The protection afforded by the night to lovers is more than a recurrent theme in literature. It is a cliché: ageless, universal, obvious. There is no need to travel back in time to the century of Fragonard and Crébillon to read or hear about nights in white satin, strangers in the night, or pleasures that shake you all night long. Because the night belongs to lovers, apparently… from Hero and Leander to Romeo and Juliet, from the couple in La Nuit et le moment (1755) to the duo in It Happened One Night (1934).
Nevertheless, when eighteenth-century artists set their heroes’ dangerous liaisons under the cover of darkness, this signalled potentially far more than a mere awareness of the lovers’ need to hide. Beyond what is now a well-trodden cliché, their configuration of night as a propitious setting for libertine pleasures bears witness to the drastic socio-cultural changes that were transforming both the experience and the idea of night for a fast-growing number of people in early modern Europe. The indiscreet nocturnes imagined by Denon, Laclos, Nerciat or Latouche reveal that night was being reconceptualised from something ominous and debilitating into something protective and stimulating, even emancipating. Only once night-time had become free from fear was it ready to become fit for fun.
Ironically, that reconfiguration of night was the result of two parallel enlightenments. The first is metaphorical, intellectual, and we usually spell it with a capital ‘E’: it frees men and women from their metaphysical terrors. No longer do they see night as the realm of Satan, plagued by demons, nor do they experience it anymore as a blanket smothering the world at sunset. The other, second enlightenment is as material and literal as can be: the lighting up of darkness both indoors and outdoors banishes most of the actual dangers of night-time. A drunken reveller can make it home safely while bandits, no longer anonymous in the streetlight, recede into the shadows.
Thus, what had once been a time for sleep or domesticity became a time for leisure and sociability. It was at night that some of the most iconic pastimes of the eighteenth century were set: not just the libertine encounters like that of Point de lendemain, but also the petits soupers, the outings to the Opéra, the masked balls, the games of cards until the wee hours, the strolls on boulevards, the vauxhalls and other gaudily lit pleasure gardens. The darkness of night was the best background against which to display the brilliance of one’s wealth: gardens were lit with lampions and illuminated by fireworks; rococo interiors, with their silks and velvet, crystals and gild, were designed to reflect ad infinitum the smallest flicker of candlelight; and little by little, streets were lit too, finally allowing people to move from one place of entertainment to the next.
Of course, such changes were far from democratic. They initially benefited only a chosen few who had the good fortune to be educated (and therefore free of superstitious fears which, still to this day, can plague one’s experience of night) and wealthy enough to afford the lighting devices which alone could turn a blinding darkness into a livable space (for candlewax was not a cheap commodity). Outdoors, the spread of public lighting was not universal either. It concerned mostly affluent and urban neighbourhoods. Staying up at night, being able to light up its darkness, was one of the period’s most conspicuous signs of wealth. Still, in the eighteenth century, as education and technology progressed with unprecedented speed, they did transform the experience of night for an ever greater number of people. Crucially, they also transformed the very idea of it.
Night, after all, is a multi-faceted concept. It is first a natural and social phenomenon, a time of the day defined by sunset and curfew. It is also a metaphor for all things hidden, and that metaphor was changing too in the eighteenth century. On the one hand, it would refer less to ignorance (a limitation) and more to the unknown (a stimulus). In effect, the nocturnal was eroticised in the Enlightenment discourse: for curious minds, what dwells in obscurity became an object of desire more than of fear. On the other hand, through the early modern rise of notions such as privacy and intimacy demanding that all bodily truths be concealed from public scrutiny in the name of civilisation, night and darkness became metonymies for what one hides in them. Eroticism was nocturnalised: sex became ‘the fragment of night we all carry,’ as Michel Foucault put it in his History of sexuality. Thus, in the eighteenth century, the nocturnal and the erotic became more intrinsically connected than ever before and, probably, ever since.
Nowhere is this paradigmatic shift affecting night better captured than in the libertine fiction of the Age of Enlightenment. Libertines naturally felt an affinity with the night due to the freedom it granted them. What is specific about libertine fiction, however, is that its narrators take their readers behind closed doors and into the intimacy of eighteenth-century nights. From Vénus dans le cloître (1683) to Le Rideau levé (1786), this erotic literature illuminates why night deserves to be praised as the best accomplice of lovers. We read about night wrapping moments in seductive demi-jours, protecting couples from prying eyes, emboldening respectable ladies, making flesh-and-blood lovers look like mere sylphs who will vanish with the dawn, thereby creating the illusion that tonight’s moment of weakness will be without consequences tomorrow. Yet libertine authors also highlight the paradox that dissimulation is often the condition for revelation. In the secluded stillness of the night, dreams reveal one’s deepest desires while erotic initiations unveil an arcane art of love. The libertine association of night with mysteries soon to be revealed not only illustrates the common wisdom that what one treasures is worth hiding: more importantly, it is also an amplified and eroticised echo of the Age of Enlightenment’s perception that what is hidden is worth discovering.
The end of the eighteenth century confirmed what libertine authors had already understood: the nocturnal menace has not disappeared with the Enlightenment; it has been internalised. One should be wary of the devil inside that night awakens. Yet it would take a mind like Sade’s (or the Gothic imagination of Goya, Fuseli or Walpole) to reveal that the ‘Shadow’ of the self, far from being as playful and charming as a sylph, can be as horrifying as the nights of Silling in The 120 Days of Sodom.
Thus, we need libertine fiction to remind us that, between the pre-modern fears about night and our modern angst about human darkness, there was a time when the unknown was reconfigured as more exciting than any solid truth, when a craving for freedom turned the hours of darkness into a hedonist’s playground. With their free-thinking characters who tame the once daunting immensity of night into a space-time fit for revelries, libertine stories bring to life the positive effects of modern man’s emancipation from superstitions and traditions, as he refuses any boundary that may limit the enjoyment of his inalienable right to freedom and happiness. The libertine night epitomises the eighteenth century’s ‘invention’ and conquest of liberty. It shows us that the century which we remember as a siècle des Lumières and as a siècle de la volupté was bound to be also the siècle de la nuit.
– Marine Ganofsky