The Play of the Mind


THE French language had now become the second tongue of every educated European, the accepted medium of international diplomacy. Frederick the Great used it regularly, except to his troops; Gibbon wrote his first book in French, and for a time thought of writing in French his history of declining Rome. In 1784 the Berlin Academy announced a prize competition for an essay explaining the causes of this preeminence, and issued its own publications in French. The chief causes were the political supremacy of France under Louiv XIV, the spread of the French language by French troops in the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, and Spain, the unquestioned superiority of French literature on the Continent (England had reservations), the popularity of Parisian society as the finishing school of the European elite, the desire to replace Latin with a more modern and flexible speech in the commerce of nations, and the purification and standardization of the French language by the French Academy through its Dictionary. Nowhere had any vernacular reached such precision and variety, such point and charm of phrase, such elegance and clarity of style. There were some losses in this victory: French prose sacrificed the simple directness of Montaigne, the rough and hearty vitality of Rabelais; French poetry languished in the prison of Boileau’s rules. The Academy itself, until Duclos aroused it after his election in 1746, had slipped into dreamy formalism and cautious mediocrity.

The relative freedom of thought and speech under the Regency had encouraged the multiplication of authors, publishers, and libraries. Printer-publisher-booksellers lurked everywhere, even though, as the century advanced, their trade became perilous; in Paris alone there were 360, nearly all of them poor. Many towns now had circulating libraries, and many libraries maintained reading rooms open to the public for an admission fee of forty sous. Authorship seldom sufficed as a way of life; it was usually appended to some other occupation; so the elder Crébillon was a notary’s clerk, and Rousseau copied music. A few famous writers could sell their product at a good price; Marivaux, ruined by the collapse of Law’s System, retrieved his finances with his plays and Marianne,and Rousseau, usually poor, received five thousand livres for Émile. The only copyright available was the privilège du roi, or royal permission to publish; this protected the author against the pirating of his book in France, but not against its piratical printing abroad; it was granted only to manuscripts guaranteed by official censors to contain nothing offensive to Church or state. New ideas could surmount that barrier only through disguising their subject matter or their heresies. This ruse failing, an author might send his manuscript to Amsterdam, The Hague, Geneva, or some other foreign city, to be printed there in French, distributed abroad, and circulated clandestinely in France.

The expansion of the middle class, the spread of education, and the gathering of intellect in Paris were generating an audience eager for books, and a swarm of authors rose to saturate this demand. The weakening of the state under Louis XV, and the decline of religious belief, stimulated the oral and written discussion of political and philosophical issues. The aristocracy, resenting both the monarchy that had shorn it of power and the Church that was supporting the monarchy, offered an interested hearing to criticism of the government and the creed; and the upper middle class joined in this receptivity, hoping for a change that would give them social equality with the nobility.

In this new atmosphere authors attained a status rarely accorded them either before or after the eighteenth century. They were welcomed in the salons, where they held forth with all the facility of their eloquence; they were received in titled homes so long as they stepped upon no titled toes; they were entertained and sometimes housed by financiers like La Popelinière. Despite their poverty they became a force in the state. “Of all empires,” said Duclos in 1751, “that of the men of mind [gens d’esprit], without being visible, is most widely spread. Men of power can command, but men of intellect govern; for in the long run … public opinion sooner or later overcomes or upsets every form of despotism.”1 (The technique of forming public opinion by money or government had not yet been perfected in 1751.)

Cheered on by a widening audience, stimulated by hundreds of alert competitors, liberated by the decline of dogma, spurred by the vanity of print, French writers now launched upon the inky sea such a flotilla of letters, pamphlets, brochures, diatribes, essays, memoirs, histories, novels, dramas, poems, theologies, philosophies, and pornography as finally broke through all the chains of censorship, swept away all resistance, and transformed the mind, the faith, and the government of France and, in some measure, of the world. Never in literature had there been such subtle wit, such delicate pleasantry, such coarse buffoonery, such lethal ridicule. Every orthodoxy of Church or state trembled under the assault of these sharply pointed, sometimes poisoned, usually nameless, pens.

Even private correspondence became a public art. Men and women revised, rewrote, polished their letters in the hope that these would shine before more eyes than two; and sometimes they succeeded so well that their letters became belles-lettres, literature. Loving conversation, they talked on paper to absent friends or enemies with all the naturalness of face-to-face speech, all the sparkle and vitality of exchanges across the table in salons. Such letters were no mere trivia of personal news; they were in many cases discourses on politics, literature, or art. Sometimes they were in verse—vers de société— bubbling with the rhymes that come so readily in French, and warm with the hope of praise. So Voltaire delighted his friends with epistolary poems poured from the cornucopia of his agile mind and facile art.

The age of oratory was ending, for eighteenth-century France feared to be bored, even by a Bossuet; it would return with the Revolution. Memoirs were still in fashion, for, being letters to posterity, they kept some of the charm of correspondence. It was at the end of this period, in 1755, that the Mémoires of the Baronne de Staal de Launay, who had died in 1750, at last reached print, recalling the days of the Regency and the soirées de Sceaux; here, said Grimm, was a lady who rivaled Voltaire himself in the excellence of her prose.2

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