Marguerite De Navarre and the Challenge of Ethical Criticism: History, Literature, and Exemplarity in the Heptameron
Zalloua, Zahi, Romance Notes
IN the prologue to the Heptameron, Marguerite de Navarre sets up an implicit opposition between history and literature, juxtaposing a concern for truth with a concern for rhetorical embellishment. While the form of her presentation recalls Boccaccio's Decameron, the content of Marguerite's Heptameron purports to be wholly different. It is not "la beaulte de la rethoricque" but "la verite de l'histoire" (9) which matters most to this Evangelical female author. (1) But what are the function and the ultimate value of privileging truth over fiction? The desire for realism reflects Marguerite's aversion to a highly refined style. Like Montaigne after her, Marguerite is all too aware of the falsifying nature of rhetoric--how it alters its source and deceives its readers. Yet by emphasizing the truth-value of her stories ("si ne diray rien que pure verite" ), Marguerite is especially privileging a certain model of exemplarity, one which takes examples drawn from history rather from literature (from imagined worlds), allegedly to produce a more persuasive didactic message: that is, the reality or actuality of the examples carries more weight than their mere potentiality. (2) In this respect, when Marguerite derides la beaute de la rhetorique she is banishing from the Heptameron only one type of rhetoric, a rhetoric that is primarily concerned with delighting its audience. As a coping strategy, a means to deal with the trauma of the plague that had just devastated the city of Florence, Boccaccio's storytellers told tales for the sole purpose of entertainment. Such is not the situation of the Heptameron. If the stories recounted in Marguerite's text are intended to entertain the ten stranded noble men and women, who are waiting for a bridge to be rebuilt, the entertaining side of each tale must be contained and given a secondary importance, second to the truthful, sobering ethical and religious nature of its subject matter. Against the backdrop of Boccaccian discourse, Marguerite's primary rhetorical task, then, is clearly not to please (delectare) but to teach (docere) her readership.
But what does Marguerite's Heptameron teach us? Or, rather, does it actually teach us anything? It has become something of a commonplace in contemporary Renaissance studies to see the Heptameron as imbued with interpretive aporia, where clear and meaningful authorial judgment often elude the reader. This, in turn, has rendered difficult the work of ethical criticism, the work of the critic whose readerly duties are to identify and evaluate ethically pertinent passages, assess their ideological effects on the reader. That is to say, an emphasis on the Heptameron's ambiguity usually comes at the expense of its ethical worth.
Moreover, even when textual ambiguity is not ignored, getting the message of Marguerite's Heptameron--deciphering its ethical meaning-requires that any hermeneutic obstacle be ultimately recognized as intentional or strategic, a rhetorical move towards the affirmation of a spiritual, humanist, or feminist ideal. For example, it has been argued that Marguerite, in accordance with early modern Christian skepticism, catalogues the fallen state of human beings in a way that points to a higher spiritual ideal. Through her devisants (her fictional storytellers and commentators), she affirms, as one critic put it, "the ethic of a total and complete trust in God with a distrust of all things human" (Benfell 71). On the other side of the interpretive spectrum, some feminist critics have argued for an "autobiographical" reading of the Heptameron, seeing, in this collection, a strong, distinct female voice expressing her dialogical critique of patriarchal discourse. (3) Again, as in the case of evangelical/humanist interpretations of the Heptameron, feminist readings have tended to neutralize or downplay the ambiguity and paradoxical nature of her text. Marguerite's much-discussed tenth novella is a test case for feminist critics, for its staging of the problem of ethical criticism around the question of rape. …