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The Art of Malice

In his Saint-Simon and the Court of Louis XIV (originally published in French in 1997) Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie aspires, he says, to provide “a systematic and comprehensive interpretation of Saint-Simon’s thought and work (but not of his writing or style).” The “work” referred to is the Duc de Saint-Simon’s vast and posthumously published Memoirs, and Ladurie wants to insist (for reasons I shall come to later) that the man himself, chronicler of the court of the roi soleil and of the Regency, was an “archaic specimen,” an “archaeological artifact in the most fundamental sense,” “a ruin, ripe for excavation.”

Can one, or ought one even to try to, separate Saint-Simon’s “work” from his “writing or style”? Perhaps it would be possible with some authors, but it seems perilous to attempt with this remarkable work of historical art—one that is more alive for us than Suetonius or Tacitus and that, in important respects, helped to inspire Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. The “style” and the “work” would seem to be one.

But can one separate the “work” from the man? This sounds more hopeful, yet it runs into difficulties too. For one of the great originalities of Saint-Simon’s work is the way in which—by dint of strict rules of relevance and a heroic frankness—he manages to persuade us of the meaningfulness (historical meaningfulness) of his own activities, as privileged observer, sporadic participant, and prophet of the nation’s doom. He knows exactly what people think of him, as an irascible stickler for social rules and social rights, and can measure the limits of his (considerable) influence on the Regent. It is somehow not what one expects of an “archaic specimen” of merely archaeological interest.

The Duc de Saint-Simon joined the Versailles court in 1691, at the age of sixteen; he served briefly in the army, but soon, to the King’s annoyance, resigned; and for the remaining years of Louis’s reign, being offered no post, he lived at court, to all appearances in complete idleness. Appearances were deceptive, for he became a behind-the-scenes adviser to the young Duc de Bourgogne, the heir to the throne, as well as to his own childhood friend Philippe d’Orléans, the future regent. Nevertheless the idleness was real enough, and he filled it, fortunately for us, by a daily foraging for gossip and the developing of a gift, a genius, for observation. All his intellectual interest was in people; but, then, the history of France, insofar as it unfolded at Versailles, was essentially a matter of people, of family and family alliances, rather than of “political” groupings. As soon as Saint-Simon decided to write a history—and this seems to have occurred quite early on—his passion for gossip and grotesque anecdote became far from “idle.”

He had, however, an obsession. This was that the true nobility of France, and its rightful governors, were the ducs-et-pairs (dukes who were also peers of France and entitled to sit in the Parlement), and that Louis XIV was deliberately aiming to deny them their rights and privileges. While still in his teens he managed to rally his fellow ducs-et-pairs against the claim by a famous general, the Maréchal de Luxembourg, to be raised from the eighteenth to the second place among the dukes of France. Much later, in 1714, he was enraged beyond measure by an edict from the King legitimizing the royal bastards and entitling them to succeed to the throne in the absence of any living prince of the blood.

With the coming to power of the Regent in 1715 he briefly saw his cherished idea, that the high nobility should be involved in government, actually put into practice, in the shape of “synody,” or a chain of councils. It was no great success, the dukes being unable to agree about practically anything. But in 1718 he enjoyed what was in his own eyes a supreme triumph. His great enemy the Duc du Maine, the senior of the royal bastards, had been involved in an attempted coup against Orléans, the Regent, and, at Saint-Simon’s instigation, Orléans arranged for the young King Louis XV to hold a Lit de Justice, at which not only would he overrule the political pretensions of Maine’s allies, the Parlement, he would also publicly strip Maine of the title of prince of the blood and of all the privileges belonging to it.

Saint-Simon’s long, dramatic, marvelously detailed account of this scene is astounding. One is struck above all by his objective, quite unapologetic depiction of the tabooed pleasures of hatred, malice, and vengefulness:

…Wholly self-possessed, my eyes searching every face, sitting motionless in my seat, my pose most formal, wrapt in the keenest and most enthralling pleasure, the most delightful fears, in joy so ardently desired, so long awaited, I sweated in a perfect agony of restraint—an agony so intoxicating that I have never, either before or since, experienced anything to equal it. How far inferior are the pleasures of the senses to those of the mind!1

One realizes that, from the very beginning, Saint-Simon has been meaning to make this scene the climax to his history, and we need no better proof of his mastery as an artist.

But let me give another tiny example of his great art. In 1714 the Queen of Spain, first wife of the Bourbon king Philip V, died of scrofula. Philip had been utterly dependent on her, the two never for a moment being out of each other’s sight, not even on their chaises percées. Saint-Simon reports what followed in a tone of wondering irony:

The King of Spain was much moved, but somewhat in the royal manner. They persuaded him to go out hunting and shooting, so as to breathe fresh air. On one of these excursions, he found himself within sight of the procession that bore the Queen’s body to the Escorial. He gazed after it; followed it with his own eyes, and went back to the hunt. Princes, are they human?

Ladurie speaks of Saint-Simon as “archaic” because of Saint-Simon’s outmoded way of thinking about the ordering of society, and of court society in particular. In matters of etiquette, rank, and precedence Saint-Simon was a fanatic and an all-time expert, as his desire to bring down the Duc du Maine shows. Nevertheless Ladurie finds Saint-Simon’s picture of rank ordering at the court confirmed by another observer in Versailles, Louis XIV’s German sister-in-law, known as “Madame”; thus the social system of the court, as they define it, must, Ladurie supposes, have in some sense been an objective phenomenon. Their system of ordering ran thus: at the head of the “hierarchy” was the King; then came the “children of France,” including the Grand Dauphin and the King’s brother; next the “grandsons of France,” i.e., the sons of the Grand Dauphin and of the King’s brother (including Philippe d’Orléans, the future regent); after them the “princes of the blood” (Condé and Conti), below them the King’s bastard sons by Mme. de Montespan, and finally the nonroyal ducs-et-pairs, of whom Saint-Simon was one, ranked in order of seniority.

The etiquette of the court, the rules about what postures, of head, hand, seat, and foot were appropriate to each rank, was of immense complexity, and though supposedly immutable they often in practice led to bitter squabbles. Even Saint-Simon is satirical about the shocking falling-out over the King’s hat:

It was raining, but not enough to prevent the King from going to watch the planting in his gardens. His hat became wet through; another was needed. The Duc d’Aumont was on annual leave; the Duc de Tresmes acted as his deputy. The King’s dresser produced the fresh hat; de Tresmes handed it to the King. M. de La Rochefoucauld was present. It all happened in a moment. Although the Duc de Tresmes was his friend he went perfectly mad; his rights were infringed, his honour was involved, all was lost. There was the greatest difficulty in separating them. Their rank forgotten, they accused one another of all manner of encroachments, no one dared to interrupt them, and all for the sake of a hat everything was in an uproar.

Nonetheless, according to Ladurie, the system was coherent. He writes: “In sum, what was involved in these hierarchies was not a notion of mere social difference but a complex, comprehensive, ‘holistic’ conception of relations between individuals and groups.”

Such is Ladurie’s account of the court in his first chapter, on “Hierarchy and Rank”; and of course one is familiar with this picture from the writings of Roland Mousnier, Pierre Goubert, and others.2 Yet I cannot help thinking that it involves two rather serious fallacies.

The first relates to “hierarchies.” The word “hierarchy,” meaning priestly rule, was originally applied to the descending grades of bishop, priest, and deacon; and, as its etymology suggests, it implies a chain of authority: the bishop had authority over the priest, and the priest over the deacon. In this sense it is quite without problems. There were various chains of authority in Saint-Simon’s day, for instance in the Church or the army, just as there are in our own day, where they also flourish in businesses, hospitals, banks, the civil service, and private associations. Moreover, a person may quite likely belong to more than one chain at the same time, occupying a high position in one and a lower in another.

Difficulties only come in with the notion that, in addition to these hierarchies of authority, there is something called a “social hierarchy,” a ladder of social status, on which each person has a fixed position. God, according to Dinoysius the Pseudo-Areopagite (circa 500), created a “hierarchy” of angels, one below the other: seraphims, cherubims, thrones, dominations, virtues, powers, principalities, archangels, and angels. The French monarchy, and after it the English one, arranged its nobles stepwise in the descending order of duke, marquis, and count (or earl). So does it not follow that there must be a similar linear gradation, running right down to humble mortals like ourselves, a rank ordering that one could trace out on paper?

The idea has often seemed appealing, for political reasons, but a moment’s reflection tells us it is absurd and logically impossible. A simple linear order already breaks down when one tries to fit bishop, priest, and deacon into the same sequence as duke, marquis, and count, or into the gradation of the three estates (clergy, nobility, and third estate), let alone how to find rungs for heavyweight boxers or for editors of journals. Indeed Ladurie acknowledges this himself:

Rank was not simply a consequence of a person’s genealogical position in an all-encompassing hierarchy of families. It was rather like the vast blue cloak of the Virgin of Mercy, whose folds were ample enough to accommodate a range of qualities of the most diverse [the French text reads “heterogeneous”] sort.

  1. 1

    Historical Memoirs of the Duc de Saint-Simon, edited and translated by Lucy Norton (McGraw-Hill, 1972), Vol. 3, p. 195.

  2. 2

    Roland Mousnier, Les Hiérarchies sociales de 1450 à nos jours (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1969); Pierre Goubert, The Ancien Régime: French Society 1600–1750, translated by Steve Cox (Harper and Row, 1973).

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