Moved by Love: Inspired Artists and Deviant Women in Eighteenth-Century France

Article excerpt

MARY D. SHERIFF Moved by Love: Inspired Artists and Deviant Women in Eighteenth-Century France Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. 320 pp.; 63 halftones. $35.00

One of the more notable lines in Pierre Marivaux's The Game of Love and Chance (1730) is delivered by his young protagonist, Silvia, who masquerades as her servant Lisette in order to test her lover's devotion. "I want a combat between love and reason," she affirms at the close of act 3, scene 4, this to justify keeping the ruse going until Dorante, undone by his feelings, requests her hand in marriage despite the evident class misalliance.1 The play ends in Silvia's triumph; she reveals herself only to maintain the fiction that arranged marriages and heartfelt sentiments actually coincide in ancien régime France, a fiction that has emerged to hold social hierarchies and conventions in place. Given Silvia's guise as amante, intrigante, and petite soubrette, her words and machinations have everything to do with the theatrical genre of surprises de l'amour (so-called by the writer Jean-Baptiste de Boyer, marquis d'Argens, following the title of several of Marivaux's productions) and its painted counterpart in the canvases of, say, Antoine Watteau. Beyond this, the face-off between amorous impulse and disciplined mind that Silvia identifies, then puts into play, as it were, speaks not only to eighteenth-century assumptions about woman's nature but also to the wisdom and logic of women artists, poets, writers, and thinkers who take reason, intellectuality, art, and philosophy as theirs to possess or produce.

Where eighteenth-century assumptions are concerned, listen to Abbé Nicolas Lenglet Dufresnoy, in whom earnest sympathy for the opposite sex means asserting that history indeed reveres women-women, that is, who are illustrious solely on the basis of virtuous love. As he explains in L'histoire justifiée contre les romans (1735), which pits the scrupulousness of historical narrative against the frivolity of the novel, "Here, then, are two maxims that I have established . . . first, that illustrious women of all kinds appear with distinction in history, and in a manner that honors them; second, that history represents the excellence of virtuous love, and that it distances passionate love by showing how it destroys the economy of the wisest governments."2 Clio the Proclaimer, in short, has no place on her scroll for depraved Messalina. Now heed the insights of philosopher Michèle Le Doeuff writing in 1998 on gender and epistemology, on women as objects of study and not makers of knowledge. After wondering whether women are "the reliquaries or the rubbish of History," then scanning any number of representative moments-from Plato to Nicolas Bourbaki (the pseudonym for a group of mainly French mathematicians, highly influential in the twentieth century)-cementing the alliance of the masculine with reason and the feminine with intuition, she concludes: "The discourse on the cognitive difference of women occupies a realm entirely different from what you are, from what I am, and it is not even sure that the word that supposedly designates us has a clear referent."3 The pronouns here are gendered-and this all by itself scripts a decisive attunement of the male indexing of philosophy's purportedly neutral and universal postures. As for cognitive difference between the sexes, it is revealed as indelibly marked by a shady "referent" whose spurious basis in fact is continually occulted by dominant discourses.

Mary D. Sheriffs most recent book, Moved by Love: Inspired Artists and Deviant Women in Eighteenth-Century France, can be understood as an effort to locate that referent during the Enlightenment, to take stock of its instabilities, and to parse out the ways in which the pronouncements it spawned about gender and identity came to shape myths about the creation and experience of art. Central is the conflict-ridden exchange-discernible, she proposes, in everything from Encyclopédie entries and Salon criticism to medical treatises and philosophies of the senses- between speculations on the inspired artist and conceptualizations of woman (cognitive as well as psychological, physiological, and moral). …