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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Character in French classic drama

…characters are of three types: superior, middling and inferior.” Although this hierarchy is generally true, mixed types are also possible: “Maid servants and the liker are characters of a mixed nature. A hermaphrodite is also a mixed character, but of an inferior kind. O the best of Brahmins, the Skaara, and the Vita and others [like them] in a drama are also known as characters of mixed nature.” - Natya Shastra

The world here is not unlike the world of French classical drama, as interpreted by Eric Auerbach in Mimesis. In Auerbach’s chapter, Le faux devot, the focus moves from Moliere’s “character types” to Racine’s personages, a movement that is part of the ambition that fills the entire book: the principle of realism in literature, properly understood, reverses Coleridge’s famous dictum about the suspension of disbelief necessary to fiction by taking realism as a changing cast of thought, a set of beliefs about the real that is not coincident with an unchanging  common sense about the reality of the world. Auerbach’s idea is that we can  look through art – especially literature – to belief about reality. From the copy to the thing copied, this is our direction. Rather than the suspension of all belief, for Auerbach, literature is its embodiment. The historical import of literature is, then,  that style, plot, and figures, properly analyzed, will help us understand deeply how a certain society stood in relation to the real.

This, evidently, makes shakes off the grip of 19th century realism on the aesthetic principle of mimesis, and allows Auerbach to apply it to literary universes that seem alien to the realistic impulse. One of those universes is made up of French classical theater. Racine’s dramas, as Auerbach notices, seem to systematically defy the real rather than attempt to picture it. To reconcile the mimetic impulse and the obvious aesthetic power of French classical drama, Auerbach notes about Racine:

 His characters are completely and exemplarily natural and human-only their emotion-charged and exemplarily human lives are lived on an exalted level, which to them has become normal. And indeed, at times it occurs that their very exaltation yields the most enchanting and profoundly human effects.

The exalted level is the level of rank – impressed, as it were, on the being of the world. In the force field of Louis XIV’s court, what is grotesque or trivial – what falls below the standard of “gloire” – is subtracted from the picture of the tragic world, the world in which reality is treated seriously. Auerbach notes that Racine would carefully eliminate from his sources – the Bible, or Greek drama – those elements that would shock the court’s norms. Those shocks which must be present to set the drama in motion are often relegated to ‘base” personages – in a turn that is reminiscent of the order of rank determining the aesthetic of the Natya Shastra. In the preface to Phedre, Racine draws the reader’s attention to his greater delicacy in putting the accusations against Hippolytus in the mouth of a base character, rather than Phedre:

I have even been careful to make her [Phedre] a little less odious than she is in the tragedies of the ancients, where she herself resolves to accuse Hippolytus. I considered that calumny had something too base and too dark about it for me to put it  in the mouth of a princess who elsewhere has such noble and virtuous feelings. This baseness appeared to me more suitable to a nurse, whose inclinations could be more servile.”

Thus, Auerbach is able to see how both Moliere’s ‘character types” and Racine’s “personages” give us the continuity upon which we have a duality: the court’s understanding of the world, and the city’s understanding of the court. Racine’s universe uses subtraction, or in alchemical terms, distilliation, to isolate the real at its most extreme. The dramatic revelation of nature – of the essence of Racine’s figures – requires a certain imperial cocooning, requires the most exalted rank, and requires the minimalizing of action.

VI. Cette indigne moitié d'une si belle histoire !

Auerbach is not unaware of the limits of his method and object. After all, how much we can infer, from the norms of classical French drama, to the total pattern of the representation of reality in the France of Louis XIV? Or, to be less ambitious, at least the common pattern of representation, the kind of representation everyone would accept, base and notable, cop and king. The channels of representation are deep and wide, and not exhausted by theater or official poetry. And even then, even granting that through literature we understand an aspect of the stylization of the real, how are we to know whether this stylization is simply a fact about literature, or a broader fact about the society in which certain writers produced that literature?

Let’s come at this from another angle.
In 1901, A.W. Ward reviewed Le drame des poisons in the English Historical Review, and praised its author, F. Funck-Brentano, for his treatment of his subject matter: “F. Funck-Brentano is an accomplished writer besides being a specially trained historical scholar; and it is well that such should be the case, for never were tact and good taste more necessary for the achievement of a difficult historical task.”

Tact and good taste were the traits more usually associated, in 1901, with suppressing a scandal involving respectable people, rather than throwing light upon an historical episode that had occurred two hundred thirty years before. Ward’s wording, however, points us to a continuity between a certain view of elite image management and a certain historiography. One can see that historiography as a massive gesture that parallels Racine’s displacement of Phedre’s accusation from the Queen to a ‘base’ personage. Similarly, in the history of the Classic Age in France, and in the general account of the history of the “West”, there is a structure that translates from the universal Christian history of Bossuet to the positivist history that prevailed in 1901, in which an educated upper class represents progress and demystification, and a base class represents resistance and superstition. Progress begins at the top, and penetrates to the lower strata.

Funck-Brentano’s book is about the “affair of poisons”, a scandal that has two historic sites. The first site we can date to 1676-1682, when the affair proper was investigated by the police; the second site we can date to 1873, when Francois Ravaisson published the fifth volume of the Archives of the Bastille, which contained the previously unpublished transcripts of and letters around the police investigation. In the nearly two hundred years between those sites, an official history of the era of Louis XIV had hardened into historic fact. It was an image of monumental grandeur, where strict norms of bienseance ruled a court that turned around the king as the planets round the sun. In the school room textbook, it will be earnestly noted tht much progress was made in the arts and sciences. It was an image compounded of the innumerable structures left behind by the era – Versailles, the triumphal arcs that one finds in so many French cities, the statues – and of a canonized literature. This image, however, is nowhere in existence in the transcript of the police investigation dug up by Ravaisson. Instead, the educated class here is as apt to turn to astrology and magic and it is to piety and alexandrines, and such myths as infant sacrifice and black mass turn up on the menu of services proferred by a number of ‘base’ brokers, dealers in the shadow zone between the profane and the Luciferian.  

Auerbach most likely knew of Funck-Brentano’s history of the “affair of the poisons,” which was widely reviewed, although he doesn’t cite it. He probably also knew that the archives revealed that an arrest had been issued for Racine that was never served. This news went through the literary community of the late 19th century and probably made the old classicist a bit sexier. By the thirties the affair had sunk to the level of an idée recue.

Yet the impact of the archive never shook the marble from the image of the “classical age”. Partly this is because, even with the transcripts of numerous interrogations, it is hard to know what to make of the testimony of the witnesses, who are all subject to torture – the sellette, the brodequin. They contradict each other; and they accuse each other, and various people – on up to Louis XIV’s official mistress, Madame de Montespan - of an array of amazing behaviors, including participation in des messes sur le ventre - black masses held over a naked woman lying on an altar in a church, over whom children were sometimes sacrificed.

These testimonies are all the more perplexing as we know this story of nude women and sacrificed children. It  is a story traced by Norman Cohn in a series of influential books written in the 60s and 70s, culminating in Europe’s Inner Demons. These books employ a nominalist method that takes certain recurring stories from the time of the Roman Empire down to the witch hunts of the 17th century and, comparing them, shows their structural similarity while at the same time casting radical doubt on their footing in reality. The story type goes as follows : a group gathers together in a hidden place – a cave, a ruin – and  after blowing out a candle, hold an orgy in which they transgress sexually (for instance, committing incest) and finally achieve solidarity through blood sacrifice of a child. It is a blood libel directed,  in Roman times, at Christians, and during the medieval and early modern period, at Jews. The witch, given this system, is a floating signifier – attached to an Other by a fortuitous conjunction of circumstances. Michelet and others after him thought the alienation fell upon women especially. However, the witch trials show a larger variety of types than that of women alone. The corollary to Cohn’s nominalism about such events as Sabbats or child sacrifice ever happening is that the belief that these things happened created a hermeneutic for defining the “Other” in Europe. It is an other that is not the savage enemy, but is the enemy within. The other is metaphorically a poison in the system – counterworking the body’s function in the body’s own tissues.

Cohn’s nominalism was coincident with the cool logicism of  Oxford and Cambridge philosophy in the fifties and sixties, where the weapons of a anti-systematic logic were fabricated -  in line with the Cold War pattern of opposing the totalizing theory of Marxism. From this demystifying angle, all conspiratorial societies looked doubtful: for instance, it became questionable whether something called the  Mafia could exist – that is, an organization that centered around certain secret rituals, continuous over time. 

Certainly the record of the police interrogations in the Affair of Poisons give us a messy  picture of specific events. Historians can deal with a battle without raising ontological questions having to do with its credibility: we know so well that strangers will meet up en masse and murder each, given other circumstances, that we don’t question the fact that battles occur, or question the rationality and motives of their witnesses and participants.  But that infants will be bled to death in rituals designed to evoke the devil does raise high the bar to  credibility. It isn’t that these stories aren’t common; rather, they circulate as though taken from a catalogue of dreams, seized in moments of panic, and sworn off in the post-panic dawn. Le Reynie, the police lieutenant general who was in charge of the star chamber investigation, had trouble believing the accounts of his prisoners.  He was not naïve about confession. Confession to these acts, whether under torture or not, does not lead automatically to the fact that they were committed. Le Reynie had reason, however, to believe that the streets of Paris could produce monsters. He knew one of them:  an aristocrat, Marie-Madeleine de Brinvilliers, who was tried and convicted for an astonishing campaign of poison that had liquidated her father and two brothers, and perhaps some random inmates in a hospital on which she had practiced her potions. She failed to get rid of her sister and her daughter, who were roused, perhaps, by the deaths of the males in the family. She was beheaded in the place de Greve – about five blocks from where I am writing this – on July 17, 1676. 

It was after this scandal that La Reynie began to gather evidence from a Parisian subworld of mad and bad priests, fortune tellers known to all by their slang tags, abortionists and projectors. The link that held the investigation together was poison – Brinvilliers crime revealed a group of enablers who dealt in  poisons, and this was the first batch to be arrested and taken into the Bastille. On March 12, 1679, the police arrested Catherine Deshayes, the wife of Antoine Monvoisin, and nicknamed La Voisin, as she was coming out of mass from Notre Dame de Bonne Nouvelle, in what is now the second arrondissement of Paris. La Voisin was perhaps the most interesting of La Reynie’s catches. That she should be both a fortuneteller, abortionist and supplier of poison, on the one side, and a devout Catholic, on the other side, makes sorting out her ‘character’ a difficult historical task. But she only reflects, here, in exaggerated terms, the same diffuse amalgam of traits that made her exalted clients both churchgoers and buyers of “powders of succession” – arsenic to get rid of cumbersome heirs or husbands. There is an indelible image of her left in the police transcripts that is a sort of parody of the French classical idea of the queen. She had a garden in which she sat on something like a throne, garbed in a crimson dress decorated with double headed eagles in gold thread that she had tailor made (at a cost that was excessive enough to cause rumors – this being an era in which sumptuary laws still had some effect on the appearance of the ‘base’), she received her clients. Behind her throne there was a stove. It was there she burned the fetuses from her abortion business – although the testimony is a little unclear as to weather they were all fetuses. She may have let her clients have a little leaway, she may have committed a few infanticides. At one point in prison she got drunk and bragged that she’d made away with 2,500 fetuses – a goodly number for an “angelmaker”.  The garden of le Voisin was a parody of the aristocratic court, an exalted dream staged by an outcast.

Between Racine and this woman there was, evidently, an acquaintance, sealed through Racine’s mistress, a beauty named Thérèse Du Parc. Du Parc was the daughter of a theater crazed toothpuller in Lyon, who encouraged her to go on stage. It was there that she had been by Moliere, who was passing through with his troupe. It was her fate to have had as lovers, or suitors, Moliere, Corneille and finally Racine. Racine stole her away from Moliere; after that, at a certain point in their relationship, Du Parc was supposedly the object of a marriage proposal from a noble. 

La Voisin, this neighborhood mahatma, bad news in her own little sphere, with acquaintances up and down the social ladder – from the hangman of Paris, one of her lovers, to various Versailles nobles and servants, for whom she told fortunes and sold philters - claimed a fifteen year friendship with the actress. La Voisin also testified that Racine didn’t like her. What could Racine have made of this gaudy negative to his ravished queens and princesses? She was not even like Phédre’s nurse, Oenone, a servant. Although were any servants really servants outside of the ideology of rank in which all characters clanked in their chains? But the claim that caused a stir when it was published in 1873 was that Racine had her poisoned.  In the papers in the Archives there is proof that the police took this accusation seriously: a letter from one of the officials involved in the investigation who assures another that “the king’s orders necessary for the arrest of Racine will be sent to you as soon as you ask for them…”

Reading la Voisin’s testimony, it is clear that she has no evidence that Racine poisoned his mistress, although there are papers from the official inquiry into the affair that confirm that officials did think Du Parc was poisoned. This conclusion is echoed by contemporary historians, but what is significant is that there was no physical evidence of this. Rather, the evidence was circumstantial – a comparatively young woman, a sudden death. The accusation against Racine was, essentially, that as she lay sick, he refused to let Du Parc’s normal sage-femme see her, and kept away her step-mother. Du Parc’s illness is a mystery: it has been speculated that she died as a consequence of an abortion. It is known that, unlike Moliere, she was buried in a consecrated cemetery, meaning that she must have had extreme unction, which might be a point against the abortion story. However, given the number of bad priests rounded  up by La Reynie, it wouldn’t have been very difficult, no matter what the circumstances, to get the sanction of a priest. In any case, among the set that Du Parc seems to have run in, sudden illness was assessed with a shrewdly professional eye. But why would Racine have poisoned her? The only motive la Voisin mentions is jealousy. 

We know where jealousy led Phedre. Auerbach’s perception that French classical drama purges the court tragedy – as though by a drug –of the grosser materiality of the town becomes clearer once one brings that grosser materiality back in – once la Voisin’s oven is juxtaposed to Madame Maintenon’s Maison Royal de Saint Louis girls putting on Esther – the play Racine wrote after his official retirement for the school. To go back, as I am trying to, to the moment in which  “character” finally becomes broad enough to fill its role in the numerous semantic fields in which it began to appear in the eighteenth century means going through literature to reality; but as well, understanding literature on a broader basis as well. Character does haunt the intersection of the plausible and the poetic, but the poetic is not self contained. The poetic has to be seen in a more inspired sense, it must be seen poetically, where it dodges about outside the institution of literature. Auerbach is well aware of the fact that mimesis leads literature outside of itself and its own institutions. Logically, it is in the interface between the poetics of ordinary life – a world in which a drunken old woman sits on a parody throne, wrapped in a crimson velvet robe, stitched with double headed eagles - and literature – in which Phédre’s shameful desire is expressed, at last, to her nurse, Oenone - that we can understand, for instance, the vast trouble that the institution of literature attempts to control. Among the other intersection points for the plausible, there is this: Le Voisin, screaming in prison as she was strung up on a mattress by her inquisitors, remembering the news that by this time must have struck her as being from a world outside the prison that was long ago lost, brought by women from the court whose names she cannot recall.  

“-De Gorle told her that Racine, having secretly married Du Parc, was jealous of everyone and particularly of her, Voisin, at whom he took umbrage, and that he got out of his relation with her by poison, because of his extreme jealousy, and that during the sickness of Du Parc he sat by the head of her bed and that he took from her finger a valuable diamond,  and also stole the jewelry, and the principle properties of Du Parc, for which he made a lot of money; and that he didn’t even want her to talk to Manon, he femme de chamber, who is a mid-wife, although she asked for Manon and had her [Voisin] write to her to come to Paris to see her, as well as Voisin.
-Did de Gorle tell her in what manner the poisoning was done, and what one had used to do it?

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