Trees dreaming: La Bruyère/Carpenter Shih

We looked at the oak tree in the Chuang Tzu (which was assembled from various parts around 100 A.D.) whose spirit preached the great sermon on uselessness in the dream of Carpenter Shih. There’s a quite different tree in La Bruyère’s Characters, which was published anonymously for the first time in 1687, undergoing, afterwards, numerous revisions which critics have read in the light of their idea of La Bruyère’s intention. It is in the section, Des biens de Fortune, which could be translated in various ways: On the good things of the rich, or, on the goods of fortune. Fortuna, here, is the foundation of wealth – which touches on the deep structure of La Bruyere’s Characters, the contrast between social sets – the Town and the Court, for instance. Men and Women.

“How many men resemble those trees, already strong and advanced in age, which one transplants into gardens, where they surprise the eyes of those who see them placed in the pretty spots where they had never seen them grow, and who know neither their commencements nor their progress.”

Barthes wrote that La Bruyère sketched a “cosmogony of classical society” – by which he meant that La Bruyère was after those rules that would allow him to classify types and social groupings. In a sense, Barthes was seeing his own image in La Bruyère – or at least the Barthes of Mythologies. The central sections of the Characters discuss the fortunate, or the rich, the Town and the Court. This is, as it happens, approximately the trajectory of La Bruyère’s own life. He was born in Paris to a member of the financial bourgeoisie, the controller of the rents of Paris; he became treasurer of Caen, which produced a comfortable sinecure without mandating that he would actually have to, well, live in Caen (the French system is still very lenient about where Government officials live, as opposed to the regions or towns that they are supposed to represent, since so many prefer to live in Paris). And then, by way of Bossuet, who introduced him to the Grande Condé, one of the most powerful of the French aristocrats, he took a position as tutor to the Duc de Bourbon, which is how it came about that he mingled with the crowd at Versailles.

The treasurer’s habits linger in The Characters – one has a sense of entries, of debits and credits. This is what Barthes says:

...the regions out of which La Bruyère composes his world are quite analogous to logical classes: every individual (in logic, we would say every x), i.e., every “character”, is defined first of all by a relation of membership in some class or other, the tulip fancier in the class Fashion, the coquette in the class Women, the absent-minded Ménalque in the class Men, etc.; but this is not enough, for the chacters must be distinguished among themselves within one and the same class; La Bruyère therefore performs certain operations of intersection from one class to the next; cross the class of Merit with that of Celibacy and you get a reflection on the stifling function of marriage (Du Merit, no. 25); join Tryphon’s former virtue and his present fortune” the simply coincidence of these two classes affords the image of a certain hypocrisyh (Des biens de fortune, no. 50). Thus the diversity of the regions, which are sometimes social, sometimes psychological, in no way testifies to a rich disorder: confronting the world, La Bruyère does not enumerate absolutely varied elements like the surveyor writers of the next century...”[224 – Howard’s translation]

Keeping Barthes reflection in mind – and it is easy to see this sort of pre-Linnean, Port Royal classicatory system in La Bruyère – one notices two things about La Bruyère’s tree. First, it is a piece of nature of a special type – trees being those things that transform the earth itself into the texture and growth of their being. And second, simply by being transplanted, it becomes a piece of artifice. Like the new man – one of La Bruyère’s coinages for the upstart, the man of fortune – literally, of the fortune of interest taking, of gambling, of marrying wealth – it is a new tree, since the spectator can remember neither its beginning nor its progress. Yet the new tree is not just any tree – it is striking, majestic, it has attained in its natural soil a certain respectable dimension. Like La Bruyère himself, transplanted to the soil of Versailles.

Of these new men like old trees, some could be called adventurers. In the section on the society of the Court, La Bruyère writes about a type that could be more aptly be compared to mushrooms:

Every once in a while there appears in the courts adventurous and bold men, of a free and familiar character, who produce themselves (se produisent eux-memes), protesting that they have in their art the talent that others lack, and who are taken at their word. Nevertheless, they profit from the public error, or the love men have for novelty – they pierce through the crowd and go forward all the way up to the ear of the prince, to whom courtiers see them talking, while the one talking is just happy to be so seen. They have this advantage for the grandees, that they can be suffered without consequence, and dismissed likewise. Thus they disappear simultaneously rich and discredited, while they world that they have just deceived is ready to be deceived by another.”

What is the crowd that the adventurer pierces? It is composed not just of individuals, but of customs – it is the whole coagulated weight of tradition, of old means of making fortunes, of family, of land. La Bruyère is, of course, as a moralist, opposed to these men of a free and familiar character. But the credit and the debit of them are hard to sum up. In his discourse before the Academy, La Bruyère made it clear that he belonged to the party of the ancients instead of the moderns – the latter being led by Perrault and Fontenelle. The adventurer is certainly a modern – his character embodies the modern in its lack of standing, its familiarity, the hazard in which it stands.

This is why the adventurer’s underground bond to the libertine is so strong. The transplanted tree is not an adventurer – La Bruyère’s description of the tree emphasizes its original majesty, and it is not the trees fault if it is transplanted, as it stayed still the whole time. It was a passenger. The adventurer, according to La Bruyère, does not stand still, but starts forward and doesn’t stop until he reaches the prince’s ear. However, we believe the allegorical qualities of the tree exceed La Bruyère’s meaning, especially if we consider that the adventurer might move and yet be immobile. And it is from that spot that the adventurer looks out and sees – that nature is not ancient. Nature is modern. It is the most modern of phenomena.

Here, of course, we are pushing the text. But let’s go with our thought. What is modern about nature? What is modern is that God is so hidden now that he might not exist. And that leaves nature as the only limit left on the human. That, briefly, was the modernity of the natural. It flares up, we think, in the libertine moment – and never as a wholly unified scheme, never as, finally, a hypercognizable passionate structure spread across the social structure – but as a set of hints. Collectively, this is what the “sweetness” of the ancien regime was about. It was the moment after God, but before Man. It failed finally to arrange itself with a social whole undergoing drastic and irremediable changes. Those changes, the great transformation of the market based industrial system, found their legitimacy in the notion that there was no human limit. This was the revolution of happiness. It was at this moment that nature lost its standing, and there commenced a competition for a certain metaphysical position of priority between God (who no longer represented a human limit, but rather a sacralized cosmic human all too human wish fulfillment) and Man. And thus, the human limit went down the amnesia hole.

So, our question is this: what would the spirit of Carpenter Shih useless oak tree converse about if it were dreamt by La Bruyère’s transplanted tree?


northanger said…
"there goes the neighborhood."
roger said…
North! Excellent response! You are surely far advance along the Dao.
northanger said…
there is no spoon.
roger said…
There is no spoon? What can I say except: pulll deeee string! pull deee string I often sit around and say that.
northanger said…
you are hanging on by a very thin thread and I dig that about you! you're my ambassador of quan, man.
northanger said…
you sometimes have this unerring ability Mr LI.

Anonymous said…
have you seen (or read) marat/sade?

i just saw the peter brooks film version and there are some good monologues about nature's blank indifference, revolution vs. counter-revolution vs. self-annihilating involution, etc.
roger said…
Traxus, yup. I saw the play, and also the movie, although damn me if I can remember a lot about it.
Maybe I'll go to You Tube and refresh my memory.