The Performance of Nobility in Early Modern European Literature

By David M. Posner | Go to book overview

5
La Bruyère and the end of the theatre of
nobility

Death provides an aesthetically convincing and pragmatically effective exit for the noble subject anxious to leave a courtly world grown too corrupt and debased to hold him. However, its unequivocal finality, both artistic and practical, makes it a performative strategy more suited to Corneille's theatre of absolutes than to the metaphorical theatre of late seventeenthcentury court life at Versailles. Unlike the actor playing an entirely imaginary Suréna on Corneille's stage, a real-life nobleman choosing this kind of definitive exit will not be able to resurrect himself for the next performance; and there will always be a next performance, or rather the current one will never end. At Versailles, the curtain does not come down at the end of the fifth act, bringing all to a tidy close; instead, the show never stops. There is no opportunity for neat closure, either aesthetic or ethical. Survival is therefore a rather more popular option among the players on this stage, and so a different set of theatrical strategies must be evolved, meant not so much to exemplify virtue as to insure self-preservation. Suréna will have few imitators at Versailles.

In the last half of the seventeenth century, the imperative of self-preservation takes on a special urgency. The machine of royal power set in motion by Richelieu and Louis XIII has, for better or worse, triumphed over the particularizing energies of its noble subjects. The failure of the various aristocratic attempts at resistance and reaction, culminating in the spectacle of the Fronde, and the subsequent solidification of the absolute power of Louis XIV, work to impose restraints upon the kinds of public identity, and arenas of performance, available to the nobility, eventually narrowing the choice to Versailles or nothing. I would suggest that these constraints seem to force upon the noble subject, at least as constituted in literature, a kind of renfermement or inward turn. This trend is reflected in the rise of a new genre alongside that of the livre de politesse, one more rarefied, circumspect, and hermetic: the aphoristic works of the moralistes. The livre de politesse is an essentially optimistic text, meant to provide its reader with concrete advice, practical skills to be deployed by the ambitious and status-conscious (whether nobles or would-be nobles) in a field of more or

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