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Reviewed by:
  • Exploring the Conversible World: Text and Sociability from the Classical Age to the Enlightenment
  • Jay Caplan
Exploring the Conversible World: Text and Sociability from the Classical Age to the Enlightenment, edited by Elena Russo; Yale French Studies 92, 206 pp. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997, $17.00 paper.

For this issue of Yale French Studies, Elena Russo has collected a provocative set of interdisciplinary essays related to sociability. These articles concern the relations and institutions created by people who employed themselves in what [End Page 526] Hume called “conversible” (as distinguished from learned) mental activities, the most important of which was elegant conversation. In the essay that opens this issue, Alain Viala maps out the ambiguous semantic field of the words galant (as both adjective and noun) and galanterie, and the relationship of these terms to the evolving ideal of the honnête homme. Viala focuses on Molière’s comédie-ballet, Le bourgeois gentilhomme, in order to suggest (in opposition to the traditional view of literary historians) that galanterie was “both a major aesthetic characteristic and . . . a major problematic within Molière’s work in general” (p. 19). He demonstrates the link between aesthetic and ethical questions, in terms of the struggles over the meaning of a few signes galants, and uses this debate to propose a way of distinguishing between the first two periods (classical/romantic, Molière/Rousseau) of “literature” as an institution. As Lawrence Klein points out in “The Figure of France: The Politics of Sociability in England, 1600–1715,” English attacks on the French ideal of worldly sociability were “premised on the acceptance of France as the nation of sociability par excellence” (p. 37). Klein discusses the ambivalence of polite Whig writers (such as Shaftesbury, Addison, and Steele) toward French manners, which were alternately dismissed as vacuously foppish, and feared as a dangerous, debilitating influence upon English society. From the Whig perspective of opposition to royal authority, French manners exemplified an affected and alienated form of sociability. The Whigs, argues Klein, tried to propose a model of sociability that would be “polite, sociable, and English” (p. 44), incorporating the best aspects of the courtly French emphasis on forms, without either imitating the French in a clownish, rustic fashion, or yielding to the more extravagant (and ultimately monarchical) aspects of refined French society. As Pierre Force notes in his essay, Rousseau seems to have invented the psychological notion of “identification” in the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, where identification serves as the basis for the central, paradoxical notion of “pity”. After recalling that Rousseau (following La Rochefoucauld) associates identification with self-love (amour-propre) and commerce, Force underlines several important similarities between Rousseau’s narrative and Adam Smith’s account of the origin of commerce in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. He maintains that Smith’s ultimately Rousseauian distinction between identification (“a sentiment that is the foundation of ethics” [p. 63]) and self-love (a fundamentally amoral “rational calculator whose calculations can be made explicit” [p. 62]) is what allows Smith to constitute political economy as an autonomous field of knowledge.

The second part of the issue (“Contagions in the Body Social”) contains articles by Daniel Gordon and Anne C. Vila. Gordon offers an original interpretation of the enigmatic rise of descriptive discourse about the plague in the early eighteenth century. He suggests that modern plague literature arose in reaction to the various discourses that “reified” everyday life in the cities, that is, which represented urban social relations as neutral facts, rather than [End Page 527] moral dilemmas. Gordon highlights the “metaphysical pride” that has marked the literature on the 1720 plague in Marseilles, and catalogues the systemic figures (“Marseilles is the sacrificial victim of modernity,” etc.) of this discourse. In “Beyond Sympathy: Vapors, Melancholia, and the Pathologies of Sensibility in Tissot and Rousseau,” Vila underlines the medical and moral ambiguity of “sympathy” in eighteenth-century France, where sensibility “was an exalted but volatile life force that could lead the highly sensitive individual not only toward moral sympathy, but beyond it as well” (pp. 88–89). Vila offers a suggestive reading of Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Héloïse as “a...

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