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Sunday, June 03, 2007

antoine de lasalle: an enlightenment eccentric

When Lukacs uses the phrase, epicurean materialism, to talk about the nature of the Dantonist resistance to Robespierre in Büchner’s play, he is following a theme which was taken up in the 19th century not only by Marx, but by the historians of the French revolution and of the enlightenment.

Emile Dard’s biography of Herault de Sechelles (1903), for instance, is titled “An epicurean under the terror.” When Büchner’s Robespierre denounces the wealthy and the refers to people who ‘used to live in garrets and now roll around in carriages and sin with former marquesses and baronesses’, he is referring – except for the garret – to hedonists like Herault, who was followed about, as he performed his revolutionary duties, including creating a constitution that gave foreigners the right to vote, by a few aristocratic groupies. And Robespierre’s denunciation of ‘vice” and those who ‘declare war on God and property” as a way of secretly supporting the King – whether they know it or not – he is sounding an old Left theme that has become perennial - the warning against the decadent life style - but that had peculiar resonances in the Revolutionary period, when the carry over from the 1780s was so sexualized. Mirabeau, for instance, was famous for his rather famous erotica before he was famous as the revolution's first great orator. The disabused spirit of the young bucks around Danton was simply an extension of the final moment of the Enlightenment – which, contra the philosophy crowd, was codified not in Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason, but in Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Herault moved in the Valois circle, which met in the Palais Royale, and included Laclos as well as Tallyrand, Sieyes, and others. As Dard puts it, Herault, on his sofa, would become enthusiastic for justice, 'the sole passion that could inflame the sceptics, on the condition that it did not disturb their leisure."

Which brings me to an eccentric philosophe mentioned by Emile Dard, a “savage” philosopher/ traveler named Antoine de Lasalle. Antoine de Lasalle was quite a character. Dard gives a sketch of the man – as a youth, he had sailed to America with the cod fishing fleet (“clumsy at hunting and fishing, despised by his rude companions, to whom he asked, for instance, if there did not exist three sexes in nature” ) and then an explorer of Asia, he came back to Paris (where he set up as a professor of Arabic), he wrote metaphysical tomes which were published thanks to Herault’s financing, in which he explained that he could shrink the important truths of metaphysics into a two word phrase: “Tout vibre” – everything vibrates. The universe was a pendulum composed of an infinity of smaller pendulums –“From which we get the aspect that we observe: an immense field of battle on which all beings, divided into two enemy lines, are the champions; the general battle is composed of an infinite number of particular combats, where the winners and losers succeed each other in a duel that is never finished.”

This double movement – towards an infinite vastness composed of smaller and equally infinite vastnesses – is a sort of Epicurean twist on Pascal’s infinities. Of course, it puts into question the place of God. God obviously did not make this pendulum for man.

Lasalle, who LI was unaware of before coming across his name in Dard’s book, was, like Rousseau, a great walker. His morality, which is derived entirely from his materialism, is an odd thing entirely. Here’s a passage from the beautifully named Méchanique morale: ou essai sur l'art de perfectionner et d'employer ses organes … : ”a sure means to lose happiness is to search for it everywhere; it is here and not there, it is in us, where it is in no part, no where… Thus, man is the softest of all the great beasts, the softness of his substance is for him the cause and the sign of a need to change; he is born perfectable, he perfections himself only by reflection, but these are changes that awaken the faculty of thought, which sharpens its instrument, and furnishes the best material; man is almost the only animal that can travel without hazard (impunement): man is thus a traveler-born; moreover, strangers are well received everywhere, as long as they don’t stay too long; as long as you are new, everything is great, nothing is more perfect than the man who came yesterday and leaves tomorrow; but if you hang around, they will soon get tired of you. Well, then, it is wise to pass one’s life as a stranger, a novelty and caressed as such…”

More to come in another post.

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