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Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.2 (2002) 295-299

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Book Review

"Post-Absolutism" and Laughter in Eighteenth-Century France

Jeremy D. Popkin,
University of Kentucky

Élisabeth Bourguinat. Le Siècle du persiflage, 1734-1789 (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1998). Pp. 228. FF 138 cloth.

Jay Caplan. In the King's Wake: Post-Absolutist Culture in France (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999). Pp. vii + 213. $45.00 cloth.

Antoine de Baecque. Les Éclats du rire. La culture des rieurs au XVIIIe siècle (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 2000). Pp. 338. FF 149 cloth.

Institutionally speaking, the absolute monarchy of the French Bourbons outlived Louis XIV by almost three-quarters of a century, but the three books under review here all argue that what Jay Caplan calls a "post-absolutist culture" came into being much earlier. By the time of the Sun King's death, if not earlier, the monarch's power to impose cultural and ideological standards was already fading, yielding both to the new power of the anonymous marketplace, highlighted in Caplan's analysis of Watteau's painting L'Enseigne de Geraint, and to the resurgent forces of a nobility whose members were instrumental in forming the culture of laughter and mockery that is the subject of Élisabeth Bourguinat's and Antoine de Baecque's studies. Post-absolutist culture represented a protest against the orthodoxies of the late seventeenth century, but it was not necessarily a foreshadowing of the new values to be proclaimed in 1789. In varying ways, these three studies all insist on the autonomy of France's "short" eighteenth century and the importance of seeing it as something more than just a transition from absolutism to liberalism.

Antoine de Baecque, a leading French scholar of the late eighteenth century and revolutionary era who has a second career as a historian of twentieth-century French cinema, presents the loosely structured essays that make up Les Éclats du rire as an application of the cinematic procedure of montage, the juxtaposition of apparently unrelated elements, a description that could be applied also to Jay Caplan's work. Writing in France, where the "new cultural history" has found a cooler reception than in the United States, de Baecque argues for the value of an approach that deliberately transgresses the methodological framework of traditional historical scholarship in order to preserve a critical edge (Éclats, 22). Élisabeth Bourguinat's essay demonstrates, however, that the employment of more "traditional" methods--the systematic exploration of all the uses of the term persiflage brought to light by a search of the Frantext data base, together [End Page 295] with a thorough pursuit of other examples in the corpus of French literature and journalism--can also lead to innovative conclusions.

In the King's Wake employs the now-familiar approach of bringing together "texts" from many different genres--memoir, theater, and painting--to demonstrate how all "define themselves in relation to absolutist models . . . while imagining new configurations of power and representation" (3). In the absolutist culture of Louis XIV's day, Caplan argues, drawing on Louis Marin's Portrait of the King (1988), the meaning of cultural signs was clear and unambiguous, but with the disappearance of the definitive source of meaning embodied by the king, the relationship of signs and things became increasingly uncertain. The financier John Law's experiment with paper money during the Regency exemplifies this uncertainty: whereas gold coins with the monarch's image had represented a solid value, Law's banknotes were unable to maintain their function as signs of wealth (6). The first three of Caplan's essays, devoted to three cultural creations of the brief Regency period that followed Louis XIV's death, are the most convincing. In his analysis of the passage in Saint-Simon's Memoirs devoted to the lit de justice, in which Louis XIV attempts to insert his illegitimate sons into the royal line of succession. Caplan brings out the ambiguity of this...


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