Flattery

Peter Burke

  • Le Roi-Machine: Spectacle et Politique au Temps de Louis XIV by Jean-Marie Apostolidès
    Les Editions de Minuit, 164 pp, £4.50
  • Le Portrait du Roi by Louis Marin
    Les Editions de Minuit, 300 pp, £5.60

Louis XIV can hardly complain of being neglected by posterity. The stream of books about him shows no sign of running dry. Even so, the simultaneous appearance of two studies of Louis from Les Editions de Minuit is a little surprising: did the right hand know what the left hand was publishing? What is more, both books are concerned with the King’s public image, rather than his policies or his private life. One book deals with court festivals, the other with the portrayal of the King in texts and medals. However, if the authors share a general concern with the relationships between power and imagination, they do not see these relationships in quite the same way. Jean-Marie Apostolidès has written a lucid and elegant, if somewhat superficial, essay on the politics of spectacle. His framework of analysis is Marxist in the Althusserian manner, and his chief concern is with the place of the arts in the ‘state apparatus’. He assumes rather than argues that France in Louis’s reign was passing through the crucial moment of primary accumulation in the transition from feudalism to capitalism. He also assumes that the function of spectacle was mystification. It was, in his neat phrase, ‘ideology made concrete’. Apostolidès describes how the arts were pressed into royal service by Colbert, who was in effect Louis XIV’s minister of propaganda as well as his expert on finance. Under Colbert came men of letters such as Jean Chapelain, who wrote reports – which still survive – on the suitability of his contemporaries for royal pensions, and Charles Perrault, whose fairy stories were his relaxation from official business. Chapelain and Perrault were among the four original members of the so-called ‘Petite Académie’, set up by Colbert to co-ordinate propaganda for the regime in various media.

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