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,1 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 wish to name;
I’ll not defend myself, but take the blame.
Believe what you are told, and drive Tartuffe
Like some base criminal from be- neath your roof….
Orgon, Tartuffe’s protector, dazzled by so much humility, refuses to believe his own son, drives the son out of the house, and makes Tartuffe, whom he is already planning to marry to his daughter, his sole heir.
Tartuffe’s skill is considerable, of course, but Orgon’s mania is extraordinary. If reality becomes a matter of manipulated illusions, it is partly because reality, as Borges says in another context, longs to give way. Orgon speaks of Tartuffe as the New Testament speaks of Christ (“To keep his precepts is to be reborn”) and his infatuation with the man is a parody of Christian devotion. “And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household,” Christ says in the Gospel of St. Matthew. “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” In Orgon’s enthusiasm, this becomes: “My mother, children, brother, and wife could die, / And I’d not feel a moment’s pain.”
It’s hard to see how Tartuffe can be unthroned in such a mind, and yet of course this unthroning is the central business of the play. Elmire, Orgon’s wife, offers to prove Tartuffe’s roguery by pretending to reconsider his offer of seduction, and Orgon hides under a table to witness the encounter. Tartuffe duly gives himself away, but the comic point of this scene is Orgon’s long, silent, invisible hesitation under the table. Elmire keeps coughing to warn him she’s had enough, but he doesn’t budge, and for a moment it looks as though nothing short of actual intercourse will persuade Orgon that Tartuffe really fancies Elmire—and even that, Tartuffe thinks, might be negotiable: “If he saw the worst, he’d doubt his sight.”
“What, coming out so soon?,” Elmire says sarcastically when Orgon finally appears. “How premature! / Get back in hiding, and wait until you’re sure.”
The point is made again when Orgon tells his pious mother what he saw. “Appearances can deceive, my son,” she says, and adds, “Till his guilt is clear, / A man deserves the benefit of the doubt. / You should have waited, to see how things turned out.” The argument acquires a wonderful twist from the fact that both Orgon and Tartuffe desire proof and expect it from the same event. Tartuffe wants more than pretty speech from Elmire, he wants what he calls “realities.” Orgon, it seems, will be satisfied only by the very same concession, and Elmire’s increasingly flustered speech applies to both men:
Since you are so determined on it, since you
Will not allow mere language to convince you,
And since you ask for concrete evidence, I
See nothing for it, now, but to comply.
There is a splendid comedy of verification here, a late and subtle version of the story, found in Ariosto and Cervantes and Molière’s own School for Wives, of the man who wished to know for sure that his wife was faithful. In this variation, Orgon doesn’t care about his wife’s fidelity, except as an extension of his pride, and what he wants to see proven (or rather, not to see proven) is the crookedness of his cherished Tartuffe. Of course, the target in all of these stories is the folly and the inhumanity of longing for absolute certainty where a modest and well-grounded trust ought to be enough. I think of a very funny passage in J.L. Austin’s Sense and Sensibilia, where A.J. Ayer, in a role much like Orgon’s, is unkindly imagined as hankering for improper proof. Orgon hopes that his hypocrite won’t be proved to be a hypocrite while Ayer, in Austin’s view, thinks a telephone can’t be proved to be a telephone:
If, for instance, you tell me there’s a telephone in the next room, and (feeling mistrustful) I decide to verify this, how could it be thought impossible for me to do this conclusively? I go into the next room, and certainly there’s something there that looks exactly like a telephone. But is it a case perhaps of trompe l’oeil painting? I can soon settle that. Is it just a dummy perhaps, not really connected up and with no proper works? Well, I can take it to pieces a bit and find out, or actually use it for ringing somebody up—and perhaps get them to ring me up too, just to make sure. And of course, if I do all these things, I do make sure; what more could possibly be required? This object has already stood up to amply enough tests to establish that it really is a telephone; and it isn’t just that, for everyday or practical or ordinary purposes, enough is as good as a telephone; what meets all these tests just is a telephone, no doubt about it.
But Molière, in spite of all the drearily reasonable speeches dotted about his plays, does not simply urge a return to common sense, and he would probably have had no more patience with Austin’s tests than with Ayer’s doubts. If there had been telephones in Molière’s world, or in that of Cervantes or Rabelais, they would regularly have been swept up into powerful interpretations calling them something else, and it appears to be an axiom of the comic writers of the Renaissance that there is no truth, small or large, that cannot be turned into nonsense or worse by a change of context.
“An honest man, and of good judgment,” Rabelais says, “believeth still what is told him, and that which he finds written.” A sound enough principle if a few precautions are taken, and this is what sensible people in Molière say. A girl in The Learned Ladies is asked if she really believes that a man loves her. “Yes, Sister,” she says, “I believe it—he’s told me so.” She’s right, he does love her. But Rabelais is talking about the birth of Gargantua via his mother’s ear, and compounds our difficulties by saying that he can find nothing in Holy Scripture which contradicts this story. He means, of course, that Holy Scripture is full of stories of this kind, and he goes on mischievously to quote Proverbs (“The simple believeth every word”) and St. Paul (“Charity…believeth all things”). There is a similar joke in Cervantes, when Don Quixote rebukes a group of merchants for refusing to say that Dulcinea is the most beautiful woman in the world without first seeing her.
If I were to show her to you [Quixote says], what merit would there be in your confessing a truth so self-evident? The important thing is for you, without seeing her, to believe, confess, affirm, swear and defend that truth.
Cervantes, like Rabelais, offers a definition of faith, perfectly correct and perfectly ludicrous; and a world where crucial values can be so brilliantly misconstrued is plainly Tartuffe’s kingdom. When Tartuffe pretends to feel guilty because he has killed a flea in anger, he is carefully playing the hypocrite. But Molière took the detail from the life of a real saint. Now common sense will help us in a world like this, but it will not get us far, and we shall also need wariness, agility, intelligence, kindness, trust, a sense of humor, and a genuine belief that other people’s lives are not merely tokens in a game we happen to need them for.
Molière’s Misanthrope is an even more subtle investigation of the subject of fraud and faith. Alceste hates the hypocrisy of polite society, which he characteristically takes to represent humanity in general: “Mankind has grown so base / I mean to break with the whole human race.” Does this mean, a friend asks, that he will tell people when they are boring, or idiotic:
Molière, A New Criticism (Oxford University Press, 1949).↩
Molière, A New Criticism (Oxford University Press, 1949).↩