Academic journal article The Romanic Review

On Letting Sleeping Blonds Lie: Gender, Leisure Literature, and the Imagination in Fontenelle

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

On Letting Sleeping Blonds Lie: Gender, Leisure Literature, and the Imagination in Fontenelle

Article excerpt

On dit de M. de Fontenelle qu'a la place du coeur, Il a un second cerveau.

Charlotte-Elisabeth AissE, Lettres, 28

Les ombres, les angoisses, les Epouvantes, les fuites, les reprises, les reculs, les larmes de la princesse nous laissent entendre les reves qui doivent la tourmenter la nuit. La, ceux qui subissent une regle deviennent libres et trompent impunEment ceux qui les regardent dormir. Que deviennent Mme de Cleves et le duc dans leur sommeil? Sade et Freud s'Ebauchent dans ces ames qui se croyaient simples. (Cocteau XXI)

As Jean Cocteau implies in his preface to a new midcentury edition of La Princesse de Cleves, the modern reader will find something of him- or herself within Marie-Madeleine de Lafayette's seemingly simple, premodern protagonists. Driven by the tormented unconscious unwittingly celebrated by Sade and later examined by Freud, Lafayette's characters show their common ground with us not when they pass through moments of self-awareness or when they fleetingly reveal slivers of their interiority, but when they sleep. In the night, adrift behind closed eyes, they free themselves up for the expression of their desires. Cocteau is probably referring to the erotically charged scene in the novel when the princesse's love interest, the duc de Nemours, gazes in on her voyeuristically while she is swept off in a revasserie that leaves her vulnerable and unaware, alone in the garden pavilion of her country retreat. While her gaze seems directed at a painting that includes a depiction of the duc, who knows where her imagination is leading her. Toward what might her thoughts be wandering? This is what Cocteau infers to be the proper formulation of the duc's peeping-tom desires: to see the princesse as she might be, if left unchecked by the daylit constraints of the waking, social self. (1) Such a lover's drive to access the hidden recesses within his object of desire is also a naive yet apt expression of how we read the difference between our own fully self-conscious individualism and the opacity of early modern literary figures, especially women. If we could see inside them, what would we find? How are we to read their inner impulses? Questions of the unconscious aside, if we could dig into their dreams, their fantasies, their unfettered imaginings, how far could we get?

The workings of women's dreams also preoccupied at least one early modern writer, Bernard Le Bouyer de Fontenelle (1657-1757). First perpetual secretary to the AcadEmie des Sciences (and its first public relations director) and author of treatises on vortices, the geometry of infinity, and the number nine, Fontenelle also wrote works appealing to a more worldly audience. These are equally heterogeneous: from the newly fashionable epistolary form of his Lettres galantes through treatises advocating for the modern position in the great culture wars of the late seventeenth century, to plays and novels. In some of these writings, women's dreams and the unleashed workings of their imaginations recur as scenes of great trouble for men and as great potential for natural philosophy.

Like Cocteau's duc de Nemours, Fontenelle also seems to want to gaze upon women's dream-time imaginings. Not content to simply watch, however, Fontenelle plays the role of philosopher-seducer and pursues women's oneiric wanderings. He does so by attempting to harness one of the arenas wherein their imaginative powers were frequently exercised: the worldly culture of reading, writing, and thinking about fictive realms. Women, cultivators of a distinct culture entailing particular reading, writing, and thinking practices, are positioned as bearers of certain innovative epistemological modes linked to these practices. That is, the way women read novels and how they imagined and processed innovative thinking are seen in Fontenelle to be intimately linked. Tracing these attempts to conquer women's innovative readerly imagination will suggest a revision to our understanding of the relationship between the literary imagination and natural philosophy. …

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