Since my last column tilted a bit to the side of resentment, I thought I’d even the score this week by borrowing another topic from my seminar on Ideas of Love.

Manon Lescaut is one of those literary figures, like Faust, Don Quixote, Don Juan, Carmen, Madame Bovary… that transcend the works in which they appear and take their place in a pantheon of characteristic types. Manon’s love is never in doubt, but she cares more for luxury than for fidelity. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes contains a similar type, played in the film by Marilyn Monroe.

Is Manon simply a practical young woman whose contribution to the family budget is well beyond her lover’s earning capacity? Or is her taste for luxury a kind of perversion? Is her crime to sell her favors, or to deceive her beloved?

Manon is the central figure in a love-story that explores the new possibilities opened to love in the emerging market society of the 18th century. Prostitution may well be the oldest profession, but it is only with the movement toward a true market economy that sexual attractiveness in itself acquires a generally agreed-on market value. This value need not be realized literally in an act of exchange, but it is implicit in the rationalization of desire by the marketplace. The principle of exchange-value allows for a systematic measurement of a woman’s–or man’s–desirability. (As a student in the seminar pointed out, Manon’s brother offers the Chevalier des Grieux, Manon’s lover, a trick as a gigolo–an opportunity that he, unlike Manon, indignantly declines.)

The Chevalier’s love for Manon and hers for him are only conceivable against the backdrop of market relations. This new kind of love, which leads the young nobleman to follow his beloved to the wilds ofLouisiana, evolves in counterpoint to the capitalization of desire in the rest of society. The Chevalier’s love, and Manon’s as well, contains within it an implicit understanding of the beloved’s market value. Des Grieux and the dirty old M. de G… M… see Manon with the same vision of rationalized desire. But where G… M… thereupon offers Manon fair market price for her favors, the Chevalier gives himself up “absolutely” to love.

In the 17th century, desire was identical to the search for transcendence, with the unfortunate result that as soon as the desire was consummated, the lover–Don Juan is the classic example–had to seek transcendence elsewhere. Once desire becomes a market transaction and the possession of its object is no longer an all-or-nothing proposition, transcendence can no longer be equated with mere inaccessibility. One transcends market relations by offering the other an irreversible good; not one’s money, but one’s life.

In the 19th century, this element too would be factored into the market relationship, with the result that the courtesan could supplement her “objective” market value by the manipulation of her lover’s “absolute” desire. No matter how much he pays, the lover only truly demonstrates his love when he has gone bankrupt. Emile Zola‘s Nana exemplifies the functioning of this market.

In the prerevolutionary era of l’Abbé Prévost‘s Manon Lescaut (first published in 1731), love was opposed to mere lust as the transcendent to the worldly. Yet were there no interference between these two domains, there would be no story. Manon’s penchant for luxury is not a mere psychological quirk; it is a recognition of her market value. If the evaluation of Manon’s beauty in the marketplace guarantees a love that transcends the marketplace, Manon herself shares this evaluation. The crux of the novel, and of Manon’s character, is the revelation that the Chevalier’s absolute love is dependent on the vulgar fact of his beloved’s market value. “Since his true love exists only in response to the sexual marketplace,” a more reflective Manon might say, “there is no real contradiction between true love and the market.”

But the true lover cannot accept sharing his beloved with another; his love in such circumstances would no longer be absolute but market-driven. Manon’s participation in the sexual market can only be excused as a revelatory gesture if, within the love-relationship itself, it is presented as naive and susceptible to correction.

Hence the moral movement of the novel is no mere artifice of the plot. In contrast with the myth, the “real” Manon is physically unfaithful to her beloved only in a single case, the first, where she goes off with the rich M. de B… and betrays the poor Chevalier to his family. After she returns to him, she uses her beauty as an instrument of seduction on two occasions, but flees each time before delivering the goods. Unfortunately, this attempt to reconcile market activity with the exclusive relationship of love is itself naive; Manon’s market position depends precisely on the delivery of the “goods” in question. She cannot expect her potential customers to treat her with the absolute devotion of the Chevalier or of Nana‘s pathetic lover Count Muffat.

When they arrive in America, Manon declares herself completely changed. She no longer sheds tears for her own sufferings, only for those of her Chevalier. The elimination of the market for her charms leads her to understand the transcendent value of reciprocal affection. Manon, the prodigal daughter, arrives at a nearly modern conception of love-as-tenderness only after having tested both her own and her lover’s value in the marketplace. Because he has been willing to share her punishment for having “unfairly” exploited the marketplace for the benefit of love, she will not merely prefer him to all others as a lover, but prefer his happiness to her own. Henceforth her own desire, the rationalization of which is the very basis of the market economy, is fixed outside the market in the intimate world of the couple.

But the utopia of love cannot last. The couple’s attempt to return through marriage to the premarket world of ritual is ironically the moment in which they discover, with mortal consequences for Manon, that this world, unlike “corrupt” market society, allows no jeu, no space of freedom, within which their love can survive.

The story touches us only because of perfide Manon‘s conversion to devoted faithfulness. But by the same token, when we recall the story, we remember Manon in her unconverted state, so that we can reap once more the profits from her conversion.


There will be no column next week; I’ll be in Israel celebrating the birth of my grandson. In honor of this visit, the following week I’ll discuss the religious rhetoric used to justify such things as the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and what it tells us about the anthropological function of religion in general.