- Les Spectateurs de la vie: Généalogie du regard moraliste
In 1951, Sir Isaiah Berlin gave a seminal contribution on Tolstoy, reprinted two years later under the puzzling title, "The Hedgehog and the Fox." One may also think of "The Boar and the Fox," for, as the French philosopher Michel Serres once remarked, there are only two kinds of scholars, scientists or research workers: boars or foxes. The boar always ploughs the same furrow, relentlessly and deeply digging the same pothole. On the contrary, the fox never makes holes, digs nowhere, but wanders and prospects a large expanse of land. Serres's dichotomy reflects the everlasting difference between perseverance, persistency, and mercurial fickleness.
Louis Van Delft is one of the very rare scholars who manage, in France, to be both boars and foxes. Ever since the beginning of his scholarly career, he has devoted himself to an apparently narrow field of specialization: French moralists, those writers whose subtle and ambiguous bequest rests mainly in short pieces of writing — for instance, collections of portraits, "characters," maxims, and aphorisms. At first glance, La Bruyère and La Rochefoucauld seem to belong to a quintessentially and unfathomably French tradition, but they have more-or-less forgotten forerunners (Theophrastus, Publius Syrius, Erasmus), and followers (Swift, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche). So the literary historian may be a boar, insofar as he studied La Rochefoucauld, gave to print a monograph on La Bruyère and a critical edition of his Caractères, and also a fox, inasmuch as he is looking at a philosophical tradition going back to a wisdom from time immemorial.
Van Delft pulled a thread and European literature came along. He is not the kind of scholar who will publish only with academic second-thoughts, in order not to perish: his many books are building up a coherent work of the finest literary criticism, and each of them represents a deepening of the former one. The new opus is primarily a collection of previously-published contributions, here in revised form. Van Delft focuses on the imagery of moralist discourse, especially on the insistent, recurrent (and sometimes obsessive) metaphors of microcosm, macrocosm, theater, spectator, anatomy, the brain or the consciousness as wax, and the [End Page 1222] journey of life. These similes come from the Bible or from classical writers. Van Delft examines the use of this imagery in the work of La Bruyère and La Rochefoucauld, and also of Montaigne, Gracián, La Fontaine, Pascal, and his inquiry sometimes turns into a welcome work of Toposforschung.
The sixteenth-century Scientific Revolution, Marjorie Nicolson's "breaking of the circle," had many well-known consequences and some more unexpected repercussions. With the twilight, the slow decay of scholasticism, the philosopher's attention was once again focused on man and his mind, and not on God. The "spectator of life" was looking both at the outside world and his inside world from a detached position. He stood alone at the top of creation (see Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, De dignitate hominis Oratio) and enjoyed this situation for a time, but, after a while, he gave in to the darkest despair. The Greek cosmos, the well-ordered universe of the Middle Ages, called for the Timaeus and the Summa theologica. The discarded, disintegrated world of the early modern period needed fragments, maxims, like rambling wrecks of wisdom or skeptical snatches of experience. "All coherence gone," wrote John Donne: sitting on a shore, Melancholia I dismally meditates among odds and ends of human knowledge. Van Delft gives new life to old metaphors, refreshing interpretations of well-known texts, and also uses obscure engravings or paintings (by Jacques Callot, Laurent Van Haecht, Lucas Kilian, Piero di Puccio, and so on).
Summing up such a rich book is far from being an easy task, and the present decline of the French language is not one of the world's best-kept secrets. May...