Skip to main content


Showing posts from June 5, 2011

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

the will to powerlessness - a note

A number of forms of knowing crystallize around the notion of character in the early modern era. It is no exaggeration to say that character is at the base of the era’s human ‘sciences’ – Van Delft has called the moraliste discourse ‘the anthropology of the classic age’, and character was at the center of that discourse – but as the human sciences were not institutionalized as such, character traversed what we now separate, as for instance romance and political economy. Thomas Mann, in Magic Mountain, writes with regard to his character, Hans Castorp: Man lives not only his personal life as an individual, but also, consciously or unconsciously, also that of his epoch and his contemporaries, and even if he may observe the general and impersonal basis of his existence as unconditionally given and self-evident, and be very distant from the idea of criticizing it, as in reality the good Hans Castorp was, yet it is truly possible, that he feels his moral comfort vaguely impaired by its lac

La Bruyere's field research - a cautionary note

Van Delft is, I think, right to speak of the moraliste tradition as a sort of classical anthropology. I’m going to use this and other suggestions about Van Delft, but I’d like to note that, as is so often the case with historians of literature, one feels a lack of the feeling for the institutional location of such things as “anthropology” or ‘natural philosophy.” We are used to looking at the texts of the past and thinking that here we have an ‘epistemological field,” or a ‘tradition”, without thinking of the fact that it is a modern institutional characteristic to have combined such ‘research programs’ and education in locatable institutions. La Bruyere, acting as the historiographer of Louis XIV, engaged in one sort of research h activity, and as the writer of the Characters, engaged in another. In the latter, there was a sense – one feels it in the introduction to the characters – that the time for making maxims is passing. And yet of course there is no social science methodology re