The Je-Ne-Sais-Quoi in Early Modern Europe: Encounters with a Certain Something
The aesthetics of intersubjective experience in the early modern period articulate themselves around a void, always trying, with ever-increasing desperation, to say the unsayable. This unsayable has a number of names: sprezzatura, galanterie, honnêteté, and the term that gestures most explicitly towards its own incapacity to define that for which definition itself would be fatal: je ne sais quoi. Richard Scholar's book is a cheerful and exhaustive attempt to describe this phenomenon, readily — and consciously — embracing its inarticulability even while exploring nearly every corner of its territory. Despite its title, the book concentrates mainly [End Page 192] on French sources, for the most part appropriately so, since — as Scholar demonstrates — seventeenth-century France is where the term and its entourage really live. Scholar does attempt, however, to resist the centripetal pull of the term, both linguistically and generically, pursuing the je-ne-sais-quoi across late sixteenth- and seventeenth-century texts ranging from the aesthetics of behavior to natural philosophy. He also wants to resist a reductively sequential approach, borrowing Terence Cave's anti-chronological method of prehistory to avoid writing merely a teleological narrative of progress. Here, as elsewhere in the book, the theoretical apparatus feels at times creaky, if not superfluous; Scholar could do more here to show how this method differs (if indeed it does) from simply endeavoring to understand texts on their own terms.
The first part of the book presents itself as a word history: using Starobinski's notion of the tripartite life cycle of a word — from its emergence as a lexical entity, through a period of currency, to its demise in what Merleau-Ponty calls sedimentation — he traces the je-ne-sais-quoi from its birth from the Ciceronian nescio quid through Corneille, Retz, and Bouhours to its death-by-definition in the great dictionaries of the end of the seventeenth century. The second, more substantial portion of the book attempts what Scholar calls a "critical history" of the term's activity in three different discursive fields: nature, the passions, and culture. He rightly points out that the term's undefinability tends to disrupt settled discourses, and then attempts first to show how the term manifests itself in conflicts in the field of natural philosophy. This discussion is less successful than other portions of the book; the reader may not be convinced of the importance of the term in this context, and moreover the chapter's conclusions — for example, that Newton describes the workings of gravitation but does not attempt to describe its nature — are at best unremarkable. Much more consequential and persuasive is the chapter on the passions, where Descartes, Pascal, and Corneille rightly take pride of place, but where a number of lesser-known authors and texts also act to give us a more richly detailed view of how the je-ne-sais-quoi both does and does not describe the irrational, instantaneous experience of desire. Scholar here offers not a series of patient close readings, but a high-altitude view of the terrain, one which, while often frustratingly cursory, does give the reader a sense of the larger cultural context in which, for example, Pascal's remark on Cleopatra's nose ought to be understood. Likewise, the chapter on the aesthetics of polite discourse, with its nuanced discussion of the je-ne-sais-quoi and its cousins honnêteté and galanterie in authors like Bouhours and Méré, properly follows the lead of critics like Michael Moriarty and Alain Viala in attempting to understand that discourse in its cultural and ideological contexts, although Scholar perhaps overstates the degree to which less-recent critics have failed to do so.
The penultimate chapter, on Montaigne, executes the prehistorical move already described, and deserves praise for its effort to understand Montaigne without anachronism or reductiveness. Scholar's resistance to making of Montaigne the precursor of anything, especially later versions of polite conversation, occasionally leads to distorted interpretations, as in the case of his strangely [End Page 193] decontextualized reading of "De l'art de conferer." However, this does not substantially detract from the chapter's greatest strength, which is to show how Montaigne, dancing around the term itself, offers to the reader a far more profound and complex sense of the je-ne-sais-quoi — especially with reference to the sudden, irrational, inarticulable experience of friendship — than any subsequent writer. The final chapter suggests that the je-ne-sais-quoi is in a sense the lexical representation of what literature does in describing human experience, and moves to universalize that notion into a critical method, promptly applied in a global reading of A Midsummer Night's Dream. This is rather less persuasive than what precedes it, and the book might have just as easily — and more elegantly — concluded with its discussion of Montaigne. I applaud, however, Scholar's willingness, throughout the book, to attempt to explain something that by definition cannot be explained; as his own argument clearly shows, if you know what it is, it's not what you're looking for.