From the files of the autocracy: the philosopher behind the curtain

We have an account of La Bruyère from a contemporary enemy named Vigneul-Marville. V-M took the term “characters” as an apposite plural for La Bruyère’s, who he portrays as having several. The transition from singular to plural, here, is the transition from the morally sound (or the comically obsessed) to the imposter – for it is at this point that the incision of character, its stamp on the body or the psyche, is, as it were, lifted off the counter, and becomes a mask. There is something contagious about the character mask – for instance, even as Vigneul-Marville wrote acidly about La Bruyère’s, he was writing under a pseudonym – his real name was Noël Argonne. In his Melanges, Vigneul-Marville compares La Bruyère to a succession of the great characters of the classical age – to Don Quixote, Socrates, and the Misanthrope. Each is considered from the comic point of view – that is, each is considered an imposture, a usurpation of tone. However, even among these attacks we come upon an anecdote in the Melange that has a certain clarifying Daoist simplicity, one that gives us a clue about La Bruyère and the way that the clerks have always betrayed the Great Tradition of which they are the ornament and reference – for surely La Bruyère must count among the clerks of literature who form a secret Daoist strain in the West. The features of this oppositional, skeptical character form in the absolutist bureaucracies, and of course suffer a great change within the bureaucracies of capitalist circulation, but the knowing listener can hear a distinct note – the kind of pitch struck by Josephine, the Singer of the Mouse Folk – even back in 1680.

This is Vigneul-Marville’s anecdote. At one point in his life, La Bruyère lived in a cramped apartment facing the Ile St. Louis, on the left bank. , as an evidence for, indeed, the manners of the century.
“Nothing is prettier than this character [that of the philosopher], but it must be admitted that without the interposition of an antichamber or cabinet, it was pretty easy to introduce oneself to M. de la Bruyere, before he had an apartment at the Hotel de …. There was only one door to open, and a room close to the sky, separated into two parts by a light curtain. The wind, always a good servant to Philosophers, which ran before of those who entered and returned with the movement of the door, delicately lifted the curtain and let one see the Philosopher, the laughing visage well content to have occasion to distill the elixer of his meditations in the minds and heart of his unexpected guest.”

For Vigneul-Marville, this is the scene of a mock oracle: the lifted curtain, the laughing visage of the philosopher, the gawking admirer. And of course he was writing in the era when, as Fontenelle had explained, the oracles were dead.

But it is a mistake to cut that anecdote out and impose it on the blank counter of our narrative as though it had a face value. For the man behind the curtain was more than the imposter of his enemy’s venom. He was, for instance, a functionary. The son of a Parisian bourgeois, La Bruyère, by education, was destined for the law. Apparently, however, he preferred not to. Instead, inheriting a tidy sum from a deceased bachelor uncle, he purchased into the corrupt system that had developed under Colbert, buying, for 18,000 francs, the sinecure of ‘trésorier de France au bureau des finances de Caen.” This was one of the rotten posts that the Rouen merchant Boisguilbert, in one of the earliest treatises in political economics to distinguish use and exchange value, railed against as a system of robbery. The post was another of the endless rentseeking positions through which money was siphoned from the merchants, peasant and middle landholders to the French court. The treasurer was a sort of money-lender [J. Marchand] who loaned out money at interest to his subordinates, who then sponged the money from the productive class and transferred it up the line, taking out their cut. This was a position that allowed plenty of leisure time to the functionary who had no vocational sense of his function – and La Bruyère had even less sense than most: he made one trip to Caen and then retired to Paris forever, getting his remit in the mail from the Normand bureaucrats who seemed to have objected at first to this obvious malfeasance, and then accepted it to the point that they were surprised, when La Bruyère finally sold the post to somebody else, to have to encounter a real human being who actually moved to Caen in the course of their tax business. (Magne, 1913)