Academic journal article French Forum

Formes Breves as Linguistic and Social Meditations in le Misanthrope

Academic journal article French Forum

Formes Breves as Linguistic and Social Meditations in le Misanthrope

Article excerpt

The heavy use of the literary portrait (1) in Moliere's Le Misanthrope (1666) has been the subject of a considerable amount of critical attention, (2) but the aphorism's (3) frequent appearance in this much-studied play has gone largely unnoticed. Those two classical formes breves serve as the main weapons of the coquette Celimene and the misanthropist Alceste as they spar their way to the play's famously ambiguous ending. (4) Declaring, "Je veux qu'on soit sincere, et qu'en homme d'honneur, On ne lache aucun mot qui ne parte du coeur" (1. 1. 35-36), Alceste presents his sententiousness in opposition to Celimene's performance-driven verbal depictions. However, a close analysis of the self-aware forms and different functions of portraits and maxims both in the play and within its social frame disassembles his binary system. Rather, maxims and portraits here form a linguistic nexus whose energized presence first leads to further recognition of the ability of seventeenth-century drama to anticipate modern conversations on the philosophy of art and being, as scholars like Shoshana Felman, Larry Norman, and Christopher Braider teach us. (5)

Viewing aphorisms and portraits as co-operatives in a circular system, a notion reinforced by the circularity of the play's unresolved plot, permits us to see again that a principal lesson to be learned in this "ecole des salonniers" concerns language. More specifically, Le Misanthrope addresses vexed questions about the idea of truth value, the ability of words to act, and the conventionality of language. The misanthropist wants truthful, declarative speech, and yet everything in this comedy of manners suggests speech that acts and impacts, including, as I will show, Alceste's own repliques. Perhaps most importantly, the linguistic and social complexity of the play's featured classical short forms brings to light their crucial, flexible roles in the tumultuous literary and cultural landscape of Moliere's France. While they have been traditionally grouped as fossilized artifacts of the machine of cultural production under Louis XIV, maxims and portraits here point equally to modes of resistance, an idea that supports Joan DeJean's compelling argument in Ancients against Moderns: Culture Wars and the Making of a Fin de Siecle (1997) that "the most glorious years of Versailles knew far less social rigidity and far more social ferment than is generally imagined" (xv). Portraits and maxims, seeming possessions of the nobility, metamorphose under the non-noble playwright's pen into meditations on types of speech and the social castes that produce and appreciate them.

The play's starring embedded form, the salon portrait, provides the key to hearing this meditation in virtue of its role as an explicit performance piece on many different levels. Just as Celimene invites her salon guests to stroll through the portrait gallery ("Et dans la galerie allons faire deux tours") (2. 4. 732), Moliere walks the spectator-reader past a series of verbal sketches (6) that structures the play physically and rhetorically. Associated at the time and at present with salon culture and preciosite, the portraits first aid in establishing the salon atmosphere of Celimene's ruelle, a place where participants cultivate a set of performance skills, one of which is the art of portraiture. The art is practiced most fervently by Celimene, whose verbal depictions dramatically call attention to the idea of performance at three key moments during the play, the first of which occurs in the fourth scene of the second act (often called the "scene des portraits"). A "play within a play," this pivotal moment features Celimene as the star who sketches absent courtiers for her noble audience. She delivers a string of eight portrayals that provokes admiration from the attending marquis Acaste and Clitandre ("Pour bien peindre les gens vous etes admirable") (2. 4. 650) but sparks direct conflict with her lover Alceste. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.