Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Marketing Power: The Seduction of Rhetoric in 'Dom Juan.'

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Marketing Power: The Seduction of Rhetoric in 'Dom Juan.'

Article excerpt

I

Moliere's Dom Juan (1665) was originally conceived as a substitution; most immediately, it took the place of Le Tartuffe (1664), which had been banned somewhat reluctantly by Louis XIV, under pressure from devout Christians. This latter play aroused anger because of its depiction of "la fausse devotion," or religious hypocrisy (251).(2) Ironically, the power to substitute freely--which Moliere exercised in presenting Dom Juan immediately following the Tartuffe scandal--constituted the very problem with hypocrisy which caused such virulent opposition in the first place. Moliere's substitution of Dom Juan for the earlier play is not as different as it might initially seem from the actions of hypocrites who unscrupulously substitute the trappings of other people's identities for their own. According to Georges Mongredien, hypocrisy throws the category of "le propre" [property, cleanliness, the literal] into doubt: "le propre de l'hypocrite etant de singer en tout les manieres du vrai devot et donc de lui ressembler pour mieux abuser ses victimes, la confusion restait toujours possible" (251). In such a situation, "faux devots" become indistinguishable from "vrai devots," and every critique of the former leads implicitly to the latter, and even to an indictment of "toute l'Eglise." In a society where substitution follows so easily upon substitution, and "confusion" inevitably lurks, no wonder Le Tartuffe caused such anxiety.

The tendency in much contemporary, poststructuralist literary theory has been to privilege this kind of sliding of the signifier over the signified as a subversion of hierarchical order and dominant power mechanisms. Indeed, if the Church in the seventeenth century can be seen as a hegemonic force, the miniature crisis surrounding Le Tartuffe might serve as evidence for such theories. However, another story exists alongside religious opposition: Louis XIV's "reluctant" prohibition of the play and his subsequent funding of other plays by Moliere. Why, if Le Tartuffe demystifies ideologies of domination associated with powerful claims to truth, should the king evidence delight at Moliere's play? This essay will argue that such a question can only be answered by a more precise evaluation of the function of rhetoric in the specific historical conditions of Louis XIV's France. Dom Juan, as the substitute for the earlier, more problematic play, represents a discursive field appropriate to such an investigation. This play foregrounds questions of rhetoric which serve as linguistic spaces of contestation; but, as a substitution meant to evade censorship, the text simultaneously attempts to cover over these power plays. An historical consideration of Dom Juan must articulate the various mediations between economics, ethics, representation, and gender which make up the largest portion of the play's concerns. Finally, the intersections between these various elements of the mode of production must be thought in relation to the rise of the absolutist state, the dominant political structure of seventeenth-century France.

To call the questions at issue here "discursive," or matters of substitution, representation, and social linkage, should not distract from their basis in material conditions. Dom Juan arises precisely out of questions of economy, indicating the ineluctable imbrication of the aesthetic and the material. According to Mongredien, in losing the right to perform Le Tartuffe, Moliere also lost the opportunity for "un succes public qu'il esperait tres grand" (349). This failure left him "disempare" and forced him to close the Palais-Royal theater frequently (349), which indicates that he was probably crippled financially as well. He quickly substituted Dom Juan in order to avoid increasing impoverishment. Moliere's financial state of 1665 inscribes itself fairly directly in the form of Dom Juan: "Presse, Moliere ecrivit sa piece en prose, se souciant peu des regles sur l'unite de temps, d'action et de lieu" (350). …

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