolary format, no such intent can be gleaned from the text. Try as we might to construct some sort of original meaning in the mind of the author, we find at last that the meanings we come up with have been supplied by ourselves. Laclos is like the hand of the puppeteer: we never see it, although we know that it is controlling the whole show. All we see are the ornate, 18th century marionettes as they dance through each dastardly deception, each "dangerous liaison."

Even more maddening than trying to find authorial intent in the pages of Les Liaisons Dangereuses is the (one would think) comparatively simple task of ascertaining the moods and motivations of the characters themselves. Since we know that the majority of the characters are moderate to full-blown liars, writing one thing to one person and quite another to another, who do we believe? When seeming to bear one's soul is just one more weapon in the arsenal, how are we supposed to determine when actual soul-bearing is taking place?

Here, again, reception theory comes to our rescue. By looking at our own literary and non-literary conventions, we begin to feel more confident about the proposition that Valmont really is in love with the Presidente and that the Marquise really is in love with Valmont. After all, that's what makes it good, isn't it? Without having love rear it's ugly head at some point, the book would be a monotone, an unrewarding and depressing look at people at once glamourous and depraved...but that's all. You've got to bring love into the story, to give it that certain "otherness" that only love can impart. And, of course, it is the perfect infection to set loose in the lives of Valmont and the Marquise. They are so smug, so callous, so completely detached that the literary convention of comeuppance enters into our minds, especially the more we read of their cruelties and their pure delight in hurting others. Nothing hurts like love. As we read, perhaps even subconsciously, we find ourselves starting to want to see these two get burned. This emotional response is our extra-textual convention. The combination of the literary code of inevitable retribution and our own personal code of wanting to see them hurt like we (perhaps) have been hurt, serves to create a context within which we can understand them more fully and have a more complete experience of the novel as a whole.

So love prevails. It is one of those "universal themes" we keep hearing about, but when looked at through the lens of reception theory, we realize that a certain percentage of it is due to our own desires, our own value systems. To me, this is a far more potent argument for the notion that "meaning" exists throughout the ages than is offered by either authorial intent or new criticism. We are the ones who carry the meaning across the eons, we the readers. It is not frozen in the tomb of the author, inaccessible to you and your petty "significances;" nor can it be found solely between the letters on the page as you read it with blinders fastened tightly to your head.

In a way, reception theory is a sort of protestantism or humanism in the face of such oppressively "catholic" approaches as new criticism and authorial intent. It allows the reader a certain measure of autonomy and encourages a more participatory attitude towards literature. To me, this can only be good; literature is to be embraced, devoured, explored with vigour and good humor. Reception theory encourages this, and any critical theory that does so has my complete and enthusiastic approbation.

©1996 Patrick Galloway

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