The Learned Ladies
A book called Molière notre contemporain was published in 1929, and of course in one sense Molière will always be everyone’s contemporary. Not so much, I think, because he portrayed timeless types—because misers, misanthropes, hypocrites, hypochondriacs, and pretentious poets are always with us—as because he understood so well the intricate and multiple connections that link such types to their societies. Alceste, for example, Molière’s misanthrope, rails against the insincerity of a world which he loves in the person of Célimène, a flirtatious widow. Tartuffe, a religious hypocrite, requires, and finds, a religious fool to exploit. Trissotin, in The Learned Ladies, is a trivial and flat-footed poet who is admired by a whole ecstatic, fawning salon.
Molière often seems surprisingly modern in yet another sense—his Critique de l’Ecole des Femmes is a comedy about a group of people who have just been to see Molière’s latest comedy, and in Le Malade imaginaire a character (played by Molière himself in the original performance) speaks slightingly of “your Molière and his plays.” But we should remember that the most up-to-date devices are also found in Cervantes and other Renaissance writers, and that our “modernity” goes back a long way. W.G. Moore, in his elegant and authoritative little book, suggests that Molière may well have been directed by Montaigne to a crucial fact about “the modern world”: the fact that truth in this world “is not indubitably revealed but claimed by conflicting parties.”
Twentieth-century literature tends to be more interested in the parties (especially if they are parties of one) than in the conflicts, but the Renaissance remains close to us in certain ways. Montaigne, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Molière pictured the world not as our literature pictures the world, but as we picture our politics: as the battle-ground of rival claims to truth and virtue. The question, in Cervantes, is not whether a barber’s basin is a legendary helmet or not—everyone, including no doubt Don Quixote, knows it’s a barber’s basin. The question is how much power and persuasion can be mustered for the view that it is a helmet. In Tartuffe, the question is not whether Tartuffe is a rogue or not—the first time we see him he is making a pass at his protector’s wife—but whether anyone can stop him from taking over. Accused by his protector’s son, who has actually overheard his attempt at seduction (“You are my peace, my solace, my salvation”) and his promise of discretion (“In short, I offer you, my dear Elmire, / Love without scandal, pleasure without fear”), Tartuffe decides on the strategy of confessing more than everything (here and throughout this piece I use Richard Wilbur’s translations):
My life’s one heap of crimes, which grows each minute;
There’s naught but foulness and corruption in it;
And I perceive that Heaven, out- raged by me,
Has chose this occasion to mortify me.
Charge me with any deed you …
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Misanthrope Mishap January 26, 1978