Pastoral Palimpsest: Writing the Laws of Love in L'Astree

By Meding, Twyla | Renaissance Quarterly, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview
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Pastoral Palimpsest: Writing the Laws of Love in L'Astree


Meding, Twyla, Renaissance Quarterly


Mediated by Neoplatonist thought of the Quattrocento, paradox governs both form and content of Honore d'Urfe's L'Astree. The prefatory epistles to the work's first three parts establish a Foucaldian notion of "author function" while simultaneously positing the author's profound distrust of writing and his preference for an oral medium. Within the romance itself the three episodes featuring the authoritative Laws of Love, their falsification, and finally their complete revision illustrate deconstruction of the "author function" through the force of the Platonic textual "drift" against which d'Urfe cautions his protagonists in his prefaces. At the same time, the revised Laws of Love announce means of collective composition prevalent in the Later seventeenth century. The romance's sylvan cabinet thus reflects and resolves the dilemmas of authority and composition conceived in the prefaces' paternal Cabinet.

"Rien n'est constant que l'inconstance, durable mesme en son changement". [1] so the narrator of L'Astree ponders the shepherd Celadon's plunge into the river Lignon's waters of oblivion and its illustration of the inherent changeability of all things, particularly the once-constant and mutual love shared by the capricious shepherdess Astree and her faithful suitor. Qualified in terms of amatory conduct, a "paradox of nothing" thus inaugurates this long pastoral romance and displays in its symmetry the antithetical pairing of constancy and inconstancy; [2] whereas inconstancy appropriates the durability associated with constancy and is alone reliable, constancy undergoes ineluctable change, the salient feature of inconstancy, despite its ostensible foundation in stasis. Through rhetorical finesse, the paradox of nothing reduces apparent opposites to equivalence: each takes on the other's characteristics in an interdependent exchange. The conflicting propensities reflect one another through an operation of mut ual cancellation in which the dictum's subject, rien, annuls its constituent parts and proclaims the essential vanity of love. Yet, as mediator of coincidentia oppositorum, the same rien permits the two contrary states to coexist. [3]

Focusing as it does on the delights and torments of love in a multi-generic format, L'Astree is clearly a text permeated with paradox, and the opening aphorism echoes Plato's Sophist and his own paradox of stasis and motion. [4] Closely tied to Renaissance traditions of paradox, the force of sophistic formulations in d'Urfe's romance underlies its predominant theorizations of Neoplatonism, Petrarchism, and courtly love. [5] This is not surprising, given the romance's recognition of the omipotence of the god Love, himself perceived as a sophist by the Quattrocento humanists who influenced d'Urfe's literary interpretation of Neoplatonist doctrine. [6] By its coincidence of opposites, the formulation of the inaugural "paradox of nothing" contradicts another explicit maxim of the pastoral universe: "deux contraires ne peuvent estre en mesme temps en mesme lieu," [7] perhaps d'Urfe's nod to the controversy over "the paradoxical presence of not-being in ... being" that opposed the Florentines Ficino and Pico della Mirandola at the close of the Quattrocento. [8] In the void delineated by the paradox of nothing's subject, nevertheless, the opposing tendencies of constancy and inconstancy do indeed share a common space and time. The contradictory aphorisms are emblematic of the romance's divergent currents of representation: one monolithic and unitary, both founding and perpetuating the pastoral life, free from the influence of corrupt, contemporary society; the other fragmented and polyvalent, partaking of both the perceived debasement of seventeenth-century court society [9] and the savagery of nature in order to effect a continual subversion of the prevailing norms of the first system. In terms of love, the stable order of the first framework corresponds to constancy; the always shifting foundation of the second, to inconstancy.

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