joubert and a troubled family: a story

“The world was made like a spider’s web: God pulled it out of his breast, and by his will he carded the filaments, unrolled them, and strung them up. What we call nothingness is his invisible fullness; his power is a ball of thread, but a substantial ball, containing an inexhaustible whole, which divides itself at every moment, in remaining always entire. In order to create the world, he needed merely a grain of matter; for all that we see, that mass which terrifies us, is nothing but a grain that eternity created and put to work. By its ductility, by the hollow that it punched and the art of the worker, it offers, in the decorations that came out of it, a sort of immensity. Everything seems full to us, everything is empty; or, better, everything is hollow. The elements themselves are hollow; God alone is full. But where was this grain of matter? It was in the breast of God, as it remains.” - Joubert.

Joseph Joubert - as I pointed out in the last post - wrote in such a way - as though he had to begin at the very beginning - that the mad, especially, can understand him. Which is simply to say that he wrote alone. This can and has been exaggerated. Blanchot, in particular, represented Joubert as a writer in the geneology of the great solitaries – of Kafka writing the Judgment and watching the dawn come up, of Proust in the famous and overfamous cork lined room. In reality, Joubert was one of the circle around… well, around the people we have been mentioning during the last couple of weeks. Around Restif de la Bretonne, for one, who was the friend of our friend, Grimod de Reyniere, the man with the postiche droigts – artificial fingers. An essay about Restif by Gerard de Nerval rescued his reputation, or at least sealed it, in the nineteenth century.

Restif met Joubert in 1783. Joubert was impressed by the always harried anti-pornographer. We have his notes to Restif’s “The last adventure of a forty five year old man” – and what adventure can us middle aged types hope for but a love affair?

Except things quickly took a different turn in 1783. Joubert was young. Restif’s wife, Agnes, was in her forties. At some point Joubert and his friend found a new apartment in Paris, and… unbeknownst to Restif … paid for it with Restif’s own money. Or at least Agnes’. There does seem to be a tradition among French writers of the older woman. Rousseau. Balzac. Joubert falls into this pattern, too. At first, the little things. A dinner invitation to Restif’s table for Joubert and his friend, Fontanes. On the part of Restif – except, oddly, he didn’t know about it. Agnes is happy to see them, though. And little gifts. Clothing. Food.

And so a picture is assembled. There is Restif’s family, who live on the money Restif makes by, basically, exhausting his secrets – he is a compulsive confessor. As Nerval latter notes, Restif is invited to the houses of the great to read, or perform, his confessions – a sort of ancien regime Spaulding Gray – but the great are surprised by the fact that, sooner or later, they become part of the confessions. The spider web reaches out, but remains always itself, entire. Here is the young, thoughtful Joubert, who Restif tells people is working on the ‘metaphysics of language.’ Here’s Agnes, whose bienfaits are a little excessive. Here are the family friends, like the man with the clawlike hands. Americans have so little sense of history that they are always thinking they have discovered things that happened in the 18th century: thus, the fascination with the personal matter that is divulged on blogs, showing, supposedly, an exhibitionism never before seen. Well, this was Restif’s bread and butter. He finds a letter to his wife from Joubert, and, changing it slightly, he publishes it. Restif isn’t a man who exactly welcomes being cuckolded, but he knows good copy when he sees it.

One should remember – Restif, moving in the circles of the philosophes, and writing semi-erotic literature, always was – or believed himself to be – a step away from the Bastille. As he begins to see the connection between Joubert and Agnes, he begins to get paranoid about further, political betrayals.

Restif has some reasonable fears. According to Beaunier, one evening, after dinner, strolling with Fontanes, “Restif recounted that a lot of things had happened to him in his life, and notably this: he had had during his youth a mistress. Having forgotten her for fifteen years, he reencountered her and didn’t recognize here. That woman had a daughter, Zephire, extremely pretty, who already lived ‘in disorder’. Restif fell in love with her, dreamed of marrying her and provisionally made her his mistress. “There was never such a love before.” Zephire dies. And Restif found out – the world is so small – that Zephire, his adored mistress, was his daughter. As he was completely depraved, he added, speaking to Fontanes, “that apparently the paternal tenderness amalgamated in his heart with physical love, making, in this mixture, a delicious sentiment.” Fontanes, visibly, did not like this anecdote.”

Well, I will get return to this later.