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Volume 1, redone Dec. 2014


Volume 1


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Michèle Fogel: Marie de Gournay (Paris: Fayard, 2004)

I( thank Prof. David Sedley of Haverford College for the conversation that led to a necessary correction and to further reflection. )

Not since reading Joel Cornette's biographical study of Omer Talon (Paris: Fayard, 1998: see my review in the Revue historique) have I read such a learned and analytical biographical study of a learned person. Cornette's study of Talon's thought is sufficiently articulated to enable one to suggest that he was not quite a man of his generation, that is to say, that the world of the Long Robe thinking and acting in the 1640s had an education of someone, if not Montaigne's at least of Du Vair's generation. I think that Cornette concurs with that view. This way of writing biography might be called "intellectual biography." It is not the same genre as the history of the author. I look forward to reading Nicolas Schapira on Conrart, to learn more about the genre of intellectual biography, whose foundations go back at least to Sainte-Beuve and which has many exemplary works in it, for example G. Colas's study of Chapelain (1912) or D. Frame's on Montaigne (1955).
As a genre, the intellectual biography is flourishing. Anthony Grafton's work on Scaliger, Bruno Neveu's on Le Nain de Tillemont, and Stephen Gaukroger's on Descartes come immediately to mind. The subtitle of Gaukroger's is "an intellectual biography." In the Preface he writes: "It is with some trepidation that I pursued this goal through the genre of intellectual biography, even though my own early interest in philosophy had been fired by Simone de Beauvoir's incomparable intellectual autobiography."

Writing an intellectual biography of Marie de Gournay is a difficult challenge. Until Michèle Fogel made the immense effort of pulling out all that notarial archives could yield, the principal sources consisted of a handful of learned letters, some comments by contemporaries, and her works, including the editions of Montaigne's Essays. At some points Fogel seems satisfied to note what Gournay has written, to say that she really is learned and that she has the respect of other learned (and some not so learned) "citizens" of the Republic of Letters. The work of M.H. Ilsley is sincerely acknowledged, as is Jean-Claude Arnould for lending proofs of Gournay's Oeuvres complètes that have just now come out (Champion). Gournay wrote pièces d'occasion, like so many other writers, and sometimes these can be tedious to situate and explicate; but these could have been interpreted to reveal her views as political activist (she wrote in favor of the Jesuits), moralist, literary critic, and editor. A more formal analysis of the "Grande Préface" might have yielded some understanding of how she interpreted Montaigne, and what her own views were on critical issues. I suspect that Fogel assumes that her readers have in fact read Gournay.

From the chapter entitled "La Réputation," it is evident that Gournay was a humanist who quite courageously put her learning to public purpose. Whether tilting with critics over French words or grammatical problems, or lending her voice in praise of some royal event or decision, or expressing support for the Jesuits in France, or tracking down a source for one of Montaigne's quotations, Gournay was an activist. Her writing on the equality of the sexes is further evidence of this. To be sure, she sought patrons and protectors, not just for income but to honor them, and to further her Humanist-activist program. Fogel occasionally drives through these issues; but instead of troubling to present them in the context of political and literary contestation in which they were written, she is sometimes content to give her own judgment about their literary quality or originality. It is difficult to know just how much context should be provided when the aim is biography, not the history of controversy or public opinion, as in works by J. Sawyer and H. Duccini. Unlike her father "par alliance," her writings are polemical in many instances and are directed to immediate political topics (pp. 164-65).

M. Dreano, in his article on Gournay in Pauphilet, ed.., Dictionnaire ... XVIIe siècle (Paris, 1954), remarks: "Depuis longtemps elle était démodée. Toute occupée à défendre et à faire revivre son lointain passé, elle a éparpillé ses efforts et multiplié ses écrits" (p. 471). This is not only a harsh judgment; it is anachronistic. Cornette creates an aura of tragic sympathy for Talon, intellectually and politically. Fogel makes interesting aperçus, but never quite brings them together to suggest Gournay's overall perspective on her world. I may be asking for something that simply is not there.
Learned contemporaries had little trouble discerning the royalist dévote that Gournay was. Many Ligueurs found their way to support Henri IV without benefit of Montaigne's philosophy. Does Montaigne so form her writing that she is truly his intellectual daughter? There are phrases here and there that remind one of Montaigne and an atticist perspective, but not an articulated, coherent perspective. True, such a thing would not come easily, especially when we think of the layers of reflection and the changes of perspective in the Essays. Perhaps one could not expect more from someone who lacked training in a university discipline. Or perhaps Fogel did not wish to press points of view into some quite anachronistic overall assessment.

But for Fogel, the heart of the book is Gournay's self-fashioning. Edgy to the point of insecurity about her rank in an extremely complex hierarchical culture, Gournay battled to uphold images and dreams of social ascendency, probably inherited from what her mother had said about her late father, Le Jars, a secrétaire de la chambre during the turbulent years of rule by Catherine de Médicis and her sons. We have characterized this office and outlook for Louis Tronson, who had the same office and who was in on the plot to assassinate Concini, but was himself disgraced for alleged links to Chalais.

Gournay's mother was a Hacqueville, a Long Robe family allied to the Hennequins now and then, but never quite producing a learned judge such as the Hotmans or the de Thous. Fogel carefully works out where Gournay lived in Paris, and she does excellent close readings of the notarial acts that indicate difficulties in maintaining the manifest signs of her rank. This very interesting research, its very precision, contributes much more to our knowledge of the constraints and opportunities of a single woman on the margins of elite noble-parlementaire society, than do the arch boutades about Gournay by Lipsius, Guez de Balsac, and others. This social biography deserves to be included in that genre so brilliantly practiced by Robert Descimon.

The strengths of this social perspective are perhaps a bit detrimental to bringing out Gournay's civic identity. She has many things to say to the body politic that was France. Publication, rather than just a calligraphed copy to present to the king (or whomever), makes her truly a "femme publique." She, of course, needed the gratifications that often followed, but it would be inaccurate to put the pecuniary before the message. If she had been more interested in the money, she might have been more vague, more panegyrical and trivial, relying on her qualities as poet and writer. She was not the "loose cannon" that Balzac was ­ indeed, she was freer than he, reputed to be an Epernon protégé ­ so lines of praise for Biron at the wrong time probably scared someone so fearful as Lipsius, but they did no real damage in the long run. Gournay was the first woman to receive strong protection as a learned woman (p. 213). When I first read that, I immediately thought of Christine de Pizan. Kate Landon Forhan's book on Christine's political thought (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002), though excellent, does not really pull together what evidence there may be on protection of Christine by the Crown, and it is the only book on Christine that I have here, at my home! The financial hardship probably was deeper and longer for Christine than for Gournay (see Forhan, p. 15, for a wonderful quote: "Under my fur-lined cloak and fine surcoat that was carefully mended, but seldom replaced, I was often shivering.")

Saying that Gournay was devout is very superficial on my part. Beyond support for the Jesuits, did Gournay develop a spiritual relation with any of the new female religious orders in the capital? The question is interesting only in so far as the answer might help clarify just to what point "bonae litterae" occupied the affective and spiritual spaces in her life that for so many would typically be, in some sense, religious and communal. She could be anti-Protestant in an era when self-censorship (R. Schneider) was gaining strength among the learned. Richelieu set the new tone in his speech before the Estates-General of 1614: to paraphrase, let us put aside polemic and show the Roman Catholic faith by example. In the 1630s she was attacking the practice of individual reading of the Bible without benefit of guidance from the clergy of the Roman church (p. 287). Her political Humanist activism has doctrinal relief here and there. Who were her confessors?

Fogel consciously contributes to the burgeoning genre given a fillip by M. Foucault, that is, the historical characterization of the author. Gournay seems to crave recognition from the learning, first as the "fille d'alliance"; but later in life she settled comfortably into friendships that were probably not founded on her relationship to Montaigne but to her own person, her learning and her writings. She claims immense absolute authority in regard to interpreting Montaigne, an authority that is of a type not usually integral to the "identity" (probably not the mot juste) as author. She writes: "C'est à moi d'en parler, car moi seule avais la parfaite connaissance de cette grande âme et c'est à moi d'en être crue de bonne foi, quand ce livre ne l'éclaircirait pas" (p. 121). This statement is found in the "preface of 1595" to the Essays, and the referent is Montaigne's religious beliefs. The pendant to this most revealing passage about author and authority is, of course, her quite polemical insistence that reading the Bible without guidance from the Church (see above) must be avoided. This absolutist or categorical principle helps us to understand why she did not save the copy that Montaigne's widow sent her (p. 116). That version, with its manuscript passages by the great author himself, might have been kept first as a precious relic from her "father," and second as a version to refer back to in the event of some doubt about the transcription of a passage. The authority to discard a Montaigne holograph work is not characteristic of Humanists. It resembles more that of a philosopher or perhaps a theologian, where the attitudes toward original versions of major works may be less than reverential. I am being deliberately anachronistic here, in order to suggest that, though learned, Gournay the Autodidact did not share the respect for the material support for thought that Humanists since Petrarch generally demonstrated.

It is tempting to speculate on Marie's decision to throw away the copy of the Essays that had been forwarded to her by Montaigne's widow and daughter. I am not a specialist on these texts, but their importance to the process of editing the Essays was not minor. Widow and daughter thought the volume important enough to ship it to Gournay. It contained new material. In the context of Montaigne's thought about the uniqueness and exclusiveness of friendship, by discarding this copy did Gournay enhance (not consciously) her claims to a special relation with Montaigne ­ toward friendship ­ at the expense of the widow and the biological daughter? This is highly speculative. Was there some possessive streak in Gournay? As has often been noted, the action inevitably made her more of an author of the Essays.

Not until Father J.J. Conley's The Suspicion of Virtue (Ithaca: Cornell, 2002) did anyone work out systematically the serious philosophical views of Sablé, Deshoulières, Sablière, la Vallière, and Maintenon. The image of them as mere catalysts for conversation must forever be revised! Would they have said: Now that we have an edition that incorporates all that is in the holograph copies, we can throw them away? Descartes might have done as Gournay did. His distortions about what he learned from Beeckman, as indicated in his later letters, suggests the force of his mind at the expense of historical memory. And he does not seem to have been one to incarnate memory in objects. It is in this context that the decision to withdraw the "Grande Préface" to the Essays takes on a painful, poignant meaning. Without the "Grande Préface," readers could interpret at they wished the Essays that Gournay had the authority to edit and publish. All across the century, and beyond, scholars would become excited and polemical about writings published by persons who had no scholarly, ecclesiastical, legal, etc., authority to "violate" the public by addressing it. There is some of that in Gournay. Her authority over the text bound her ethically to frame its meaning (not meanings?) for readers.

This very well researched, analytical, and sensitive study of Gournay must be added to the canon of important books in the history of French culture, learning, and women in the seventeenth century. I fear that the soul or heart of the book has escaped me. My approach through genre study seems particularly weak here. Fogel has accomplished much, but there is still some to do before Gournay's thought can be grasped in the general history of ideas.