The preface of this book claims that it’s basically a how-to, or a how-not-to. It’s a “moral treatise…each adventure is a model upon which to form oneself.” We try on these characters and become them in a virtual sense when we read them. When I tried on des Grieux (male lover) & Manon (female lovee), I realized that the gap between reality and one’s image of reality is actually a large chasm.
Des Grieux is our narrator, and he tells a story of love. But I’m not sure this is a love story. Desire is different than love – desiring is wanting something you don’t have, and once you have it, desire disappears. Love is bigger, and contains desire among other things. What does Manon even look like??? Is she slight, voluptuous, blue-eyed, green-eyed, blonde, black-haired…? Is she funny, demure, strict…? All we learn from des Grieux is that she looks like “a goddess,” that she is “beautiful,” “lovely.” We don’t even know why he might love Manon, aside from her vaguely being a goddess. De Grieux says this: “Those very things which have brought me to despair might have made me rapturously happy, and I have become the most wretched man alive through that very constancy of mine which might have brought me the ineffable joys of true love.” I think he was constantly on the BRINK of being in love, during the constant chase of Manon, but never actually reached it. Though it’s possible he reached it when in New Orleans, but we don’t hear any details of this period, and even that was fleeting because Manon soon dies.
The idea of love is an absolute addiction for des Grieux, who admits he was “born to fleeting joys and lasting sufferings,” chasing the highs of Manon’s affection, dealing with her absence/betrayals by scheming to get her back. He exhausts and depletes the funds and favors of any ‘friend’ in his life, without concern. His life revolves around trying to possess Manon. “Manon was pleasure-mad and I was mad on her.” Des Grieux describes to his priestly friend that des Grieux has chosen love (bliss on earth) over his past religious life (waiting for bliss after life).
Manon, on the other hand, desires materialism. She is only happy with jewels, fancy dresses, carriages, and theater outings. Even love becomes characterized by materialism as she prostitutes herself. She seems like a realist in writing to des Grieux after one of her betrayals, “Do you really think we can love each other with nothing to eat?” But they are NEVER actually starving. She prostitutes herself for jewels and lavish living, not for bread to eat.
It was pretty painful to read Manon Lescaut, similar to reading the autobiography of Anthony Kiedis (of Red Hot Chili Peppers) detailing his on and off again struggle with heroin. I don’t completely understand the authorial strategy of not giving us details on the final stint in New Orleans, which is hinted to have finally been this simple (though short) life of bliss for the couple…is it because he wanted us to be in pain the whole time?
*I love the contrast between this French author from the 1700s, and another French theorist that came a couple centuries later: Roland Barthes. It’s funny to me that Prevost tells us in the preface that his book is a moral guide, which fits into the theory of Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse, which explained that love is just a construct: we read fantastical books about love and model our lives after it…