the apology of Theophile

LI had more fun with our Theophile post than we’ve had in a good while. Thank you, Amie.

Now, let’s place Theophile de Viau in context, and get on to the marvelous public letter he wrote Louis XIII – in a tone, and with a frankness, that would certainly have been unthinkable fifty years later.

Scholars would place Theophile de Viau in the French Renaissance period. He’s a contemporary of Robert Herrick – of the Cavalier poets. He started out in life with an excellent education – he learned Greek, Spanish, Italian and English at his school, Saumer, and he gained a smattering of the new sciences – or natural magic, as Bacon referred to them. Being relatively wealthy, when he came to Paris, as he confesses in his letters, he fell into vice. Although nowadays he is celebrated as a Gay litterateur – by people who simply sort through history, look for the assfucking, not literature, and pluck out the assfucker – his debauches were, as far as we know from his own words, with women, although Tallement repeats a story that he seduced a boy he was tutoring, and there are enough rumors about Theophile that the hasty searchers for Gay avatars aren’t wholly wrong. But he was not Marlowe – or at least not in this sense. There is a boldness, a recklessness in Theophile that does remind one of Marlowe, though. As Claire Gaudiami has pointed out, for instance [The Cabaret Poetry of Théophile de Viau: Texts and Traditions, 43-5], an 1618 poem, Elegie de M. de C., contains cosmological speculation about the materiality of the soul – composed of the four elements, governed by the stars – and its finitude, on the lines of Vanini, who was burned at the stake in 1619 in Toulouse. And like Marlowe, the record of his banishments, arrests and connections is a strange one – he certainly had influence with King Louis XIII, and the Duke of Buckingham was instrumental in getting him out of some jams – and we do know, following the sodomite trail, that the Duke of Buckingham was rumored to be not only a sodomite, but a corruptor of Prince Charles, and certainly a favorite of King James, famous for his taste in pretty boys. It was this atmosphere that made the Victorians, always eager to find good protestant martyrs to the intolerance of superstition and the Catholic Church, shy away from him. And, of course, it is what makes him wildly attractive to us. Mad, bad and dangerous to know – isn’t this the stuff of our heroes?

So here he is, poet and backdoor man, courtier, connector, the rich man’s son who flees from his debtors, the cabaret poet, to use Gaudiami’s term, the beaux esprit, to use the sneering phrase of his great accuser, the Jesuit Voisin.

Mon esprit, plein d’amour et plein de liberté
Sans fard et sans respect t’escrit la verité.

So, there you have the man who wrote the poem in my last post, more or less.
Which brings us to one of the odder ‘human documents’ of the seventeenth century, Theophile’s Apologie, a letter he wrote the King about his arrest and trial for – well, it is part of his complaint that it was never quite clear what his crime was.
It is an odd document because it mixes a tone of courtly flattery and servility (worthy of an op ed piece in the Washington Post) with the recounting of incidents in a tone that is recognizably modern. That is, recognizably conscious of its modernity – for that is what is modern. Just that. And so the tone in the letter has an intimacy, breaks down the barriers of politesse, with an unusual assurance, as if the way Theophile was writing was just the way everybody wrote. With all the assumption that intimacy, of a sort that did not exist between a husband and wife or a father and son in the seventeenth century, could exist between the writer and the reader – who is, of course, the King. Less invisible than in Velasquez’ Las Meninas, and yet not wholly visible. Well, here is Theophile’s account of his arrest.

“After the interrogation, which contained no accusation, M. de Conmartin assured me that I was dead. I responded that the king was just and that I was innocent. And then he ordered me to taken to Saint-Quentin, after which he took his leave to join the constable, who he had quit in order to help the priests capture me. They tied great ropes around me all over and put me on a feeble, limping horse, which made me run more risks than all the witnesses of my hearings. The spectacle of the execution of some famous criminal never attracted the crowd that I drew to my imprisonment. All of a sudden I am in the holding area, then thrust into a hole in which the ceiling itself was underground. I lay down, still dressed, and draped with irons so rude and weighty that the marks and pains of them remain in my limbs. The walls sweated with humidity; I, with fear.”

Theophile’s first play used motifs from Gongora. Although Don Quixotte wasn’t translated into French until after Theophile died, I don’t think it is so unlikely that he might have read the first volume of it. Louis XIII’s wife was Spanish, Theophile could speak the language – am I stretching to see the intrusion of a new prose style, a cross section of the vernacular of the peasant and the new learning, in this image of a man on a limping horse, surrounded by priests, trussed up like a pig? “The walls sweated with humidity; I, with fear.” It is going to take a long time for English prose to get close to this kind of statement of fact.


Anonymous said…
Now I'm really hoping that the mouseketeer Britney reads LI!

roger said…
Re the Brit front, this story from Reuters, with the unbelievably unbelievably unbelievably sexist ending, has confirmed my dark suspicions about all of humanity!

It makes me wonder - who do I contact at Reuters to say: fuck you!

"LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The crazy pink wig hasn't been seen for weeks, late night dashes to the psychiatric ward have ceased and there are no more pictures without panties. Could no news finally be good news for Britney Spears?

It has been a barren couple of months for scandal about Spears, 26, whose life became a front-page disaster in 2007 and early 2008 when she lost custody of her children, shaved her head, was seen distinctly underdressed at parties and was twice hospitalized for psychiatric evaluation.

Out of the limelight and under the guardianship of her father, Spears appears to be making so much progress that some people are even talking about a comeback.

"She has almost come back from the dead," said Harvey Levin, managing editor of celebrity Web site which still reports on her every move.

"She is happy again, she seems stable. She is seeing her kids again, she is trying to get her recording career back. The crazy conduct is not there anymore. She is a different human being from how she was three months ago," Levin told Reuters.

Apart from a minor traffic incident on April 12 -- the kind of "fender-bender" experienced by virtually every Angeleno with a car -- the only recent news about Spears has been good.

She's been regularly working out at the gym and taking dance classes. She surprised critics with a sassy guest appearance in the TV sitcom "How I Met Your Mother" and has been photographed playing happily with her two sons after striking a visitation deal with ex-husband Kevin Federline.

Spears also has reconciled with her ex-manager Larry Rudolph, the man who was responsible for taking a 16-year old kid from Louisiana and making her the world's best known pop star at the turn of the 21st century."
Anonymous said…
Oh no! La Brit is in the perfumed noose of the Happiness wheelers and dealers!

LI, can I just say thanks for your drawing attention to Théophile's Apology. It really is an extraordinary text: a plea, an appeal, an accusation,a counter-accusation, a testimony, a testament. An entire theater with its complex series of strategies, roles, tonalities.
And yet, it is just a letter. A public letter, addressed to a King. But there is something else to the letter. Something that many purveyors of knowledge - and of history and literature - try their best to bury, even today. Bury alive, I might add.

The letter is written by someone who has heard his death sentence pronounced, who might as well be dead. "After the interrogation, which contained no accusation, M. de Conmartin assured me that I was dead."

Is this a letter by a dead man, written to a king who will save him? "I responded that the King was just and that I was innocent."

I think Théophile has an awareness that a King's pardon can always not arrive. That a letter can always not arrive.

But does this catastrophic "non-arrival" and the death sentence render Théophile the writer mute. On the contrary, it grants - or leaves - him a certain liberty. That of describing what arrives with frankness and as a matter of fact. It gives Théophile's prose those moments of surprising élan as well as the moments of sheer nakedness. “The walls sweated with humidity; I, with fear.”

That's what it is, escrire à la moderne. That's what it is, as Deleuze says in quoting Bousquet, d'être digne de ce qui nous arrive.

But what do I know!

roger said…
I am amazed by the Apologie and the Latin pendant, which Theophile (luckily for me) put into French. The defense of a plain style becomes intrinsic to his general defense. Why has this text not been translated and marketed by Penguin as a classic? It is all so rich, and like you say, written under the sentence - arret de mort.

This is worthy of Donne:

J’ay songé à ce vers-la [his fatal last line, which he neither claims nor disclaims] depuis l’avoir ouy citer de vostre part: il semble un peu confus, mais il n’est pas criminal, comme vous le dites. Si un bon zele religieux eslevoit aussi souvent vostre esprit à la meditation de vostre propre misere, comme l’envie et l’orgueil le precipitent et l’attachent à la recherché des deffauts d’autruy, vous scauriez mieux que vous ne faites, ou, pour le moins, ne tairiez pas si maliciusement le desordre que la rebellion du premier homme à cause à toute sa posterite. Scachez donc, reverend Pere, que depuis que l’homme s’est rebellé contre son Createur, que tout ce qui avoit esté creé pour son service s’est aussi justement rebellé contre luy, jusques la qu’il n’y a si petit moucheron qui ne tasche à venger de son aiguillon l’offense faite à son Createur.