Nicolas Schapira, Un professionnel des lettres au XVIIe siècle, Valentin Conrart (Paris: Champs Vallon, 2003), pp. 512.
At last: the free and untrammeled time to take seriously a book I have look been eager to read, and to seek to attract many readers to it by my engagement with it. My deep foray into studying social and professional identity, back in the 1970s, found its way into Artisans of Glory. Therein I suggested that the literary genres included history, and that the gens de lettres who, at the end of their careers, had the professional identity of historiographes remained attuned to all other genres. Instead of being characterized as historians, they really ought to be considered writers first and foremost, and then as writers of history. I tried to situate the gens de lettres in an ontological space carved out of a modality that was, and still is, the exemplum, and the legal characterization of service and office as found in Loyseau. I was never interested in finding any and all historiographes, a task that François Fossier accomplished.
My five historiographes had a very different social, educational, and religious backgrounds (Huguenot, Catholic, Catholic, "Libertin," Jansenist), yet they all accepted service to the Crown to write history. Of course, the lettrés were a "milieu restreint" (p. 76). This reminds me of Josephine de Boer's "Mens' Literary Circles in Paris, 1610-1660," PMLA, 53 (1938), pp. 730 ff, which is a useful summary of all the gens de lettres mentioned in the Peiresc, Chapelain, and Patin correspondence.
From its brilliant first formulations dating from 1983, in Alain Viala's Naissance de l'écrivain, the Groupe de recherches interdisciplinaires sur l'histoire de la littérature has largely bracketed the genre of history. The "Grihl," as it is referred to, has been a very productive and creative center for developing conceptual tools for understanding and delimiting the nexus between political power and writers. The book under review both draws on, and extends the Grihl paradigm. When Descartes remarks on his own disgust with, and liberation from the école, he is referring to the University theological and epistemological paradigm. There has never been a firm indication of the rigid thinking of an école in the works inspired by the discussions in the Grihl, but there are indications of special semantic fields around some concepts. Nicolas Schapira refers to the work done on the term "publication" (p. 12), in a way that may frustrate the non-initiated reader who wishes to be initiated. This reviewer has no such ambition, and therefore feels no frustration. I should take time to read the Grihl collaborative volume on the subject, edited by Christian Jouhaud and Alain Viala, De la publication entre Renaissance et Lumières (Paris: Fayard, 2002), but I prefer at this moment to read Schapira on Conrart, since I have no plans to undertake research on the history of writers, writing, and the book.
Power as a phenomenon in the works and thought of the Grihl is rarely innocent or free of some will to gain recognition among fellow writers, patrons, salon "members" ― even, and above all, royal officials. As I begin Schapira, I declare that I have the presupposition that Conrart facilitated the careers and publications of those whose writing he admired and who were, in some sense, his friends. My formulation here is simple, and perhaps dead wrong! It would also be wrong to think that I come to Schapira without some knowledge and sense of the person of Valentin Conrart. I do not think he was interested in power and recognition, in the same ways and to the same degree as most of the gens de lettres who have been the prime attention of the Grihl scholars. In context, Conrart never much used his pen to enhance his reputation as a market-oriented poet, letter-writer, or essayist!
The chapter on the Conrart family deepens our knowledge of it in ways that older generations of scholars could scarcely have imagined. Perhaps not at the very top of the merchant oligarchy in Valenciennes, the Conrart belonged to interlocking networks that provided strong links to merchants in other northern cities, notably Antwerp. Marriage alliances with prominent merchants, along with belonging to the Protestant community, framed the pursuit of wealth and status and the decision of Valentin's father to move to Paris. He had bought a small seigneurie in 1612, but for reasons that are unclear, he sold it in 1618. Claire Chatelain's work on the Miron contains important information about the legal infringements that might impede a clear title to a seigneurie, but it would only be speculation to suggest that such was the case for the Conrart.
Valentin's father did not permit his son to go to a collège: thus he never learned Latin. In addition to wanting an heir and a successor in the family business, and perceiving an education in belles lettres as contrary to such a plan, his father Jacques might also have wanted to avoid his son's training to become a pastor, which was essentially what Huguenot schools emphasized.
Upon his father's death in 1624, Valentin almost immediately bought an office of secrétaire du roi. Were there educational requirements and/or examinations for that office, in addition to the usual testimonials about the candidate's bonnes moeurs?
N. Schapira is certainly correct to stress that these officials had access to information about the administrative decisions of the royal fiscal system, as a result of drafting the instruments sent out across the realm and were therefore in a good position to invest in tax farms, wood-cutting contracts, or whatever. The physical quarters of the grande chancellerie ― save for the chamber where the chancellor actually sealed royal instruments ― remains mysterious. Hélène Michaud notes that many registers still seemed to belong to the chancellors and were not automatically housed in the Trésor des Chartes. Chancellors, notably Séguier, needed copies of collections of instruments and rulings, which suggests that if the chancellor generally worked in his own residence, the secrétaire du roi also worked there. Did all the secrétaires du roi have access to the registers of the Conseil du roi? One would presume so, owing to the need for contexts when drafting royal instruments.
The registers of permission cited on pp. 125-126 were certainly official, but were they in Séguier's library when he died, or was there a greffier charged with keeping them in the Chambre des Comptes? The question seems pedantic, but it goes to the heart of how duties were distributed among the secrétaires du roi, and whether those who specialized in drafting financial instruments actually rubbed elbows with the secrétaires who, like Conrart, specialized in privilèges for book publication.
Why did some services generate printed blanks, while others did not? It would have been quite simple to draw up a blank with spaces for the date, the names of the author and the printer, the title, and the length of the privilège; but it apparently did not happen during the years when Conrart was drafting, from scratch, so many of these instruments.
If the office of secrétaire de la chambre is not of major importance for social mobility (p. 94), as Descimon concludes, this was probably because of their small number. See my remarks in our edition of the Mémoires de Guillaume Tronson (Paris: SHF, 2003), pp. 17-19. (Also, I am much too brief on Louis Tronson's disgrace!) The families were much more prestigious and wealthier than Jean Conrart Valentin's brother, who also held the office of secrétaire du roi. See Griselle, Maison de Louis XIII (Paris, 1912), for a list of these officers in 1624 (Potier, Loménie, Brûlart, Loménie, Phélippeaux). As his qualité, Chapelain gives "secrétaire de la chambre (p. 94)!
In his chapter on Conrart as a secrétaire du roi, Schapira, in many ways, takes up the narrative that Christian Jouhaud developed in Les pouvoirs de la littérature (Paris: Gallimard, 2000) regarding Balzac's relations with his publisher, Toussaint du Bray, when his Lettres were published in 1634 and were literally launched or promoted as an event. Conrart, as a secrétaire du roi, had the necessary temperament to render service, and the lack of a deeply personal perspective that comes from vast reading, learning ancient languages, and writing. He could not be threatening to any writer except through his powers to facilitate, or not facilitate, a privilege for publication, and through his relations with Chapelain. There are phrases here and there from dedications that indicate that Conrart could be somewhat severe, and that he was not loquacious: so, was he all bienséance and no jugement?
Schapira's chapter on Conrart's activities with authors and publishers is very careful to avoid superficial interpretations. Conrart is a renderer of service to his friends in general, and he extends his service in friendship to virtually all the gens de lettres who come his way. Because Conrart can be reasonably certain to obtain from the chancellery a privilège for an author or a publisher, being his friend is anything but disinterested. But there would seem to be much more than that.
Although friendship is noted through quotations and analytical prose, and is more questioned than recognized as being the bond that held Chapelain and Conrart together, close reading might yield more explicit understandings of what held these particular men of letters together. There seems to be little evidence of philosophical friendship (see Mark Morford on Rubens, Lipsius, et al.); but the bonding clearly went beyond a mere vulgar usage of the word "friend." Chapelain complains in a letter to Conrart (p. 84) that Conrart is holding something back, and that he is doing this because of Chapelain's relationship with the Duc de Longueville. Did Conrart hold back his affection and trust out of respect for Chapelain's relationship with someone else? Nothing is more typical in the discussions of friendship by ancient authors. Can one truly love more than one friend? Conrart doesn't rush to claim greater intimacy with Chapelain than the latter permits; and Conrart does not in any way wish to be perceived as using Chapelain's relation with Longueville as a bridge to the grands. Conrart does not know whether the degree of intimacy between Chapelain and Longueville is grounded on relations of protection, on friendship, or on both. See my reflections on Poussin's friendship with Fréart de Chanteloup. In the letter that Chapelain wrote to Balzac, we learned that his friend, Conrart, was solicitous ― thinking ahead about Chapelain's practical and emotional needs (p. 83). Because Chapelain referred to Conrart as "un autre moy-mesme," it would seem necessary to consider their relationship more analytically and less cautiously, from the perspective of sincere friendship. It is premature to infer much, but it must be recalled that in friendship there is power to influence individual and collective action.
Conrart made authors feel that their works were worthwhile. Gens de lettres stored their works with him, and it seems that he often asked for copies to keep for himself. Conrart may have possessed something akin to what a muse is supposed to be: the ability to inspire creative work or to release creative energies in writers. He undoubtedly developed the talent to promote a writer and his writing to a publisher, and a publisher to a writer. With caution, Schapira builds up the evidence to suggest that Conrart's functions suggest that he was very much like a contemporary literary agent. There was certainly a lot of that, but the modern literary agent is also a critic. He or she has the courage to tell an author that his writing is rubbish. There are, of course, many types of literary agents; but their function often turns on their own critical powers to read and evaluate works of literature, and so forth.
Such was not the case for Conrart. We do not see him proposing changes in wording or argument. Conrart was a faiseur de la toilette d'un manuscrit for Balzac, who was very attentive to the physicality of his works. As a comparison, have a look at the ways in which Chapelain cut into Gassendi's work, criticizing his analytical vocabulary and cutting long passages. (See my Concordia Discors)
To be sure, Conrart probably measured out his praise in a doses of varying amounts. There may be evidence that he turned writers and writings away, but it would seem that he usually encouraged everyone and perhaps made pro forma suggestions. But the supportive personality wasn't everything. Schapira's concluding remarks are judicious in every way. Conrart was the secrétaire who could produce a privilège! And as if this were not interesting enough, he also had very strong ties to publishers, and to one shop in particular: the Camusat, who probably would have published anything Conrart recommended!
But perhaps more important: was Conrart perceived as a créature of Chapelain's? His powers in the state as a secrétaire du roi, his connections with publishers, his full membership in the Huguenot networks in Paris and in Northern Europe, his close ties to Balzac, and his membership in the Academy (where he eventually became its perpetual secretary) account for his anything but distinguished record as provider of privilèges for authors and publishers. Most of the authors he brought along rarely attained second-rank status, and not a few are really obscure. But in fairness, a study of all the privilèges, and who drafted them circa 1630-1650, is necessary before Conrart's achievement as an agent in literature can be measured.
Two aspects of this chapter are particularly welcome to this reviewer. The first is the account of Conrart's arrangements with a Parisian publisher, Pierre Le Petit, to have some books printed by an Elzevir. and these were not just recent or unknown books by obscure authors. One was a life of Duplessis-Mornay, another was a life of Sarpi, author of the history of the Council of Trente.
This Pierre Le Petit intrigues, not only by his willingness to join up with some of the major Parisian foreign publishers but also by the fact that he later would publish Pellisson's Histoire de l'Académie and various Jansenist works. Brouillon? Perhaps, but he seems to have been someone whom Conrart particularly wished to help. I recall, from H.-J. Martin's Livre et pouvoirs (Geneva: Droz, 1969), that this enterprising publisher brought out an editor of Grotius's De Veritate and that, through the Arnauld, he would be linked to Jansenist circles. He may have published some of the Lettres provinciales! Conrart's relations with Le Petit suggest something more than promoting a Huguenot perspective, though it suggests that too, when he favors an edition of Du Plessis-Mornay's life. The storms over Sarpi's life and works had no doubt subsided by mid-century; but with Conrart's help, Le Petit would be keeping alive the historical vision that supported Gallicanism; they were deeply, analytically anti-papal, as the papacy had constituted itself in the sixteenth century.
The second aspect of this chapter that is particularly original and interesting regards Conrart's storage of the literary works of others, his friends. The still quite young Montausier is a most interesting example. A friend of Conrart who would convert to Roman Catholicism, a salonnier of high repute, a warrior, and a courtier, he deposited his literary works with Conrart. Others, including Chapelain, would do the same, and the latter left precise instructions and gave Conrart the freedom to decide about eventual publication. The vocabulary of philosophical friendship turns on trust, on confidence regarding secrecy ― and its opposite, betrayal and deception. Depositing one's poems and letters clearly was a testimony to trust. Gens de lettres circulated their writings all the time, made copies, and had copies made. Being trusted absolutely not to lend or make copies that might be circulated, placed Conrart in a unique relation to the monde des lettres.
The line between supportive criticism by a friend or a group, and ridicule, may easily be transgressed. Conrart seems never to have done this. Tallemant des Réaux says quite a bit about Conrart, but one wonders if he ever really grasped what Conrart was doing. Conrart considers the works of his friends to always be theirs, on deposit as it were, as chez un notaire. He also lent money to his friends, including Montausier. Depositing one's writings may have been something like a collateral de l'esprit. To guarantee a loan, Châteaubriand put a complete copy of his Mémoires d'outre tombe on deposit with Notaire Dufour (Fragonard painted Dufour!)
The other side of the coin, if I may make such a heavy analogy, was the extreme sensibility of many seventeenth-century writers regarding accepting money for their writings. Voiture is the very interesting example discussed by Schapira, but there were many others, including Madame de Lafayette, who feared a kind of derogation if her name became known for having authored a book. We must take seriously, and literally, the notion of oeuvres d'esprit. Ame and esprit were still considered those parts of the human most likely to have something divine or potentially divine about them. When Louis XIV made a gift to a poet, it took the form of gold louis in a velvet bag (Mézeray kept them separate from his other coins), to enrobe the reality of money. Poor Mozart received gold snuff boxes while in near poverty. Noble literary objects required noble pecuniary objects in exchange.
Chapter Four is a careful, methodical exploration of the famous Conrart dossiers (we would say files) in the Arsenal Library. The letters and verses on deposit, already evoked, are only a part of some sixty volumes of bound papers, most of which have to do with letters, that is, literature, and not a few as letters in the literal sense of correspondence. A collection of Conrart's letters, akin to Chapelain's, has never been found. More revealing of the persons who addressed letters and writings to Conrart, than Conrart himself, the first important way it differs from other collections is a result of Conrart's lack of education in a formal sense, since there would seem to be no natural philosophy, no books of commonplaces, no lecture notes, no commentaries on antique authors. There seem to be no references to works in Greek or Latin. Thus the Conrart collection is really that of a man of letters with no scholarly pretensions. Though different in emphasis, it is not unlike a specialized collection that a lawyer would make of cases and factums. One also thinks of Gaignière's collection. Like an archeologist, Schapira searches through these épaves to find what can be learned about salons and conversation, and more private services or affaires in which Conrart's connections help define his reputation and power.
What Schapira writes about salons is the most careful, up-to-date, demythologized, and convincing account I know of, of the world of the Rambouillet ladies and their social activities, It is grounded on the Conrart archives. Simply put, Conrart (and of course Chapelain) knew everybody and everything about the first great salon. He notes that not a few of its members were also bien en cour; thus it simply doesn't work to suggest that Rambouillet was anti-court. In a world where a writer's productivity scarcely counted, Conrart flourished as a listener, a compliment-maker, and an introducer of would-be-noble lettrés to other lettrés. Schapira nuances some of the recent work on conversation by pointing out that salonniers usually read their works aloud, and that in many instances conversations were written out before they were spoken. Did anyone ever forget the rank of the person with whom they were conversing? This does not suggest that there were not épée nobles who practiced their social skills after reading Faret. The poem as a compliment (and the reverse), and hostility to learning (it was a terrible thing to be referred to as a pedant!) would set the stage, almost literally, for hyperbole and preciosity. Schapira has done for the early seventeenth century what Antoine Lilti has done for the eighteenth; that is, Schapira has reintegrated the early salons into social history without diminishing their importance to cultural history. Superior to the court as cultural space? That is what Rambouillet sought. Anti-court literature would proliferate in various genres over the centuries. There were caustic remarks about this or that salon, but an anti-salon literature never really developed.
In Conrart's files there are letters about the Comtesse de Maure's efforts to help her husband recover his standing at court after participating in a rebellion. Rare it is to find all the pieces about an effort that risked humiliating the Comtesse, and that ended in failure.
The file about the borrowing and lending between Conrart and Montausier is so complex that it can only be mentioned here. Proof of friendship deeper than the conventional meanings of the word? One wonders if the complexity resulted from financial issues. Or counted as a ballet back and forth over money that would deepen and/or test that friendship? Conrart's efforts on behalf of gens de lettres did not seem to be more generous than routine, but they were centered on individuals who either got into trouble or were young and needed some help. There is much interesting material here on the early years of Félibien and Pellisson.
The file about the revolt in Naples suggests that Conrart was not only personally interested in what was happening, but that he had some courtly friend for whom he collected information. Information-gathering, for one's protectors, was almost part of a secretary's duty; and ever since her childhood in an ambassadorial household, Madame de Rambouillet may have been more than a little interested in Italian affairs. One can imagine Conrart relating some recent news to her, in the alcove.
Schapira addresses the question of just how Conrart built up a reputation, a certain power as a man of letters; and he finds him to be devoted to the producers of letters, always ready to render service, never prickly (it would seem), and never threatening. If we follow a Weberian micro-historical model of legitimacy, would it not be the very lack of authority in the domain of letters that accounts for his reputation as a man of letters?
The chapter on Conrart the Protestant begins by characterizing, in its title, the "honnête homme." Always difficult to translate, honnête means morally upright, correct, balanced, and courteous on all occasions. This, Conrart certainly was; and it would never be easy, because of the intense controversies in the Parisian community. He attended services regularly, he rented a coach to take him to Charenton, and he was dragged into endless disputes. The fact that he did not withdraw, suggests that he was to participate in them.
The selection of preachers and ministers unleashed rivalries among aristocratic Protestant families, each with clients and pastor-theologians in tow. Schapira judiciously analyzes Conrart's role in these quarrels and finds what seems to be a consistent role as mediator and supporter of the minister, Daillé. At one point in the Morus affair, Conrart appears to switch sides. Perhaps Daillé was moving toward the la Trémouille, but whether Conrart did or not, he continued to play a role by commenting on sermons and procuring books as well as having them published for all parties. Throughout these storms there appears a Conrart eager to modify sacred texts in the direction of current French and current grammar. He does not feel incompetent when it comes to modifying the language of the Psalms (Marot's?) or of the New Testament, even with Drelincourt as a collaborator. I must check on just how learned Drelincourt was. Conrart's writings belong to rhetoric, not Biblical criticism; but the important point is that, in a hornets' nest of theologians, Conrart blithely went forward! His reputation in belles-letters legitimates him; his honnêteté enables him to be a mediator. Arie van Deursen's careful analyses of the rising barriers of exclusion that befell the Huguenots does not seem to find an echo in Conrart's efforts to keep Huguenot families, and the Huguenot community, from tearing themselves apart: Professions et métiers interdits.... (Groningen, 1960).
Though hostile to the Jansenists, Conrart had friends among them and procured a privilège for one of Pascal's works. He also managed to sift the stormy controversy over whether women should be learned, toward a more belles-lettres issue, thereby letting the protagonists slow down and turn their reasoning to the role played by Jeanne d'Arc! Conrart thought of literature as the space that would sap the passion for winning that characterizes controversy, that is, honnetêté in practice without fear of ideas or any real inclination to try to repress thought. He could shift with ease what others could perceive as the sources for his reputation and his authority. Schapira captures these shifts deftly and convincingly.
The chapter on Conrart en famille begins with a very revealing quotation of his regarding the "peu de biens temporels" that he is leaving to his heirs. In an autobiographical summing-up, done for his own satisfaction, Conrart informs his family that he has worked hard as a secrétaire du roi, and has managed to lead the life of honor according to his rank. And leading the life that he wanted to lead, helped by a spouse who brought capital, inheritances, and frugal living.
Is the reference to "temporels" after "biens" conventional? Did he, in some Weberian way, conceive of having "biens spirituels"? His prayer for divine grace does not indicate that he expected the slightest difficulty regarding his salvation. Rare it is that a will is considered a literary work, but Conrart's has been one since the seventeenth century. It is very tempting to give a précis of this document; but given the length of this review already, I shall not.
By comparing Conrart's estate with those of his brothers, Schapira provides a gauge for measuring wealth and mobility. Some relations and in-laws were actually more prominent in his life than were his brothers. The Targer, the Mouysson, the Bazin de Bezons (Conrart successfully promoted one of the latter for the Academy) inherited, borrowed, and lent to one another; and they occasionally quarreled. Again, Conrart was a mediator. Elderly and childless, Conrart could not only play a role as peace-keeper, he could be perceived as disinterested not only for his professional competence and prestige as a secrétaire du roi, but also because there were no heirs of his body. He did not distance himself from routine family life (p. 396), a pertinent observation when one recalls how men of letters in more recent centuries simply invent themselves and new social relations, without a sense of continuing to belong to an extended family.
And the secrétaire de la chambre? That's what Chapelain called himself when he signed (p. 94) Conrart's marriage contract. As I draw near the end of this book, I wonder if I missed a more general discussion about Chapelain's relations with Conrart. And most importantly, how did they evolve? The expressions of friendship and trust about the survivor posthumously publishing the other's works, tells us much; but were there no nuances about a poem's quality, no difference over some mis-remembered fact?
We learn that Conrart commissioned portraits of women from the extended family, a kind of domesticated galanterie of a lower affective intensity than was the case with Bussy-Rabutin; but nonetheless Conrart lost a night's sleep over commissioning a woman's portrait! We learn that he had gold-tooled bindings on some of his books showing his coat of arms, and that he willed a still-unbound magnificent set of illustrations and maps to Montausier. Social-class terms do not capture the culture of honnêteté. The term "virtuoso" comes closer, and one could imagine that Conrart would have been a good evening companion for Pepys (for the Pepyses, see my Inventing Private Space).
The last chapter explores the Conrart collection of writings, having first recounted the history of how these volumes came to survive. Conrart copied, or had copied, a lot of texts. Some are curieux or revealingly anecdotal; many others would seem to be for research, in the event that a point of contestation developed with someone at the temple of Charenton. There are literary works on deposit from friends, and letters and more letters that could satisfy some sense of needing to possess, not unlike what he felt about the women in his portrait collection.
Conrart's ways of keeping documents (seals and outside protective sheets) are those of a royal secretary. There are other collections of documents not unlike his (Séguier, Béthune, Loménie de Brienne) in the eclecticism of the subject matter and the intense attention to their authenticity. Conrart could copy, or have copied for a friend, texts of interest: for example, a sermon from the past for Daillé. In other words, Loménie de Brienne's collection is eclectic, but with an emphasis on diplomacy and on the particular provinces with which he was charged (I have forgotten exactly which ones!), and Conrart's is belles lettres. I do not think Conrart saw sermons, for example, as outside literary boundaries, any more than the Psalms and the New Testament. The documents about conspiracies in 1641 may be testimonies to the emotional crises of the French state, or vague feelings that it was his duty to keep the facts, feelings about the Fronde that dissipated and then strengthened again. Conrart's interests in the latter only seem to come strongly into play when there is a clash within the royal family and intense division among the grands. It is so tempting to pull out my notes on Conrart's so-called Mémoires and enter into a dialogue about them with Schapira, but I deny myself that pleasure. Again, the epistolarity that characterizes the genre relation, also is characteristic of the royal official who thinks he might be asked to prepare a report to be presented to the Conseil d'Etat. The absence of what we would call partisanship does not mean that Conrart was, in fact, non-partisan. He was attempting to write a statist political-scientific prose. He did not quite succeed! He was not unlike Voyer d'Argenson.
In closing this monumentally learned book, I try to think of a work comparable to it in subject matter and research. Jean Mesnard's Pascal et les Roannez (Paris: Desclée Brower, 1965) comes to mind. I do not mean to compare Conrart with Pascal. That's not the point. It is the depth of the research and the complexity of the social, religious, and intellectual spheres in these two books that explains why the one occurs to me after reading the other. They are books I should like to possess; but at my age there is no longer really time to build a bigger library than the cumbersome one we already have.
In the portrait engraved by Caussin, Conrart's right hand holds a feather. There is a nervous tension in the fingers. A small book is barely visible, but the letters on the table signify his profession: secretary. The absence of a register or folio formulary volume opens the way to suggesting that he is writing to friends. There are no cachets or bars of wax, and the size of the paper likewise suggests friendly correspondence rather than lettres patentes, which were usually written on larger sheets of paper. I think that, as the artist began the portrait, Conrart was the master of his own self image, and that he wished to be depicted and remembered as a man of letters!