The ‘Beccaria moment’: revisiting the origins of the modern penal system

Published anonymously in Livorno in July 1764, Cesare Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments is at the origin of a remarkable moment in European culture. Translations and commentaries appeared instantly in several languages, and this brief work of some 100 pages gave rise to what Michel Porret has called the ‘Beccaria moment’,[1] referring to the period of intense debate that led to the whole European tradition of penal law being called into question, culminating less than fifty years later in France with the promulgation in 1810 of the Napoleonic Code pénal.

A new book, Le moment Beccaria: naissance du droit pénal moderne, 1764-1810, edited by Philippe Audegean and Luigi Delia (Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, 2018) allows us to revisit this ‘moment’.

The shock wave caused by On Crimes and Punishments

Persuaded that ‘knowledge is the pre-condition of enlightened consent to the laws, that itself is the condition of liberty’ (Audegean[2]), Beccaria makes his text accessible to a wide readership. He rejects the use of Latin, and emphasises clarity and concision. He brings together, to quote his first French translator André Morellet, ‘the strength of reason and the warmth of feeling’.[3] In so doing, criminal law – which had hitherto remained the private and confidential domain of the legal profession – becomes a public affair. The ‘Milan school’ and the group around the journal Il Caffé (1764-1766) that includes Beccaria have as their declared aim, to quote Pietro Verri, to dispel ‘the fog and mystery that allowed the select few to act with impunity while the greater number remained in misery’.[4]

Allegory of Justice refusing to receive some heads from the hand of a man with a sword, illustration from C. Beccaria, Dei delitti e delle pene. Edizione sesta di nuovo corretta ed accresciuta, Harlem [Paris?], 1766. Public domain. Source: http://gutenberg.beic.it.

The aim of On Crimes and Punishments is to modernise penal law by establishing it on clear, secular, moderate foundations, so as to fight against the abuses of justice: torture, the scaffold, extreme corporal punishment, the confusion between crime and sin, the arbitrariness of the judiciary, the slowness and secrecy of trials. Penal law is to be brought in line with a sense of legality as defined by the social contract, liberty and the equality of man. This revolution, which established the foundations of the constitutional state, causes a shock wave in Europe of unseen proportions.

To speak of the ‘Beccaria moment’ is therefore to recognise that the origins of modern criminal law are to be found not just in the modest pages of the Milanese thinker but in the hundreds of texts and speeches that his pages inspired in the following decades, from Voltaire’s Commentaire and the issuing of the Nakaz by Catherine the Great (1767) to the abolition of the death penalty in Tuscany (1786) and the criminal laws of the young American nation drawn up by Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and John Adams, from the first French penal code of 1791, the product of debates among the Constituants in which the name most often cited was Beccaria’s, to the Napoleonic code and the work of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). But the ‘Beccaria moment’ continues in Victor Hugo’s campaign of 1848 to abolish the death penalty, or, closer to our times, in 1981, in the actions of Robert Badinter.

To understand the sources of modern criminal law means taking into account both Beccaria’s book and its interpretations – in Germany, England, France and Italy – thanks to which a new legal structure gradually emerged, and new principles of punishment meant that the legality of punishments replaced the arbitrary power of the courts.

A ‘moment’ that remains modern

Beccaria’s modernity lies in his having reconceived the problem of punishment in the framework of a new conception of politics born in the Enlightenment period and which is still our own: a framework in which the state’s authority is subjugated to the laws protecting individuals. Criminal law is no longer the royal instrument used by the sovereign to guarantee his strength and establish social order, but rather the instrument of citizens to protect and uphold their liberty and safety against public or private violence.

It follows, as the authors show here, that ‘the power to punish is revealed in all its tragic ambiguity’,[5] since it may be necessary, in order to protect citizens from violations that threaten them, to violate the liberty of others and to threaten their dignity and their physical integrity. How to protect ourselves against the excesses and extremes of the laws that protect us? This book demonstrates, if it were necessary, that the ‘Beccaria moment’ remains relevant, and it reminds us of the need today to rethink the principles of the Milanese writer so as to better understand in particular the modern tension between the principles of security and liberal values. It invites us to think about the problems raised by the widespread preventive surveillance of individuals in the name of the ‘security of the state’ at a time when new radical forms of criminality are emerging.

Title page of the original edition of the Napoleonic code of 1810. Public domain.

The ‘Beccaria moment’ of 1764 has clearly passed, yet its aspirations represent unfinished business. In the same way that between the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, public debate opened up to problems that had not been envisaged by the author of On Crimes and Punishments – in particular the emergence of a new prison regime – his book throws a light today on the present evolution of criminal law, which since the Enlightenment has been a founding and defining element of social order and our institutions. In 2015, Michel Porret elegantly summed up the problem:

As an Enlightened Utopian, Beccaria dreamed of a just city, regulated by constrained force, since excessive punishments encourage brutality in social behaviour […]. Speaking in the language and culture of his times, Beccaria paves the way for the eventual abolition of capital punishment. Today this humane project is enshrined in European democracies. So at a time when certain European gaols resemble more and more the prison hell deplored by John Howard at the end of the eighteenth century, and when populism sees an ethnic element in criminality, fosters social vindictiveness, and in general questions the Enlightenment legal heritage, condemning the State’s role to heal and urging punitive excess in response to problems of security, the generous words of the Italian thinker remain immensely relevant. As if we were still living in the Beccaria moment inaugurated in 1764.[6]

On Friday 12 October 2018, I am pleased to be organising at the École normale supérieure in Paris a round table debate devoted to the book edited by Philippe Audegean and Luigi Delia, in the presence of the authors/editors. Also participating in the discussion are Italo Birocchi (professor of the history of medieval and modern law at the University of  Rome La Sapienza), Manuela Albertone (professor of modern history at the University of Turin), and Denis Baranger (professor of public law at the University of Paris II Panthéon-Assas and deputy director of the Institut Michel Villey).

– Pierre Musitelli, École normale supérieure, Paris
Translated by Nicholas Cronk

[1] Michel Porret, Beccaria: le droit de punir, Paris, Michalon, 2003, p. 116; and Michel Porret and Élisabeth Salvi (eds.), Cesare Beccaria. La controverse pénale, XVIIIe-XXIe siècle, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2015, ‘Introduction. Le moment Beccaria’, p.15-38.

[2] C. Beccaria, Des délits et des peines, translation by Philippe Audegean, Lyon, ENS Éditions, 2009, p.398.

[3] [C. Beccaria], Traité des délits et des peines, traduit de l’italien [1765], ‘Préface du traducteur’, p.VIII.

[4] Il Caffè, t.I, foglio V, Torino, Bollati Boringhieri, 1998, p.56.

[5] Philippe Audegean and Luigi Delia (eds.), Le moment Beccaria. Naissance du droit pénal moderne (1764-1810), Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, 2018, introduction, p.4.

[6] Cesare Beccaria. La controverse pénale, p.37-38.

The above post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press.

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Green Wigs? Ecology and the Long Eighteenth Century

Elizabeth Blackwell, ‘The Clove, Carophyllus aromaticus’. Plate 338 from volume 2 of Blackwell’s A Curious Herbal, Containing Five Hundred Cuts, of the Most Useful Plants (London, 1739). (Historic Maps Collection, Dept. of Rare Books & Special Collections, Princeton University Library.)

Without a doubt, the Restoration era always exceeds students’ expectations. Students arrive with images in their heads of powdered wigs and royal ceremonies; they leave savoring the frankness, liveliness, and relevance of playwrights Aphra Behn, Susan Centlivre, George Farquhar, and John Dryden (All of Love and Amphitryon especially). Generic expectations circumscribe and limit.  But as Dryden describes, poets capture an idea or image in language and activate the senses their readers, creating a pulsating conduit between them and the objects represented. Dryden insists that his aesthetic forms, in his case heroic drama, initially obtrusive, merge with what he depicts. In the period after the Restoration of Charles II to the English throne, the ‘care and labour of Rhyme is carry’d from us, or at least drown’d in its own sweetness, as Bees are sometimes bury’d in their Honey.’ Literary forms serve as porous borders that foster interaction and vibrancy, melting into the things they represent once this exchange has been activated.

How did literature overcome what had become stale Renaissance constructs and respond to contact and exchange across the Americas, Africa, and Asia? The premise of Nature and the New Science is that natural systems shape poetry, philosophy, geography, and politics. After the era I define, writers increasingly fix nature as something to be sought rather than always and everywhere an ambient condition of human life. But from 1665-1726, nature operated as the medium through which the British sought the unknown, interpreted contact with others abroad, and allowed them to explore the self and adapt to new political and economic realities.

Because so many aspects that define our contemporary world took root in the period, the study of the long eighteenth century remains paramount to understanding seemingly intractable problems as well as institutions we’ve grown to cherish. A few examples include: Western conceptions of the East, global interdependencies, the lives of servants and women, treatment of indigenous people, and the (still) undervalued contributions of women writers. We often characterize the era as charting the ‘rise’ of large-scale processes – the rise of the nation-state; the rise of the novel; the rise of the modern subject; the rise of democratic republicanism, the rise of capitalist economies – obscuring the originary conditions of these movements. In this book I am concerned with the literature that remains in dialogue with various processes, phenomena, places, and beings.

Various initiatives encourage cross-fertilization across academia, governmental organizations, and industry. My own university is in the process of uniting its Colleges of Arts and Sciences into one unit, giving me the opportunity to create interdisciplinary classes like ‘The Literature, History, and Science of Spaceflight’.  The period under discussion can serve as the lingua franca, enabling increased dialogue among academic units. It is a commonplace to point out that in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century disciplinary silos were nonexistent, but what remains understudied is how different areas of study remain tethered, how they need one another to define themselves.

I should know. Earning degrees in both Aerospace Engineering and English and working at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at CU-Boulder and, later, at Stanford University on satellites called QuickSCAT and Gravity Probe B, I viewed engineering and English as complementary disciplines. Likewise, the ‘New Science’, which emerged in the seventeenth century, promised to illuminate natural phenomena through the use of reason and special instruments, encouraging detailed inquiries into physical systems. The methodology resembles the practice of close reading a literary text: life appears when one appreciates the minutia. At the same time, the practitioners of the New Science recognized the object of study was inseparable from the device through which one grasped it, as did those who sought innovation in poetic form.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.

While receptivity to their surroundings unites the authors studied here from Margaret Cavendish and Milton to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Daniel Defoe, the book observes a gradual diminishment in the writers’ attunement to natural processes as a means to discernment. They succumb instead to constructs of national identities characterized by borders and attendant socio-economic systems. Behn, for instance, ties technology to its capacity to intertwine people and sites rather than displace them, and for Dryden, the kinship between the English and nature enabled circum-oceanic travel. But by the end of the period I trace, only auditory sensations (the haunting cries of animals) remind Robinson Crusoe of vestigial affiliations among all beings.

In the Anthropocene, we struggle with the effects of how human activity changed the climate and environment. Conceptualizing the world through natural systems will not directly reverse rising oceans and carbon dioxide levels. The literature from the period, however, remains vital in that it reminds us that we cannot compartmentalize environmental degradation. It links human and natural systems, helping to perceive this crisis and to reconcile the separation between the two that led to it.

– Denys Van Renen

The above post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press. The author, Denys Van Renen, is Associate Professor of English at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. He is the author of ‘The Other Exchange: Women, Servants, and the Urban Underclass in Early Modern England’ and co-editor of ‘Beyond 1776’. He has a critical edition of Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals forthcoming.

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

Let’s talk: 18th-century scholars, tell us about how you read

The editorial team of Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment (formerly, Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century) is this month undertaking its first-ever survey of scholarly reading practices among 18th-century specialists.

Our goal is to learn how you – our readers, our authors and our reviewers – access scholarship, in print and in digital format, and then to use this information to better serve your needs. To do so, we have designed a short online questionnaire, to which we are asking specialists in 18th-century studies to respond. We need your help to ensure that we receive a response representative of our ‘republic of letters’. We want to hear from scholars from a wide range of nations, professional ranks, disciplinary backgrounds, research specializations, and, of course, using a variety of reading platforms.

You can access the survey from now until Sunday, October 29th, through this link: Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment survey of scholarly reading practices.

The Voltaire Foundation has been publishing, in the Studies, pioneering work on a wide range of Enlightenment topics since 1955; this longevity and success has been due in good part to the series’ strong bond with its scholarly community. As we move forward into our seventh decade, the @OxUniEnlightenment editorial team seeks to ensure that we continue to publish innovative research on topics at the forefront of the field – and to make this work as widely accessible to our readers as possible.

Hence we are asking, in this survey, how our community accesses scholarship – both print and digital. Through this survey, you can help shape the future not only of the Studies, but, we believe, the future of Enlightenment scholarship more generally.

The questionnaire should require less than 15 minutes to complete, whether in French or English. All responses will remain anonymous. No installation of software, account creation or personal information is required. By using established best practices for survey research, including the Qualtrics survey platform, we can assure all participants of the confidentiality of their responses and the security of their data. Further details, including the statement of informed consent, are available here.

In recognition of your time and your engagement on behalf of Enlightenment values of toleration and the dignity of all human beings, the Voltaire Foundation will make a charitable contribution for each survey response completed to two causes which defend these principles worldwide: Amnesty International and Médecins sans Frontières.

Could you please set aside 10 to 15 minutes to complete the survey this week? And in any case, could you please find time to do so before Sunday, October 29th, when the survey closes? To help ensure that your discipline and the members of your national society affiliate are well represented in the survey, please do forward the survey link to your colleagues or share this blog post on social media.

Please address any questions, suggestions or concerns to Gregory Brown.

How we developed this survey

The idea for such a survey is one that I first broached when I took on the duties of General Editor. Last year, in collaboration with the International Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, we undertook the first phase by assembling aggregate data on the national affiliations, native languages, disciplinary homes, and research specializations of a sample of over 6000 eighteenth-century scholars from around the world. This work was conducted by the ISECS Communications Secretary, Nelson Guilbert, with support from the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, and these findings were presented to the ISECS Executive Committee at their meeting in 2016.

Using that baseline, we prepared a survey and a research protocol, and then refined it to meet established best practices of survey research.

This second phase – the current survey – has received essential in-kind support from my home institution, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. At UNLV the Department of History and College of Liberal Arts provided a highly talented research assistant, Evan Casey, and Bridgit Kelley, director of the Cannon Research Center, provided expert advice on conducting the survey. UNLV’s Office of Information Technology provides access to the Qualtrics online survey platform.

We are grateful to the leadership of all national societies for eighteenth-century studies who have agreed to help circulate the invitation to their respective members. Indeed, you may have already received such an invitation, and we apologize for any cross-posting. Rest assured that the Qualtrics platform has functionality that ensures the validity of a survey accessed through an anonymous link.

Thank you for your support for Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment!

– Gregory Brown, General Editor, Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment

In honor of Robert Darnton

Robert Darnton

Robert Darnton in 2016

This month Oxford University will award an honorary doctorate of letters to Robert Darnton, a (if not the) leading cultural historian over the past 50 years of eighteenth-century French publishing, book trade and literary culture.

I count myself as one of the many scholars inspired by his works. The Great Cat Massacre (1984) was among the first scholarly works I was assigned to read upon beginning postgraduate study. As a doctoral student, I benefited from his advisement (as a doctoral student at Columbia, I enrolled through a university exchange in his Princeton seminar on ‘The Social History of Ideas in Eighteenth-Century France’). And now as a senior research affiliate of the Voltaire Foundation and General Editor of Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, I take particular interest in expressing on behalf of the Voltaire Foundation our collegial pride, admiration, and respect for Professor Darnton on this occasion. Indeed, I would like to highlight some of his impact on the Voltaire Foundation – though, unlike the Public Orator, I will not do so in Latin!

Darnton entered into the field of eighteenth-century studies at Oxford in 1960 as a Rhodes Scholar. He thus entered the field at a moment of dynamism and growth: just a few years earlier (1955) had seen the launch of what became Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, and just a few years later would bring the initial International Congress on the Enlightenment (1963).

Darnton remained at Oxford to complete his doctoral thesis (in 1964) on radical political pamphleteering in the 1780s. Moreover, under the influence of Oxford faculty Robert Shackleton and Richard Cobb, he conducted his first research on J.-P. Brissot and the rich police, book trade and censorship archives. These lines of research led directly to the seminal articles and books he would publish after taking up a position at Princeton, including Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France (1968), The Business of Enlightenment (1979), and the Literary Underground of the Old Regime (1982). This body of work alone would justify the recognition of an honoris causa doctorate.

Darnton however remained both directly and indirectly engaged with Oxford and the Voltaire Foundation. In 1983 he was elected to the executive board of the International Society of Eighteenth-Century Studies and served as its president from 1987 to 1991. He was instrumental in bringing the ISECS meeting to Budapest before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and in establishing the East-West Seminar for early career scholars, which he directed until 1995. The proceedings of both the ISECS Congresses and the East-West Seminars were in those years published in SVEC. This includes Darnton’s 1991 presidential address, ‘Reviving the Republic of Letters’, SVEC vol.303, p.3-16, just one of at least six talks or papers he contributed to SVEC volumes between 1988 and 2003, before the series adopted its all-book format – and even after, he continued to contribute, penning a preface to Thierry Rigogne’s Between State and Market: Printing and Bookselling in Eighteenth-Century France (2007).

Darnton served two terms on the Voltaire Foundation board, in 1987-1991 and 2000-2007; during the latter term, he was an instrumental contributor to the conception and initial funding of the Electronic Enlightenment, launched by the VF before being moved to the Bodleian Libraries and distributed by Oxford University Press. During this period, he also authored and edited the Voltaire Foundation’s first foray into digital publishing, a fully on-line monograph and document collection, J.-P. Brissot, His Career and Correspondence (1779–1787) (2001).

The importance of his impact on Enlightenment studies has been so great that it merited a book of its own – SVEC vol.359, The Darnton Debate, edited by Haydn Mason, then the General Editor of the series. (This book first appeared as a SVEC hardcover and then was republished in 1999 as part of the VF’s paperback Vif series; it remains one of the best-selling SVEC volumes in its entire 60-year history.)

The 13 original essays in this volume assess the many facets of his work (to that point; he has published four major scholarly books since then, and another – his long-awaited survey of the French book trade in the eighteenth century – is expected next year!). Darnton here provided a response which, although far too early in his career to be a valedictory, nevertheless offers a lucid and compelling narrative of his own ‘two paths through the social history of ideas’.

It is, I think, fair to say that neither path would have been possible, for him or for those of us who have been able to follow him into this still-vibrant field, without the institutions that he helped build and maintain. And it is to such institutions as the Voltaire Foundation and Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment and the Enlightenment values that they espouse and embody, on the occasion of Darnton’s honorary degree awarded at the annual Encaenia ceremony, that we recommit ourselves in a celebration of ongoing renewal.

– Gregory S. Brown

NB listen to Robert Darnton speak on the subject of ‘fake news’ in the eighteenth century.

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

Rousseau and the perils of public address

In December 1776, the Courrier d’Avignon reported a curious incident in Ménilmontant: a supposedly mortal collision between the famed philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and…a great dane.

‘Rousseau, qui se promène souvent seul à la campagne, a été renversé il y a quelques jours par un de ces chiens Danois qui précèdent les equipages lestes: on dit qu’il est très malade de cette chute, et on ne peut trop deplorer son sort d’avoir été écrasé par des chiens.’ (no.97, December 3, 1776, p.4).

‘Jean-Jacques Rousseau est mort des suites de sa chute. Il a vécu pauvre, il est mort misérablement; et la singularité de sa destinée  l’a accompagné jusqu’au tombeau.’ (no.102, December 20, 1776, p.4).

Jean Jacques François Le Barbier, Brusselles (éd. de Londres), 1783, ‘Rousseau apportant le manuscrit des “Dialogues” à Notre-Dame de Paris’. Illustration pour Rousseau, juge de Jean-Jacques dans Œuvres de J.-J. Rousseau.

Rousseau, as we know, died a few years later in 1778 – the event in Ménilmontant leaving him not mortally injured, but with a face bruised and beaten. The mistaken reports in the Courrier d’Avignon prompted his Rêveries critical assessment of eighteenth-century public culture and, in particular, the social and discursive mechanisms that permitted the spread of rumours, an absence of fact-checking, and sensationalism. It was hardly, however, his first diagnosis of ‘fake news’.

In the very era when the postal system and print culture brought people together in ‘imagined communities’, Rousseau worried deeply about the risks of dead letters. Although Rousseau’s colleague, Diderot, was convinced that the two most important technological developments in early modern Europe were the postal system and print culture (enthusing to his sculptor friend Falconet, ‘Il y a deux grandes inventions: la poste qui porte en six semaines une découverte de l’équateur au pôle, et l’imprimerie qui la fixe à jamais’), Rousseau was much more leery of the new information age.

A critical assessment of the Enlightenment’s faith in transparent communication must attune itself to the persistent traces of ancient modes of rhetoric: the traditions of doublespeak and dog-whistle politics. Rousseau, sensitive to the tensions between an esoteric, libertine tradition of communication and an intellectual climate of social progressivism, frames the debate in a series of vexed questions: for whom should I be writing? what is a public and what can it do? Despairing over the absence of any true ‘ami de la vérité’, Rousseau heads to Notre Dame cathedral to deposit, in a famous acte manqué, a copy of Rousseau juge de Jean-Jacques on the altar of the church.

‘En entrant, mes yeux furent frappés d’une grille que je n’avois jamais remarquée et qui séparoit de la nef la partie des bas-cotés qui entoure le Chœur. Les portes de cette grille étoient fermées, de sorte que cette partie des bas-cotés dont je viens de parler étoit vuide & qu’il m’étoit impossible d’y pénétrer. Au moment où j’apperçus cette grille je fus saisi d’un vertige comme un homme qui tombe en apoplexie, et ce vertige fut suivi d’un bouleversement dans tout mon être, tel que je ne me souviens pas d’en avoir éprouvé jamais un pareil. L’Eglise me parut avoir tellement changé de face que doutant si j’étois bien dans Notre-Dame, je cherchois avec effort à me reconnoître et à mieux discerner ce que je voyois. Depuis trente six ans que je suis à Paris, j’étois venu fort souvent et en divers tems à Notre Dame; j’avois toujours vu le passage autour du Chœur ouvert et libre, et je n’y avois même jamais remarqué ni grille ni porte autant qu’il put m’en souvenir.’ (‘Histoire du précédent écrit’, Rousseau juge de Jean-Jacques, OC, t.1, p. 980).

He notes that in spite of having been in the church scores of times, he had failed to notice the barrier blocking access to the altar. The unpredictability of the reading public – indeed, the plurality of publics and their occasionally indeterminate nature – makes literary reception a chancy affair. In the very loud and crowded market of ideas of the French Enlightenment, the rhetorical gesture of address underscored the vulnerability and power of the modern writer. In my study, Jean-Jacques Rousseau face au public: problèmes d’identité, I explore the vagaries of public communication during the Enlightenment and the dialectical tensions between shadow and illumination, musicality and transparency.

As an insider of the Encyclopédie project turned outsider, Rousseau understood the complexities of the new social and ethical demands placed on the philosophes in a way that is fundamentally different from his contemporaries. By noting the unpredictability and inconsistencies of systems of public address (with readers and spectators moved alternatively by emotions, reason, flows of information, and the major works of a few key power players), Rousseau proposes alternative ways of thinking about communication and the circulation of information. He places value on economies of speech that include silence, babil (babbling), laconism, and musicality – modes of communication that contest conventional modalities of rationality and social exchange. His work is thus an invitation to consider the precarity of address within modern social life and, consequently, the politics of truth at stake in symbolic exchange.

Masano Yamashita