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Palissot, however, still found himself on the fringe of two mobilizing groups. By the middle of the 1750s, Palissot was neither a member of the powerful CounterEnlightenment, nor was he a proponent of philosophe ideals. He continued to respect the work of “vrais philosophes” like Montesquieu and Voltaire, while at the same time Rousseau’s Discours sur les sciences et les arts in 1751 and even more with his Lettre à M. D’Alembert sur les spectacles in 1758. Dena Goodman provides an excellent account of the battle between Diderot and Rousseau in chapter one of The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment, pp. 33-44.
Contrary to the Jesuits and their Journal de Trévoux, Palissot steers clear of obvious religious criticisms of the Encyclopédie.
harshly criticizing Diderot, Marmontel, and Helvétius.40 However, in 1756, an episode at the Polish King Stanislas’ court taught Palissot a lesson in philosophe exclusion and personal vendetta, fuelling even more his budding Counter-Enlightenment sentiments.
La comédie des Philosophes was not Charles Palissot’s first attempt at ridiculing the principles, works, and people associated with the encyclopedic movement, nor would it be his last.41 A few years before the debut of Les Philosophes at the ComédieFrançaise, Palissot “a déjà fait scandale en faisant représenter sur la scène du théâtre de Nancy…Rousseau, le ‘philosophe’” (Ferret, “Introduction to Les Philosophes” 7). This short comedy, entitled Le Cercle ou les originaux, was staged at Stanislas’ court and originally intended to parallel the Polish king’s (himself an enemy of Rousseau) own Counter-Enlightenment opinions, which most notably included a refutation of Rousseau’s Second Discourse.42 Palissot believed that he was placating a largely anti-philosophique audience in Nancy with his play. But what the young playwright failed to recognize was the emerging schism between Rousseau and the rest of the philosophes as well as the close proximity between the Polish King and philosophes such as Grimm and Voltaire. Stanislas’ agents forced Palissot’s play off the stage, and the young playwright quickly escaped Lorraine for Paris.
From 1755-1760, Palissot wrote scathing critiques of Marmontel’s Wenceslas (see chapter 3), Hélvétius’ De l’Esprit, and Diderot’s Le Fils naturel.
See Ferret’s La Fureur de nuire for a chronology of Palissot’s polemical works against the philosophes from 1750-1770.
See D. Delafarge’s La Vie et l’oeuvre de Palissot for a more detailed description of the controversy surrounding Le Cercle and Les Petites lettres sur les grands philosophes.
Powerful members of the Nancy Academy viewed Palissot’s play with scorn and subsequently tried to expel the young playwright from their organization.43 Undeterred, Palissot continued to criticize Rousseau and other philosophes, publishing Les Petites lettres sur de grands philosophes two years later.44 In this pamphlet, Palissot pokes fun at a few philosophes, including Grimm, but only attacks Diderot and his Fils naturel45 with any real fervor. Les Petites lettres was a popular success with a wide readership, an important milestone in Palissot’s career, and a first example of the playwright’s notion of theater criticism.
In Les Petites lettres, Palissot argues that Diderot’s conception of the drame is little more than a pastiche of a certain strain in classical theater, and not a modern form of dramatic representation as the philosophe claims.
This brief excerpt, from Palissot’s “Seconde lettre,” summarizes the author’s critique of philosophe claims to novelty:
This libelle was important in helping escalate the pamphlet battle between antiphilosophes and Diderot’s circle, and in fact, the famous philosophe responded to the Palissot was only allowed to stay in the Academy after Jean-Jacques Rousseau (the very same that Palissot mocked in Le Cercle) wrote a letter on Palissot’s behalf (see Delafarge, La vie et l’oeuvre de Charles Palissot, ch. 2).
In fact, according to Paul Benhamou, Palissot’s exit from the Nancy’s Académie was at Grimm’s urging, which no doubt ignited Palissot’s dislike of philosophes (18).
Diderot, Denis. Le Fils naturel. (1757) Paris: GF Flammarion, 2005.
Palissot’s Petites letters sur les grands philosophes was later published as an addendum to his Les Philosophes, comédie, en trois actes en vers. Représentée pour la
première fois par les Comédiens François ordinaires du Roi, le 2 Mai 1760. Paris :
Duchesne, 1760. (Bibliothèque Richelieu, 8-RF-12496).
“Seconde lettre” by calling Palissot Bleichnar (Pâle-sot in German), and then by publicly attacking Palissot’s two royal protectors, Mme. de la Marck and Mme. de Robecq. The publications of Les Petites lettres and the subsequent responses by philosophes created a “point of no return” between the two rival cohorts, and from the end of 1757 on, all ties between Palissot and the dramatic arm of the encyclopedic clan (Diderot, Marmontel) were effectively severed.47 Palissot’s Construction of a Theatrical Event On May 2, 1760 Palissot’s criticism of philosophe personalities and practices shifted from regional theater and polemical pamphlets such as Les Petites lettres to the biggest French stage of all, the Comédie-Française. Audience members were keen on the fact that Palissot had been at war with philosophes for years before his play’s 1760 debut, and pamphlets kept reader-spectators up to date about the latest battles inside the Republic of Letters. By bringing his literary quarrel with philosophes from the printed text to major theater, Palissot also moves the debate into a different field of reception— an important change that has both qualitative and quantitative effects on the dissemination of Counter-Enlightenment ideals.
In his study on the pamphlet wars between philosophes and anti-philosophes,
Olivier Ferret points out the qualitative change in moving from text to live theater:
Le théâtre ne constitue-t-il pas un lieu particulier où l’on s’adresse de la sorte au ‘peuple assemblé’ ? les observateurs s’accordent en tout cas à reconnaître que la diffamation publique qui affecte les encyclopédistes lors de la représentation des Philosophes constitue en événement qui fait date et qui donne lieu à une tonitruante querelle marquée, non seulement par une suite de ‘comédies satiriques’, mais aussi par un déluge de pamphlets. (Ferret, Fureur de Nuire 72) For a detailed account of the 1757 squabble between Diderot and Palissot, see Balcou’s Fréron contre les philosophes, pp. 132-135.
Les Philosophes is the result of—and results in—a plethora of pamphlets and satires.
Palissot’s play was an important moment that surpassed the traditional theatergoing experience to “faire date” in French letters. As indicated by the eyewitness accounts that introduce this chapter, contemporary and posterior critics of Les Philosophes noticed the play’s “eventful nature,” or, how the play caused a bruit and tumulte similar to a natural disaster or rowdy public meeting.
In this section, we will discover how the energized atmosphere of theater reception was due to Palissot’s attempt to persuade different spectators with different strategies. Palissot combines an acute knowledge of “which group wants to see which criticism” with an intelligent manipulation of external political and literary phenomena such as favorable censorship rules and an unfavorable climate for members of the encyclopedic project. The spectators who went to see Palissot’s play had been preconditioned to expect to see on stage the same live people they read about in CounterEnlightenment pamphlets: and they were not disappointed. Palissot uses his theatrical work to build on the excitement caused by polemical pamphlets to move from strictly written sources with modest circulations to performative practices inherent to theater and which helped cause “visceral” reactions among spectators.
Palissot shows a dramaturgical consideration toward persuading the spectator that is traditionally attached only to philosophes in his rival camp. For example, in the article “Parterre” from the Encyclopédie, Jean-François Marmontel urges writers to persuade spectators into adopting more “enlightened” views. The famous philosophe and close
friend of Voltaire writes:
Le parterre est donc habituellement composé d’hommes sans culture et sans prétentions, dont la sensibilité ingénue vient se livrer aux impressions qu’elle recevra du spectacle, et qui, de plus, suivant l’impulsion qu’on leur donne, semblent ne faire qu’un esprit et qu’une âme avec ceux qui, plus éclairés, les font penser et sentir avec eux. (Article : “Parterre” in the Encyclopédie, qtd. by Veysman 158) According to Marmontel, the parterre’s lack of philosophical or literary knowledge allows it to judge a theatrical work by “impulsion” rather than cool reflection. Palissot recognizes a need to denounce members of the Republic of Letters by disproving their opinions and ideas, but at the same time, he also wants the parterre to support, enjoy, and agree with the arguments in his comedy. With a desire to convince and persuade through theater that parallels advocates of the emerging drame, Palissot, as we shall see, exhibits a dramatic “souci de prendre en compte les conditions concrètes de la représentation et de tirer parti de toutes les ressources que pouvait offrir la technologie contemporaine de la scène” (Roubine 52).
With the following close reading of Les Philosophes, I hope to show that Palissot’s concerns for the dramaturgical elements of his performance and for persuading the spectator parallel theatrical projects by contemporary rivals like Diderot, Voltaire, and later, Beaumarchais. While philosophes and anti-philosophes strongly disagreed on the subject of their debates, both parties nevertheless relied on similar strategies of pamphlet publication and theatrical persuasion. During literary war, both camps sought to enlighten the spectator and persuade him or her into adopting either philosophe or antiphilosophe worldviews.
Palissot’s theater draws examples from contemporary society and “non-literary” texts just as much as it finds origins in Molièresque comedy or Ancient Greek satire. In addition, this “lowly” playwright manifests a new representational strategy with the staging of personalities, works, and important cultural practices of his time—a cross pollination of writing and performance which results in a visceral response by both theater critics and the audience, or, a veritable “theatrical event.” Les Philosophes, like Voltaire’s L’Ecossaise (which we will see next), emerges as an important cultural artifact and indicator of changing norms in various fields such as theater, literary criticism, and journalistic media. Because of the inherent need to persuade spectators to adhere to a philo-social paradigm, Palissot and Voltaire, as we shall see, diverge from “normal’ dramaturgical writing practices, production methods, and publication strategies of the eighteenth century.
Through close readings of both plays, I hope to underline the complex manner by which the philosophe vs. anti-philosophe debate moves among pamphlets, theatrical, and literary works. This turn towards more “aesthetic” representations of polemics, however, was not linear. While it is important to differentiate among the multiple modes with which adversaries carried out this debate, it is also vital to note the ambiguous, everchanging relationship between pamphlet and dramatic work, text and performance, or polemicist and homme de lettres.
The following two close readings should reveal a fragile dialectic between aesthetic works and social practices during the middle of the eighteenth-century, rather than a simple reflective mirror between art and society. These dramatic works do not represent historical exactitudes or the precise social situations in which they are disseminated. Nevertheless, a deep look into the subtle lines that interconnect and separate art with society during this period might, as Terry Eagleton (borrowing from Pierre Macherey) argues, still be able to reconstruct a mirror that is “placed at an angle to reality, a broken mirror which presents its images in fragmented form, and is as expressive in what it does not reflect as in what it does” (46). With this notion in mind— the idea that art and society are linked, but not necessarily in a way that we can consciously grasp one hundred percent of the time—let us delve into Charles Palissot’s comédie des Philosophes.
The Curtain Rises on Palissot’s Les Philosophes Les Philosophes is a farcical comedy that borrows its plot, tone, as well as direct lines, from Molière’s Les Femmes savantes (1672). The play follows a traditional comedic format with a predicable restoration of the bons (the anti-philosophes in this case) over the méchants (Valère, the lead philosophe, and his cohort). Rosalie, a young and beautiful aristocrat, is set to be married to Valère (read: Molière’s Trissotin), who has convinced Rosalie’s mother Cydalise (read: Molière’s Philaminte) that he and his philosophic ways would provide an enriching future for her daughter. However, Rosalie is in love with Damis, a local boy, and can’t stand the pompous rhetoric and overt proselytizing of Valère, Dortidius, Carondas, and the other philosophes. Over the course of the play, Palissot shows that “philosophes” are nothing more than lying opportunists and hopes that the audience will sigh with relief when Valère’s hypocritical personality is revealed, the philosophes are sent packing, and Cydalise agrees that Damis is the best choice for Rosalie to wed.