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.

All this is well-known, thanks to the researches of literary historians, numismatists (notably Mme Jacquiot), and specialists in festivals, who are so well-organised that they are in danger of becoming an autonomous discipline, lacking only a name. For the most part, Apostolidès is summarising the conclusions of these scholars. His own contribution is to suggest that a major rupture in the system of court festivals took place in 1674 or thereabouts. What happened around 1674, according to him, was that the autonomy of the state apparatus increased and the King consequently became dissociated from his public image. The état split apart from the moi. Or, as Apostolidès puts it, the active ‘roi machiniste’ was replaced by the passive ‘roi machine’.

I must admit that I do not find this argument altogether convincing. There were of course changes in the ‘system’ during the reign. The major court festivals, like the major plays of Racine and Molière – often associated with the festivals – belong to the 1660s and early 1670s. In the sense that it marks the end of a series of festivals, 1674 might be described as a turning-point. But so might other dates, such as 1669 or 1682. After 1669, Louis stopped dancing in the court ballets. Perhaps he felt that he was getting too old – at 31 – for that sort of thing; or perhaps it was Racine’s criticism, in Britannicus, of Nero’s love of acting which had struck home. As for 1682, this was the year the Court settled down at Versailles and occasional festivals gave way to a continuous royal performance: a permanent theatre of power – the daily rising of the Sun King. Who in fact was responsible for the choreography of this new kind of royal ballet, in which the monarch was not ashamed to play his role, it is impossible to say. Apostolidès makes the changes seem automatic, as if he had become the prisoner of his own mechanical metaphors.

Louis Marin has organised his study on the model of a 17th-century court ballet, complete with overture, three main ‘entries’, interludes and a finale. However, it is essentially a close analysis of a small corpus of texts and images. The analysis is not easy going, but is remarkable for its combination of philosophical and literary sophistication. Marin is essentially concerned with the relationship between power and its representations, or, to employ one of his favourite chiastic constructions, between the image of power and the power of the image. Central to his study, and strategically placed at the centre of his book, is a discussion of the medals struck to commemorate the major events of the reign, medals which were designed, for the most part, by Colbert’s backroom boys in the Petite Académie, and later published in the so-called ‘medallic histories’ of Louis XIV. The medals, which are not, unfortunately, illustrated, are flanked by a number of extremely diverse texts, including La Fontaine’s fable of the fox and the crow; selections from Pascal’s Pensées; a description of Versailles by André Félibien, the official historian of the King’s Works; and a memorandum on official history addressed to Colbert by Paul Pellisson, a man of letters who had ghost-written Louis’s memoirs.

What holds this collection of essays together, besides their common concern with Louis XIV, is Marin’s analysis of each text in terms of the same basic idea: the idea of strategy, both literary and political. The term is stretched to include means as well as ends, tactical devices such as camouflage, feints and so on. What looks like an objective description of Versailles, for example, is revealed as an attempt to manipulate the reader, to dazzle him with the Sun King’s power. Pellisson’s memorandum at once reveals a strategy for the discreet projection of a favourable image of the King, for praising Louis without appearing to do so, and exemplifies his own strategy – which was crowned with success – for climbing into royal favour and obtaining the post of Historiographer Royal. This concern with strategy, already revealed in Marin’s earlier book, Le récit est un piège (1978), links Marin not only with the revival of interest in rhetoric, but also with one of the most interesting approaches in contemporary French sociology, the cultural analysis associated with Pierre Bourdieu, Marin’s colleague at the Hautes Etudes and editor of the series in which his book appears.

These studies of Louis XIV, one in the style of Althusser, the other in the style of Bourdieu, raise two serious questions, which deserve further discussion. The questions are those of reductionism and anachronism. Like mystification, ‘strategy’ is a cynical concept which seems to imply that, in this instance, the writers and artists in the service of the King or of his ‘ideological state apparatus’ were no more than so many apparatchiks, bureaucrats in the Department of Glory, or, to vary the metaphor, advertising men concerned with the selling of Louis XIV. Neither Apostolidès nor Marin says anything as crude as this, and they may not intend the implication, but the concepts themselves encourage us to think in these terms. Is this misleading or is it illuminating?

A cynical interpretation of Pellisson would not be unreasonable. A Protestant turned Catholic, a client of the financier Fouquet who shifted his allegiance to Fouquet’s successor Colbert, Pellisson seems to have had what we might euphemistically call the flexibility of mind appropriate to the profession of propagandist. But what of Boileau, say, or Racine? Marin discusses Racine’s speech welcoming a member of the Colbert family to the Académie Française, but does not raise the wider issue of Racine’s aims and attitudes. At times, Racine can flatter as crudely, or as conventionally, as anyone. His Alexander the Great drew the analogy between Louis and Alexander customary in the 1660s. His ‘Ode on the King’s Convalescence’ (1663) refers to the ‘insolent malady’ which dared menace the monarch. His account of the royal campaigns praises the King in the manner recommended by Pellisson (whom he succeeded as Historiographer Royal). He joined the Petite Académie and composed inscriptions for medals. And yet he also wrote Britannicus, with its analysis of that imperial ‘monster’, Nero. What was Racine’s strategy here? It is perhaps a pity that Marin did not follow the lead of Peter France and discuss the tension in Racine (or Boileau) between loyalty and independence, the strategies of criticism or self-defence as well as the strategies of praise. Such an approach would free him from the danger of reductionism.

There remains the criticism that the very notion of ‘strategy’, like those of ‘manipulation’ or ‘mystification’, is anachronistic. I don’t think it is. These 17th-century propagandists would not have cared for the vulgar commercial metaphor of the ‘selling’ of Louis XIV, but they knew very well that they were using the art of persuasion. By the 17th century, propaganda and counter-propaganda had become part of the apparatus of the state. Pellisson claimed to be writing to refute Lisola, the leading propagandist in the service of Louis’s rival, the Emperor Leopold. Louis XIV’s enemies, notably the Dutch, were as aware of the importance of the media as the French Government was, and to undo the work of the Petite Académie they issued anti-medals, or satirical medals, showing the Turk (with whom Louis had made an alliance) as a sun-worshipper, and the King leaving the front line for Versailles in a chariot drawn by his mistresses – gossip would have it that Louis was not over-eager to expose himself to danger. The Dutch even managed to sabotage one of the medallic histories of the reign by reprinting it with the anti-medals included.

As for the idea of mystification, Louis XIV himself – or more exactly, the author of his Memoirs – noted that court festivals charmed the nobles and maintained them in a state of devotion more effectively than rewards did, a remark not far removed from the advice given by Machiavelli to the prince to ‘keep the people occupied’ with festivals. Still closer to the modern concept of mystification are some passages in Pascal to which Louis Marin rightly draws our attention. Kings are feared by their subjects, Pascal remarks, because they are accompanied by guards and drums. Even if the guards and drums are sometimes absent, the association of ideas remains. Magistrates are respected, still according to Pascal, because they wear red robes and furs, which strike the imagination: this ‘august apparatus’, as he calls it, is a necessary part of their ‘mystery’. Part of their ‘front’, as Erving Goffman would say. Like Marin and Apostolidès, Pascal is concerned with demystification, if for somewhat different reasons.

One is left with the question whether there is any essential difference between the public image of Louis XIV and those of more recent absolute monarchs: De Gaulle, say, or various American Presidents, or even Stalin. The analogies, shocking as they are to many professional historians, are not to be dismissed lightly. When Denis Brogan advised students of the American Presidency to read Saint-Simon before going to Washington, he had a point. Pierre Goubert’s iconoclastic Louis XIV and Twenty Million Frenchmen, first published in 1966, was no doubt intended to be read as, amongst other things, an allegory of De Gaulle’s regime, and it works on both levels. The Soviet academy system prompts analogies with the France of Louis XIV, on which it was presumably modelled – who was the Russian Colbert? One might say much the same of the cult of personality: it is still hard to look at Watteau’s famous Enseigne de Gersaint, with the portrait of Louis in the process of being packed away, without thinking of de-Stalinisation.

A more systematic comparison between the fabrication of the image of Louis XIV and those of some 20th-century rulers might well illuminate both centuries. The differences in the media are obvious enough. Louis was as obviously a ruler of the age of court ballets, engravings and equestrian statues as Mussolini and Hitler were rulers of the age of radio and cinema, and Nixon of the age of television. But the political and rhetorical consequences of these obvious differences (not to mention the political contrasts) remain to be worked out. Colbert went to Racine: Eisenhower and his Presidential successors have gone to advertising agencies. The differences are apparent. However, as Roland Barthes has reminded us, epideictic rhetoric still flourishes in advertising, and Aristotle’s rules still apply. Hyperbole does not go out of date. Come to that, Versailles seems to be as appropriate a setting for the theatre of power in 1982 as it was in 1682. It might be suggested that, in the public image of a ruler, vitality now counts for more than it did and dignity for less. Brezhnev, though, is an example to the contrary, and one bearing a curious resemblance – despite the difference in costume – to Rigaud’s state portrait of the aging Louis XIV. The most significant shift in presentation has surely been the development of a rhetoric of democracy, whether it has taken the form of appeals to the audience at mass meetings, or that of intimacy with the viewers in the so-called ‘low-pressure’ style of television. Louis was not performing for his twenty million Frenchmen, and so he could not be presented in quite this way. Even flattery has a history.