Begriffsgeschichte begins in genius and ends in banality. Although there are times, sweet, rare times, when that order is reversed.
I’ve been pondering two things, lately. One is Kosellek’s Future’s past, which is a history of how the future was conceived in the past – how the horizon of expectation is construed - as well as a meditation on the whole enterprise of a "history of ideas". I’ve been thinking of how it is possible to elaborate a history of the third life, and how to avoid the mistake into which all fall of conceiving history as a series of heads reading a series of books. This, of course, misconceives both head and book. We are talking about the inspired sensorium, and we end up talking about 'influence'. Improvements on this improbable picture often consist of rather vague references to class, by Marxists - who will happily go back to the heads reading books picture when talking about Hegel's 'influence' on Marx, etc.
And by these stages, by this blindness, the angel of Detail is driven from the City of the Mind.
I want the Angel back.
But this is a desire easier to express than to realize. Which brings me to my other topic: a nest of gentlefolk in Rouen: Pierre Corneille, who lived on Rue de la Pie; the family of his sister, the Fontenelles, headed by a solid bourgeois lawyer, who lived nearby, on Rue de Cordier; the Pascals, who lived on Rue des Murs-Saint-Ouen. The Pascals evacuate for Paris in 1639 – why? Because, apparently, Etienne has been frightened by the violence in the countryside. For one must remember the countryside – and Rouen’s dependence on it, and its fear of it. And one must remember the weather. According to the Histoire Sommaire et Chronologique de la Ville de Rouen, there were some extraordinarily cold seasons from 1630 to 1650 in France. Repeatedly, in the spring, icebergs would be spotted, floating down the Seine. Sometimes they were big enough to break bridges. The crops, of course, suffered under the excessive cold, the flooding, and the wars – the continual wars of the Court, for which money had to be pressed out of somebody’s hide.
However, this is a tale for later. Let us leave it that the Pascals fled a Jacquerie led by a mythological Jean Nuds-Pieds, whose name appeared on a poster that appeared on April 11, 1639, in the town of Saint Lo, proclaiming a new order – or, actually, in peasant style, a return to the old order.
But this nest of gentlefolks extends over time. Taking Fontenelle as my central figure, I can also trace other connections all the way up to Leprince Beaumont, in the 1730s. For instance, the brothers Jacques and Guillaume Scott, who at some point arrive in Rouen (from Scotland? They are, at least, protestant) and start some kind of business. Exactly what that business is remains a mystery – M. Bouquet, who wrote about them in the Journal de Rouen in the 1860s, at first described them as makers and sellers of vinegar. Vinegar was sold by peddlers on foot, in Paris, and presumably in Rouen. The descendents of the family must have found that description not to their taste, so M. Bouquet retracted his statement in a later article. For us, the important thing is that Guillaume grew wealthy enough to buy himself into the nobility. His son married a woman with a famous name: Rambouillet. Marguerite was the daughter of Mme de la Sabliere, whose Hotel Rambouillet hosted a famous literary set in Paris that included, most famously, La Fontaine. She was also interested in philosophy, and a friend made her a book to guide her through the philosophy of Gassendi. We are, we are in the heart of the heart of it all. But the heart is distributed, the heart is here, and then it is here. To the confusion of literary historians since, Mme de la Sabliere was also named Marguerite, which has led to many errors – the Lamartines of history – in accounts about La Fontaine and about Fontenelle. Guillaume, by that time, had bought a property in a small village outside of Rouen, Mésangère, and Marguerite Scott went by the more grandiloquent name of Madame de la Mésangère. Guillaume had the discretion to die when his widow was still young, twenty four, in 1682.
And this happened – we know from a future biography of Fontenelle by Thomas Le Cat, a Rouen doctor who happened to write for a magazine edited by another Rouennaise, Marie LePrince de Beaumont, in the eighteenth century.
Apparently Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle returned to Rouen in the 1680s, after having spent some time trying to make it as a writer in Paris, and lived in his father’s house at the Rue de Cordier – although he could have spent time, as well, in his father’s two houses in the country, in the forest of La Feuillie.
While contemplating his options, the Fontenelle apparently made himself at home in Marguerite de la Mésangère’s house on Rue de Gros-Horloge, which was quite famous in its day. And it is here that he read her the book he was working on – a dialogue concerning astronomy entitled Entretien sur la pluralité des mondes. Her servant happened to be in the room, and at the description of the woman in this dialogue, she smiled. Which disconcerted Marguerite de la Mésangère – she was a widow with a reputation, and did not want to be gossiped about because of Fontenelle’s book. So he changed certain cues in the text – for instance, the color of the female character’s hair. As well as making certain changes to disguise the garden in which the discussion takes place, which was the Parc at Mésangère.
So – in what Begriffsgeschichte is the smile of that chamber maid captured?
There’s more to the story for me. Fontenelle was not a huge fan of the country, and in his essay on the eclogue, he made cutting remarks about the baseness of peasant life. Yet he wrote a few – for Marguerite de la Mésangère – and carved them in her beech trees in the great Parc.
I’ve been thinking of how this must go into my book, and how the only way to include a discourse on astronomy and the smile of a chamber maid and the verses carved into the beech trees of a Normandy estate and the posters of the mysterious Jean Nuds-Pieds and the horrible winters, which were not so horrible, perhaps, to a boy in Rouen, imagine his hand helf firmly in the gloved hand of his father as they both watch repairs being made on the bridge, and the ice skaters on the river, and the warning issued by the Jesuits that school boys were appearing with mysterious sorcery tracts and the rumors of discontent and Fontenelle’s father’s stories of the violence of the Fronde (his brother in law, Pierre Corneille, had taken the King’s side, and been rewarded) is to give myself up to the capacious embrace of a fiction that truly enters the banal and the heavenly, that forges for itself keys, that becomes a Begriffsroman, that feels the looming presence of the forest at the birth of l’esprit geometrique and the long retreat of the woods – not the retreat of the gods, so much as their revolution – during Fontenelle’s long, long life.