Reviewed in 1997
Emmanuel Le Roy-Ladurie had phoned me to say that his Saint Simon, ou Système de la Cour was about to come out, and that he was dedicating it to Bob Forster and to me. What to say? It had been years since he gave some Schouler Lectures here on Saint Simon. Every now and then he would give a little report to one of us, and that he had not forgotten that by the terms of a contract he owed the Department here a manuscript.
The lectures had had social hierarchy in court society as the central
theme, with the comparison being with Louis Dumont's work on Indian
society. The duke was not much of a presence in the lectures; the
Memoirs only seemed to be a huge source for understanding the court
of Louis XIV.
I can't review this book here since it is dedicated to me, but I can say that it is a much more interesting and thoughtful book than I expected. There have been occasional rounds of research over the years, but it has been the reflection on the whole that has made this a book of the importance of Montaillou and Carnival in Romans, though it may be less easy to get in to for the so-called general reader. Jean-François Fitou, a collaborator who is given very much his due, I believe, has certainly helped deepen the whole project by working out the political activism of the ‘petit duc' in the Burgundy Circle, and then on in to the Regency. Until this book there really wasn't a book that made the intense political rivalries and disputes after the Sun King's death since Dom Leclercq's three volume study. I think extremely well of Leclercq's work, but recognize there are many French historians who simply cannot read a work as old as it is (l92l). The positivism in the French historical mind was not seriously undermined when the Marxist social history outlook collapsed. The belief in the power of new words, jargon, new subjects, new approaches, etc., so characteristic of French historiography, makes it virtually impossible for them to read a book -- such as Leclercq's except for a paragraph or two in search of a fact. This is less the case, of course for the youngest generation of agrétifs. I make this point because new, for the first time in decades, the politics of the Regency will be available for them to read, a very salutary reading it will be. It should also be read by those specialists of the l8th century for whom only what happens after l740 or even l750 seems to have importance.
What is in fact happening is that the overall understanding of the political in the Ancien Regime and Revolution is being slowly worked out after the collapse of the Labrousse and Lefèbvre historiographies. Furet's work posed a problématique: it did not offer a general history of the Ancien Regime and Revolution. Some American and British scholars thought that as the older social interpretation collapsed, the French would come back to Tocqueville, et al, but that is not the way shifts in historiography occur, especially in such a positivist culture. In Saint Simon the political intensity will surprise quite a few readers in France who generally think of the period as one understandable more through Marivaux than the searing heat of Montesquieu in the Persian Letters and Lesage's Turcaret. This intense activism in politics is going to prompt reflection about the l770's, suggesting similarities and delineating differences in the overall attempts to create a ‘mixed monarchy' and failure. And it would not be impossible to reflect on aristocratic politics in the decade after l8l5 in comparison with the one after l7l5 too.
Particularly striking is how Le Roy-Ladurie and Fitou have recovered the older, more general meaning of the word Liberal, the one we have all through our textbooks to describe the politics of the l820's and l830's! In the years just after the collapse of the old social history paradigm--a deconstruction carried out by Annie Kriegel, Alain Besançon and Furet, the term Liberal came to mean specifically only the economic theory of the Manchester School--or pre- Keynesian economic capitalist theory. We foreigners could protest that this restricted usage was quite inconsistent with how the word had been used in the past, but no matter. The recovery of the older meaning of liberal here will help clarify what aristocratic politics were before the democratic impulses and anticlericalism came up to offer a meaning quite different from the way it is quite convincingly used here to mark the differences between the ministerial government of Louis XIV and the Regency. Deconstruction of the Marxist historiographical world-view? The word seems highly appropriate for the ensemble of work accomplished by Kriegel, Besançon and Furet. But this is not to imply that it was the clash of ideologies which prompted one to collapse before the other. No indeed. Deconstruction follows a collapse of signification; words had long since ceased to buzz. M. Marchais went on saying the words, but something had happened--the intense support for Solidarity in Poland was only a sign of a semantic shift in words, not the triumph of one ideology over another, yet deconstruction was doing its work before and after solidarity. But why do I write all this? I see that Le Roy-Ladurie will be giving some lectures on Kriegel this year at the Collège, and here I simply snapped into dialogue with him, though I doubt he would agree with my views. It was Ariès who taught me that ideological clash occurs only between systems of thought that are extraordinarily close together, and usually only different in ordering terms on which both (if the clash is binary) agree. Deconstruction is so much more than this
Also, it should be noted that for years Le Roy-Ladurie has been critical of the Elias interpretation of the origins of the modern state and society from the manners of the court, and of court culture in general. I must confess that over these years I never quite saw the issues here. Le Roy saw court culture as something separate from the rest of French social customs. Now his views are much more clear, interesting, and important on this question. The work of Daniel Gordon on the sociability of academies and salons--its egalitarianism--is now interpreted by Le Roy-Ladurie as more important for general understanding of the egalitarianism of the generation of l789, and beyond, than anything Elias and his disciples discerned at Versailles. Thus this work presses through to suggest a remarkable political cultural shift from courtly hierarchies under Louis XIV to politeness and egalitarian sociabilities in the academies and salons, with the latter having a long future before it.
I am not being fair to this book, but I dare not review it.. I conclude by thanking a dear old friend for the honor, and such a stimulating, thoughtful book.