The origin of the new, the origin of the writer

In the preface to his Characters, La Bruyère advises the reader to always keep his title in mind when reading the work. The title (Les Caracteres ou les moeurs de ce siècle) is, as it were, a monitory ghost that haunts every line of the text.

What can we say about that ghost? Firstly, that we are not dealing with character, but with characters. The plural is significant. As we have seen in tracing the etymology and use of character in rhetoric, there is a divergence between character as a stamp on the psyche and the character mask, or the proliferation of many characters. The former is the ground of moral seriousness, and a perpetual reference for the orator or politician; the latter is the ground of farce, and a continual reference for the satirist or dramatist. Secondly, there is that substituting ‘or’. The or here does not give us a disjunction so much as a renaming. La Bruyère’s characters, between them, embody the ‘manners’ of ‘this century’. That distinctive ‘this” roots the book entirely in its time. And yet, it contains no conjectural history. This is not a project like Voltaire’s essay on the Moeurs et les esprits des nations, or Montesquieu’s Esprit des lois. The century, a diachronic reference, is, in fact, made into a synchronic entity, a sort of horizontal stage upon which the characters appear. At the same time, it has another connotation characteristic of moralizing satire – this century is always a fallen time, in comparison to some other time. La Bruyère was one of the partisans of the ancients in the quarrel between the moderns and the ancients, and the silent partner to which ‘this’ century is compared is antiquity, or – most probably – the ideal time of Rome.

And so the title, that monitory spirit, is a framing, within which, firstly, a number of characters are assembled and their traits enumerated, and secondly, within which a historico-mythic claim is made.

That claim is made on behalf of the whole project. La Bruyère, in his preface, consciously locates himself with relation to the moralist tradition. “These are not, besides, maxims that I wanted to write: they are like the laws of morality; and I admit that I don’t have enough authority, enough genius, to play [faire] the legislator.”

But if La Bruyère calls attention himself to his violation of the maxim form, he still sees what he is doing within the general pattern of the orator or public man. That is, he sees his writing, and in fact all true writing, as an attempt to instruct and correct: “The orator and the writer can’t defeat the joy that they have in being applauded; but they ought to blush at themselves if they have only sought, by their discourses or by the writing, to be praised: in addition to the fact that the most sure and the least equivocal is the change of manners and the reformation of those who read or listen to them.” [2 – my translations]

La Bruyère is blindly groping towards the function of the writer, here. It is a tatonnement which goes on to the present day. The writer or orator has a function different from the poet or the philosopher, but what is it? It is here that the Theophrastian tradition of the character seems to come in handy, for it mixes the delight in description with the principle of correction – based on the idea that the writer who holds up a mirror to vice reveals it to the infected person, who can then reform him or herself. It is a peculiarity of La Bruyère’s static mind set to see vice, or the obsessions which mark and distinguish character, as a set that is established in antiquity, and can be applied to this century. But beneath La Bruyère’s sense of the legitimacy conferred by antiquity, there is a strong sense of the contemporaneity of what he is describing. A good example is precisely the character of the writer. In a famous passage in the chapter on Society and conversation, La Bruyère presents a furious attack on the emancipated writer, the modern. Under the name Cydias, he portrays, it is generally agreed, Fontenelle. The energy of the dislike for this kind of writer will not be lost on those, in the eighteenth century, who again and again attack the philosophe. Even at this stage of the early ‘enlightenment’, one sees the motifs of the counter-enlightenment gather.

Cydias is a “bel esprit’ by profession. “He has a sign, a workshop, commissioned works, companions who work under him: he can give you the stanzas he promised you in less than a month… Prose, verse, what do you want? He succeeds equally in either one. Ask him for letters of consolation, or to send to someone absent, he’ll undertake the task. You can take them already completed, enter his shop, you have your choice. He has a friend who has no other task on earth than to promise him at a long date before to a certain world, and to present him in the salons as a rare man with exquisite conversational talents. … Cydias, after clearing his throat, rolls up his sleeves, extends his hand and opens his fingers and gravely pours out his quintessentialized thoughts and his sophistical arguments. … for be it in speaking or in writing, he has in view neither the true nor the false, neither the reasonable nor the ridiculous; his sole goal is to avoid presenting himself in the sense of others, and to be of somebody else’s opinion.”

In other words, the modern writer, or bel esprit, is a manufactures and prides himself on being always new. To novelty, everything is sacrificed. Such is Cydias’ – and Fontenelle’s – modernity. To sum up: “In a word he is a composite of the pedant and the precious, made for being admired by the bourgoisie and in the provinces, in whom, nevertheless, one can discover nothing of greatness save for his great opinion of himself.”