- A Woman, a Man and Two Kingdoms: The Story of Madame d’Epinay and the Abbé Galiani by Francis Steegmuller
Secker, 280 pp, £17.99, January 1992, ISBN 0 436 48978 3
One jibs nowadays, perhaps as a result of reading Foucault, at the once-cherished notion of an ‘age’ – such an ‘age’ as one might be tempted to paint a ‘portrait’ of. For those brought up on ages, Foucault’s Les Mots et les choses was a shock, locating as it did Colbert and Cantillon, the Port-Royal Logique and the Encyclopédie, within one and the same episteme. (But, as Foucault was quick to point out, this was merely one possible dissection: there were many others he might equally well have performed.) The concept of an age seems riddled with fallacies, and especially perhaps when applied to the French mid-18th century, the so-called Age of Enlightenment. This latter name ought to be harmless enough, unlike that thoroughly obfuscating modern one, ‘The Enlightenment’ (which must, one supposes, stem from a mistranslation of the German definite article). All the same, that tag ‘The Age of Enlightenment’ can soon become a nuisance. It is a tendentious phrase, like ‘the true Church’, or ‘phlogiston’ – a phrase which many might have used in the 1760s, for their own intricate purposes. Thus a historian studying how these loaded phrases were used can hardly afford to use them himself, incorporating them as neutral terms into his own professional vocabulary.
The habit of thinking in ages fosters what has been rather a plague to literary history, and especially with the French writers of the mid-18th century – promoting an interest in them, not so much for what they achieved as for what they ‘represented’. The trouble with this is that what these writers had in common, though highly important, is, for us, a platitude, and they are only profound in the things in which they differed. Hence there is something stultifying in the attempt, à la Ernst Cassirer, to prove that at some deep level, and by reference to the future, they were all batting in the same team.
One may consider a striking fact about these French writers: that their profoundest works, the works that still speak to us and can influence us – Candide, Le Neveau de Rameau, Les Liaisons dangereuses, Rousseau’s Confessions – are works of ferocious, if invigorating pessimism. It is a paradox, seeing that Progress and Improvement were so much in the air at the time, but a paradox which is not going to surprise us very much: for what more natural than that the deepest works should spring from the deepest fears? It only begins to seem surprising because of the labelling which makes this an Age of Enlightenment.
This is a lengthy approach to Francis Steegmuller’s highly enjoyable A Woman, a Man and Two Kingdoms. But if I have a cavil about his book, it lies just here, and in his preface, where he describes his intentions. He takes as his text Talleyrand’s Qui n’a pas vécu dans les années voisines de 1787 ne sait pas ce que c’est le plaisir de vivre: ‘Talleyrand was thinking, above all, of a social and intellectual flowering that, ever extending its boundaries, has caused the age to be called that of Enlightenment.’ It was an age, says Steegmuller, in which barriers to friendship were eased and conversation flourished. ‘The circles enjoying these changes were intimate but not parochial; their companionable discussions were often subtle, and didactic in no baneful sense. Civilised conduct, which encompassed wit, self-humour and sociability, necessarily excluded bombast. And the presence of women in an active – at times a presiding – role contributed a new measure of incisiveness, sensibility and grace.’ One sees what it is: Steegmuller is beginning to paint an ‘age’, trying to make salon conversation somehow ‘stand for’ the age, and it will not work. One will not disagree: a most attractive form of salon conversation developed in the 1750s – more congenial, because more easy, than the all-male bludgeonings of the Johnson Club in England. But equally true, if one is going to use this language, the 1750s and 1760s in France were a great age – one might almost say the age – of bombast. The Encyclopédie was all too full of bombast, as Voltaire complained loudly; the great Buffon was a bombastic writer, and could one be more bombastic than Condorcet? The criterion of an age will at least have to be, not just something, but something-and-its-opposite – a point which did not escape Hegel.
But then, over and above this general law of contradictions, the French writers of this period had a special stake in contradiction and paradox; their greatness lay in exploring paradox in a way that had not been done before. Voltaire’s paradox about Leibniz can still challenge us, and no writer, surely, has ever been so dedicated to paradox, so luminous about his own paradoxes, as Rousseau? Equally, the link between Les Liaisons dangereuses and Le Neveu de Rameau is a paradox, of a wonderful and disconcerting kind. One of Mme de Merteuil’s cherished discoveries, in her long self-education in libertinism, is how much a libertine can learn from the Classical moralists. ‘I supplemented observation by reading,’ she tells Valmont, ‘but do not imagine it was all of the kind you might suppose ... I even studied the severest moralists, to discover what they demanded of us; and thus I learned what one could do, what one was supposed to think, and how one had to appear.’ Rameau’s Nephew arrives at the same thought. The French moralists like La Bruyère and Molière, he remarks gleefully to Diderot-Moi, are regarded as one of the glories of French culture, and rightly so, if you know the way to read and profit from them.
I learn from them everything one must do and everything one must not say. Thus, when I read Molière’s L’Avare I tell myself, ‘Be a miser if you like, but be sure not to speak like a miser.’ When I read Tartuffe I say to myself, ‘Be a hypocrite if you choose, but do not speak like a hypocrite. Cling onto the vices which suit you, but do not have the tone and the appearance that go with them, for fear that they make you a laughing stock and subject for comedy.’ Now, in order to avoid such a tone and such an appearance, you have to know them; and these authors have given excellent pictures of them ... I am not one of those who despise the moralists.