Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Competing Codes and Involuntary Confessions of the Flesh in la Princesse De Cleves

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Competing Codes and Involuntary Confessions of the Flesh in la Princesse De Cleves

Article excerpt

L'ambition et la galanterie etaient l'ame de cette cour, et occupaient egalement les hommes et les femmes. Il y avait tant d'interets et tant de cabales differentes, et les dames y avaient tant de part que l'amour etait toujours mele aux affaires et les affaires a l'amour. Personne n'etait tranquille, ni indifferent; on songeait a s'elever, a plaire, a servir ou a nuire; on ne connaissait ni l'ennui, ni l'oisivete, et on etait toujours occupe des plaisirs ou des intrigues.

Ambition and gallantry were the sole occupation of the court, busying men and women alike. There were so many interests and so many different intrigues in which women took part that love was always mingled with politics, and politics with love. No one was calm or indifferent; everyone sought to rise, to please, to serve, or to injure; no one was weary or idle, every one was taken up with pleasure or intrigue.

--Madame de Lafayette, La Princesse de Cleves (1)

Taken from the early pages of the Princesse de Cleves (1678), a text often referred to as the first modern French novel, the epigraph sets the stage for the delicate milieu into which the text's heroine is thrust a few pages later. It also raises questions about the nature of the courtly self: what it consists of, how it is constructed, and how it acts in public and private settings. Much of modern scholarship has sought to limn the origins of the early modern self, often locating it in seemingly paradoxical structures of power and knowledge such as sacramental confession. (2) Addressing both religious and legal confessions in many historical contexts, Peter Brooks writes that it is "deeply intricated with our sense of self, its interiority, its capacity for introspection, self-knowledge, self-evaluation" (171). In the Princesse de Cleves, confession, embedded this time in the courtly context, plays an undeniable, and yet complex, role in the unfolding of the main character's development. What I call involuntary confessions of the flesh--signs of the interior that slip out, unbidden, onto the exterior of the body--might appear to contradict the restraints of a century marked by Rene Descartes's privileging of the rational and by an increasingly strict imperative to rein in unruly signs of the flesh. (3) In a court obsessed with appearance and dissimulation, how could involuntary confessions of the flesh possibly contribute to the development of the modern Western subject? I argue that such confessions strike to the very core of the early modern self. In the initial moment of their appearance, they cannot be performed, dissimulated, or falsified. (4) Because of their intrusive and often unwelcome effect, they must quickly be deciphered and incorporated into an acceptable mode of discourse, or else they threaten to destroy the exterior facade of courtliness so carefully established. Nevertheless, moments in which systems of control break down, oscillations between public and private attempts to stay in control, and representations of the body under emotional stress, though indeed troubling, are all integral parts in the machine of early modern self-production, as they give readers a place to begin to look for the self. In the pages that follow, I focus on moments that interrupt the civilizing process, arguing that these seemingly destructive shows of the interior are, in fact, equally, if not more, invested in the production of the self as the layers of dissimulation involved in the proper behavior demanded at court. The relationship between involuntary confessions of the flesh and dissimulative behavior, as highlighted by the tension between theoretical models of confession and restraint, shows the extent to which the princess's interior is deeply troubled. (5) As Brooks writes, "confession ... both creates and is created by a new sense of selfhood" (97). Involuntary confessions of the flesh arbitrate between confession and dissimulation, creating an ultimately productive tension. …

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