The Lost Art

Benedetta Craveri, translated from the Italian by Patrick Creagh and Noga Arikha

Cartesian Women: Versions and Subversions of Rational Discourse in the Old Regime

by Erica Harth
Cornell University Press, 267 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Watteau's Painted Conversations: Art, Literature, and Talk in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century France

by Mary Vidal
Yale University Press, 238 pp., $50.00

In his Discours de la méthode (1637) Descartes said that he chose to write in French rather than in Latin in order to reach “those who employ nothing but their pure natural reason.” We are justified in supposing that among such readers the philosopher included women, since they were not taught Latin.1 And although women did not have a right to the same education as men, it was common knowledge that their opinions were influential within aristocratic society, and their praise or criticism often determined a book’s success or failure.

Descartes’s philosophy implied that women were the victims of ancient prejudices. His distinction between the physical and intellectual spheres, his professed faith in the universal value of reason, and “his concept of mind as a place where there is no sex,” as Genevieve Lloyd2 puts it—all these depriveSd the most widespread and deep-rooted antifeminist arguments of any sense whatever. For moralists and churchmen the physical weakness of women, their unbridled sexual appetites, and the hysteria resulting from their “uterine” temperaments made them frail and dangerous creatures and undermined their powers of reasoning, inevitably putting them in a position of inferiority to men.

How far, therefore, did the new Cartesian theory of knowledge, destined to have such a vast impact in France and elsewhere, enable women of the upper classes to establish their right to participate in the “rational discourse” formulated by the Discours de la méthode? This is the question posed by Erica Harth in Cartesian Women. On the one hand, she examines the critical ideas of a number of illustrious women who were drawn to Cartesian ideas, such as Mademoiselle de Scudéry, Madame du Châtelet, and Olympe de Gouges; on the other, she traces the limits of the intellectual activities open to women in French society during the ancien régime. She tells a story of defeat. Women were the moving spirits in defining and presiding over the fashionable conversation that took place in the salons of the seventeenth century—conversation that became central to French culture and literature—but they eventually lost control of it; during the following century they were to be excluded from the intellectual debate that took place in their houses and in their presence.

The important place of conversation in French high society during the ancien régime is the central theme of three other recent studies published on both sides of the Atlantic. In Watteau’s Painted Conversations the art historian Mary Vidal argues that fashionable conversation was both the theme that inspired Watteau’s painting and the key to his aesthetic theory. In a contribution to a recent book the French scholar Marc Fumaroli, professor of rhetoric at the Collège de France, examines the phenomenon of conversation as a cultural ideal in all its historical complexity, showing the ways in which it was one of the main components of “French cultural identity.”3 Jean-Paul Sermain, professor at the University of Provence4 analyzes the twofold nature of conversation in the eighteenth century: as a stylish form…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.