The ‘Rights of Man’: Our debt to the Enlightenment?

Barely a week passes without some news story, from somewhere around the globe, involving human rights – most often, sadly, a story of their violation. But how far back does the story of human rights itself go? How deeply rooted in history is the idea that human beings have rights that they can assert against state and other forms of power?

The Enlightenment and the rights of man is the November 2019 volume of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

This is not a question a single book can answer. But Vincenzo Ferrone’s new book The Enlightenment and the Rights of Man goes further than most. It tells the story how, in Western Europe, the notion of the rights of human beings grew and took root, from beginnings in the seventeenth century to the late eighteenth-century Enlightenment.

The starting point is natural law theory. This itself has foundations in antiquity and medieval thought. But it was in the seventeenth century, with figures such as Grotius and Pufendorf, that it was elaborated into a fully worked-out body of thought. The rights of individuals were in fact not one of its primary concerns. But in allowing for a source of law that lay beyond the limits of existing or ‘positive’ law, it made room for an idea of individual rights that pre-dated and could claim priority over the law of the state. It was this idea that later thinkers such as Locke, Barbeyrac, Rousseau, and Filangieri could take up and develop. What was needed, finally, was for talented popularizers such as Voltaire, Diderot, Mirabeau, and Schiller to spread the gospel of the rights of man to public opinion at large – which, as Ferrone shows, they did with gusto, and with considerable success. Through their efforts, the rights of man were entrenched in public discourse, becoming a political cause in the process.

This of course is not to say that the political programme of the rights of man has ever been universally accepted. On the contrary, it has been contested, and has suffered numerous setbacks. Ferrone indeed closes his book with the story of one such defeat.

It concerns the short-lived order of the Illuminati, an offshoot of freemasonry. Committed to radical political aims, it was founded in 1776 and banned in 1784. The fear of its influence, exaggerated for propagandistic purposes by its enemies, led to repressive measures in a number of jurisdictions, both Catholic and Protestant. The excesses of the French Revolution after 1792 did the rest to discredit claims to individual human rights in large parts of Europe. The revival of the idea, in the political struggles of the nineteenth century, lies beyond the scope of the book.

For Ferrone himself the cause of human rights, as formulated in and by the Enlightenment, is far from spent. In a time when many have queried the legacy of the Enlightenment, he delivers a passionate defence of its central claims. But whatever side of the argument you are on, you will find in his book a narrative that gives ample food for thought. The case for the illumination provided by intellectual history is rarely made as forcefully as it is here.

– Kevin Hilliard


What can the Enlightenment teach us about theater and emotion?

What connects the religious zealots who tried to annihilate theater under Louis XIV to an early Enlightenment attempt to hoist theater up as the most complete method of understanding and influencing human behavior? How did theatrical affect transform from a dangerous contamination of the soul to a particular regime of emotional pedagogy that was supposed to help spectators navigate the complexities of society? What happens to spectators when they watch a play and how did notions of that “infiltrating” moment change during a tumultuous, yet understudied, period in French history? And most essentially, why should tensions and debates about theater, spectatorship, and emotion in early modern France interest us now?

In The Emergence of a theatrical science of man in France, 1660-1740, I investigate a departure from discussions of dramatic literature and its undergirding rules to a new, relational discourse on the emotional power of theater. Through a diverse cast of religious theaterphobes, government officials, playwrights, art theorists and proto-philosophes, I show a concerted effort during the early Enlightenment to use texts about theater to establish broader theories on emotion, on the enduring psychological and social ramifications of affective moments, and more generally, on human interaction, motivation, and social behavior.

What emerges in this study is a fundamentally anthropological assessment of theater in the works of anti-theatrical religious writers such as Pierre Nicole, Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, Bernard Lamy, and Armand de Bourbon-Conti. These enemies of the stage – and countless others – argued that emotional response was theater’s raison d’être and that it was an efficient venue to learn more about the depravity of human nature. A new generation of pro-theatrical writers – dramatists and theorists such as Jean-Baptiste (the abbé) Dubos, Antoine Houdar de La Motte, Marivaux, Pierre-Claude Nivelle de La Chaussée, and others – shared the anti-theatricalists’ intense focus on the emotions of theater as well as their conception of theater as a unique and powerful experience on the senses. However, unlike their skeptical counterparts, early eighteenth-century theatrical scientists of man did not view emotion as a conduit of sin or as a dangerous, uncontrollable process. For this group of playmakers, political operatives and theoreticians, performance provided for cognitive-affective moments of feeling and learning about oneself and others.

Theater scholars working in the French tradition have often dated this “transformative” conception of performance to the advent of Denis Diderot’s great theatrical project, the drame (or drame bourgeois). Diderot’s drame was a ground-breaking movement in the history of European theater. The famous philosophe recast the relationship between actor and spectator, invented a new theory of illusion, reoriented the purpose of drama towards intimate community engagement, and proved that sensibility could be a significant tool in creating a virtuous and “enlightened” society. The Emergence of a theatrical science of man reaches back a few generations before Diderot to find a surprising path to his revolutionary project. My book traces a moment when writers began to use plays, critiques, and other cultural materials about the stage to study (and, in their minds, “improve”) the emotional, social, and political “health” of kingdom. I hope that my book will encourage readers to wonder if this conception of theater, emotion, and transformation is still relevant today.

The European Enlightenment never settled any debates on the nature of theatrical emotion, nor did it provide any definitive conclusions about the struggle between absorbing effects and distance as the most effective means for promoting social understanding and change through the performing arts. From Antonin Artaud’s rekindling of theatrical contagion, to the alienating rationality of Brecht’s drama, to attempts to correct injustice and build knowledge through kinesthetic practice in Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, more recent theatrical movements have continued to debate the most fundamental question about theater, that is, what can it do? If twentieth-century greats, like Artaud, Brecht, Boal, and others, labor to come to terms with theater’s power, then why should anyone expect to find definitive answers in the eighteenth century? However, if the Enlightenment was indeed a set of discourses, actions, and processes – an “age of Enlightenment” rather than “an Enlightened age”1 – it appears that writers at the time kept true to the Kantian claim by bringing to the forefront, but not forever resolving, the most complex questions of their day.

I invite students and scholars from disciplines as (seemingly) distant as contemporary performance studies to seventeenth-century religious history to read my book. I hope readers will appreciate a unique imbrication of emotion, religion, and theater; one story of how France became modern; one route to the Enlightenment and its theatrical science of man.

– Logan J. Connors, University of Miami

1 Immanuel Kant, An Answer to the question: what is Enlightenment? (1784), in What is Enlightenment? Eighteenth-century answers and twentieth-century questions, ed. James Schmidt (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996), p. 58-64 (62).

Logan J. Connors is the author of the January volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, The Emergence of a theatrical science of man in France, 1660-1740, an exciting new perspective on the polemics of affect, emotion, and theatrical performance in early Enlightenment France.

This post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press.

Believing in an age of Enlightenment

Over the past few decades historians have justly complicated the narrative of the Enlightenment’s essentially secular nature. The once normative tale of philosophes heroically sparring against religious belief to plant the seed of modern secularism has given way to a landscape that is far more complex and nuanced, challenging the stark difference between the religious and the secular. Whether it be the story of religious reformers seeking to find a via media between traditional articulations of belief and the opinions of radical critics or the investigation of how philosophical perspectives had their genesis in mysticism and theology, scholarship on the Enlightenment has affirmed the important role that religion played in the era’s intellectual and cultural transformations. In so far as the eighteenth century was an age of secularization, it was so partly as a result of the ideas and actions of those who self-identified as proponents of religious traditions, and not just their vocal opponents. [1]

However, scholars have only scratched the surface of religious belief in the Enlightenment. In Belief and Politics in Enlightenment France: Essays in Honor of Dale K. Van Kley, we dig deeper into the manifestations and impact of belief in France and its empire during the long eighteenth century. In their various ways, the contributors demonstrate how belief continued to show up in conversations, representations, and institutions, sometimes in unpredictable ways. They find the persistence of religious belief at the heart of social, cultural, and political life well into the nineteenth century.

Belief and Politics in Enlightenment France: Essays in Honor of Dale K. Van Kley, edited by Mita Choudhury and Daniel J. Watkins, is the latest volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

At the center of our investigation is the Catholic reform movement known as Jansenism. Active throughout Catholic Europe, Jansenism found a home in France and impacted ecclesiastical and political life in dramatic ways. At first glance, the penitent and rigorist sensibilities of Jansenists seem far from the progressive and worldly predilections of enlightened philosophes. A deeper look, however, reveals how Jansenist belief contributed to a host of social and political reforms including the critique of absolute monarchy, the promotion of religious toleration, and the articulation of the rights of the citizen and the rule of law. Jansenists present historians with examples of intensely devoted Catholics whose religious beliefs contributed to their engagement with the political public sphere.

Jansenism, however, did not exist in a vacuum. Throughout the long eighteenth century it competed with other voices in the Church over what it meant to believe in an enlightened age. The conflicts wrought by Jansenists and their internecine nemeses, the Jesuits, dominated political conversations in France certainly until the latter’s expulsion and suppression in the 1760s and even after. The tensions between these groups involved disparate ways of reconciling traditional religious beliefs with new epistemologies. In their disagreements about such matters as human nature, society, and politics, they both articulated forms of enlightened Catholicism that competed with one another throughout the eighteenth century.

An anti-Jesuit polemical image showing members of the Jesuits falling through a sieve held by God and shaken by a member of the French parlements, judicial bodies in the Old Regime.

The centrality of this conflict in the conversation about belief and its manifestations during the Enlightenment owes much to the work of Dale K. Van Kley, whose scholarship this volume honors. His work over the past four decades has provided the foundation for all of our contributors’ investigations into French religious life. Van Kley has shown that the competition between Jansenists and the partisans of the Jesuits defined religious culture in France and consequently played a formative role in shaping how belief impacted political and social institutions during the Enlightenment and well into the revolutionary era.

The persistence of the Jansenist–Jesuit struggle complicates the long-standing narrative of France’s progressive secularization beginning in the eighteenth century. It sheds new light on the way that we frame the Enlightenment’s connection with secularization and, therefore, modernity. Amidst increasing voices calling for the separation of social and cultural life from the auspices of the Church, many continued to see religious belief as not only a part of their identities but also an important tool for navigating the social and political spheres of the modern world.

– Mita Choudhury and Daniel J. Watkins (Vassar College and Baylor University)

[1] For an example, see the work that Alan C. Kors has done on the history of atheism in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe: Alan C. Kors, Atheism in France, 1650–1729, vol. 1: The Orthodox Sources of Disbelief (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990); Naturalism and Unbelief in France, 1650–1729 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016); Epicureans and Atheists, 1650–1729 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

The above post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press.

Belief and Politics in Enlightenment France is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

Lighting the Enlightenment

Try googling ‘light and enlightenment’ and see what you find. Buddhism, new age religion, mindfulness, and spirituality top the list. Scroll down and you may come across a few fleeting references to 18th-century theology. But if you are hoping to find discussions of the Enlightenment in the context of lanterns, illumination, and light, you’ll need to search a little harder, or be prepared to be left in the dark.

Was there really no relationship at all between that great movement of 18th-century culture and actual illumination? Between the Enlightenment and light itself? To be sure, scholars have long probed the question in metaphorical terms, showing how a master Christian metaphor was wrested from the hands of those who had once proclaimed Jesus as the exclusive light and way. But to search for some connection between the material practice of lighting and the Enlightenment of the mind appears to have struck many as too basic, or too banal, to spark reflection.

And yet it is clear that light in the age of Enlightenment was more than just a metaphor. We know from the pioneering work of social and urban historians of the night such as Wolfgang Schivelbusch, A. Roger Ekirch, Craig Koslofksy, and Alain Cabantous that the long 18th century was, quite literally, a century of lights in the sense that it witnessed an unprecedented conquest of the dark. Marked by a concerted effort to publicly illuminate cities, this conquest took the form of hundreds of thousands of lanterns that were erected in urban centers from Paris to Potsdam. Whereas in 1660, not a single city in Europe possessed regularly illuminated streets, a century later that situation had changed. Voltaire, for one, took note of the transformation, observing ruefully in his Siècle de Louis XIV (1751) that while ‘five thousand lamps lighted up Paris every night,’ Rome itself was not lighted at all. The symbolism was perfect. Paris had become the true beacon of the world, at once illuminated and enlightened. Rome, not so much.

Although scholars of the Enlightenment have been slow to register these developments, and to ask what impact they may have had on the light of the times, that is beginning to change. Social and urban historians such as Marco Cicchini and Sophie Reculin have been mapping the topography of the 18th-century lighting revolution with ever-greater precision, showing how light moved from a luxury to a necessity in the 18th century, and how new urban spaces around theatres, public promenades, and squares were transformed by illumination. Meanwhile, literary scholars such as Marine Ganofsky have analyzed (in this very blog) the ways in which illumination transformed the night into an erotic adventure-zone, a space free of fear and open to pleasure, where libertines could frolic. And in my own work I have sought to explore the relationship between illumination and Enlightenment in a number of ways.

An enlightened history of the lantern by a society of men of letters, by Jean-François Dreux du Radier. Although the work was written as a satire, it effectively contributed to what was a new Enlightenment genre: the cultural and technical history of lighting practices. Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University.

For one thing, a surprising number of Enlightenment figures were themselves directly interested in lighting and illumination. Benjamin Franklin, the son of a tallow chandler, took a keen interest in lantern design and helped to organize the public lighting of the city of Philadelphia. Lavoisier penned a treatise on the best means to light a great city like Paris, and experimented constantly with fuels, wicks, and the angles of reflection and refraction in the light emitted from lanterns. Voltaire, too, like Marat and Madame Du Châtelet, experimented with flames. Diderot wrote about the history of candles. Jefferson studied whale oil, among the 18th-century’s most important lighting fuels. Goethe not only studied optics, but also concerned himself with the intricacies of stage lighting.

Just as importantly, a host of lesser lights pursued Enlightenment through illumination. Some, like the inventor and engineer Bourgeois de Chateaublanc, devoted their energy to technical matters, like perfecting the new reflector lamps, the réverbères. Others, such as Jean-Francois Dreux du Radier and his ‘society of men of letters’, wrote satirical histories of lanterns, mocking the pretensions of a new genre, the comparative history of light. Still others, like Pierre Tourtille-Sangrain or Charles de Rabiqueau, pursued the business of illumination as the counterpart to the business of Enlightenment. As the latter declared on his calling card, advertising his services as an entrepreneur de l’illumination, Rabiqueau could ‘enlighten the mind as well as matter.’

‘He enlightens and illuminates, both matter and the mind’! The calling card of the inventor, scientist and entrepreneur de l’illumination Charles de Rabiqueau, advertising his services and spectacles at his shop on the rue St. Jacques in Paris. © Archives Nantes.

And that is precisely the point. Enlightenment and illumination went hand in hand. Perhaps most importantly, public lighting created the conditions for a vastly expanded urban sociability that was central to the emergence of the public sphere. Shops stayed open longer, theatre curtain times were pushed back, and restaurants and cafés served long after dark, later than ever before. Salons and visiting hours were also extended into the night, meaning that enlightened discussion was very often conducted after the sun went down. Street lighting led the way, creating the appearance (if not always the reality) of greater safety and rational control over the environment, combatting not just crime but superstition and fear.

Light, in these respects, was a vivid symbol of progress, and contemporaries were highly aware that its implementation set the enlightened apart. As Anne-Louis Leclerc du Brillet observed typically in a draft history of street lighting written sometime in the 1730s, ‘The usage of public lighting in cities does not seem to have been established in any nation previously – even in those that passed for the most civilized (les plus policés).’ Public lighting, in short, was unique to the modern age, and it reflected perfectly the novel sense that contemporaries were living in a novel time, a singular epoch of progress and advancement. To illuminate the night was to begin to understand and control what had long been considered another realm, dispelling darkness and the superstitions it fostered.

Not all, to be sure, welcomed the light. A dialectic of illumination was the counterpart to the dialectic of Enlightenment, giving rise to protests and a European (and North American) wave of lantern smashing over the course of the 18th century. When viewed from this perspective, lanterns could seem a little bit like surveillance cameras; they were not always welcome. And yet by the last third of the 18th century, the evidence is strong that proponents of illumination were overcoming their less enlightened antagonists. It is telling that a good number of the cahiers de doléances written up in France before the convening of the Estates General in 1789 asked for more light, not less. Like Goethe on his deathbed, the Enlightened and illuminated citizens of the age desired mehr Licht.

– Darrin M. McMahon

Darrin M. McMahon is a professor of history at Dartmouth. His article, ‘Illuminating the Enlightenment: Public Lighting Practices and the Siècle des lumières’, appears in the August 2018 edition of ‘Past & Present’.

Two Years On: the State of the Studies, by the General Editor

The arrival of the New Year of 2018 marks two years since I began as General Editor of Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment. The past two years have been rather dramatic ones for the nations in which most of our readers and authors live, in ways in which the study of the literature and culture of the eighteenth century might seem to be either irrelevant or utopian. The cosmopolitan and rationalist spirit of the Enlightenment has been all too scarce among our leaders.

From a liberal perspective, the events of the past two years have provided an unending series of coups de théâtre. We have seen major political peripeteia in the UK and the US, with parallel subplots of unexpected reversals of fortune in Italy, Germany and Austria. Where the political plot has not been tragic it might best be characterised as ‘labyrinthine confusion’, most notably in Spain – with nothing less than full-on farce in Russia.

With even Canada offering something of a political romance, and French politics staging a one-man show based on a mythopoetic hero’s journey, the past two years have been experienced by many academics – especially humanists – as Sturm und Drang. The sense of dread has ranged from visa and residency issues for international students and scholars in the US and UK (to put it bluntly, in the case of the US, the exclusion of visiting scholars and the prospect of mass expulsion of students) to existential threats to the institutions from their own governments at the Central European University in Budapest and the European University in St Petersburg.

Beyond politics and academia the gothic has been all too evident. Just as in my original post I noted the spectre of terrorism haunting Paris, violence inflicted on otherwise unsuspecting audiences has been a leitmotif of the past two years, with particularly horrific incidents in Orlando (site of the upcoming ASECS conference) and less than a mile from my home campus in Las Vegas.

And all of this of course is only to think of the wealthiest and most economically developed parts of the globe. In such a moment, the Enlightenment might seem to have lost all relevance.

Yet those who might maintain that ‘the Enlightenment’ has no historical meaning and offers little to no value as an area of scholarly inquiry have not been reading the pages of Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment. Since I became General Editor, we have published 24 books counting our most recent volume, and many of these have directly addressed many of the circumstances framing today’s events.

Our authors have explored issues of European politics such as how print media impacted reading practices and the formation of public opinion across Europe; the political uses of satire on stage and in image; transnational correspondence networks; the experiences of continental Europeans residing in England; and the continental influences on English populist and radical discourse.

Through study of literature and thought, our authors have delved into the foundations of contemporary European culture by studying the essential tensions within and boundaries around human nature and collective identity. We have published books on such topics as English aesthetic conceptions and appropriations of the Far East; the interplay between rationalism and belief among Orthodox Christians; and the same interplay among Maurist Benedictine Catholics. We have published on the tension between national and cosmopolitan culture at the Russian court; the tension between indigenous and colonial societies in North America; that between sexes and races in conceptions of the family in Scottish thought; and also on human conceptions of the sentiments of animals. Our authors have written on gender and science; and on the physics of the body.

Our books have also shown the contemporary relevance of classical Enlightenment topics, notably in the highly original works on the Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns; Holbach; Rousseau and publicity; and Rousseau on stage. And we have continued to find original interpretations of Voltaire!

Thanks to the hard work of many, beginning with the Voltaire Foundation director Nicholas Cronk, the Studies are positioned to go forward in the coming years to explore and reiterate the relevance of the Enlightenment while also questioning the cogency of it as a category of historical analysis. Our new strategic partnership with Liverpool University Press will give our books wide exposure and distribution and will help achieve the VF’s longstanding goal of creating an electronic library of the Studies backlist. Thanks as well go to the many readers who participated in our first-ever survey on scholarly reading practices, the results of which we are analyzing and plan to publish in the coming year.

Thanks to our internationally prominent editorial board we have a rich and broad network of authors, which will see us publish in the coming two years our first volumes on Digital Humanities in the Enlightenment; major works on penal law and on human rights theory in the Enlightenment; several works on political theory and social change; and works on the reciprocal and dynamic relationship between various forms of religious belief (or disbelief) and Enlightenment culture. We will in the coming years see an enhanced breadth to our books, as numerous works in the editorial pipeline address the Enlightenment as a global topic: on cultural, intellectual, political and economic encounters between western Europe and eastern Europe, central Asia, south Asia, Persia, New Spain and beyond. We have multiple books in preparation or under consideration as well on nature and the environment, and several more drawing on a wide range of theoretical frameworks to provide original views on gender identity and power relations.

Now more than ever the Enlightenment matters – and now more than ever we are seeing that scholarship on the Enlightenment is vibrant and has a dynamic home at the Voltaire Foundation and in the Studies.

– Gregory S. Brown

Les Nouveaux Mélanges : recette d’une bonne capilotade, façon Voltaire

CAPILOTADE. s. f. Sorte de ragoût fait de plusieurs morceaux de viandes déjà cuites. Bonne capilotade. Faire une capilotade des restes de perdrix, de poulets.

On dit proverbialement et figurément, Mettre quelqu’un en capilotade, pour dire, Médire de quelqu’un sans aucun ménagement, le déchirer, le mettre en pièces par des médisances outrées.

Dictionnaire de l’Académie française, éd. 1762.
Page de titre des Nouveaux Mélanges, 3e partie (1765)

Page de titre des Nouveaux Mélanges, 3e partie (1765).

Prenez des échanges dialogués, qui tiennent à la fois du conte, de la scène isolée et du dialogue philosophique, ajoutez des fragments, une anecdote, des facéties. Salez, poivrez  généreusement. Vous obtiendrez un ensemble de ‘petits chapitres’ narratifs, argumentatifs et  on s’en doute  polémiques. C’est ainsi que le tome 60A des Œuvres complètes de Voltaire rassemble, sous le titre de Nouveaux Mélanges, une trentaine de textes brefs, très majoritairement en prose, parfois en vers, publiés ou republiés en 1765: ils offrent l’agrément de la variété et le charme des écrits ‘courts et salés’ mitonnés dans l’intarissable officine de Ferney. Le plat a du goût, et il est nourrissant.

Par delà la diversité des sujets et des formes, cet ensemble aborde en effet des questions qui se rattachent à trois au moins des préoccupations majeures de Voltaire depuis le début des années 1760: les affaires judiciaires (Calas, Sirven et bientôt La Barre), la campagne incessante menée contre l’Infâme, l’implication du ‘patriarche’ dans les troubles politiques qui agitent la République de Genève. Les textes réunis dans ce volume bénéficient en outre de l’unité éditoriale que leur confère leur parution dans la ‘troisième partie’ des Nouveaux Mélanges philosophiques, historiques, critiques, etc. etc., recueil publié par les frères Cramer avec le concours de Voltaire.

Les questions abordées ne sont donc pas foncièrement nouvelles: ces textes présentent, on le voit, des enjeux, notamment idéologiques, qui rejoignent ceux d’œuvres réputées ‘majeures’, publiées, rééditées ou remises en chantier à la même époque  le Dictionnaire philosophique, La Philosophie de l’histoire qui servira dans les années suivantes d’‘Introduction’ à l’Essai sur les mœurs. En production, tel trait, tel argument, tel exemple avancé dans l’un de ces ‘rogatons’ sert peut-être à compléter tel passage de l’une de ces œuvres, à moins que ces nouveautés, qui constituent les variantes introduites dans les moutures récentes de ces œuvres, ne constituent le noyau à partir duquel s’organise la matière du rogaton. En réception, redire avec des variations, c’est veiller, dans ces années de lutte, à la plus large diffusion possible des idées, à une forme de saturation de l’espace public dans laquelle Voltaire est passé maître. De nos jours, la recette fonctionne toujours: le connaisseur des ‘grandes’ œuvres, sensible au rappel d’une touche ou d’un morceau, apprécie les vertus digestives de ces petits textes; pour l’amateur et le curieux, ces derniers peuvent aussi servir d’apéritif préparant à la consommation des premières. En somme, les ‘petits chapitres’ se dégustent en entrée ou en dessert, de part et d’autre des plats de résistance qui les accompagnent, les mauvais convives dussent-ils se plaindre d’indigestion lorsque les mêmes mets  ou presque  leur sont trop fréquemment servis.

Le lecteur gourmand peut enfin s’intéresser à la manière dont Voltaire confectionne ce qu’il appelle fréquemment ses ‘petits pâtés’ et ses ‘ragoûts’, et, au-delà d’un art consommé d’accommoder les restes, chercher à percer celui de mettre les petits plats dans les grands  autrement dit s’interroger sur le statut de ces sous-ensembles que sont les ‘mélanges’ dans l’architecture globale de ‘collections complètes’ qui, du vivant de Voltaire, ne le restent jamais longtemps. L’existence de ces ‘mélanges’ questionne enfin l’actuelle collection, censément définitive, des Œuvres complètes, dont le principe de classement chronologique des textes exclut les regroupements génériques adoptés jusque-là. L’architecture de ce volume, tout comme celle du tome 45B (Mélanges de 1756) publié en 2010, montre que la catégorie accueillante des ‘mélanges’ constitue encore, faute de mieux, un principe efficace de regroupement des écrits fugitifs.

– Olivier Ferret


La comédie de mœurs: perversion du classique ou genre classique?

Pourquoi la comédie de mœurs fleurit-elle de 1680 à 1720? A cette question, l’histoire littéraire répond habituellement en évoquant le déclin de la France dans les dernières décennies du règne de Louis XIV, années de crise spirituelle et économique, favorisant la multiplication des escrocs en tous genres et le délitement des valeurs, à leur tour reflétés dans la comédie.

Pourtant, tous les thèmes de la comédie de mœurs préexistent largement cette période charnière entre les deux siècles, et j’en ai trouvé plusieurs illustrations dans des pièces des années 1630 ou 1640, dont je parle dans mon ouvrage La Comédie de mœurs sous l’ancien régime: poétique et histoire. Au-delà, se dessine même une tradition multiséculaire, remontant à l’antiquité grecque et latine, habituée à faire rire, de façon plus légère ou plus grinçante, d’un ‘aujourd’hui’ méprisable par rapport à un ‘hier’ idéalisé. En restant plus proche de la période charnière mentionnée plus haut, il suffit d’ouvrir les Satires de Boileau pour y découvrir tous les personnages caractéristiques de ce type de pièces: le financier indûment enrichi, le médecin assassin, le laquais parvenu, le procureur fourbe, le noble désargenté et prêt à se mésallier, la coquette.

En changeant de genre, on lit dans L’Histoire amoureuse des Gaules plusieurs scènes dignes de la comédie de mœurs, que Bussy-Rabutin donne pour ‘vraies’, mais qui semblent surtout avoir beaucoup emprunté au théâtre, avant de l’inspirer en retour. Pour ne donner qu’un exemple, on peut mentionner l’épisode de la séduction par l’argent, que Lesage devait avoir en tête en écrivant son Turcaret: le financier Paget, significativement désigné par le sobriquet ‘Crispin’, se fait précéder chez Ardélise par une lettre accompagnée d’une généreuse ‘subvention’, et qui lui ouvre à coup sûr le cœur et surtout le chemin du lit de la belle dame. L’ensemble du roman relève d’une esthétique de la médisance, Bussy expérimentant ainsi, avant les auteurs de la comédie de mœurs, une écriture qui crée un univers littéraire à partir d’une vision a priori, comme un pur exercice de l’esprit. L’enjeu n’est pas de fournir une lecture juste de la réalité, mais de faire illusion, en canalisant le regard du lecteur ou du spectateur uniquement vers les éléments qui confirment la perspective noire posée, sans tenir compte de tout ce qui l’infirme ou la nuance.

Ainsi, il est peut-être plus légitime de voir dans la comédie de mœurs non pas le résultat d’un déclin des mœurs et des goûts, mais la continuatrice d’une pensée classique. Celle-ci reprend à son compte d’anciennes critiques sur la modernité corruptrice, la couple avec la vision chrétienne du monde comme vallée des larmes, et décide de porter jusqu’à ses limites cette lecture sombre de l’humanité, en lui donnant une tournure décidément comique. Mettant au service de la satire son arsenal de types et de procédés, elle élabore une version policée, recevable si l’on peut dire, d’un jeu que l’on avait reproché à Bussy-Rabutin et à Boileau de pratiquer comme une attaque ad hominem. La représentation d’un monde d’où les principes moraux et la vertu ont généralement et définitivement disparu, à tous les échelons de la société, dilue les responsabilités et étouffe le scandale. Avec son côté absurde de neverland, la comédie de mœurs tire la représentation vers la farce. Sur fond d’essoufflement de la machine à caractères de premier plan, elle est certainement apparue aux comédiens comme une alternative de nature à relancer le théâtre et à renouveler le plaisir du spectateur.

Ioana Galleron