- L'École de la maladresse: de J.-J. Rousseau à J. J. Grandville by Pauline de Tholozany
If Pauline de Tholozany's L'École de la maladresse (de J.J. Rousseau à J.J. Grandville) is a must read, it is because it is that rare interdisciplinary book that is as scholarly as it is witty, as topical as it is historical, as literary as it is philosophical. Framing the untranslatable concept of maladresse from the ancien régime to the dawn of Modernism, de Tholozany travels seamlessly between pedagogy, social critique, psychoanalysis, anthropology, and art history. Her readings of maladresse (awkwardness, ineptness, maladroitness) shine an intriguing light on our own missteps and malapropisms. Has a blunder ever ruined our chances for advancement? Have we ever cultivated maladresse to appear more innocent than we really are? What is the link between awkwardness and authenticity? De Tholozany implicates us in the hide-and-seek games we play with our gaffes and fauxpas. She reminds us that in American blockbuster films, the maladroit is "le signe lisible de la sincérité" (27), an attribute she traces back to Rousseau's keenly recounted maladresses.
One of the most revealing paradoxes that runs through this pathbreaking study is that even though the maladroit is exposed to ridicule and humiliation, he or she, wittingly or unwittingly, revolutionizes a carefullycrafted order of things. Taking her cues from Rousseau, Balzac, Baudelaire, and Grandville among others, de Tholozany unmasks the innocence of the maladroit. Everybody ends up being complicit in the (in)fortunes of maladresse. If the maladroit makes us laugh, is it because we feel, if only temporarily, superior (Hobbes, Baudelaire, Bergson)? Or, as Deleuze suggests, isn't somebody else's failure part of a greater fêelure? Maladresse is a threat to the social and psychological order. Nothing, as de Courtin's Nouveau traité de la civilité (1671, 1702) severely preaches, should be allowed to topple the indomitable principles of "civilité chrétienne et mondaine," not even something as innocuous as a gaffe. The maladroit, if not redressé, reprimanded, set straight, will cause havoc. Deciphering the motives behind clumsy gestures, understanding what makes them appealing or threatening, is at the core of this book. The moralistes loom large when de Tholozany questions the maladroit's claims to sincerity. Unsurprisingly, Rousseau comes out both as its champion and its duplicitous practitioner. "La lettre maladroite, la plate conversation, la timidité nigaude, les sottes reparties, les gaffes, le trait d'esprit à retardement, l'idiot lancer de pierre, le gant non ramassé, et le verre trop rempli: les bévues ne manquent pas [End Page 130] dans les écrits autobiographiques de Rousseau" (70). Rousseau is on the attack against the anti-maladroit. Those, intent on disciplining the "sincere" language of the body (stuttering, blushing, falling), will only make it stray further from its "innocent," "artless," past incarnations. Being "adroit" is suspicious: the sharper our techniques, the further we stray from our dormant authenticity. What a contrast from the pedagogical "emmaillotage," the various lessons in "redressement" that "straightened" ancien-régime children. And what a milestone in ushering the birth of an individuality built on the release of maladresse, one that, de Tholozany argues, becomes the redemptive "supplément de l'homme civilisé," helping regain the fast-vanishing "spontanéité naturelle."
If to Jean-Jacques, maladresse harbors the waning traces of sincerity," the book offers a series of counter-arguments. Calculation is writ large in the afterlife of maladresse. There is a lot to gain by exhibiting one's gaffes: "gloser son embarras… [sa] balourdise … [sa] vulgarité se transforme en signe de simplicité" (133). Recounting one's gaucheness is a kind of humblebrag, a charmingly narrated con-job. On the other hand, "dès que je proclame ma gaucherie," it loses its credibility. It is this slippery aspect of maladresse that attracts de Tholozany. The book is particularly deft at connecting gaffes and faux-pas to détournements and wrongful destinataires. Like Poe's famous purloined letter, the slip-up develops a life of its own, exposing perilous breaches...