Dimensions of Individuality: Recent French Works on the Renaissance

By Schiffman, Zachary Sayre | Renaissance Quarterly, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

Dimensions of Individuality: Recent French Works on the Renaissance


Schiffman, Zachary Sayre, Renaissance Quarterly


In his famous "essay" of almost 150 years ago, Jacob Burckhardt articulated the single most fruitful idea about the Renaissance - that it was epitomized by "the discovery of the individual." This discovery was double-sided: Man became a geistiges Individuum and recognized himself as such; and, as a consequence of this recognition, he also came to perceive die Fulle des Individuellen in the world around him. In other words, with the self-conscious perception of one's own uniqueness came the perception of the world as being full of unique entities.

This discovery was for Burckhardt not an unalloyed blessing. His auf sich selbst gestellten Personlichkeit (so liberally translated as "free personality") is the individual stripped bare of all traditional defenses, standing naked before the world, with only his own wits to rely on - hardly a comforting prospect. And, by a similar twist, there is nothing to keep die Fulle des Individuellen from becoming an overwhelming diversity. Although Burckhardt did not elaborate upon this last theme, it is perfectly in keeping with his fundamental pessimism. A number of recent French works on the Renaissance have developed the positive and negative dimensions of Burckhardt's idea, demonstrating its continuing utility.

Jean Lecointe's L'Ideal et la difference: la perception de la personnalite litteraire a la Renaissance (Geneva: Droz, 1993) sets out to substantiate one aspect of Burckhardt's idea, namely the development of a subjective literary aesthetic. Burckhardt alludes to this complex theme, chiefly in his discussions of satire and the sonnet, without really elaborating upon it - its story lies outside the frame of his essay. Lecointe treats this theme in terms of the fragmentation of a classical literary ideal and its replacement by a new ideal, one that values individual differences in style.

Parts of this story - dealing with such issues as imitatio and copia - have been told before, by G.W. Pigman, Thomas Greene, and Terence Cave, among others. But Lecointe goes much further, placing these topics in a broader rhetorical and philosophical context. For example, he plays the notion of copia against that of brevitas, showing how the relationship between the two gradually changes from antiquity to the Renaissance, as brevitas usurps the quality of gravitas that had once been the preserve of copious discourse. This transformation marks the emergence of the new ideal of personal style, an ideal epitomized by the publication of the fifth edition of the Essais in 1588. Lecointe stops here, without pursuing the history of the new style, being content to show that in Montaigne's case it emerges by default of the old, the absence of which Montaigne sorely feels in the 1580 edition of the Essais. The emergence of his personal literary aesthetic is thus tinged with a sense of loss, and of uncertainty for the future.

Needless to say, Erasmus occupies a special place in the transition from the classical literary ideal to the ideal of stylistic individuality. His notion of decorum peculiare and its emergence from the rhetoric of ethos receives fine and subtle treatment at Lecointe's hands. And so too do a wide range of figures (especially Lemaire de Belges, Muret, Ramus, Bude, and Rabelais) and issues (concerning notions of genius, poetic "furor," and Ciceronianism, among many others). Such lists do not do justice to the encyclopedic scope of Lecointe's book, which projects sixteenth-century issues against the background of classical and medieval rhetoric and poetics. Indeed, despite the lack of an index, L'Ideal et la difference seems destined to become one of the principal reference works on the history of literary style in the Renaissance.

Marc Bizer's La Poesie au miroir: imitation et conscience de soi dans la poesie latine de la Pleiade (Paris: Champion, 1995) provides a nice supplement to Lecointe's broader study, exploring the complex relationship between imitation and self-expression in the Latin poetry of Joachim Du Bellay, Remy Belleau, and Jean-Antoine de Baif. …

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