FRENCH LITERATURE - Part 4
"The trade of authorship is a violent,
and indestructible obsession."
George Sand (1804-76), French novelist.
THE FRENCH ENLIGHTENMENT
understood as harmony and balance, stamped the "splendid century," it
was above all the spirit of scientific inquiry that gave to the 18th
century its special character. With the decline in the authority of
the French monarchy, all social and political institutions came under
question and, eventually, attack. Ideas assumed sovereign power as,
one by one, traditional bastions were subjected to the scrutiny of
the PHILOSOPHES. Probably no other country or century has witnessed
such a concentration of intellectual talent as that represented by
the French ENLIGHTENMENT.
a Protestant philosopher turned freethinker who advocated religious
toleration, set the tone of the century with his Dictionnaire
historique et critique (1697; rev. 1704-06; Eng. trans., 1709). In
this work he foreshadowed the aggressive strategy of religious and
social criticism that would later be used by VOLTAIRE in his
malicious but amusing Dictionnaire philosophique (1764; Eng. trans.,
1765). Voltaire wrote tragedies in the classical mode, works of
history, deistic poetry, and light verse. He is chiefly remembered,
however, for his philosophical tales, such as Zadig (1747; Eng.
trans., 1749) and Candide (1759; Eng. trans., 1759); his Letters
concerning the English Nation (1733), comparing English and French
institutions (to the latter's disadvantage); and his Essai sur les
moeurs et l'esprit des nations (1769; partially trans. as The General
History and State of Europe, 1754), an anthropologically organized
comparative history of national characteristics. These works were the
centerpiece of his lifelong battle against intolerance, injustice,
adopted the method of comparative analysis, producing in his
masterpiece, The Spirit of the Laws (1748; Eng. trans., 1750), a
profound study of the different types of government. In this treatise
he expounded the doctrine of the separation of powers. This
contributed to the 18th-century French admiration for British
political institutions and helped mold the U.S. Constitution.
The biggest weapon
leveled against prejudice and traditional authorities was the
Encyclopedie, published in 35 volumes between 1751 and 1780 and
incorporating most of the materialist, skeptical, and antireligious
ideas of the day. This was a collective enterprise directed by Denis
Diderot to which the best minds of the age contributed: Jean
d'Alembert, Baron d'Holbach, Etienne de
Condillac, Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, Montesquieu,
Voltaire, and Rousseau.
Rousseau, whose political and social ideas enjoyed an even
wider vogue in the 19th and 20th centuries than in the 18th, asserted
the principle of the collective sovereignty of the people in The
Social Contract (1762; Eng. trans., 1764); in Emile (1762) he
expressed pedagogical theories that formed the basis of later
experiments in progressive education. His novel La Nouvelle Heloise
(1761), a compendium of the major intellectual questions discussed at
the time, was a forerunner of ROMANTICISM through which Rousseau
popularized the "return to nature" and the natural morality he
believed would flow from such a state. Rousseau's Confessions (1781,
1788) and Reveries (1782; Eng. trans. for both, 1783) were daring
autobiographical works that helped to develop the romantic taste for
the public display of the inner self.
The development of
the novel and the drama contributed to the explosion of the new
sensibility. Alain Rene Lesage's (1668-1747) picaresque
romance Gil Blas (1715, 1724, 1735; Eng. trans., 1749) opened the way
to the novels of "sentimental education," especially as produced in
England by Tobias Smollett and Henry Fielding. In Manon
Lescaut (1731; Eng. trans., 1738), the Abbe Prévost
presented a tale of passion triumphing over every obstacle but death,
while in Les Liaisons dangereuses (1782), Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
(1741-1803) analyzed the perverse psychology of a cynical seducer.
From the lively plays of Pierre de Marivaux came the term
marivaudage, meaning the style in which the subtle psychological
components of love and dalliance were portrayed by the playwright.
Toward the end of the century Beaumarchais held the stage with
his popular comedies The Barber of Seville (1775; Eng. trans., 1776)
and The Marriage of Figaro (1784; Eng. trans., 1785), which also
conveyed a subtly rebellious political message.
Poetry in the 18th
century suffered from the desiccating influence of rational analysis,
but one great poet emerged. André Chenier, whose verse
was inspired by the harmonies of classical Greek models and by a love
of liberty, became after his execution during the Terror an important
influence on the early romantic school.
Source: The New Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, Release #8, ©1996.
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