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  • Furniture, Sociability, and the Work of Leisure in Eighteenth Century France *
  • Mimi Hellman (bio)

In 1742, Claude-Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon published a novel entitled Le Sopha (The Sofa). 1 A critique of contemporary French society cast in a fictional orientalist mode, Le Sopha is set in the court of an indolent sultan. It comprises a selection of erotic tales told by a courtier named Amanzéi, whose narrative authority has a curious basis: he has personally witnessed the events he describes in the course of previous incarnations, during which his spirit inhabited a series of sofas. Condemned to this condition by the deity Brama as punishment for licentious, hypocritical conduct during earlier human incarnations, Amanzéi is compelled to observe—and, literally, to support—the amorous machinations of others until he can serve as the site of a sincere declaration of love. Thus, our hero migrates from one upholstered host to another, observing variously decorated interiors and the equally diverse misadventures of their occupants with the Enlightenment libertine’s remarkable combination of voyeuristic delectation and critical analysis. Le Sopha, then, is a novel of manners from the point of view of a decorative object, a story that turns on the impossible, amusing, and at the same time oddly unsettling suggestion that perceptual and cognitive faculties might lurk unsuspected beneath the inanimate surfaces of domestic adornments.

I begin with Crébillon’s conceit of a sofa as a narrative protagonist because it introduces the notion of a piece of furniture as a social actor, an observant [End Page 415] entity that participates in human encounters. Crébillon’s premise is, of course, utterly fanciful, but much of the cultural and epistemological business of the eighteenth century was transacted in the guise of invention and entertainment, and the idea of the object-as-narrator offers a valuable insight into the role of furniture in eighteenth-century French social life. 2 The relationship between furniture and people in Le Sopha is one of both enticement and uneasiness. The sofa is sumptuous and convenient, perpetually available to receive the body and to display it to advantage. At the same time, however, it is an agent of surveillance, as ready to discern the flaws of its users as it is able to enhance their charms. Its apparently innocent presence as “mere decoration” disguises its role as author, its capacity to witness and verbally represent human interactions.

I would like to suggest that a similar tension (albeit without Brama’s spell) marked the relationship between luxury furniture and elite consumers in the nonfictional social scenarios of eighteenth-century France. Tables, chairs, and other decorative objects were social actors that both facilitated and, in a sense, monitored the leisure acts of privileged society. Through strategically designed aspects of form and function, furniture appeared to accommodate and flatter its users as they pursued such activities as reading, writing, conversing, eating, dressing, and game playing. Through the same design qualities, however, furniture also structured and delimited the behavior and appearance of individuals according to culturally specific codes of social conduct. These individuals, in turn, cultivated a repertoire of visual, corporeal, and social practices and values that was both required for and further refined by their engagement with furniture.

This essay examines the mutually defining interaction of objects and bodies, and the ways in which elite social personae were produced through the formal dynamics and cultural meanings of furniture usage. I call this interaction and its complex conditions the work of leisure, and intend the phrase to convey a double sense: first, that although leisured conduct was meant to appear natural and easy, it was in fact constructed, learned, and very much worked at; second, that elite leisure practices played a key role—did work—in culture and were deeply entwined with, not separate from or oblivious to, political and epistemological systems. The work of leisure, unlike artisanal or commercial work, did not produce material goods through overtly difficult physical labor or exchange them in the marketplace. Rather, it mobilized objects made and distributed by others as materials for another mode of making: the apparently effortless fabrication of elite identity itself, an ephemeral product that was as highly...

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pp. 415-445
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