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literature

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French Literature: Before the Nineteenth Century  
 
page: 1  2  3  4  

Opposition to Libertine Thinking

Regarding their reception, it is pertinent to note that opposition to libertine thinking appeared very early in the century.

A work first printed in 1605 shows that as of that date conservative minds were already outraged and alarmed. Entitled Les Hermaphrodites and attributed to one Thomas Artus, a classical scholar of some repute, this fascinating book describes an all-male society and its governing statutes.

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Internal evidence implies that the Hermaphrodite world was meant to mirror the court of Henry III and his mignons, whose indisputable penchant for jewels and elegant attire reappears in Artus's pages as a grotesque desire by males to ape the dress (and sexual role?) of the female.

Even more interesting is the author's willingness to equate deviation from sexual norms with the dismissal of all established political, religious, and cultural values.

Whereas the sodomite had previously been branded for his unnatural and monstrous behavior, Artus's book invites the reader to believe that such a man is both outside the divinely instituted order and actively committed to overturning that order.

The Classical Period

Little wonder then, perhaps, that although the memoirs and correspondence left us by Tallemant des Réaux, Saint-Simon, and the Princess Palatine (Elizabeth, Duchess of Orléans) insinuate that many court figures of the seventeenth century practiced sodomy and lesbianism, no comparable material exists for any of the major writers of the classical period.

Granted, some in the twentieth century have read the relationship between Orgon and Tartuffe in Molière's play about the pious hypocrite as arising out of homosexual feelings. The text, however, lends no support to such a reading.

Tartuffe's ability to abet in Orgon his irascible and dictatorial nature and, at the same time, to create in him a sense of religious peace constitutes Molière's own justification for Orgon's attraction to the unprincipled opportunist.

Certain modern-day French homosexuals have clearly been made uneasy by the absence of a gay and lesbian presence in one of the great moments in their literature.

Listen to Marc Daniel in his Hommes du Grand Siècle: "That the great classical writers of the second half of the seventeenth century passed over every form of homosexuality is further proof ... that despite all the admirable qualities that make them the representatives of the 'Grand Siècle,' they lacked the fundamental curiosity and critical sense ... that we quite rightly consider indispensable."

Daniel does not seem to consider that there could be any relationship between a broad discussion of human society and sexuality and more enlightened reflection on the subject of homosexuality.

Can it be that Racine's portrait of the irresistible urges of desire or Molière's comic demolition of the fatuousness of prejudiced minds brought no one to reexamine prevailing views on sodomy and its punishment? At least we may be certain that the eighteenth century had no difficulty understanding the political importance of such revelations about humankind.

Homosexuality among the Philosophes

Rousseau's Confessions (1782) relate an encounter between Jean-Jacques and a pederastic, predatory Moor. Voltaire's stay at the court of Frederick II apparently included a single same-sex adventure. These events exhaust the evidence that we possess for any personal involvement of the philosophes with homosexuality.

(It is true that after coming to the defense of an abbé Desfontaines, incarcerated for sodomy, Voltaire was accused of having had homosexual relations in his youth. Although this remains, of course, a possibility, no conclusive proof has ever been discovered, and as René Pomeau reminds us, defending a friend cannot be transformed into the acceptance of a practice that, on several occasions, Voltaire condemned. Of, for example, the notion that in antiquity pederasty had once been formally established, he quipped: "How can we possibly imagine that men had made a law which, if put into effect, would have destroyed the human race?")

Although neither Rousseau (1712-1778) nor Voltaire (1694-1778) reacted positively to his brush with buggery, both must be credited with sharing with the best minds of the period the realization that "the reevaluation of society necessitated a corresponding reevaluation of human nature." (The phrase belongs to Jacob Stockinger, whose article on eighteenth-century France gives multiple examples of this point.)

A novel by Denis Diderot (1713-1784) provides one such example. Written in 1760, but published only in 1796, La Religieuse uses the attempted seduction of a young nun by her mother superior to raise questions pertinent to the reevaluation Diderot sought.

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