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Abstract

This article argues for a camp reading of Prévost’s 1731 novel Manon Lescaut, which opens with unabashed melodrama: a beautiful woman in chains, a lover who follows her to the ends of the earth, locals in an enigmatic frenzy, and a beneficent stranger. Hyper-theatricality here plants the possibility of a specific yet atypical reading—one that escapes the banality of melodrama and redeems the “total abjection” (to use David Halperin’s phrase) of failed tragedy, by reveling in Camp’s signature excesses of spectacle, artifice, comic distance, incandescent jusquaboutisme, and flamboyant disregard for the strictures of good taste.

In contrast to other approaches that look beyond taking Manon seriously as either a dogmatic moral fable or a tragedy of passions, this reading does not delve critically into the complexities of eighteenth century society or problematize gender relations. Rather, it exploits a comic sensibility that Manon shares with Susan Sontag’s portrayal of Camp in her iconic 1964 “Notes.” Camp’s eye for hilarity in “seriousness that fails” and the prizing of jouissance over judgmentalism prove especially well attuned to the novel’s sense of wonder at the “bizarreries du coeur humain.”

Because Camp does not moralize or psychologize, this reading pulls Manon away from the manicheism of conventional morality. Rather than rely on dichotomies of “good” and “bad,” a taste for Camp intervenes to create a “third axis” for moral reflection, which I illustrate through detailed focus on Tiberge as an incorrigible forgiver and on Des Grieux’s abortive homecoming as a spoof of the Prodigal Son.

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