Wednesday, May 4, 2016
Eva La Vallière–Libertine, Puritan, And A Woman Of Indomitable Will
Eva La Vallière was French and a libertine. “No news in that”, said her Uncle Henry on her mother’s side, a descendant of Salem Puritans and from a family as penitential as any of his Calvinist ancestors who arrived in the colonies not long after Plymouth Rock.
Uncle Henry had never liked the La Vallière side of the family, arrivistes of the worst order. They proudly traced their aristocratic lineage back to Louis V, Louis le Fainéant (Louis The Lazy). last of the Carolingian kings, and remarkable for nothing other than sitting on the throne for twenty years despite perpetual palace intrigues and failed plots against his life; but, caviled Uncle Henry, hardly worthy the attention paid by any of the La Vallières who had lost whatever aristocratic taste and bearing they may have had in the 10th century, and still flaunted their heritage as a means of easy entry into New England society.
The La Vallières had been for generations as unnoticed as any other family in the Northeast. They were modestly successful socially speaking in the small town of New Brighton because society there was dominated by old crusty Anglo-Saxons who over their years of private incomes and indolence had become intellectually flabby and had lost all the entrepreneurial spirit that their great-grandfathers had brought to the city. These old families could not stop the intermarrying that occurred in the Sixties. Pedigree had lost its hold even in this small conservative enclave, and the sons and daughters of the captains of industry who had built New Brighton into one of the most influential centers of industry in America, had fled its insularity and old-fashioned, straight-backed morality.
The La Vallières were considered one of the most important families in New Brighton because of the special relationship between France and America during the Revolutionary War. The La Vallières claimed family ties with Lafayette, the young aristocrat who was influential in solidifying ties between American revolutionaries and the French who, still stinging from their defeat in The French and Indian War against the British, were anxious to get their revenge. Lafayette became a general, an aide to Washington, and after many years in French politics returned to America as a hero.
Like everything else about this pretentious family, Uncle Henry was quick to point out, all ties to the French aristocracy were tenuous at best, and frivolous and self-serving at worst. They were insufferable pedants, bores, and pretenders, and if anything had retained the laziness and arrogance of their original pater familias who ruled badly, was indeed a sexual libertine who gave French savoir faire a bad name.
Everyone in the family was held in his nasty regard except his his niece Eva who was a delightfully precocious girl who had a sexual allure, a self-confidence, and an absolutely canny ability to entice, lure, and bed young men from every aristocratic corner of Boston, Philadelphia, and New York.
This was not to say that Eva was promiscuous. Far from it. Promiscuity suggests irresponsibility, a lack of moral principle, and a disregard for social mores. She was not, as her Uncle Henry had said, a libertine – a woman guided only by a venal self-indulgence. She understood a woman’s complete power over men, both because of their defenselessness when it came to feminine beauty and sexual irresistibility, and their fragile egos, and used it to her advantage. Feminism had never had any interest for her because of this almost preternatural understanding of sexual dynamics. If she could always and invariably get men to do her bidding, then what was the use of sisterhood?
After a while, however, when the ease of male conquest became desultory and boring at best, she began to realize that her sexual charm and canniness gave her a particular and very unique power. She saw herself not only as the object of men’s desire but the willful arbiter of their fate –a Marquise de Merteuil of Les Liaisons Dangereuses who used seduction as a weapon of humiliation. The Marquise and her ex-lover and equally willful and amoral colleague conspire to deceive, seduce, and destroy young women in their circle. He, the handsome, irresistible male; and she the plotter and conspirator.
Many women in classical literature were as strong as Eva and who always got what they wanted. Shakespeare’s strong women – Rosalind, Cleopatra, Beatrice, Lady Macbeth, Queen Margaret, Goneril, Regan, Tamora, and Dionyza – used their intelligence, sexual prowess, and keen political ambitions to express their power in a very male-dominated and socially-prescribed world.
Yet these women still lacked the willful disregard for morality of the Marquise. It was one thing to use one’s power for personal gain – for the succession of children and perpetuation of their husbands’ reign – another thing altogether to exert one’s will solely for its own sake.
Nietzsche of course is the best-known of the nihilists. Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, or Tolstoy came nowhere near his myth of the Superman, the man beyond good and evil for whom the expression of absolute will was the only validation of existence. Iago was the purist pre-Nietzschean in all of Shakespeare’s works. He destroyed Othello not because of lingering resentment at having been passed over, nor because of envy, nor even resentment that this
African hero could become such a revered figure in Venetian society. His disassembling of Othello was done only because he could.
Iago’s slow, progressive, and deliberate destruction of his general was far more cruel than any psychological torment and social opprobrium the Marquise and Valmont could devise. A man who is cruel without reason or justification and who defends his power and right to do so to the very end, is truly Nietzschean.
Hedda Gabler was a fictional character who was as unrepentantly amoral as Iago. The highest expression of individual will was holding someone completely in your thrall. Hedda has no compunctions about sending Lovborg to his death by suicide as a vindication of his honor because such finality at her hands is the expression of will.
As much as Eva admired the Marquise, Lady Macbeth, Margaret of Anjou, Dionyza, or Lady Macbeth, she always pulled back from the edge of amorality. Perhaps it was the influence of her mother’s family who through the centuries since 17th century Salem had retained their unshakable principles, morality, and ethical convictions. There were as many portraits of bewigged New Englanders in her home as there were French aristocrats.
As she grew older she became amused at this rather rarified family conflict of values that had always bedeviled her. She was almost exultant at her summary dismissal of suitors and lovers, leaving them on the curb, egos wounded, hesitant to even be men again; but something always pulled her back. She was never able to deliver the coup de grace.
Maggie the Cat in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is another of fiction’s amorally ambitious characters. She was born poor, raised poor, and lived poor; and the last thing on earth that she would ever do would be to die poor. Her weak and futile husband Brick, heir to a family fortune and former Southern golden boy was to be her savior; but Brick is a morally and perhaps sexually damaged man and cannot fulfill her. Because she sees how Brick’s attachment to his friend Skipper was pulling him away from her, she cruelly humiliates Skipper by enticing him to her bedroom where she knows he will not perform. Skipper’s suicide is on her hands, but it is Brick who feels the guilt for letting his friend down.
Eva could never do what Maggie, Hedda, or Hilda Wangel (The Master Builder) who uses her power over Solness to assure his death in a fall from the tower. Her sense of rectitude, of right and wrong were always tested by her French side, but the New England side would never let her give in.
Eva eventually accepted the ‘given’ of her nature – the war between right and wrong fought between the French and the American colonists – and enjoyed the sexual ride until she was in her early 70s. She had always been one of the most attractive women I have ever met, not only because of her beauty, poise, and intelligence, but because of her acceptance of a potentially cruel, amoral side; and a reluctant admission of the power of Cotton Mather on the other.