Love and Language
A Study of Classical French Moralist Writers
Louise K. Horowitz
LITERARY CRITICISM / European / French
169 pp. 6x9
It is a commonplace to observe that a preoccupation with the passions, amounting at times almost to an obsession, dominated classical French literature. Moreover, the interconnection between love and language is one that various scholars have sought to illuminate.
But their efforts have focused primarily on the dazzling alexandrines of Corneille and Racine, and that fascinating group of writers known as the moralistes has not received equal attention. Pascal, La Rouchefoucauld, Mme. de Lafayette, and, to a lesser degree, La Bruyère have filtered into the American curriculum; but a significant number of others—the chevalier de Méré, Saint-Evremond, Jacques Esprit, Guilleragues, and Mme de Sévigné—have been consigned to the relative obscurity of such pejorative critical categories as minor and secondary.
The moralistes contributed to a general effort of the age to define—or perhaps, to redefine, following a cataclysmic period of history—what constituted the self. And it was on language and its power not only to explicate but also to create that they placed their reliance in this endeavor. Their writings communicate the urgency they so keenly felt to reform the raw material of human nature, and to transform the private and the untamed into the societal and the controlled.
Professor Horowitz examines this important group of writers as they grappled with a subject that they, with the rest of their age, found persistent, unsettling, and absorbing—the passions and the liberation from them. The moralistes viewed with particular alarm the savage might of erotic love, and sought release from its power in some moderation of its excesses through language. The general fascination, for example, of many of these writers with the notion of l’honnête homme, which left its mark so decisively on much of the literature of the period, was dependent upon a successful manipulation of form and style aimed at dispellling, and ultimately purging, the disruptive impulses of l’amour passion.
In a different vein, Mme de Sévigné, in her letters to her daughter, sought to reform and to restructure the love relationship into a more aesthetically and emotionally satisfying experience. So, too, did Jacques Esprit urge conduct of the most rigorous and repressive inner dialogue as the means to mastery over the undisciplined self. So, too, did Saint-Evremond cultivate an emotional distance in his letters of advice that simultaneously allowed for an enticing flirtation with questions of love and sexuality while providing a safety zone of escape that was securely defined by the boundaries of the page on which he wrote. And a novelist such as Mme de Lafayette, in an effort not dissimilar from that of Guilleragues, the author of the Lettres portugaises, used fiction and myth as a means first to emphasize and then to reduce the potential chaos of love. The moralists' effort traverses the classical period, culminating, but also shifting suddenly and radically, in La Bruyère’s Caractères.
Louise K. Horowitz is an assistant professor of French at the University of Rochester.