- Purchase/rental options available:
French Forum 28.3 (2003) 121-124
[Access article in PDF]
Mitchell Greenberg. Baroque Bodies: Psychoanalysis and the Culture of French Absolutism. Ithaca ny: Cornell University Press, 2001. 278 pp.
Mitchell Greenberg's new book is an extension of his previous work on the seventeenth century, but it also marks a departure. True to form, he is still primarily interested in reading French literature of the time through the lens of psychoanalysis—the melancholy Lacanian renunciation of the desiring body in favor of the paternal Name/Law, for instance, is one of the notes he continues to strike best. Likewise, he also remains committed to the proposition that (as he has put it elsewhere) "something happened in the seventeenth century," which is to say that the structures and tensions he is able to delineate in the literature of the period have to do with a passage to the "modern": if one can do, say, Lacanian readings of Classical French literature, Greenberg has implied that this is because modern psychological categories emerged during, and from, the culture of Absolutism. These two argumentative thrusts—psychoanalytical and historical—are very much present in Baroque Bodies, but whereas previously Greenberg tended to give close readings of single texts using a limited number of distilled psychoanalytic topics, in his new book he crosses his primary material with an impressively wide array of psychoanalytical literature, from the clinical to the theoretical. The overall impression, perhaps confirmed by the biographical blurb indicating that he is currently an analytic candidate, is of someone now less identified as a literary critic/historian, and more as a psychoanalyst of culture. The positions hardly need be incompatible, but the change of emphasis does have repercussions on the type of reader who will enjoy this book.
The "baroque bodies" of the title are the desiring, polymorphous, [End Page 121] scatological ones that resist the disciplinary imperatives Elias and Foucault have diagnosed as hallmarks of modernity; in psychoanalytic terms, they are "pre-oedipal," having refused to submit to sexual differentiation and the law of the Father. By Louis XIV's time, they are, for Greenberg, an endangered species: French Classicism, Absolutism's "aesthetic correlation" (20), "tends to impose a structure of rather strict decorum on the chaotic manifestations of daily life" (65), and thus represses the baroque experience of the body. What it sets in its stead is an integral, closed body, partner of the Cartesian ego; the Classical body opposes feminine baroque excess with phallic unity and self-possession, just as Louis XIV brings order and unity to his kingdom, and learns the science of policing its borders. Indeed, Louis's "corps glorieux"—a mythic image of absolute power—is the epitome of the static Classical body. Greenberg stresses two points simultaneously: that the Classical body displaces the baroque body in the course of the seventeenth century; but also that the baroque body refuses to disappear, that it is Classicism's repressed Other and as such will always return.
Greenberg demonstrates his propositions via readings of an eclectic group of texts. Le Malade imaginaire's Argan, the embodiment of a Bakhtinian grotesque, is compared, in the first chapter, to L'Avare's Harpagon, whose parsimony reads like a virtual parody of the Classical imperative to close off the body. Chapter 2 looks at the two early pornographic texts L'Ecole des filles and L'Académie des dames as symptoms of a new strict gender division and the scopic imperative to know, but also of the Classical body's inevitable undoing of itself through orgasm. The curious texts left by the cross-dressing Abbé de Choisy are the subject of a third chapter: Choisy's refusal of the either/or sexual imperative allows us to glimpse, in full-blown Classicism, a baroque oppositional space. Chapter 4, on the Ursuline Marie de l'Incarnation, reads the life of this mystic and missionary as charting the move from a baroque refusal (via masochistic abjection) of the oedipal, sexed body, to a Classical body once more triumphant in its redeemed purity. Finally, Greenberg interprets the Racinian corpus as...