Abstract: This study has fixed as its purpose to highlight the social characters in La Bruyere’s Characters. The author offers us different dimensions, one sociological, and one ethical, than psychological: it is a moralist’s work; we find variety of means, among which we discover the dialogue, picture, reflection, wise saw, and portrait. The tone can be either solemn or serious one, satirical or comical one.
Key-words: Social, character, La Bruyère, anthropologie.
La Bruyère studies the manners, meaning the people’s way of behavior in society, to whom the author discovers various characters, meaning their specific features. In the Theofrastian, inherit from Aristotle, where we speak of classifying the species from a classical point of view, La Bruyère’s work has a dimension that is more sociological, ethical, than psychological: it is a moralist’s work. These concepts are obviously out-dated in the XVIIth century, but La Bruyère makes anthropology without even knowing that. Within the classical anthropology there is the concept of character.
Reading The Characters we often encounter “remarks” that shock us due to a single aspect that is their principal feature. In La Bruyère’s work there are constants that have the value of a neutral point to which the author always returns after he has wandered into the exceptional field. Nevertheless the uniformity wouldn’t be enough to support the whole work; the “characters” have the role of introducing the examples, of the illustrations, of the amusing annexes. Even in the field of “characters”, which he tries to simplify, La Bruyère admits the plurality: Men have no characters, or at any rate none that shows any consistency, that does not contradict itself, and through which they may be recognized. They find it irksome to remain the same, to persevere either in following rules or in breaking them; and if they sometimes adopt one virtue as a change from another virtue, they more often discard one vice for the sake of another vice. They have opposing passions and contradictory weaknesses; they find it easier to make extremes meet than to follow a line of conduct that is all of a piece. Enemies of moderation, they exaggerate whatever they do, good or bad; and when they find such excess intolerable, they alleviate its effect by means of change. Adrastus was so corrupt and impious that he found it easier to follow the fashion and turn devout: it would have cost him more pains to become a good man. (XI, Of man, 147).
If La Bruyère dedicates himself to searching people’s vices (there are only a few characters that are perfectly moral) this is due to the fact that they offer him the show of a breach, variation as opposed to a rule. Vices are subjects that generate much more than the virtues and all moralists, such as Pascal or La Rochefoucauld, have understood this issue, poets like Baudelaire, writers like Balzac, Zola among many others. La Bruyère’s negative views are encouraged by a style desire to the contrasts that he accuses. In this way a dialogue appears, which is the necessary rhythm of Characters’ work, showing the elementary function of the text that is been made.
What draws attention in La Bruyère’s Characters, is that humane universe where truth and unity have a great value through their absence. Berengère Parmentier underlines the fact that La Bruyère doesn’t make the difference between a humane nature that contains the image of God and one that is morally decadent, between the reasonable virtue and the people’s grotesque behavior within society. In her opinion, this isn’t an element of the human being’s mood but of a ridiculous social condition. In La Bruyère’s Characters we speak about social consideration based upon uncertainty, mobility and the human being’s paradoxes.
People like the fools, cowards or jokers can, and theoretically speaking meet each other in any possible place of society. But the characters show us great collective portraits, which models are defined, first of all in social terms: there are the Great Nobles and the Courtiers (and also the People, but it doesn’t belong to the mundane society). Within this genre we also have to place another two portraits, which subjects stand for both people’s space and society: The Court and The City.
In several chapters of the Characters the institutions critique is highly liberal expressed. The desire of social reform, and not only moral reform, is highly obvious.
The Court is the theatre where the Great Nobles and the Courtiers present their show. Which is the image of the Court that La Bruyère presents to us? According to his point of view, the Court’s life has no conclusive features that make the differences as opposed to the common ground of the people’s society.
At Court and in the City we find the same passions, the same foibles, the same meanness, the same prejudice, the same quarrels within families and between friends, the same envy and the same antipathy. (…).Here, men flatter themselves on hating one another with greater pride and haughtiness, and perhaps with more dignity: they injure one another more cleverly and subtly; they rage more eloquently, and their insults are more polished and better expressed; the purity of the language remains unharmed; only men, or their reputations, are wounded: the outward aspect of vice is brilliant, but underneath it is the same as in the lowest ranks, revealing all that is basest, meanest and most shameful in human nature. These men, so great by birth, privilege or position, these acute and able minds, these civilized and witty women, all despise the common people, and they themselves are common. This term, the common people, has more than one meaning: its scope is wide, and we might well be surprised to see what it embraces and how far it extends. There is the common people as opposed to the nobility: namely the populace, the mob; and there is the common people as opposed to those who are wise, learned and virtuous: this includes great folk as well as humble. (IX, 53)
It is a tumultuous / struggling place, where all the passions and infirmities of the mundane world are raised at the highest purity and energy level and when clashing one into another and then calming down one by one, leave the place to passions, plots, endless intrigues. (II,11). Court is a certain point the reunion center of all vices, so that we can assert this paradoxical statement: all we have to do is to ignore the Court in order to notices all the virtues: You can hardly pay a man a greater compliment than to censure him for not knowing the ways of the Court: that single phrase implies the possession of every sort of virtue. (VIII, 1)
There is only one passion at the Court, that seems to be the first in relation to the other ones: ambition. One is small at Court, and however great one's vanity one feels small; but the affliction is a common one, and even the great are small there. (VIII, 5)
But isn’t less true that this common evil, there is not even a single person that shouldn’t have the desire to cure at any costs. There is the omnipresent spring of all various and coherent actions that give the Court its universal animation.
The purposes that make the people action at the Court are always the same. But the successes or failures of great or small ambitions bring perpetual transformations in the court life.
Who can give a name to certain changeable colours, which vary according to the light in which we look at them? in the same way, who can define the Court? (VIII, 3),
To absent oneself from the Court for a single moment means to give it up: the courtier who has seen it in the morning sees it again in the evening, so that he may know it again next day, or so that he may be known there himself. (VIII, 4).
„In the Court, in the city, the same passions, the same weakness…” Nevertheless, because there is a special atmosphere that characterizes only the Court, which is contagious, therefore passions get characteristic features exactly like the manners, which together obey to the common rule of politeness. But the ground being “the same as in the most difficult conditions” we might conclude that Whoever has seen the Court has seen the most beautiful, brilliant and splendid thing in the world; but, also, whoever despises the Court, after having seen it, despises the world. (VIII, 100).
The multitude of “remarks” that make the portrait of the Great Nobles detach themselves from this vivid fresco, where the purest vices hide themselves in vain behind the gloss of the delicate manners. Which are the distinctive features of the Great Nobles, in La Bruyère’s opinion? First of all, could we doubt that this isn’t the vanity in them that outruns the rest of the other passions?
Great nobles think that they alone are perfect (IX, 9)… and there is a certain degree of pain that they have to admit that Men are all one family; there are only degrees of relationship: it must be sad for them to see that our forebears were all siblings. Great nobles must dislike primitive times, which are hardly flattering for them; (IX, 47). They have a natural pride (IX, 43) and a natural disdain for the People (IX, 18), to who also avoid, „to share one's faith and one's God with the common people (IX, 23). In this way their vanity oblige them to show that they are very far away ones of the others:
A man about the Court whose name is not fine enough must bury it under a better one; but if he bears a name of which he is not ashamed, he must then insinuate that it is the most illustrious of all names, and that his family is the most ancient of all families. (VIII, 20)
When their vanity is not threatened and when they don’t have “a good opinion” of their name, they will go to that situation of not remembering other names, which they consider them to be obscure, spelling them incorrectly, they have in mind the plan of showing how less important these names are in comparison to their own (V,70).
There is only the bad intention that can debate the soul of The Great Nobles their vanity. And if we notice how La Bruyère wants to stress this passion, we might say that it is above all:
Apparently the first rule of official bodies, of people in authority or in power, is to inflict on those who depend on them for the settlement of their affairs all the setbacks they could possibly apprehend. (IX, 30)
The reason is that they try a pleasure they get from being entreated, importuned, solicited, from keeping people waiting or denying them, from promising and then not giving. (II, 11). This movement of the promise of refuse it is expressed by a surprising fastness in Theognis’portrait (IX, 48). It may be possible that this promptitude to come from the habitude of perform actions from reflex and not because those actions have been thought at, element that gives sadness to the character:
Somebody needs his help in a quite straightforward matter; Theognis lends a willing ear, is delighted to be of some assistance, and implores him to take every opportunity of making use of him; when the other persists in his request, he says he will do nothing about it, and appeals to him to put himself in his, Theognis's, place, and judge for himself. The suitor leaves, and is shown out so affectionately that he feels ashamed, and is almost pleased to have met with a refusal
Great nobles pride themselves on cutting an avenue through a forest, on building long retaining-walls for an estate, on gilding ceilings, on conveying a foot of water into their pools, on stocking an orangery; but as for bringing contentment to a human heart, filling another's soul with joy, forestalling extreme need or remedying it, their interest does not extend that far. (IX, 4)
Deeply in their nature, under a rind of politeness, hides a corrupt and vicious spirit (IX, 25). Regarding their own shortcomings (greatness and discernment are two different things - IX, 13), we can talk about a fundamental easiness, of a lack of seriousness and a continuation in reflection; La Bruyère establishes a connection with their congenital laziness:
Great nobles are governed by impulse; on such idle souls, everything makes a keen impression to begin with. Something happens, and they talk too much about it; soon they talk about it less; then they stop talking about it, and they will never talk of it again. Actions, behaviour, achievements and events are all forgotten; expect from them neither self-improvement nor foresight, nor reflection, nor gratitude, nor reward. (IX, 54)
This indolence determines them neglect, “great nobles are content to know nothing, not merely about matters of State and the interests of princes but about their own private affairs; while they remain ignorant of household administration and all that the head of a family should know” and “pride themselves on this ignorance” (IX, 24). Beside this, it is not at all surprising that they are not in any mood to ask themselves about the supreme truth:
There is no such thing as atheism. Great nobles, who are most frequently suspected of it, are too idle to decide in their own minds that there is no God; their indolence is such that they remain unmoved and indifferent about this vital matter, as about the nature of their souls and the consequences of true religion; they neither deny these things nor acknowledge them: they don't think about them. (XVI, 16)
La Bruyère despised a lot the Great nobles. In his despise, we can see nothing else than the attitude that the spirit people have: ”spirit people despise the Great Nobles that have only greatness” (IX,12). He might conclude by saying that “sometimes is more efficient to leave the Great Nobles than to complain of them” (IX,9) action that he didn’t do it?
In the chapter entitled Of Society And Conversation the word “society” associated to the word “conversation” has another meaning, leads to the art of living into the society, according to correct, honest and polite principles. A Great among a Courtier group he himself becomes a courtier as soon as another Great that is more eminent than himself appears. This won’t be able to escape the same destiny if another third Great…..; and so on. Nevertheless many people crowd the Court that taken together, only partially did they mix up with the Great nobles. This multitude is made up of various families of people, which, first defined in social terms, by their presence at the Court, are on the second place because of their peculiar vocations and attitudes.
But before studding these families in amore detailed analysis, let’s remember the general portrait of the Courtier that La Bruyère presents to us. He sumarises in a special way the common aspects of all the Courtiers. Let’s closely notice the kind of character that this is, let’s notice the features of his face and his appearance: A man who knows the ways of the Court is master of his gestures, his eyes and his face; he is deep, impenetrable; he pretends not to notice injuries done him, he smiles to his enemies, controls his temper, disguises his passions, belies his heart, speaks and acts against his real opinions. All this elaborate procedure is merely a vice which we call deceitfulness, which is sometimes as useless to the courtier for his advancement as frankness, sincerity and virtue would have been. (VIII, 2)
The wheels and springs and all the works are hidden; the watch shows nothing but its hand, which moves forward imperceptibly and completes a circle; an image of the courtier, the more perfect in that after having travelled a considerable way he often comes back to the very place he started from. (VIII, 65).
What does he have to disguise, this master of dissimulation? The thing is only the central passion where the entire life of the court is captured in: the courtier is word by word the martyr of his own ambition (VIII, 62). Principles to the smallest details of his behavior obey to the interests of this passion. Which these principles and details are is not hard to guess ; we can easily understand that they imply the oblivion of any kind of will .
In Berengère Parmentier’s opinion, The Characters represent “a new and decisive stage in the secularization of the society notion” due to the lack of ontological dignity and due to the fact that it isn’t anymore “the great temple of God and of nature”. But let’s see how La Bruyère took care to diversify the general kind of the Courtier made up of people that were “very tough, but polite” (VIII,10). They wanted, in several collective portraits, to emphasize some peculiar families, each of them having its own specific features.
The social universe is created at the appearances level that do not correspond to an interiority, that have no ontological meaning, but which are re-invested.
The Silent people (VIII,83). Due to their behavior and attitudes they give the impression of having spirit and desert. Through long silent periods, barely one-word utterances, some parsimonious smiles, through the intention of a gesture, through all these they show the fact that are “important people”. They “are liked by the others due to their silence’. But we could apply to them Wilde’s famous word regarding the women: they are sphinxes without secrets. Their mysteries hide the nothingness. These people “don’t have – if I dare to say so – two finger deepness, if you try a little bit of them you reach the tuff”.
The adventures (VIII,16). “There are at the Courts presences of some people that are adventurous and heavy…” They triumph through their weight. They pretend having some extraordinary talents that “the others don’t have and they are trusted their word”. They “take advantage of the love the people have through novelty”; due to this they “cross among the crowd and reach the Prince’s ear”. They vanish away the same way they appeared, “both rich and discredited”.
The experts (XIII,28). There is other kind of people whose entire personality is mixed up to a special and acknowledged talent. “The old habit at the Courts of giving retributions and of sharing favors to a musician, of a dance master, to a joker, of a player of…” “Their unchanged desert” shouldn’t be neglected, because they are the ones that “make the Great Nobles to laugh”, they are the ones that voluntarily “give up to their greatness”.
Those dedicated to women (VIII, 18). “The Courts could not dispense of a certain type of Courtiers, flattering, courteous, insinuative, dedicated to women men…” Finally, the privileged issue of their studies is represented by pleasures, elements of weakness and the women’s pleasures. They perceive, guess the movements of their soul and therefore direct their lives. “They launch models” and nothing outruns them in the lust field. “They whisper to the ear of the greatest princes, they never miss a party, one prince’s celebration…” As omnipresent people “it seems that they multiply in an endless number of places and they are always the first faces that welcome the looks of the new-entry people at a court”.
Two courtier families are shown, each one through an individual portrait that contains within the type. That of Cels (II,39) shows a character where those qualities of mediator and informer are both to encounter. The profound and extended knowledge of the “actual rumors”, of the intimate, family secrets join the intention of avoiding fights. That’s why those as Cels, have always “the attitude of some important and mysterious diplomat recently returned from an embassy”.
Cimon and Clitandru (VIII, 19) represent a character, that at a first level, it is very close to that of the inaccessible people (IX, 32). They have the same arduous feverishness, the same agitation of the human marionette , but inaccessible, “they are those who the others need them, whom they depend upon”. Their appearance is nothing more than a way of satisfying their appetite of annoying and damaging. Cimon and Clitandru’s attitude is less offensive. (It makes us think to a weak vanity). They are pure courteous, nice: “who saw them walking? You see them running, talking in a hurry…” But who could believe, observing them that “they are those who have to solve all the problems of the entire state” is wrong. Their only job is that of “being seen over and over again and they never go to sleep until they have finished such a serious job and so useful for the state”.
Several types of courtier don’t live in the Characters than through the term that resumes their whole nature. These are the slyboots, the libertines and the hypocrites (XVI, 26….; their attitudes are generally those of the courtier, without any artificial things or intrigue; they “adopt them happily, sincerely, without any cunning or dissimulation”). Usually the quick description of a certain general tendency substitutes this unique term; it is the case of those who abuse of the present moments, don’t enjoy them. (VIII, 95)
Finally, in his purest way, La Bruyère judges and bewails a whole category of people that worth nothing, describing their gestures: Many men drag out their lives at Court embracing and congratulating those who receive favours, and die there at last, having gained nothing. (VIII, 47)
La Bruyère’s man does not fall apart of his interiority, as happens at Rochefoucauld, by the dissociation of his will and the metamorphoses of his own vanity, but rather, of his exteriority under the effect of the social constraints. In this way, the social manners transform him into an imperceptible and continuous changing human being: men, from one point of view, are not fickle, or are fickle only in trivial matters. They change their habits, their language, manners and conventions; they retain their evil ways, firm and constant in wrongdoing, or in indifference towards virtue. (Of Man, 2)
The city is another great social theatre where the Characters’ crowd evolves. It is known, that, basically, the purposes that make the people act are exactly the same that exist at the court too; all the passions that are to be blame don’t flower here less than they do it at the Great Nobles or at the Courtiers. Nevertheless, some remarks that La Bruyère makes are true only for the city. One of them regards the division of the city “in various societies” hostile one to the others, after the rules of some species of self-collective love: The town is divided into various groups, which form so many little states, each with its own laws and customs, its jargon and its jokes. While the association holds and the fashion lasts, they admit nothing well said or well done except by one of themselves, and they are incapable of appreciating anything from another Source, to the point of despising those who are not initiated into their mysteries. (VII, 4) (.)”
But these „societies”, these small opposites groups go
together in the same feeling regarding those whom they suffer that they are all
separated together: court people. All in all, if there is a common feeling of
the city people is the idolatry for those that live in the Court’s charming
places. This tendency is not to be found only in
women, we know that it is one of the familiar habits of the vanity. It crates
in the city people a pressure / a general tendency to imitate the court people:
La Bruyère blames the city as a place of intelligence. He notices a symmetric phenomenon, which takes place at the Court too. Here, there is a spirit but he tries to deny it or to transform it into ridicule; in the city he doesn’t find it but he behaves as if there exist such thing.
The social human being escape any definitions and he is unsure, but there is no other human being except the social human being. There it relies the ambiguity of the anthropology of the Characters that is rather sociology. B. Parmentier notices that La Bruyère goes to the extremes the principle according to which the human being is no longer coherent, because he is only a social man. We might see in the Characters an attempt of understanding how the social world functions, an attempt of explaining the social mechanisms, but also a reduction: an inversion of the ideal hierarchies, a reduction of them to the substance, to the grotesque.
As Louis Van Delft in 1993, in Littérature et anthropologie: nature humaine et caractère à l’age classique, Paris, PUF, in this way remembering the connection between the first meaning of the term that denotes “character” and the metaphoric meanings, the fundamental image of the European culture, that of the book, was fulfilled by a signification bigger and bigger after the printer was invented. From the Ancient Greek, as it is known, the term of “character”, belongs to the field of engraving and it took the figurative meaning of “mark”. Or, as Louis Van Delft: “It was necessary that the term of character to receive beside the general meaning of mark and sign that of letter specialized into the world of engraving in order to have a shape, the representation of the human nature, as a book, whose various men – more precisely various types of men – represent the alphabet”, p. 20.
Those 50 portraits from which real “characters” are drawn from” (Menalque, Diphile, Arrias, Gnathon, Pamphile, Cydias, Onuphre, Lise, Glycere, Irene, Giton and Phedon, Basilide si Demophile) do not modify deeply the structure of the Characters , that are grouped and they appear mostly in the first three chapters Of Worldly Goods, Of Great Nobles, Of Man). They are not distinct of the rest of the maxims that gives them meaning and they receive in their turn. Their absence would be harmful: no matter how unimportant the place that they occupy would be, there are if not the best of the whole work, at least the most pleasant thing from all the work and the one that is in perfect agreement to the visual genius of the author” (Stegmann, p. 85). The definition of the “character” that Stegman gives is a very debatable one (which he places only in three chapters) and even though he seems to believe that including them into the work affects the structure of the book, it isn’t less true that they present, as he also notices, what is more original in this work.
See, also Marc Escola, „Espace textual, espace social: les chapitres des Caractères de La Bruyère”, in Études littéraires, Volume 34, nr. 1-2, 2002, p. 103-113: he views the chapters of Caractères as „composed ” as textual spaces, analogous to the major regions of the social sphere (“ De la Ville ”, “ De la Cour ”, “ Des Grands ”, etc.) ? The question brings forth, in the most traditional manner, the question of “ mimesis ” — that is, of the relations between the text and the world. However, to the extent that La Bruyère’s work can be considered a reflection on the conditions governing the exercise of moral judgments — a critique of judgments qua outcomes conditioned by social positions — the question should be referred away from the realm of statements to that of their utterance. The various chapters do not merely constitute a topographical survey of the regions of society, but indeed stand as categories of judgments. Thus, it comes as no surprise that the unity of textual space should rest on the regions of language itself : each chapter “ notes ” a series of sociolects and a certain mode under which the signs constitutive of social spaces circulate — i.e., the world as it is spoken
Sleeping and waking, courtiers are ruled by self-interest; this is what they brood upon morning and evening, by day and by night; this dictates their thoughts and words, their silence, their actions; it impels them to seek out some men and neglect others, to climb or to condescend; it is the rule that determines their attentions, their kindness, their respect, their indifference, their contempt. Though virtue may incline some men a little way towards moderation and wisdom, yet ambition, that prime motive, carries them off along with those who are most avid and violent in their desires and ambitions: how can one remain still while everything around one is astir and on the move, how can one not run where others are running? VIII, 22).
If nobility implies virtue, any lapse from virtue destroys it; if it does not imply virtue, it is of little account. (XIV, 15) Many men have only their name to commend them. When you see them close, they are of no account; from a distance, they take you in. (II, 2); Some men, if they could know themselves and know those below them, would be ashamed of taking precedence. (IX, 21).
is only of the middle rank, but some great men put up with him; he is not learned, he has dealings with learned men; he has no great merits, but he knows people who have; he is not clever, but he has a tongue which can serve as interpreter, and feet that can carry him from one place to another. He is a man born to go to and fro, to listen to proposals and convey them, to make his own unasked, to exceed his mission and be repudiated on that account, to bring together people who will quarrel at their first encounter; to succeed in one undertaking and fail in a thousand, to take all the praise for success and let others bear the blame for an unlucky outcome. He knows the common rumours, the chitchat of the town; he does nothing himself, he tells or listens to the doings of others, he is a news-bearer; he even knows family secrets; he probes deeper mysteries; he tells you why so and so has been exiled and somebody else recalled; he is familiar with the background and causes of the quarrel between the two brothers and of the rift between the two Ministers. Didn't he warn the former about the deplorable consequences of their misunderstanding? Didn't he remark of the latter that their alliance could not last? Was he not there when certain words were spoken? Didn't he attempt a sort of negotiation? Would anyone believe him? did they listen to him? You can't tell Celsus anything he doesn't know; for who was more involved than he in all these court intrigues? And if it were not so, if he had not at any rate dreamed or imagined it to be so, would he try to make you believe it? would he wear the important and mysterious air of one who has just been acting as ambassador (). (II, 39), See D. Kirsch, La Bruyère ou le style cruel, p. 9.
A man of quality whom chance has brought among them, however intelligent he may be, is a stranger to them; he finds himself there as though in a distant land where he knows neither the roads, nor the language, nor the ways, nor the customs; he sees a crowd of people talking, murmuring, whispering, bursting into laughter and then relapsing into gloomy silence; he is discomfited, he does not know how to put in a single word nor even what to listen to. There is always some detestable buffoon there who is cock of the walk, and seems to be the hero of the company; he has made himself responsible for the others' delight, and he always raises a laugh even before he has spoken. If a woman should appear who does not share their pleasures, the merry band cannot see why she fails to laugh at things she does not understand, or to appreciate feeble jokes which they only enjoy because they make them themselves; they forgive neither her tone of voice, nor her silence, nor her figure, nor her face, nor her dress, nor her way of coming in or going out. No coterie, however, can last out two years; the first twelvemonth always contains the seeds of division that will shatter it during the second; rivalry between beauties, incidents of the gaming table, the extravagance of meals which, modest to begin with, soon degenerate into sumptuous banquets with pyramids of foodstuffs, all these things disturb the commonwealth and finally deal it a death-blow; and in a very short while there is no more talk of this nation than of last year's flies. (VII, 4).
there's no resisting a gold scarf and a white feather, a man who speaks to the King and sees his Ministers. (III, 29).
In town, many very foolish men and women are credited with intelligence; at court, many highly intelligent people are denied it; and among the latter sort, a handsome woman is seldom spared by other women. (III, 57
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