Printer Friendly

Formes breves as linguistic and social meditations in Le Misanthrope.

The heavy use of the literary portrait (1) in Moliere's Le Misanthrope (1666) has been the subject of a considerable amount of critical attention, (2) but the aphorism's (3) frequent appearance in this much-studied play has gone largely unnoticed. Those two classical formes breves serve as the main weapons of the coquette Celimene and the misanthropist Alceste as they spar their way to the play's famously ambiguous ending. (4) Declaring, "Je veux qu'on soit sincere, et qu'en homme d'honneur, On ne lache aucun mot qui ne parte du coeur" (1. 1. 35-36), Alceste presents his sententiousness in opposition to Celimene's performance-driven verbal depictions. However, a close analysis of the self-aware forms and different functions of portraits and maxims both in the play and within its social frame disassembles his binary system. Rather, maxims and portraits here form a linguistic nexus whose energized presence first leads to further recognition of the ability of seventeenth-century drama to anticipate modern conversations on the philosophy of art and being, as scholars like Shoshana Felman, Larry Norman, and Christopher Braider teach us. (5)

Viewing aphorisms and portraits as co-operatives in a circular system, a notion reinforced by the circularity of the play's unresolved plot, permits us to see again that a principal lesson to be learned in this "ecole des salonniers" concerns language. More specifically, Le Misanthrope addresses vexed questions about the idea of truth value, the ability of words to act, and the conventionality of language. The misanthropist wants truthful, declarative speech, and yet everything in this comedy of manners suggests speech that acts and impacts, including, as I will show, Alceste's own repliques. Perhaps most importantly, the linguistic and social complexity of the play's featured classical short forms brings to light their crucial, flexible roles in the tumultuous literary and cultural landscape of Moliere's France. While they have been traditionally grouped as fossilized artifacts of the machine of cultural production under Louis XIV, maxims and portraits here point equally to modes of resistance, an idea that supports Joan DeJean's compelling argument in Ancients against Moderns: Culture Wars and the Making of a Fin de Siecle (1997) that "the most glorious years of Versailles knew far less social rigidity and far more social ferment than is generally imagined" (xv). Portraits and maxims, seeming possessions of the nobility, metamorphose under the non-noble playwright's pen into meditations on types of speech and the social castes that produce and appreciate them.

The play's starring embedded form, the salon portrait, provides the key to hearing this meditation in virtue of its role as an explicit performance piece on many different levels. Just as Celimene invites her salon guests to stroll through the portrait gallery ("Et dans la galerie allons faire deux tours") (2. 4. 732), Moliere walks the spectator-reader past a series of verbal sketches (6) that structures the play physically and rhetorically. Associated at the time and at present with salon culture and preciosite, the portraits first aid in establishing the salon atmosphere of Celimene's ruelle, a place where participants cultivate a set of performance skills, one of which is the art of portraiture. The art is practiced most fervently by Celimene, whose verbal depictions dramatically call attention to the idea of performance at three key moments during the play, the first of which occurs in the fourth scene of the second act (often called the "scene des portraits"). A "play within a play," this pivotal moment features Celimene as the star who sketches absent courtiers for her noble audience. She delivers a string of eight portrayals that provokes admiration from the attending marquis Acaste and Clitandre ("Pour bien peindre les gens vous etes admirable") (2. 4. 650) but sparks direct conflict with her lover Alceste. Verbal sketching also structures the confrontation between Celimene and the prudish Arsinoe, who criticizes Celimene's lifestyle in the third act. Here, the two women paint oblique pictures of each other by casting them as gossip overheard at other salons. Citing negative portraits that have anonymous, collective, noble painters ("des gens de vertu singuliere" and "quelques gens d'un tres rare merite") (3. 4. 885, 922), the two women reenact performances of others (or at least claim to) like actors performing scripts. Finally, written sketches provide the impetus for the play's denouement, the scene in which Celimene's cutting portraits are read aloud in front of the sitters whom they ridicule. Ironically, the very men who savored her portraitist skills in the second act storm out of her salon upon hearing the public reading--itself another performance--of those private descriptions.

Yet the most striking feature of the play's verbal depictions, one that further underscores their roles as performances and points to their rhetorical weight, is their imprecision. Resisting the normative function of the portrait to commemorate, (7) they lack the details that would allow the viewer/spectator to single out the sitter in the way that period painted portraits do. For example, Celimene's "portrait veritable" (2. 4. 649) of "Damis" (who seems a twin of Alceste) limits itself to his critical ("Il veut voir des defauts a tout ce qu'on ecrit") (639) and haughty ("Il se met au-dessus de tous les autres gens") (644) personality. Similarly, Celimene reduces "Geralde" to "l'ennuyeux conteur!" (2. 4. 595) in the same tirade. This swerve in the meaning of "portrait" stems in part from Moliere's tampering with the very form of the written genre. Called both "portraits" and "caracteres" throughout the course of the play, Celimene's depictions are startlingly reduced versions of the portrait galant when one compares them with texts from the baseline of salon depiction, Mademoiselle de Montpensier's Divers portraits (1659). (8) Moliere simmers down the repetitive descriptions of faces, legs, temperaments, and tastes found in such portrait collections to create piercing summaries of behavioral "tics" that anticipate La Bruyere's "caracteres," a transformation likewise acknowledged by Jacqueline Plantie (500).

The fact that they do not single out their sitters is, however, largely a tribute to the portrait's role as performance in seventeenth-century culture. Courtiers delivered them, as they did dedications and panegyrics, largely in order to flatter and thereby earn social currency rather than to forge accurate, "realistic" (in the modern sense) portrayals. The seventeenth-century literary portrait's truth value is radically different from that of a painted portrait, a phenomenon that period and modern scholars alike confront, often in a hostile manner. Even sympathetic researchers of the genre like Plantie and Harth criticize the homogeneity, imprecision, and excessive praise of the detached sketches in Divers portraits and its popular imitation Recueil des portraits et eloges en vers et en prose (1659); calling literary portraitists' efforts at times "pathetic," Erica Harth declares that "Many of their portraits are nothing but embellished flattery" (108). Moreover, to Alceste as well as to many early modern critics, (9) the salon portrait's lack of resemblance to an individual transforms it into formal monster--a portrait that renounces its very purpose as suggested by period philosophers who, like Antoine Arnauld and Pierre Nicole in the linguistic treatise Art de penser (also known as La Logique de Port-Royal), view a portrait's meaning as a function of its relationship to its real-world referent. (10) The literary portrait's distance from its object of depiction, in this play as well as in the period conversational spaces that inspired it, results in a text that tells much more about social pressures facing the portraitist than about the actual sitter. As Harth explains, salon portraits are manifestations of a complex mimetic paradigm hinging upon an "artful imitation of art" that "emphasized the seeming rather than the truth" (69-70). As such, they are portraits of codes of behavior, or "types" (no strangers to theater). The focus of portraiture is thus shifted away from individuals and toward the circumstances of its forging and delivery--the keys to its artfulness. By making this process the subject of a comedy, Moliere creates an image akin to an ironic painted self-portrait that displays the painter painting," a masterpiece of self-aware depiction that calls attention to the act or performance of representation.

The outrageously arrogant self-sketch of the marquis Acaste (the only lengthy depiction of the play) wonderfully illustrates the self-reflexivity of the play's sketches by its emphasis on the obliviousness of the self-portraitist to his own condition. Outlining his many qualities for a fellow marquis, including his courage, wit, teeth, and general likeability, Acaste's final product contrasts sharply with his intended flattering self-portrait:
  J'ai du bien, je suis jeune, et sors d'une maison
  Qui se peut dire noble avec quelque raison;
  Et je crois, par le rang que me donne ma race,
  Qu'il est fort peu d'emplois dont je ne sois en passe.
  Pour le coeur, dont sur tout nous devons faire cas,
  On sait, sans vanite, que je n'en manque pas,
  Et l'on m'a vu pousser, dans le monde, une affaire
  D'une assez vigoureuse et gaillarde maniere.
  Pour de l'esprit, j'en ai sans doute, et du bon gout
  A juger sans etude et raisonner de tout,
  A faire aux nouveautes, dont je suis idolatre,
  Figure de savant sur les bancs du theatre,
  Y decider en chef, et faire du fracas
  A tous les beaux endroits qui meritent des Ah!
  Je suis assez adroit; j'ai bon air, bonne mine,
  Les dents belles surtout, et la taille fort fine.
  Quant a se mettre bien, je crois, sans me flatter
  Qu'on serait mal venu de me le disputer.
  Je me vois dans l'estime autant qu'on y puisse etre,
  Fort aime du beau sexe, et bien aupres du maitre.
  Je crois qu'avec cela, mon cher Marquis, je crois
  Qu'on peut, par tout pays, etre content de soi. (3. 1. 783-804)

Working inside the formal boundaries of the portrait galant yet subverting its content and import from within, Moliere presents the comic type of the "petit marquis," a frequent guest in his work. Much of Acaste's portrait follows the model of the Divers portraits texts, such as its vocabulary, tropes, structure, and excessively flattering tone, but its author lacks the humility (false or not) that the nobles of Divers portraits attempt to project. Rather, the act of posing that any self-characterization necessarily involves (described exquisitely by Harry Berger as "an intentional act in which one gives oneself to be seen in a semblance offered to others as an image possessing at least a core of spectacular truth") (171) is underscored by Acaste's repetition of "I believe" in the same line ("Je crois qu'avec cela, mon cher Marquis, je crois") (3. 1. 803). What Acaste "believes" himself to be is not what we see; the portrait is a ridiculous trompe-l'oeil, a representation of an idealization with a "core of spectacular [un]truth." Straining against its speaker's original intention, the marquis's finished sketch, infused with irony, acts to redraw the collective image of honnetete projected by the traditional salon portrait, turning it into a grotesque caricature of nobility. A magnifying mirror turned back on painter and recipient alike, Acaste's depiction delivers a powerful punch, for it at once highlights the vanity of all acts of self-portraiture, draws attention to that prideful public act, questions the ability to self-depict faithfully, and accuses us all of self-delusion.

Their traditional sources of meaning vacated and intentions under-mined, Moliere's sketches ironically and purposefully refuse mimesis via myriad means: by agressive reduction, by irony, and, most intriguingly, by treating characters that never appear on stage, a fact that Jean Mesnard (127) and Plantie (501) also notice. The physical lack of subjects suggests that the descriptions themselves serve as their own referents, a phenomenon that explicitly embues representation with the power of creation. The absence of sitters points to the fact that all of the embedded sketches are not only performances, but also "performative" texts in an Austinian sense. Highlighting "the performance of an act of saying something" (Austin 99), Le Misanthrope's portraits of missing subjects act by making those theatrical characters (products themselves of past descriptions and performances) present--conjuring them for the spectator--as they unfold.

As suggested above, the comedy's embedded philosophical conversation on desription, meaning, and action that the portrait engages anticipates in significant ways the main tenets of J. L. Austin's How to Do Things with Words (1962). At first dividing speech up into "constative" and "performative," Austin later (after discussing the many ways that the two categories merge) prefers to focus on the idea of production of words, which can be broken down into the three categories of the "locutionary" (production of meaning), "illocutionary" (force), and "perlocutionary" (production of effect) (101-102). Looking at the differences among these categories reveals opposing views of language present in Moliere's work, an idea that Shoshana Felman first suggests in her bold work Le Scandale du corps parlant: Don Juan avec Austin ou La seduction en deux langues (1980). Her brilliant observation that Don Juan "refuse d'etre seduit par son propre mythe, refuse d'etre lui-meme seduit par la langue: de croire a la promesse du sens" and, in so doing, that he "subvertit le constatif" (46) is likewise an apt description of the way that language operates in Celimene's space. Like Don Juan, the members of her salon are interested in what their words can do (the illocutionary and perlocutionary), while the sententious Alceste begs for the locutionary, that which describes, has a truth value, and thereby closely links word to meaning. Stating this explicitly at the beginning of the second act, Celimene admits to Alceste that she entertains Clitandre with her portrait antics and flatters him (showing him a verbal sketch of how he desires to be viewed) out of self-interest: "Ne savez-vous bien pourquoi je le menage, Et que dans mon proces, ainsi qu'il m'a promis, Il peut interesser tout ce qu'il a d'amis" (2. 1. 490-92). Moreover, Clitandre's promise (one of Austin's primary examples of a "speech-act" (52) that exemplifies the illocutionary) to influence others in Celimene's favor helps establish an environment in which performatives and performances shape all discourse. In this environment, the above categories of speech merge over the course of the play (a phenomenon that Austin also admits repeatedly in his work), offering a view of language as a dynamic social system.

Like seeing the moon in virtue of the sun, the portrait's glaring multiple roles as action allow us to view the maxim in the same light, an idea that breaks down Alceste's binary view of speech. Offered as a partner to the verbal portrait in the play's agonistic pas de deux, the maxim's own traditional relationship to description and truth value is undermined. Identifying that partnership of performativity, however, goes against everything that Alceste explains to the other characters. Wishing "que nos sentiments ne se masquent jamais sous de vains compliments" (1. 1. 71-72), the misanthropist hates the way that his contemporaries use language, and his vitriol is directed in particular toward the portrait galant, both the positive version that irons out defects and the negative version that reduces individuals to "bons caracteres." His critique of salon codes in the first scene of the play implicates the flattering sketch directly in its mention of the "eloge eclatant": "Quel avantage a-t-on qu'un homme vous caresse, Vous jure amitie, foi, zele, estime, tendresse Et vous fasse de vous un eloge eclatant, Lorsque au premier faquin il court en faire autant?" (1. 1. 49-52). In the second act, he denounces the portrait game for both its reductive meanness and the future hypocrisy that it entails:
  Allons, ferme, poussez, mes bons amis de cour;
  Vous n'en epargnez point, et chacun a son tour;
  Cependant aucun d'eux a vos yeux ne se montre
  Qu'on ne vous voie, en hate, aller a sa rencontre,
  Lui presenter la main, et d'un baiser flatteur
  Appuyer les serments d'etre son serviteur. (2. 4. 651-56)

Both types of portraiture illustrate the reigning conventions of politesse, as Jean Mesnard attests: "Etre poli, c'est louer les presents. Il est une autre facon de plaire, c'est de blamer les absents" (127). Alceste detests "polite" language that dissimulates in order to please rather than describes in order to present the truth, as does the portrait. The crimes (in his view) that motivate his plan to cut off social ties ("rompre en visiere a tout le genre humain") (1. 1. 96) are the result of linguistic treachery: "lache flatterie, [...] injustice, interet, trahison, fourberie" (1. 1. 93-94). Alceste wants to isolate himself because of the many deceptive ways that others act when they use words whose meanings do not coincide with their referents.

However, the simple fact that Alceste does not quit Celimene's salon indicates that his hatred of society and language is not so simple. Despite his declarations of leaving ("Je sors") (2. 3. 553) and threats to flee society altogether ("Et parfois il me prend des mouvements soudains De fuir dans un desert l'approche des humains") (1. 1. 143-44), he cannot bring himself to act on his words. He roots himself in Celimene's chambers in spite of the company's annoyance at his clinging presence, and he refuses to cede Celimene to the two marquis: "Sortez quand vous voudrez, Messieurs; mais j'avertis Que je ne sors qu'apres que vous serez sortis" (2. 4. 735-36). This contradiction is partly a product of Alceste's unfathomable heart, for the sententious portrait-hater is in love with the lead portraitist, a fundamental, comic paradox of the play. Alceste's inability to leave the conversational space points likewise to a linguistic contradiction: his view of language versus his actual speech. Constantly questioning the faithfulness of his lady, Alceste draws lines in the linguistic dust of the salon. He creates a dichotomy between social discourse, illustrated by portraits, and speech that has a truth value, as ostensibly do his maxims, in the hope of forcing Celimene to describe her attachment to him truthfully. Tired of what he sees as empty declarations, the misanthropist wants to force her and everyone else to accept a view of language that relies upon linguistic transparency, or upon the close correspondence between word, referent, and meaning. But an examination of Alceste's own speech reinforces again the idea that discourse does not function here as a vehicle of truth.

The gulf between Alceste's theories, actions, and words is indicated most explicitly by his own use of the literary portrait. In spite of his expressed loathing of the genre ("Vous avez des plaisirs que je ne puis souffrir") (2. 4. 692), he is, as Plantie also notes, an extremely habile portraitist: "Si faire des portraits est le passe-temps favori de Celimene, le plus doue apres elle est certainement Alceste" (499). Indeed, he is the first character of the play to utter a verbal sketch. In the first scene of the second act, he paints an unflattering image of the marquis Clitandre that is glaringly hypocritical in light of the misanthropist's professed loathing of medisance committed by the "censeurs temeraires" (2. 4. 690) of the salon:
  Sur quels fonds de merite et de vertu sublime
  Appuyez-vous en lui l'honneur de votre estime?
  Est-ce par l'ongle long qu'il porte au petit doigt
  Qu'il s'est acquis chez vous l'estime ou l'on le voit?
  Vous etes-vous rendue, avec tout le beau monde,
  Au merite eclatant de sa perruque blonde?
  Sont-ce ses grands canons qui vous le font aimer?
  L'amas de ses rubans a-t-il su vous charmer?
  Est-ce par les appas de sa vaste rhingrave
  Qu'il a gagne votre ame en faisant votre esclave?
  Ou sa facon de rire et son ton de fausset
  Ont-ils de vous toucher su trouver le secret? (2. 1. 477-88)

Executed in the absence of its subject, the above text provides the blueprint for Celimene's malicious portraits that follow. Alceste's rhetorical gesture of negative portraiture, accomplished via a series of ironic rhetorical questions, is above all an effort to convince Celimene of the marquis's ridiculousness. As such, it represents a prime example of Austin's perlocutionary mode that aims to persuade. Its true performativity, however, lies in the way in which it evokes the character-"caractere" Clitandre before the audience ever experiences him firsthand. In a few brief references to a fingernail, wig, ribbon, and voice, Moliere evokes the familiar "petit marquis," a creature whose prior descriptions in Moliere's work forge a ready theatrical referent. It is thus Alceste that first unleashes a portrait that is conventional both outside and inside the frame of the play in that it draws from the usual cast of seventeenth-century comic images while at the same time it uses precious techniques to transfigure an individual into a type.

Alceste's persistent sententiousness continues the complex discussion of language, form, and function that his act of portraiture foregrounds. Several characters in Le Misanthrope employ maxims, but Alceste is by far the most sententious character, as he uses aphorisms on eight occasions (twice as many times as Arsinoe, the next most sententious character). For example, he shifts to the grammatical subjects "every man" ("Et tout homme d'honneur s'en doit scandaliser") (2. 4. 16) and "one" ("Non, non, il n'est point d'ame un peu bien situee Qui veuille d'une estime ainsi prostituee; Et la plus glorieuse a des regals peu chers, Des qu'on voit qu'on nous mele avec tout l'univers:") (55-56) in the very first scene when explaining his exasperation with the culture of flattery. Moreover, the maxim that follows the above quote, "Sur quelque preference une estime se fonde, Et c'est n'estimer rien qu'estimer tout le monde" (57-58), summarizes his views on social discourse in a seemingly transparent manner. Moreover, during the famous portrait scene, his harshest direct critique of the salon-goers takes the form of aphoristic expression. Following Acaste and Clitandre's praise of the sketch of Damis, cited above, Alceste chides, "C'est ainsi qu'aux flatteurs on doit partout se prendre Des vices ou l'on voit les humains se repandre" (2. 4. 665-66). Again wielding maxims in the same scene, he summarizes his nonstandard view of love: "Plus on aime quelqu'un, moins il faut qu'on le flatte" (699-701). The above sentences aim to send a unified message that at once condemns flattery as the basis for sin and establishes a sliding scale of opposition between truth and flattery. Thus, throughout the play, Alceste counters portraits with maxims in an ongoing effort to shape his linguistic and moral dichotomy.

Considering the sententious individual's intentions and addressing the nature of the maxim itself aid in interpreting the above "guerre des formes breves." Alceste's preferred linguistic weapon represents, as Geoffrey Bennington explains, an attempt to "lay down the law" (xi) about particular conduct and global social interaction. Roland Barthes and Jean Lafond similarly view the author of maxims as a figure that posits him/herself as society's judge, a figure able to deliver constatives. Lafond states that the sententious individual "se donne le role, le beau role, de celui qui s'enonce la verite" (Lire 317), and Barthes explains that "comme un dieu, l'auteur des maximes soupese des objets et il nous dit la verite des tares" (75). The above characterizations of the sententiousness speaker reveal that Alceste's heavy use of the aphorism helps paint his self-portrait: the image of a self-made "god" able to deliver statements that have a truth value. (12) But these scholars' further characterizations of the aphoristic form itself call into question that prideful self-portrait. Barthes first describes the maxim's "ossature [...] spectaculaire" in virtue of the seeming "sens fermes" of its units (71), a notion echoed by Lafond when he notices the maxim's perceived quiddity: "La pensee se donne a voir comme objet, et non plus comme produit d'une subjectivite" (Lire 317). In spite of this, the aphorism's fixed, transparent nature is eroded by the nature of language itself. Lafond further writes of the maxim's concurrent "cloture apparente et ... ouverture effective" (Lire 320), and Barthes summarizes that the maxim engages in "essentiellement un discours ambigu" (87). Both authors found their arguments upon linguistic principles by pointing to, as Barthes terms it using a Saussurian vocabulary, "l'ambiguite des signes" (81). The opacity of the sign (in this case, the word) is, then, the source of the unfinished, ambiguous quality of aphorisms, statements that present themselves as clear, concise truths worthy of being noted and memorized.

The difficulty of pinning aphorisms down semantically suggests the basic philosophical dilemma of language's relation to ideas and objects, a concept that was debated at the time (as the scholars of Port-Royal show us) and continues to challenge philosophers of language. As twentieth-century theorists like Ferdinand de Saussure explain, a word's relationship to its referent and/or its meaning is arbitrary (100). The validity of a statement that presents itself as a universal truth can also be questioned. For example, studying La Rochefoucauld's Maximes (and the similarity between the author known as "La Franchise" and Moliere's misanthropist is stunning), Barthes finds layers of "deception" underneath the mask of "lucidity":
  On le voit, il y a dans cet edifice profond un vertige du neant;
  descendant de palier en palier, de l'heroisme a l'ambition, de
  l'ambition a la jalousie, on n'atteint jamais le fond de l'homme, on
  ne peut jamais en donner une definition derniere, qui soit
  irreductible; quand l'ultime passion a ete designee, cette passion
  elle-meme s'evanouit, elle peut n'etre que paresse, inertie, neant; la
  maxime est une voie infinie de deception; l'homme n'est plus qu'un
  squelette de passions, et ce squelette luimeme n'est peut-etre que le
  fantasme d'un rien; l'homme n'est pas sur. (84-85)

As Barthes boldly declares above, maxims create the illusion of truth and closure, but an inevitable body of shifting meanings lies underneath in virtue of the unavoidable passions that motivate individuals to write, speak, and interpret.

The dual nature of the maxim plays itself out in Le Misanthrope's main character; Alceste attempts to "lay down the law," but he holds a starring role in the comedy of manners that takes place in Celimene's salon. As discussed above, he reacts most violently to the literary portrait, a symbol here of both bienseance and medisance, yet he uses portraits himself as well as the performance-driven maxim in his attempts to persuade Celimene to give up her other lovers. Performing for her benefit, he spouts aphorisms to fashion himself as a glorious model of morality before the eyes of "le monde" (embodied by Celimene); "Je veux qu'on soit sincere, [...] Je veux qu'on me distingue" (1.1. 35-63), he declares to Philinte in the first scene. His explicit wish to be distinguished--his concern for the opinion of those he berates--exposes the fact that sententiousness, which Celimene characterizes as "dire des bons mots" (2. 4. 636), likewise belongs to the cadre of acquired salon skills, as evidenced by the many period collections of maxims by authors like the Duc de La Rochefoucauld and Madame de Sable. By pairing sententiousness with portraiture within the frame of comedy, Moliere forges self-aware aphorisms that knowingly undermine their traditional relation to truth in order to comment upon the social system in which they participate.

The playwright's treatment of short forms in a medium (theater) viewed at the time as a "talking picture par excellence" (Braider 1143) presents dizzying layers of performances that first and most obviously highlight the theatricality of court and salon life. The gap between self and self-presentation, or between etre and paraitre to use period terms, was familiar territory to nobles under Louis XIV, who both perpetuated and were forced to participate in an aristocratic dance. (13) Performing public roles, donning disguises, and using pseudonyms against the backdrop of Versailles, the general notions of deception and role-playing reigned at the Sun King's court. Jean de La Bruyere's Les Caracteres is another testimonial of the theatricality of life at court; he exclaims, "Dans cent ans le monde subsistera encore en son entier: ce sera le meme theatre et les memes decorations, ce ne seront plus les memes acteurs" (VIII. 99). (14) The play's unconventional use of the maxim reiterates Boileau's view of life as spectacle, for it exposes the fact that even a genre considered a vehicle of truth participates actively in the culture of performance.

The sententious main character's futile struggle to resist the way that language operates in this culture suggests that individuals can have different views regarding what language is and should do. At the same time, however, his ultimate failure to impose and remain faithful to his constative view of speech occasions reflection upon such neat categories. The consistent overlapping of maxims and portraits in Le Misanthrope is at the root of the play's strikingly modern commentary on language and being, as this nexus anticipates the relationships among words that Ferdinand de Saussure outlines in the famous Troisieme cours de linguistique generale (1910-11), particularly ideas concerning language and conventionality. Just as the misanthropist cannot of his own will tear himself away from his lover's space, he remains a player in the social system of language, the Saussurian "langue" (30-31), which is "la partie sociale du langage, exterieure a l'individu, qui a lui seul ne peut ni la creer ni la modifier; elle n'existe qu'en vertu d'une sorte de contrat passe entre les membres de la communaute" (30-31). Alceste's failed attempt to transcend the system of "langue" with his personal "parole" (30) enacts Saussure's guiding principle that "tout moyen d'expression recu dans une societe repose en principe sur une habitude collective ou, ce qui revient au meme, sur la convention" (100-01). His inability to change the nature of salon speech thus dramatizes Saussure's revolutionary idea of the sign's immutability: "le signe linguistique echappe a notre volonte" (104). Alceste claims to hate this social (thus linguistic) interdependency, but his own speech assures his entanglement in the circular web of convention that is word and form. Intermingling the universal "on" and the subjective "je" in the telling declaration cited above, "Je veux qu'on me distingue," the misanthropist welds observation to desire. His pseudo-aphorism morphs into a self-portrait of a character that, in Celimene's words, "se met au-dessus de tous les autres gens" (2. 4. 644) but that longs for public approval in a performance-driven milieu. In turn, this mutation of maxim into portrait sketches a system of language in which convention shapes meaning.

The fact that Alceste does not triumph at the end of the play directs social and ontological interpretations of the play's commentary on language. The humiliation of the character that stands for truth (or at least wishes to) compared with the relative success of the other characters leads Jules Brody to suggest that in both the Grand Siecle and the twentieth century, morality is tied up with the constative. In his view, the play "portray[s] a violent onslaught against the claims and values of civilized society" (568). While I agree that Le Misanthrope on some levels sententiously projects Madame de Chartres's pessimistic advice to her daughter in Madame de La Fayette's La Princesse de Cleves: "Si vous jugez sur les apparences en ce lieu-ci, [...] vous serez souvent trompee: ce qui parait n'est presque jamais la verite" (56), the suppleness of the form of the maxim itself lightens Brody's dark interpretation. One of the incarnations of the seventeenth-century "maxime" was a personalized saying that aimed to function "comme regle d'action" (Lafond Moralistes x). Heavily featuring the maxim and its interactions with the portrait, Moliere's play, exploiting the structure of the mise en abime, operates as just such a maxim. A primer on some levels for the uninitiated, it is a pleasing, risk-free way of "learning the ropes." Moreover, the global message is not a clear directive to "break all ties" with society as Alceste advocates. Like Madame de La Fayette, Moliere exposes the machinery of courtly discourse, yet the play advocates working within the system of performances and performatives. The happy couple Philinte and Eliante and even Celimene, who no doubt seeks to continue her linguistic pleasures at the end of the play, are evidence of this pragmatic view. As he counsels Alceste to do--in the form of a maxim, no less--("Mais quand on est du monde, il faut bien que l'on rende Quelques dehors civils que l'usage demande.") (1. 1. 65-66), Philinte plays the game of performance, and lying in the interest of maintaining codes of behavior is part and parcel of that performance. Just as Don Juan uses lies as weapons to obtain his objectives, a process that turns his speech act "I promise" into "I seduce," the characters in Le Misanthrope with the exception of Alceste knowingly subjugate veracity to force, metamorphosing the "I adore" into "I expect something in return." Moliere's maxim implies that traditionally conceived morality is out the window, but at least everyone knows it (thanks in part to primers on court life like this one). A different moral code functions here, and Alceste's sorry state at the end of the play warns of the danger of resisting discursive norms. Most intriguingly, the play performs this maxim, for implicit in its description of the workings of le monde is the gesture-statement, "I show you, and, in a sense, I create le monde."

Lafond's further nuancing of his definition of the maxim, that it also "ironise, et [...] pose question" (xii), indicates that aphorisms not only operate as wry pieces of advice for surviving court life, but also authorize the questioning of those same conventions. In his Indiscernible Counterparts: The Invention of the Text in French Classical Drama (2002) Christopher Braider convincingly makes the case for seventeenth-century drama's overall participation in literary countercurrents that strain against the reigning classical aesthetic, (15) and Moliere's short forms provide perfect opportunities for such cultural work. In this web of fused formes breves, aphorisms are defining elements of critical portraits of social types that use them in the process of creating images of other "caracteres" via their performativity described above. The maxim and portrait are essential forms, then, in fabricating Moliere's famous "miroirs publics," (16) global portraits that at once imitate, perpetuate, and mock period mores. Explaining the playwright's enigmatic mimetic agenda ecapsulated in the famous quote "il faut peindre d'apres nature" (Critique I: 661), Larry Norman suggests that Moliere's "mirror does not only reflect nature, it also reflects other mirrors" (2). The dramaturge therefore mines his surroundings for material, but the individuals upon which he bases his characters, as public personae, are themselves types. In social settings, people present themselves as how they wish to be seen by imitatating idealized conceptions of others (portraits that they make of others). Such elliptical self-portraits that one finds in Moliere's work permit the fabrication of, in the words of Larry Norman, "not a portrait of itself but a second reality on stage," a place where representation and socalled reality intermingle to stage "the unmediated social commerce of self-presentation" (45).

That dynamic alternate reality is the space in which Le Misanthrope's system of short forms delivers sophisticated cultural commentary. Here, Moliere paradoxically uses such classical, highly stylized literary forms to expose and critique the very process of noble self-fashioning in which those forms actively participate. Maxims and portraits subvert their authors' efforts of self-mastery in Le Misanthrope; no longer capable of being in complete control of her/his words and actions as period writers like Bellegarde in his courtesy books demand, (17) the sententious or sketching noble is helpless as her/his identity shapes itself, through words, in the world of the play. That identity is largely at odds with the speaker's self-image, which is completely distorted by vanity. Regardless of what they say to one another, they refuse to accept the flattering images and self-images that they offer to each other and consider each other ridiculous figures ("bons caracteres"). It is thus the collective Other's view of the individual that produces the play's ultimate portraits, a process that engages in period debates about the idea of identity, in particular anticipating Nicole's view of self-fashioning in De la Connoissance de soi-meme. Describing how individuals create simplified, idealized visions of their identities and proffer them in self-portraits, the Jansenist theorist concludes famously that a person "ne forme pas seulement son portrait sur ce qu'il connait de soi par lui-meme, mais aussi sur la vue des portraits qu'il en decouvre dans l'esprit des autres" (211). As Lucie Desjardins articulates, Nicole intimates here that "le moi qui se regarde ne voit qu'un moi auquel il aspire" (92). Although their chosen means of expression are radically different, Moliere and Nicole both suggest that the self that a person wishes to be is a composite portrait of idealized impressions. Moreover, via his masterful exploitation of short forms, Moliere powerfully demonstrates the roles that codified, public forms of speech play in that personal drama.

Moliere's study of identity-making and the embedded critiques that his use of short forms entails radiates out into the framing public sphere when one considers the role that his work has in that public process of identity-fashioning. Regardless of whether the audience recognized it or the playwright intended it, the maxim and portrait here paint caricatures that reshape in critical and comic ways the group self-portrait of honnetete that the nobility projected in its portraits, panegyrics, paintings, etc., as I state above. The force of the network of short forms at the epicenter of this critical wave therefore expands as it modifies period and modern social perceptions. Instruments of change on a malleable artistic and cultural landscape, formes breves were thus contributors to the "deluge" (to use Louis XV's word) that led to the atmosphere of artistic, literary, and social revolution. As representations of classical culture given a subversive twist in the frame of drama, they at once connect and separate all that is classical and all that is modern.

And yet, despite the seemingly huge stakes of his project, Moliere does not lose sight of his own social situation as a member of a lower caste living at the expense of his royal benefactors. The tense yet complementary relationship between aphorism and portrait reveals above all a canny awareness of the absurdity of both convention and resistance to convention. In the face of this conundrum, Moliere acts out rather than spells out an ambiguous maxim regarding codes of writing and living that at once anticipates and reshapes Jacques Derrida's most famous observation: "Il n'y a pas de hors-texte" (227). Via its flexible formes breves, the enigmatic comedy Le Misanthrope suggests that while there may not be anything outside of representation, we should at least be aware of our forced participation as comedians within that universal play, if only for a laugh.

City University of New York, College of Staten Island


(1) I will use "literary portrait" and "verbal sketch" throughout this essay to mean a short physical or moral description of a character.

(2) See, for example, Jacqueline Plantie's La Mode du portrait litteraire en France: 1641-1681 (Paris: Champion, 1994) 483-505; Nina Ekstein's "Le Misanthrope and Tartuffe: Two Critiques of Verbal Portraiture," Rivista di Letterature moderne e comparate 42.2 (1989): 137-52; W. D. Howarth's "Portrait and Self-Portrait in French Classical Drama," Newsletter of the Society for Seventeenth-Century French Studies 2 (1980): 51-59; James F. Gaines's "Caracteres, Superstition, and Paradoxes in Le Misanthrope," Alteratives (Lexington: French Forum, 1993): 71-84; and Jacques Guicharnaud's Moliere: Une aventure theatrale (Paris: Gallimard, 1963).

(3) While I am acutely aware that the terms both overlap and strain against each other, the limited scope of this essay allows me to use "aphorism," "sentence," and "maxim" interchangeably here to mean, as Jean Lafond succinctly puts it. "l'enonce d'une verite generale d'ordre psychologique et moral" (Moralistes x).

(4) Alceste and Celimene separate in the final scene, and Alceste promises (again) to "chercher sur la terre un endroit ecarte Ou d'etre homme d'honneur on ait la liberte" (5. 4. 1805-06). In the final lines, Alceste's loyal friend Philinte suggests to his new fiancee Eliante that they run after him, "Pour rompre le dessein que son coeur se propose" (5. 4. 1808). In response, Mark Klein describes the play as "une partie sans conclusion, une histoire condamnee a la repetition: en ce sens, c'est d'une structure circulaire qu'elle procede" (196). Jules Brody comes to a similar conclusion: "As the curtain falls on Le Misanthrope we know that Celimene's life will go on more or less as it has in a society which, for whatever it is worth, is here to stay" (576).

(5) See Felman's Le Scandale du corps parlant: Don Juan avec Austin ou La seduction en deux langues (Paris: Seuil, 1980), Norman's The Public Mirror: Moliere and the Social Commerce of Depiction (Chicago and London, u of Chicago P, 1999), and Braider's Indiscernible Counterparts: The Invention of the Text in French Classical Drama (Chapel Hill: UNC Department of Romance Languages, 2003).

(6) As Nina Ekstein also notes, there are nineteen discernible character sketches, "an enormous number when one considers that, aside from this play and Tartuffe, no other of Moliere's plays has more than six" (139).

(7) The first definition of "portrait" in the inaugural edition of Le Dictionnaire de l'Academie Francoise (1694) is "Image, ressemblance d'une personne." Citing Renaissance portraitists like Durer and Leonardo, Lome Campbell in Renaissance Portraiture (New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1990) concludes that "the basic function of portraiture was and is commemorative" (193), a statement that echoes John Popc-Hennessy's earlier assertion in The Portrait in the Renaissance (New York: Pantheon, 1966) that "initially the role of the Renaissance portrait was commemorative; it was consciously directed to a future when the living would no longer be alive" (8).

(8) For an in-depth characterization of the form and function of the salon literary portrait, see Jacqueline Plantie's La Mode du Portrait litteraire en France (1641-1681) and Erica Harth's chapter "Of Portraits" in Ideology and Culture in Seventeenth-Century France (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1983) 68-128.

(9) For example, Boileau-Despreaux states in the preface of his pastiche Dialogue des heros de roman (1665) that the text is meant to attack, in particular, "les portraits avantageux faits a chaque bout de champ de personnes de tres mediocre beaute, et quelquefois mesme laides par exces" (445). In Le Roman bourgeois and "Historiette de l'amour esgare," Antoine Furetiere similarly bemoans literary portraiture that does not resemble the sitter. Plantie discusses these and other period critiques of the genre in La Mode du Portrait litteraire en France (1641-1681) (532-547).

(10) The authors of Art de penser use portraits as examples throughout their linguistic treatise to demonstrate that representations are "signs" distinct from the referent and thus dependent upon that referent for meaning. See also Louis Marin's discussion of Art de penser in Le Portrait du roi (14-18) as well as Christopher Braider's recapitulation of this discussion and study of the relationships among portraits, names, referents, and meanings in "Image and Imaginaire in Moliere's Sganarelle, ou le cocu imaginaire" (1148).

(11) "My primary inspiration for ideas on painted self-portraiture and the idea of posing is Harry Berger's Fictions of the Pose: Rembrandt against the Italian Renaissance (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2000).

(12) Moliere's use of the maxim to forge a portrait of the speaker is not surprising, for he explicitly does so by using the embedded literary portrait. After reading the harsh sketches of Celimene's suitors written in her own hand, Clitandre exclaims before exiting: "Il suffit: nous allons l'un et l'autre en tous lieux Montrer de votre coeur le portrait glorieux" (5. 3. 1693-94). He will thus circulate her new portrait, a collage of the negative portraits of her so-called friends, in salons where unflattering sketches are reserved for outsiders.

(13) See the classic studies by Jean-Marie Apostolides, Le Roi-machine: Spectacle et politique au temps de Louis XIV (Paris: Minuit, 1981) and Peter Burke, The Fabrication of Louis XIV (New Haven: Yale UP, 1992).

(14) Cited by chapter and fragment number in the 1992 Soler edition in Moralistes du XVIIe siecle (based on ninth edition of 1696).

(15) One of Braider's main theses is that "the history of French classical drama is in large measure the history of the critical debates it inspired. But what makes such readings possible is that the texts themselves authorize them, signaling their proximity at the turn of every page" (43). He continues, "In its [high classicism's] very triumph, it knows itself to be grounded on and therefore undermined by the unruly diversity, acts of resistance and defiance, protest and delay epitomized in the political sphere by the Frondes of 1648-52 and, in the aesthetic, by a century-long series of what Joan DeJean has styled 'culture wars' [...]" (44).

(16) "Toutes les peintures ridicules qu'on expose sur les theatres doivent etre regardees sans chagrin de tout le monde. Ce sont miroirs publics, ou il ne faut jamais temoigner qu'on se voie; et c'est se taxer hautement d'un defaut, que se scandaliser qu'on le reprenne." (Critique I: 658).

(17) For a more detailed discussion of noble self-mastery, see Domna Stanton's The Aristocrat as Art: A Study of the Honnete Homme and the Dandy in Seventeenth- and Nineteenth-Century French Literature. (New York: Columbia UP, 1980) 192-200.

Works Cited

Austin, J. L. How to do Things with Words. Oxford: Clarendon, 1962.

Barthes, Roland. "La Rochefoucauld: Reflexions ou Sentences et Maximes." 1972. In Le Degre zero de l'ecriture suivi de Nouveaux essais critiques. 2nd ed. Paris: Seuil.

Bennington, Geoffrey. Sententiousness and the Novel: Laying Down the Law in Eighteenth-Century French Fiction. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge UP, 1985.

Berger, Harry. Fictions of the Pose: Rembrandt against the Italian Renaissance. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2000.

Boileau-Despreaux, Nicolas. "Dialogue des heros de roman." CEuvres completes. Ed. Francoise Escal. Bibliotheque de la Pleiade. Paris: Gallimard, 1966. 441-89.

Braider, Christopher. Indiscernible Counterparts: The Invention of the Text in French Classical Drama. Chapel Hill: UNC Department of Romance Languages, 2003.

Brody, Jules. "Don Juan and Le Misanthrope, or the Esthetics of Individualism in Moliere." PMLA 84 (1969): 559-76.

Campbell, Lorne. Renaissance Portraits: European Portrait Painting in the 14th, 15th and 16th Centuries. New Haven: Yale up, 1990.

DeJean, Joan. Ancients against Moderns: Culture Wars and the Making of a Fin de Siecle. Chicago and London: Chicago UP, 1997.

Derrida, Jacques. De la grammatologie. Paris: Minuit, 1967.

Desjardins, Lucie. "Le 'vain fantosme' de soi-meme ou Le portrait a l'epreuve de la morale." Tangence 66 (Summer 2001): 84-100.

Ekstein, Nina. "Le Misanthrope and Tartuffe: Two Critiques of Verbal Portraiture." Rivista di Letterature moderne e comparate 42 (1989): 137-52.

Felman, Shoshana. Le Scandale du corps parlant: Don Juan avec Austin ou La seduction en deux langues. Paris: Seuil, 1980.

Gaines, James F. "Caracteres, Superstition, and Paradoxes in Le Misanthrope." 1993. In Alteratives. Eds. Warren Motte and Gerald Prince, 71-84. Lexington KY: French Forum.

Harth, Erica. Ideology and Culture in Seventeenth-Century France. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1983.

Klein, Marc. "Le Misanthrope comme Lehrstuck." In Le Misanthrope au theatre: Menandre, Moliere, Griboiedov. Ed. Daniel-Henri Pageaux, 193-198. Mugron, France: Editions Jose Feijoo, 1990.

La Bruyere, Jean de. Les Caracteres ou Les Moeurs de ce Siecle. Les Moralistes du XVIIe siecle. Ed. Jean Lafond. Paris: Laffont, 1992. 693-960.

La Fayette, Marie Madeleine, Comtesse de. La Princesse de Cleves. Ed. Antoine Adam. Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1966.

Lafond, Jean. Lire, vivre ou menent les mots: De Rabelais aux formes breves de la prose. Lumiere Classique 22. Paris: Champion, 1999.

______. Preface. Les Moralistes du XVIIe siecle. Paris: Laffont, 1992.

Marin, Louis. Le Portrait du roi. Paris: Minuit, 1975.

Mesnard, Jean. "Le Misanthrope: Mise en question de l'art de plaire." In Le Misanthrope au theatre: Menandre, Moliere, Griboedov. Ed. Daniel-Henri Pageaux, 121-55. Mugron, France: Editions Jose Feijoo, 1990.

Moliere. La Critique de l'ecole des femmes. L'Impromptu de Versailles. Ed. Pierre Melese. Paris: Larousse, 1962.

______. Le Misanthrope. In CEuvres completes. Ed. Georges Mongredien. Vol. 3. Paris: Flammarion, 1965. 21-90.

Nicole, Pierre. Essais de morale. 4 vols. 1733. Geneva: Slatkine, 1971.

Norman, Larry F. The Public Mirror: Moliere and the Social Commerce of Depiction. Chicago: U Chicago P, 1999.

Pope-Hennessy, John Wyndham. The Portrait in the Renaissance. New York: Pantheon, 1966.

"Portrait." Le Dictionnaire de l'Academie Francoise. 3rd ed. Paris: Coignard, 1740.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. Cours de linguistique generale. Ed. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye. Paris: Payot, 1966.

Stanton, Domna C. The Aristocrat as Art: A Study of the Honnete Homme and the Dandy in Seventeenth- and Nineteenth-Century French Literature. New York: Columbia UP, 1980.
COPYRIGHT 2006 University of Pennsylvania Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2006 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Theobald, Catherine J. Lewis
Publication:French Forum
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2006
Previous Article:"Interprete ce que voudras": disposition silenique, obsession oculaire et "plus hault sens" dans le Gargantua de Rabelais.
Next Article:Lost in the fold: space and subjectivity in Gerard de Nerval's "Genealogie" and Sylvie.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |